Ramen City: East Side King

 
 
An ongoing exploration of Austin’s noodle soup of the moment
 
East Side King at the Hole in the Wall
2538 Guadalupe St., www.eskaustin.com.
Hours: 11am-midnight Mon-Fri. 2pm-midnight Sat. Closed Sun.
 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 08.15.13
 
Yoshi Okai had never made ramen before East Side King opened its fourth outlet at the UT dive bar called the Hole in the Wall. Never. That doesn’t mean he didn’t eat his share growing up in Kyoto, a place he called “the ultimate ramen city.” But still, he’d always made sushi, he said, snapping two fingers of his left hand hard into the palm of his right, like an air guitar version of prepping sushi rice.
 
Maybe you’ve seen him make sushi. Maybe, if you’ve been to Benihana, Tokyo Steakhouse, Sushi Sake, DragonGate, Umi, Uchi or Uchiko in the 15 years he’s been here, even a place called Yoshi’s, even though he wasn’t the Yoshi on the sign. He’s the guy with black hair like a full-brush Spartan helmet, the guy with black tattoos like Nazca Lines. The coolest guy in the room, even in the heat of doing ramen for the first time.
 
Adding fuel to the trial-by-fire, Okai (pictured at left) said that East Side Kingpin Paul Qui rang the ramen bell just 10 days before they opened in December of last year. “So many people asked us, ‘You guys should be selling ramen,’ ” Okai said. “And finally Paul decided: ‘We have to sell ramen, man! You have 10 days.’ ”
 
Ten days to learn and unlearn what stock to make, which noodles to cook, what to put with them. “But I said OK, I’ll try it,” Okai said. Eight months later, the ramen opera is still being written: “My stock is not exactly ramen stock. It’s just my memories from childhood.” Memories, plus bacon, mirin, kelp, soy sauce, sake, bonito flakes, all of it simmered down for up to 30 hours. The ESK crew ran through five kinds of ramen noodles, Okai said, before going with a single versatile variety, a familiar serpentine squiggle, shipped fresh from a Hawaiian company called Sun Noodle.
 
Okai sees parallels to sushi in Austin's hot ramen moment. “It’s almost like sushi. They’re looking for the new sushi,” he said. “You use fish, right? And rice. With sushi, you can put whatever you want. It’s the same with ramen noodles. You can go crazy. It’s like freedom”
 
At ESK Hole in the Wall, it’s the freedom to offer six kinds of ramen, including Hiyashi Thai Chuka ($8). The thing about hiyashi: Get ready for dried shrimp. It’s like ripe cheese. The good kind. The kind that will knock you over with the smell but somehow makes sense in the crucible of your senses. The protein in this bowl comes from a rolled omelet-style tamago, sweet and springy, and peanuts for texture. By turns a papaya salad and a pasta primavera without the creamy showboating, the Hiyashi glitters with a fan of tomatoes, slivered cucumber and papaya and a measure of mushrooms and bean sprouts for earth and grass. The whole bowl glows, backlit by California wavy blond noodles getting their day in the sun, cooled by ice cubes on the side.
 
On the hot side, Sapporo beer broth ramen ($8) spreads out with beer’s bitter-but-not-resentful dryness if you slurp with your face right down at the bowl like a proper penitent. There’s corn and scallions for your health and pork to wreck it, cooked sous vide for 12 hours. The broth bubbles up with oil like a primordial spring, a spring where this dish’s crazy batwing mushrooms might grow.
 
For an extra $1.50, a boiled egg bought a ticket to a bit of ESK theater. As the bowl hit the table, Okai came racing behind it with a soft-boiled egg still in its shell. Apologizing for the last-minute dash, he shucked it into the dish like a medical courier at the transplant table.
 
That kind of heroics might have saved a bowl of chicken tortilla ramen from my first trip here. The chimeric melding of Mexican and Japanese forms diminished both, helped not at all by it being served in a tacky Styrofoam carryout bowl, a presentation that left no room for art. And art is part of the ramen experience, the gathered spectacle of hot and cool and color and texture. This week, all the ramen came in proper ceramic bowls.
 
 
The dipping ramen called tsukemen ($8) takes a trained hand, mostly to pull the sticky masses of noodles apart from each other to dip them in a sweet and hot orange peanut sauce with a pan-Asian appeal. It’s served cool but not cold, with cooked carrots and golden sweet potatoes and skin-on tofu like little slices of white bread. It’s a do-it-yourself bowl, the flavor combinations reliant entirely on your skill with chopsticks. I clearly need to step up my dexterity.
 
The noodles in a bowl of black sesame ramen ($8) signal that something’s different here, besides just being served cool without broth. They’re speckled like exotic zoo creatures, dappled black and tan, with the distinctive toasted nut bloom of sesame. A light sheen of sesame oil makes them easier to manage among the other animals in the zoo: steamed chicken with the bone-in flavor of the freshly pulled and a crunchy-edged fried egg. It’s an overdue vehicle for ramen noodles, a bowl where they aren’t just passengers; they’re doing the driving.
 
(TOP, clockwise from top left: Cold black sesame ramen with a fried egg, Hiyashi Thai Chuka cold ramen, tsukemen ramen for dipping in the peanut sauce in the center and a bowl of Sapporo beer ramen with pork and a boiled egg. INSET: ESK manager Yoshi Okai. SECOND INSET: Chicken tortilla ramen at East Side King at the Hole in the Wall, painted by Pee Yellow of the Japanese punk band Peelander-Z. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)