Review: Kyoten sushi trailer on East Sixth

1211 W Sixth St. (map ), 512-888-7559,
Hours (updated 12/14): 12-3:30pm and 5-10pm Tue-Sat
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 07.29.14
If one dish can define a restaurant, battera defines Kyōten.
• Simple at first blush, complex at the core. Battera presents itself as six precisely mitered bites of mackerel on rice. But each wall is mortared with crushed ginger and whole sharp shiso leaf, and the fish has been cured, smoked, vinegared, read bedtime stories and sent to finishing school.
• A boundary breaker. “Trailer sushi” is shorthand for the fringes of being a restaurant critic in Austin. Guaranteed eye-roller every time. Battera is Kyōten’s one-dish middle finger to all that. Sushi doesn’t need a front door. It needs good refrigeration, good technique, proper sushi rice and the right people. Only those elements can tame the wily mackerel, the sea monster so often the ruin of the landlocked palate. In this dish, mackerel’s fish-oil gun shoots a little silken flag that says “bang.”
• A test of value. At $10.50 in a paper boat, battera puts its money where your mouth is. But the food’s never the whole story, and Kyōten’s mix of outdoor risks and rewards will challenge whether it can put its money where your body is. This review will argue that Kyōten is up to that challenge.
(ABOVE, from left: Battera sushi, the Vietnam Des roll and a California roll with real crab. AT TOP: The chirashi bowl, with tuna, mackerel, kanpachi, sea trout, ikura and soft-cooked egg.)
As Kyōten took shape early this year, I saw Leo Rodriguez and James Maiden clearing and blocking out the weedy lot. But I wasn’t prepared for cultivated steppe terraces of combed rock in shades of white, tan, pink and gray, partitioned with bamboo fences and low limestone kick walls, with a firepit and stump seating for eight in the corner, all of it blocked from the signal and noise of East Sixth by a slatted screen of varnished wood.
I recognized Rodriguez, because his was the last face I saw in the window at Sushi-A-Go-Go, the pair of trailers run by Kayo and Také Asazu before they opened Komé on Airport Boulevard, the trailers that smoothed the way for fish on wheels in Austin. A good start for Kyoten, made better by another restaurant connection: Rodriguez worked under Tatsu Aikawa at Imperia in the Warehouse District, along with fellow sushi neophyte Otto Phan. Aikawa went on to start the noodle phenom Ramen Tastu-ya. After Imperia, Phan worked at Nobu and Bar Masa in New York, then came back to Austin, where he worked at Uchi until he and Rodriguez collaborated on Kyōten.
If that sounds like a lot of resumés stuffed into one trailer window, they’re responsible for the blend of discipline and depth characterized by the battera and its box-pressed soulmate, masu-zushi. By the staff’s own account, masu-zushi ($10.50) is Kyōten’s most popular dish, propelled by the fresh orange glow of what was planned as salmon but evolved into the more eco-friendly ocean trout, a member of the same family in its firm, robust oiliness and sunset luster.
The fish was cut into six clean blocks on proper white rice with sesame seeds and razor-thin pickled shallots for a sturdy flavor base. Across the top, a translucent sheet of isoyuki kombu (seaweed, if you must) gave masu-zushi both a fragrant herbal aura and a verdant network of veins that suggested the mossy rocks along a sun-dappled stream. An outdoorsman’s sushi, suited to its al fresco setting. The same fish — this time as a thick, tender confit fillet  — lay across a bed of rice and bitter morning glory greens garnished with iridescent salmon roe for masu donburi ($16).
Masu donburi bore the gravity of a main course the same as a dish of mabo dofu ($9.50), with different results. Where the cool fish carried a current of ocean breeze, bitter greens and salty roe for a full flavor roundabout, the mabo dofu followed the bland, narrow path laid out by stewed pork hocks over an even blander canvas of tofu and rice. The same kind of flatline laissez-faire lay over a tuna roll that promised “spicy, creamy, crunchy” ($7) but hit those notes with the dull reverb of shops with lesser pedigrees. That same thud resonated through a mochi dessert ($4) that despite the eager efforts of vanilla cream and balsamic cherries sat in the boat like a pair of dense, over-sugared teen slackers.
(ABOVE, clockwise from top left: Masu-zushi, mabo dofu with pork hocks and tofu, and masu donburi with sea trout. The Kyoten lot includes a fire pit, a zen garden, bamboo fences and a friendly resident dog.)
Kyōten is more of a celebration than those setbacks would imply. Take the California roll. We should be as vigilant against foods with substitute letters as we are with fake cuss words. Frickin’ krab. Kyōten counters with real red crab, a value at $8. With a “C.” Each bite carried the briny sweetness of loosely pulled crab, the crisp coolness of cucumber, the silky gloss of avocado and the lingering anise incense of tarragon oil. And a rice-paper roll called Vietnam Des ($9.25) was a refreshing defense against the heat that challenges any trailer venture in midsummer, with crisp greens and cucumber, cool kanpachi, herbs and peanuts. Kyōten’s BYOB policy means you can lighten the solar load even more with, say, tall cans of Austin Eastciders apple cider.
As much as that battera sushi defines Kyōten, its chirashi bowl will make or break its higher aspirations. At $26, it defies the logic that because trailers don’t have to pay for indoor amenities — AC, bathrooms, waitstaff — they should at least offer some price relief. I’ll counter with this logic: sashimi costs $12-$18 for five pieces at a decent indoor sushi bar. The chirashi bowl lays out three fat slices each of firm mackerel, radiant sea trout, marinated tuna, ivory-fleshed kanpachi, plump salmon roe and a soft cooked egg over perfect rice. At indoor prices, that same amount of sashimi would work out to $35 or more. For a sampler of fish this fresh and this well-cut, the value question comes down to my own resolve: Do I have what it takes to be an Austin trailer warrior, even in late July? For food like this, yes I do.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)