Trailer-Made: East Side King times 3
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 08.29.11
This is like “Trainspotting,” I thought, the first time I stood outside an East Side King trailer. The Worst Toilet in Scotland scene. It was a cold and miserably saturated night in January 2010, and the drainage in the courtyard out behind the Liberty bar wasn’t so good, the courtyard where that first East Side King trailer stood. The mud and grit and standing water were playing hell with my good shoes.
It’s a testament to the power of crappy beer and good food that the Liberty’s courtyard was full of shivering souls with their good shoes in danger of ruin. In the middle of my after-midnight snack of deep-fried beets and a Brussels sprout salad, Paul Qui walked up. He wasn’t the celebrity he is now, not yet. Uchiko hadn’t opened, there were no blurry “Top Chef” photos and no video clips from Anthony Bourdain’s show. He was “just” Paul Qui, the second-in-command at Uchi and one of three Uchi cooks who’d started this Asian street food trailer behind a ready-made dive bar in East Austin.
Since then, that first East Side King has adopted two brothers. Not twins, but members of the same street-fighting food family, both also on East Sixth and both also attached to bars that attract men with improbable beards and the equally improbable beautiful woman who come with them.
ESK’s charms are limited by their settings: You have to be down with hanging in dirty courtyards strewn with cigarette butts and the dust of a waterless summer. Why else would we be out here except for the travel-in-place possibilities of street food from another world?
For this first in a series called Trailer-Made, I hit all three East Side Kings in one night. This is what I found.
(Photos: At top: ESK at the Liberty. Inset: ESK at the Grackle and at Shangri-La.)
East Side King at Shangri-La
1016 E. Sixth St. www.eastsidekingaustin.com.
Hours: 7 p.m. to 1:45 a.m. Monday-Saturday.
This newest link in the ESK chain was the weakest when it opened this summer: salty bits of sausage and sauce stuffed into steam buns that were ill-equipped to hold the sloppy load. I joked at the time that the concept had jumped far enough over the shark that the next three trailers might be called Whatabulgogi, Tako Bell and Teppan Dots.
But just as I got ready to publish this report, ESK at Shangri-La changed its menu. Single steam buns of chopped sausage for $3 evolved into $5-$8 double orders filled with eel and avocado and chicken skin and pho beef and sausage from Salt and Time. The menu makeover re-established the nexus of novelty and execution upon which East Side King built its name in the first place.
Chicken-skin buns ($6) bring together a butterflied ridge of pure fried chicken fat with a thin slice of sugary sausage grained like fruit leather with spicy kimchi and hoisin sauce. No single flavor dominates; it’s a union of indulgences played to pillowy effect in a foldover steam bun that’s like Wonder Bread if it grew up and traveled to countries where they don’t cut off the crust to make a sandwich.
Unagi buns ($8) put a trailer spin on my favorite ending to a sushi experience: barbecued eel with a tawny sauce like syrup. The seared eel shoulders its way through impressive amounts of grilled avocado and a little spicy cucumber kimchi to keep things from getting too soft-core. It’s among my favorite ESK trailer dishes, and that’s impressive company, something to make the dust and cranky alternapunk music go away for a few minutes of closed eyes and an insider’s taste of why Austin loves the idea of trailers. This is the idea in full swing.
East Side King at the Grackle
1700 E. Sixth St. 422-5884, www.eastsidekingaustin.com.
Hours: 5 p.m. to 1:45 a.m. Monday-Saturday. Noon to 10 p.m. Sunday (updated 9/3).
At full tilt the yakitori grill that defines this location smells a little like ganja, perfect with the occasional whiff of world music from the Grackle porch. The ESK trailer lies in coiled repose like a crimson lion in the front lot, just feet away from a taco trailer. The inside of the Grackle is impossibly dark, punctuated by a trio of dartboards, a cigarette machine and the backlit glow of the bar. From a solid draft beer lineup comes Austin Beerworks Pearl Snap, with a dry, floral balance and a hard finish to cut through the fat and charcoal from the yakitori.
From the ESK grill comes eggplant, pork ribs, chicken thigh, pork belly and romaine lettuce in consort with rice and pickled vegetables and sauces for $4 to $9 a dish. Yakitori with rice ($7) is a simple Japanese barbecue of chicken thigh, pickled cabbage and sweet sauce garnished with crispy skin.
A ramen bowl ($6) really is just that, a cheap, sodium-packed $1 throwaway dish of Shin Bowl noodles given a $5 renovation with a soft-boiled egg and big pieces of grilled pork belly plus spicy kimchi. It’s exotic and comforting and appropriate for the weather somehow, the kind of dish that helps you sweat out the abuses of the night. Or the night to come.
Before moving to the Grackle, this trailer started behind Bar 96 on Rainey Street. From one hot nightclub district to another. Being in demand has its privileges.
East Side King at the Liberty
1618 E. Sixth St. www.eastsidekingaustin.com.
Hours: 5 p.m. to 1:45 a.m. daily.
The Liberty courtyard looks better in the waning summer daylight than it did on a wet winter night. The golden colors of that magic hour make the food so vivid it looks painted. Beet homefries glow a smoky vermilion, broken by green curls and rings of green onion, with pale yellow mayo that tastes like an eggy counterchorus to the earthy redness of the beets. And yes, red is a flavor.
If potato homefries were like this, beets wouldn’t have such an easy time kicking their butts all over the subterranean playing field. These have edges, like they’ve been precisely mitered then airbrushed, laid into matte relief with a paint job that would make a 1970s Impala the most beautiful car in the parking lot.
I run into Randall Stockton, who holds a piece of some of Austin’s most interesting places, including all three bars with ESK trailers. He’s much too young to hold sway over such an expeditionary empire. He credits his wife, Donya, with their East Side King trifecta.
This ESK trailer specializes in fried chicken but includes Brussels sprouts, pork belly and beef tongue steambuns and dressed-out rice. Chicken karaage ($8) reminds me of the “Shawshank Redemption,” that scene where Andy tells Red to look for a piece of volcanic glass that has no business in a Maine hayfield. And this dish — golden-crusted irregular pieces of thigh meat with a sly sweetness and the grassy chorus of flat-leaf parsley and basil — has no business at a trailer behind a bar, even if it’s a friendly place where happy hour pints of the good stuff — Breckenridge Agave Wheat, Left Hand Sawtooth, Brooklyn Lager — are $3.50. I’m sure PBRs are cheap, too. But I’m not drinking that stuff, even to fit in.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)