Paul Qui and Motoyasu "Moto" Utsunomiya's East Side King mini-empire continues to grow its way across Austin. Their first brick and mortar location at Hole in the Wall celebrated its first anniversary only a few weeks before the South Lamar branch opened its doors. Eater spoke with Qui and Utsunomiya as well as Hole in the Wall's chef Yoshi Okai about expansion, ramen, and East Side King's signature playfulness.
How did you guys first come across the Hole in the Wall space?
Qui: Moto and I stumbled upon this space through a friend of a friend. Will Tanner owns Hole in the Wall, and his kid went to school with one of my friend's kids. We used to come here every Monday or Tuesday for dollar beers a long time ago.
That back space was also Hole in the Wall. The original bar has been around since '74 but the back building is a bit newer.
Utsunomiya: They were working on a kitchen.
Why this location as the first brick and mortar?
Qui: It was all by chance that we ended up coming in here. Hole in the Wall is an Austin institution. If you went to college here, you went to Hole in the Wall, and if you've been in Austin for a while you've probably heard of this space. A lot of history has been made here as far as music scene goes. It seemed like a good fit for identity of East Side King.
I view Hole in the Wall as not a true brick and mortar. We don't control bathrooms and the bar. We're like a trailer. We have nothing to do with anything that goes on the space, just the food and the cash register.
What's different about being here?
Qui: We have running water – that's a big thing for trucks. There's a walk in cooler.
Okai: It's good for cold weather. Now we have a roof, and even on cold days people show up.
Qui: They let us bring all ages. At The Liberty you have to be 21.
Okai: Kids and students come in here to get food.
What have been the new challenges operating here?
Qui: There's definitely the working relationship with the bar. They're a good partner. It's a little more costly to operate than a food truck. And it's new trying to fit into a space that already existed, a kitchen that's already there. The walk in is just their old beverage cooler. Working with a younger crowd is new. And the challenge of opening for lunch and dinner. Especially with the menu here, the ramen broths, it takes time to make.
What was the weirdest moment of past year at East Side King Hole in the Wall?
Utsunomiya: When the water tank froze.
Okai: The first day we opened, one employee was gone within thirty minutes. She quit. We couldn't find her. We found out she had a family emergency but she didn't tell anyone. Also, a customer ordered a tori meshi but asked if I could make it without the chicken.
How has the ramen program evolved over the past year?
Okai: Austin has kind of a 'ramen war,' and we are happy to be a part of that. We are creating a different type of ramen, and it's pretty fun for customers and myself .
Qui: We're not a ramen shop and it's not the only thing we sell. We don't have any traditional ramen. It's all stuff that Yoshi puts together with the rest of us.
What have been some of your favorites or best-sellers?
Qui: Chicken tortilla ramen and tom yum ramen.
Okai: The beer ramen – the way it foams on top.
Any ramen you liked that didn't do well?
Qui: Vegan and peanut ramen.
Okai: People would ask, can you put the meat in it?
Qui: Vegetarian ramen is a thing in Japan. It's really about trying to get the right broth. You can't get the same kind of body you get with pork or chicken.
Okai: With vegan broth, you have to use lots of vegetables, basically. The key is I always use sake and mushrooms and kelp. That gets the umami in there.
Any ramen you want to put on the menu soon?
Qui: We're not pigeonholed to ramen. So whatever gets Yoshi's attention, we will do.
Okai: And also ramen is a lot of prep for my cooks.
Paul, how are you involved with developing the menu?
Qui: The specials are all Yoshi.
Okai: We test it together.
Qui: We'll add an item here and there for the classics menu, but we work as a group. Usually we'll talk about it and then it goes into testing phases. Laura is more responsible for the stuff that's at the Grackle and the food trucks, Yoshi's at Hole in the Wall, and Dustin supports them both from the commissary kitchen. He standardizes our menu and develops for South Lamar.
You're really know for playfulness & experimenting. How do you maintain consistency between East Side Kings while keeping the playfulness?
Qui: A lot of conversation. It crossed our minds to streamline everything, to keep the same menu and open more stores. It can be easy to streamline chicken karaage and beets and Brussels sprouts. But I especially didn't want to go that route. I wanted it to evolve more organically and be more fun and creative. For any company that's growing that's the biggest challenge.
What are your further expansion plans?
Qui: Probably just brick and mortar from now on. We've been cooking in Austin for a long time with different people. You get ideas cooking with fellow chefs and cooks. That's how the original truck that came about. You spit out ideas all day long, and the relationships I have at East Side King are people I've worked with before. They know what Moto and I like. It's about making sure everyone I cook with and have a good relationship with has an outlet to grow into. That's why there's freedom to do whatever you want. From a cook's perspective, that's important to me.
Do you have different approach for Qui versus East Side King?
Qui: I'm learning from both – it's pretty similar. My sous chefs at Qui are very methodical and Qui is a very different animal, but there's a similar process. For East Side King, we did research on ramen, and we do a lot of research for Qui, too. We want to know what things are traditionally before we evolve the process from there.
At Qui, the menu features very specific homages to chefs – you had the Ode to Michel Bras. Who are the East Side King influencers?
Qui: David Chang is a big influence. The pork buns are basically his. Moto just thought it would be funny to call them poor qui's buns. Thai street food as well. Though brining stuff in fish sauce is something we developed.
Utsunomiya: We brine in the Japanese way, but the Japanese don't do fish sauce. I don't know too many chefs. I only know Paul and the guys we work with. Maybe Uchi and Uchiko are influences.
Okai: Always I'm looking for something I can make differently. I want to do things in a weird way, or not exactly a weird way, a good way. I don't like making the same food that someone else does.
South Lamar is the first independent outlet – do you think it will be different in character?
Qui: Probably there will be more families there. It's around a family-friendly neighborhood, and we're going to be open lunch and dinner. We'll have beer and wine on tap.
Is there a possibility for an East Side King kid's menu?
Qui: I mean, a kids menu would be karaage with no sauce, or not a spicy sauce.
Uchi & Uchiko are a big touchstone for you guys. Tyson Cole is now looking to open a fast casual Southeast Asian restaurant. Do you think this is a growing trend, having a fine dining establishment and then a casual outlet?
Qui: Every chef that cooks in fine dining eats very casually. The main purpose of opening a food truck while I was chef de cuisine at Uchi was that I like cooking both kinds of food. I don't know if it's a trend, but every chef that has a nice place likes to eat street food.
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