I first tasted Paul Qui's food at a City Grit dinner in NYC, where he was guest-cheffing for a week. It was a pretty stunning menu. Japanese in its technique, balance of flavors, and subtlety, but all-American in its ingredients and spirit. The food he and chef Tyson Cole serve at Uchiko in Austin is in a similar vein, albeit with a bit of mad scientist tossed into the mix.
Well, if Paul's fine dining food is like a sweet, quiet, bespectacled, intelligent sister, the food he serves from his three East Side King trucks is like the uncle who crashes the wedding, steals the bride, covers her in Japanese mayonnaise, smokes a joint with her behind the chapel, and carries her off on his motorcycle while simultaneously rocking out on his guitar.
The food is crazy, brash, and unrefined, but at the same time really freaking delicious—precisely the kind of fare you want to be downing for a few bucks alongside an ice cold Shiner Bock while sitting outdoors on a hot Austin evening.
We recently met up with the former Top Chef winner to check out the menus at the Liberty and the Shangri La locations of his mini empire. The always humble Qui literally can't sit still through the evening, bouncing back and forth between the table and the trailers where the food is prepared, alternately talking about the food and his plans for the future.
"Yeah, sorry—I'm pretty much completely ADD," he says, apologetically. From the projects he's got on his plate right now, it's no wonder that his mind is racing. Aside from putting in face time at Uchiko and overseeing the menus at all three East Side King locations (the third is down the street at the Grackle), he's got plans to open a brick and mortar East Side King early next year, as well as opening his own restaurant a few blocks away.
"The concept is sort of two restaurants in one. I want to open a sushi/sashimi bar on one side that's not really a sushi bar, but sort of omakase style. 12 seats, with the chefs cooking in front of the customer." The idea is that guests would start with a few courses in the small chef-centric dining room before moving into what he called his "study, where they can see where we come up with our ideas." The other side of the restaurant will be a full-sized, 50 seat, no-reservations sit-down affair serving Asian-inflected dishes with Texas-based ingredients.
The food at East Side King is wild. There's definitely a strong link to Japanese street food—multiple sauces on a single dish, including the generous application of sweet Kewpie mayo. Fried foods and griddled meats with dusted with shichimi togarashi, the Japanese pepper blend scented with orange peels and black sesame seeds. "It's really just stuff that we like eating off our shift," says Paul. "The food at all the locations is different and I try to encourage my cooks to take ownership of the spots."
Chefs Moto Utsonomaya and Ek Timrek, friends and colleagues of Qui's from Uchi and Uchiko have helped with the menu planning at all of his locations (Timrek has since opened his own place, Spin Modern Thai Cuisine). Southeast Asian ingredients make a major appearance too—fresh herbs, sliced jalapeños, and fish sauce are ubiquitous in marinades, sauces, and garnishes. You'll recognize a few David Chang-esque touches, like fatty meats stuffed into steamed buns or piled onto steamed rice. "I'm really proud of the food. A lot of these kids have never worked in a restaurant before we trained them here, but I encourage them to learn the ropes and experiment with dishes."
With three locations and menu items hovering in the 5 to $6 range with nothing above $9, this is the epitome of food truck fare. Unfussy, unique, and above all, f&*king delicious.