ESK @Hole in the Wall

(Austin, TX) — As shameless foodies, we’re parked in front of the tube to watch TOP CHEF weekly. We’re often enamored of one chef or another, and sometimes we even get the chance to visit their restaurants when we’re traveling. In season 9, Paul Qui won and, as luck would have it, we planned our holiday trip around Austin, where he calls home. Just a couple weeks before we arrived, Paul opened up his latest venture called East Side King @Hole in the Wall. Just under a mile to the north of our hotel, near the university, ESK promised street truck food in a brick and mortar building...

He Fed:

It’s a windy evening with just enough bite to make me wish I’d brought gloves. Still, Juliet’s up for the walk so we huddle close together and make our way slowly to dinner. We pass into a section of town with coffee shops and tattoo parlors, not exactly run-down but definitely in need of a fresh coat of paint.

Finally, we spy the marquee for Hole in the Wall. Live music bleeds onto the sidewalk outside the front door, where thin young gentlemen hunch against the wind, smoking unbranded cigarettes. I open the door, met by a blast of sour spilled beers, bleach, and rockabilly blues. We wriggle our way through the packed bar, where I’m expecting to see a kitchen but find none. A helpful busboy leads us out the back of the building to another brick building in the rear, where ESK resides. It is busy. People swarm the tables inside because it’s a little chilly outdoors, at the picnic tables. After a minute to get acclimated, we place our order and take our number outside to await the delivery of our food.

While we wait, nerves still jangling from the bustle of the place, I buy us a couple pints of Sapporo to sip while we people watch. Another nearby picnic table fill up with folks who’ve never met, but know each other through the internet...probably food bloggers. A couple guys in designer jeans artfully torn at the knees enjoy a smoke while telling each other, “No,’re so much better at that shit than I am. I respect you soooo much.” Next door, over the fence, a somber student loads moving boxes into the back of a Jeep.

Our food arrives. Besides cheap packages you're forced to eat when you’re a poor college kid, I’ve never had ramen, but the Sapporo Beer Bacon Miso Ramen with the soft boiled egg option sounds up my alley. It is a salty-spicy blend of bacon dashi, white miso, Sapporo beer, corn, butter, bacon puree, pork belly, chashu, garlic, chili bean sprout, scallion, and beni shoga. The flavors deepen the more I eat, the noodles softening and absorbing the ingredients. Even though the spice isn’t overwhelming, when I sip the broth I nearly choke. All that heat is floating on the surface! Thankfully, a cold beer tones it down.

We also share Poor Qui’s Buns, roasted pork belly in a steamed bun with hoisin sauce, cucumber, kimchi, and green onion. They’re good, though a very standard rendition of the steamed bun. I imagine they are useful for sopping up excess in the front bar but I’ve had better. The Beet Home Fries, however, are addictive. Chunks of deep-fried roasted beets sided with kewpie mayo, schichimi togarashi, and green onion, make for forkful after forkful of sweet and savory small bites. The beets aren’t overly breaded or fried, either, so it’s practically health food! Lastly, a small cardboard container of Brussels Sprout Salad lurks innocently before us. It’s just Brussels sprouts, right? No. This combination of sweet-spicy sauce, shredded cabbage, basil, cilantro, mint, onion, and jalapeno is nothing short of mind-blowing. The interplay between cooling herb, spice heat, and tangy sauce is like an everchanging jazz fusion riff in our mouths. This is why we came to Austin! Thank you, Paul Qui...thank you thank you thank you.

Sated and joyous, we enjoy one last beer at the bar, listening to a young woman on stage crooning in Western yodel about something sad. Even she can’t bring us down from the Brussels sprout high. Our hotel shuttle appears moments later, whisking us away from this dream, back into the night.
She Fed:

Icy weather and 30+ mph gusting winds greet us as we emerge from our hotel. We’ve only got a mile to walk, though it’s so windy I’m tempted to check on the hotel shuttle. Our daily walks have been a great way to see the city, though. We strike out but within three blocks, I consider turning back. The wind is biting at my ears and nose. I didn’t pack earmuffs and I left my gloves in the hotel room. Turns out our GPS takes us the long way around and we end up hoofing it a bit further than planned. Poor Jeremy—I keep asking “how much further” every few blocks.

We’re both relieved to see the sign for Hole in the Wall in the distance and we pour into the front door, anticipating warmth and light. Instead we find ourselves right next to a stage in a darkened room. A bluegrass band is playing and the room is intently focused on the performance. We hightail it for the well-lit bar we spy down a short flight of stairs and from there we see East Side King in an outbuilding. When we open the door to ESK, punk rock blasts from the sound system. Every table is packed and I’m beginning to think we’ve made a big mistake tonight.

Jeremy won’t be daunted. He heads to the counter and gets the skinny. We are to place our food order here, can sit in any of the bars, and the food will be delivered to our table. We order four dishes to share and sit at the only available seats, outside in the courtyard between the two buildings. Kids gather around the warped picnic tables to smoke clove cigarettes. (I crush the impulse to go squash their ciggies and daub eye creme on their dewy little faces, telling them they’ll thank me one day.) Jeremy grabs us two pints of beer while we wait for our food. The three walls and overhead covering help cut the wind, but it’s still glacial out here.

Three of our dishes arrive and we dig in, more for the want of warmth than out of hunger, I suspect. I never met a steamed bun I didn’t like and Pour Qui’s Buns are divine, with slabs of pork belly, sticky hoisin sauce, green onions, and cuke kimchi stuffed in a steamed bun. The dough is sweet and comforting. I’d like a blanket of it to wear right now, kinda like a pork bun snuggy!

Next up are the Beet Home Fries with togarashi and Kewpie mayo. The beets have been roasted then quickly deep-fried. The crust is incredibly thin and light. I don’t detect any spiciness from the togarashi, but dipped in Kewpie (a mayo made with rice vinegar) these sweet little nuggets are the perfect winter warmer.

The star of the show is the Brussels Sprout Salad (we’ve been on a sprout kick this vacation) with fried sprouts, basil, mint, red onion, shredded cabbage, and jalapeno slices all layered with a spicy sweet dressing. It’s herbaceous, nutty, fiery, earthy, and sweet all at once. I’ve never tasted anything this unexpected and mouthwatering in my life. It’s garnished with fried bread sticks made from the steamed buns. I can’t stop ooohing and aaahing.

Last to the party is the Sapporo Beer Bacon Miso Ramen with a fried egg atop. I’m not a big ramen lover and I opt to eat more than my fair share of the beets and sprouts while Jeremy devours the noodles.

It’s too cold to linger so we enjoy one last pint inside while we wait for the hotel shuttle to arrive. East Side King @Hole in the Wall is hands-down some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. I’d go back in a minute to try the other dishes and get another order of the Brussels sprout salad.

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