Top Chef winner Paul Qui has an addictive food cart in Austin. Matt Rodbard can't get enough.
AUSTIN – I sort of dropped Top Chef a few seasons back. Well, we both decided it was time to go in our own directions. We're just friends now. Anyways, I really didn't know much about the latest TC winner, Paul Qui, until I interviewed him at last month's Austin Food & Wine Festival. He was late to our scheduled time, having missed his alarm before dashing to meet me, leaving a Pappy Van Winkle vapor in his wake. It had been a late night.
Fast forward fourteen hours, and I'm walking into the backyard of Liberty Bar on Austin's gritty Eastside. Everybody is very drunk (Tito's flows like water around those parts), having converged on the dive bar for cans of Pearl Snap German Pils and, more dramatically, to line up at Paul Qui's food cart for a plate of chicken karaage. I spot Gail Simmons and the bassist from White Denim as I take my spot in the queue. There are 20 people in front of me. It's 12:45 am. Everything smells so fucking good.
Fast forward 80 minutes, and I'm sitting at a picnic table waiting for my tray to arrive. Gail's food hasn't arrived either. Ha! There's no Top Chef express lane in Paul Qui's house. I'm with two friends — let's call them the bottomless pit twins — and we're talking about Paul.
Well, we're shaking our heads at how smart this guy is. Having worked his way from the Austin Culinary Academy to the city's premier sushi bar Uchi to running the show at a successful spin off, Uchiko, Qui started the cart business with some fellow chefs because, well, he had invented a dish that he knew would drive the drunk crowd nuts: deep-fried roasted beets dusted with shichimi and dressed with kewpie mayo.
Beets? For real.
Nearly everybody in front of us had an order. In fact, so many people had ordered the fried beets that they were sold out by the time we got to the window. I had to go back the next day to try them. Damn straight I went back to East Side King. This isn't called a Like Letter.
Fast forward seven minutes, and our table is covered with little paper plates. There's a salty beef tongue bun slicked with sweet peanut butter curry and herbs (fresh basil, cilantro, mint). With the WTF-good karaage, chicken thighs are first brined in garlic, Thai chilies, and vinegar, then dusted with cornstarch and fried golden brown. The same herb trio is added. Qui loves to balance heavy salty and sweet flavors with slightly astringent herbs. It's a very good move. And the pork belly bun is simply Momofukian-thick, fatty and dressed with Hoisin sauce and cucumber kimchee.
Fast forward one week, and I'm sitting in my Brooklyn apartment still thinking about that beef tongue. I'm also thinking about catching up on Paul Qui's season of Top Chef. He just earned himself another fan.
East Side King at the Liberty
1618 1/2 E 6th St
Austin, TX 78702
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