I find myself getting more and more emotional over food. A few close friends, whose opinions I respect, have eluded that I may be bordering on obsessive behavior. They're not wrong. Almost every conversation I have with them is interlaced with a thought or two about what I ate, what I plan to eat, and where I'll be planning to eat it. Would they eat what I just ate? Do they think they would like to eat what I'm going to eat? Are they free to come along on my next food adventure?
I recently enjoyed East Side King @ Liberty Bar in Austin, TX nearly a month ago, and I'm just now writing about it. Catching up at home and work has kept me busy, but to be honest, I almost thought I should pass on sharing my experience at ESK because it was so brief and I encountered few people on this outing. That doesn't make for an engaging or enlightened review on an eatery. It was early evening on a Sunday afternoon when I fumbled around inside the dark and nearly empty Liberty Bar, searching for East Side which was supposed to be, somehow, connected to it. To be fair, the place is not known to be hopping until later in the evening.
It wasn't them, it was me.
I often eat alone. I live alone and I'm often traveling alone, so that's just a reality for me. I don't mind at all. I'm used to it. But then there are times when I do get to share a really fantastic meal with some really great folks, and I realize that I want that experience more. I'd just eaten mind-blowing Texas BBQ at Franklin's earlier that day and was fortunate enough to meet and eat with six folks I'd never before met in my life until that moment. We bonded over brisket. That may sound trite but it's totally true.
I'm a natural born wall-flower. I excel at listening and observing and I will never be (nor do I want to be) the life of the party. Small-talk is nightmarish for me. I open my mouth-hole and my foot quickly finds its way into it. I do not feel comfortable around large groups of people. Fortunately, food has become the common denominator which affords me brief respites into what I consider a normal life. If I can connect with someone over food, I'm solid. I become emboldened. Thoughts and sentences flow freely from me and I never want that moment to end.
It inevitably does and I go back to being my dorky, awkward self, but I'm encouraged and look forward to the next opportunity that magically transforms me.
Back at East Side King, there were no long lines of people with little else to do but pass the time talking to each other. It was only 4:30 in the afternoon. This was going to be an outing centrally focused on the food alone. Ladies and gentlemen, in this regard, East Side King does not disappoint. Chefs Paul Qui (recently of Top Chef Fame and a James Beard Award Winner) and Motoyasu Utsonomiya have been producing some innovative and fantastic-tasting Asian fusion in Austin for some time now. They've grown steadily from one little food truck behind the Liberty to several trucks at different locations and an actual sit-down joint that's coming sometime this fall or winter. I would characterize the menu, at least at Liberty Bar, as Japanese street food. I only had one night so I went with three staples that have put East Side King on the map: Poor Qui's pork belly buns, beet home fries with Japanese mayonnaise spiked with togarashi (Japanese spice powder) and their ultra-famous Fried Chicken Karaage. It's like fried chicken on crack, pretty much.
The pork belly buns were pretty traditional: crispy belly with Hoisin sauce and zingy pickled cucumber. But who deep-fries beets then dips them into togarashi-laced Kewpie mayonnaise? This girl from now on and forever more, that's who! I would have never thought of this in a million years, but it totally works. Take a traditional recipe and mix it up with some unique ingredients and most times, you'll come out a winner. (Disclaimer: okay, not ALL the time). Chicken karaage is common enough, but ESK uses chicken thigh meat (tastier) and they brine their chicken overnight before deep-frying and tossing it in a sweet and spicy sauce along with thin slices of onion and jalapeño.
This is Austin, home to some of the most unique and innovative food in the country, so of course, all the food Qui and Utsonomiya are putting out is locally sourced. They're producing five-star eats at a price that made me feel incredibly guilty. Along with street-food staples, these two are offering up some more challenging menu items like mackerel, eel, quail and the forbidden foie gras. This place truly is a gold mine ... hiding out behind a dive bar. It's perfect for large groups of drunken besties and wall-flowers alike.
So, in the spirit of Asian-fusion, and needing something to possibly help with a massive hangover, I'm sharing a recipe from another Asian-fusion master who I will brazenly admit is another of my foodie idols. Let me introduce you to the Midnight Torta, an Asian/Mexican powerhouse that will soon have you reaching for some hair of the dog.
Austin is a serious food contender in the Midwest, but on the West Coast, Roy Choi's been mixing and mastering his Korean/Mexican fare for some time and he's more than a worthy "opponent" when it comes to innovation and fusion cooking. Crowned Food and Wine's Best New Chef award in 2010, Choi is the owner and founder of the wildly popular Kogi BBQ Taco Truck which he started up back in 2008. In my opinion, Choi was revolutionary when it came to introducing serious street-food. A Korean BBQ taco for $2.00? Hell yeah! Traditional Kogi BBQ served in taco form quickly became an LA classic.
I have not yet been to any of his trucks or his A-Frame restaurant (you know it's on my list) but I follow the man religiously. When I recently came across his Midnight Torta sandwich recipe, I knew I'd be making it. Blending Mexican and Asian flavors together is a no-miss. Choi knows it, and after you make this 'wich and maw it down, you will, too. And everyone who knows me knows that I'm a sucker for anything with an egg on it. The soft bolillo bread, smokey grilled jalapeño and crispy pork belly topped with an ozzing over-easy egg? Yeeeeeeeeeesssssssss.
Health Disclaimer: This is in no way Paleo approved :). For those of you who follow me, you know I'm trying out Paleo. This is a treat, guys. You have it once a month is all. Don't go crazy on me now.
Roy Choi's Midnight Torta
Adapted from: Foodandwine.com, contributed by Roy Choi
2 large jalapeños
12 ounces meaty fresh pork belly, sliced 1/4 inch thick
Salt and freshly ground pepper
5 ounces baby spinach
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1/4 cup mayonnaise (I used Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise which is slightly sweeter than regular mayo)
4 large Mexican torta or bolillo rolls (crusty, soft white rolls 5 to 6 inches round or oval–shaped), split and toasted
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
Grated cojita cheese, cilantro leaves and sliced tomatoes, for serving
- Roast the jalapeños over a gas flame until charred all over. Transfer the jalapeños to a bowl, cover and let cool. Peel, stem and seed the jalapeños, then cut them lengthwise into thin strips.
- In a large nonstick skillet, arrange the pork belly slices in a single layer. Season with salt and pepper and cook over moderate heat, turning once, until browned and crisp, about 8 minutes. Remove the pork belly and set aside. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat and add the spinach to the skillet. Season with salt and pepper and stir until the spinach is wilted. Remove the spinach and set it aside. Crack the eggs into the skillet and cook for 2 minutes. Using a wide spatula, gently turn the eggs . Cook just until the whites are set but the yolks are runny, about 2 minutes.
- Spread the mayonnaise on the toasted rolls and sprinkle with the sesame seeds. Using a spatula, divide the filling between the rolls. Top with the roasted jalapeños, cotija cheese, cilantro leaves and tomato slices. Squeeze the lime juice over all. Close the tortas, cut them in half and serve right away.