Culinary kings

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The East Side King food trailer on the patio at Shangra La is the newest addition to the locally renowned food trailer chain headed by Motoyasu Utsunomiya.

Photo Credit: Allen Otto | Daily Texan Staff

Parked in the open patio of Shangri-La, the new East Side King trailer is shorter than the average food trailer by a good three feet. The multicolored, tribal-patterned trailer houses a small team of speedy chefs preparing dishes as unique as their makeshift kitchen’s design. Driven by renowned chef Motoyasu Utsunomiya’s gastronomical cuisine, their new trailer lives up to its predecessors with its grungy, innovative take on fast food.

East Side King opened its first trailer at the Liberty bar in November 2009 and then expanded to the Grackle. And with its grand opening on Saturday, the nationally-acclaimed chain makes the hot-spot bar its third home.

Despite all its trailers located on East Sixth Street and partnered with their respective neighboring bar, Utsunomiya said there are no plans for a monopoly of the bar scene in East Austin.

“No plans for a hostile takeover,” he said with a laugh.

He simply enjoys the creative and easy nature of the people in that area, he said.

“When I came to Austin 20 years ago [from Yawatahama City, Japan,] there was a kind of hippy vibe, and that’s still there,” he said.

Monopoly or not, the trailer chain is by far one of the most acclaimed in Austin. The East Side King trailer at Liberty bar was featured on the Travel Channel TV series “Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations” in 2010, an event Utsunomiya said
he was not anticipating.

“I didn’t know anything about Anthony Bourdain,” admits Utsunomiya with a laugh. “My partner was so excited, jumping up and down and I was like ‘Who’s that?’”

Despite East Side King’s growing popularity and expansion, Utsunomiya said managing three trailers can be difficult, since he has to split his time at the three trailers. He makes his rounds throughout the day, unannounced.

“I would rather not tell them which one I’m coming to so they never know when I’ll show up,” he said.

Though Utsunomiya has years of experience in the restaurant business, he said he prefers the trailer business because it allows him to have creative freedom.

“I can do whatever I want,” he said. “That’s why we started [East Side King].”

The trailer has also allowed him to learn more about management — a new terrority for him, he said.

“It’s all new to me. It can be hard, but it’s a new experience,” Utsunomiya said.

For the third location, Utsunomiya said he and his partner wanted to create a menu centered on their take on the classic hot dog. Their creation is infused with Asian flavors and is served up on baos or baozis, which are steamed flour buns commonly used in Chinese cuisine and are often filled with meats or sweet bean pastes. Though the buns are incorporated at the other two trailer locations, they’re heavily featured on the menu at the new Shangri-La trailer.

Based on baos and sausages, the menu at East Side King Shangri-La is straightforward. The five menu items, all at $3, are a single bun about the size of a small taco filled with chopped sausages and sauteed vegetables. The sausages are cut in pork and poultry styles, and a vegetarian version is also available. They are a complete departure from the other two trailer locations, which deal primarily in larger pieces of meat.

The portions are relatively small, but Utsunomiya said the chefs intended for the smaller prices and portions to allow for mixing and matching menu items. Still, the trailer holds true to its namesake with innovative Asian fusion fare, serving up unlikely combinations such as kimchi and chicharrons.

The crown jewel of this trailer is the first thing on the menu: Gyu Bao. The beef sausage, chopped and topped with a curry cabbage, tastes familiar with a hint of smokiness and a kick. The twist is a special curry from Taiwan, Utsunomiya said, which is different than the usual Thai and Indian curries normally seen in food. The heat of the curry is balanced by the sweet tonkatsu sauce, which is a thicker, Japanese version of Worcestershire sauce.

The potato chips crushed on top are what makes the dish a sensation, giving a salty crunch to every bite. Between the firmness of the sausage, softness of the bun and the cracklings of the chips, Gyu Bao is a trifecta of textures.

Another hit on the menu, Bao Boy, is a blend of Korean, Mexican and Japanese flavors in a pork chopped sausage. Although this flavor palate pops up in quite a few Austin food trailers, such as Coreanos and Chi’Lantro, this dish offers new elements like chicharrons, which are deep-fried pork rinds. The sweetness from the gochujang sauce — a sweet and spicy Korean chili sauce — and grilled pineapples balance out the saltiness from the sausage and bacon.

While Gyu Bao and Bao Boy ruled in punches of savory and heat, the Veggie Curry failed to do the same. Though exactly the same as the Gyu Bao but with vegetarian sausage instead of beef, the Veggie Curry is definitely the weakest item on the menu. While most of the fantastic flavors of the original dish are there, the meatless sausage lacks the kick of flavor and texture found in the beef. While it is a good option for vegetarians, it certainly isn’t on the same level as the meat variety.

The Shangri-La trailer’s food was reasonably priced and well portioned. The menu only has five items, but the options are all well-constructed flavor combinations. And the portability goes well with an outdoor bar atmosphere.

Opening a fourth trailer is not currently in the cards, Utsunomiya said, but he has always wanted to do something with a restaurant.

“I’m open to anything,” he said.