Yesterday, local chef Paul Qui opened the fourth location of his East Side King food trailer in the back room of the Hole in the Wall, the long-loved bar and music venue on Guadalupe Street.
In the back room, East Side King has re-decorated by painting bright murals, installing Japanese beers on tap, and rearranging the furniture they inherited from the Hole in the Wall. Still, a line of vintage pinball machines stands at attention along one wall, harkening back to the bar’s beginning as an “arcade restaurant.” The division in the new space between the front room, where live music is played, and the back room, where East Side King serves food, is noticeable, but Hole in the Wall owner Will Tanner says he’s not concerned about the venues being perceived as separate.
“People kind of seem to flow out and spill,” Tanner said, gesturing toward the back room.
Of course, there are those who remain concerned about the integrity of the Hole in the Wall after the addition of East Side King. Since winning the 2012 season of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” Qui has gained popularity in the foodie world, while the Hole in the Wall has remained, well, that hole-in-the-wall on the Drag. Unhappy fans of the Hole in the Wall feel that bringing the likes of Qui, a former executive chef at Uchiko, into the back will ruin the dingy authenticity of the bar. This reporter, like many UT students, can’t speak to that dingy authenticity: prior to Qui’s venture, minors weren’t allowed inside the Hole in the Wall. Now all ages are welcome in the back room.
In that room, ramen is served hot and unceremoniously in disposable paper bowls, and the food is the better for its lack of pretension. The menu at the Hole in the Wall is intended to be a collection of “greatest hits” from the three other East Side King trailers. From the Liberty Bar location, for example, comes beet home fries and a Brussels sprout salad.
The latter is a favorite of Hole in the Wall general manager Alex Livingston, who sounded only a little out of place when he exclaimed,“I’m psyched about the Brussels sprouts. I’ve recently fallen in love with that vegetable, and it makes me really happy to think I’ll be able to eat
it every day.”
His ardor for the dish isn’t unearned. The salad is a hearty and refreshing mix of fried Brussels sprouts and shredded cabbage, with three dainty slivers of deep-fried bun for garnish. The beet fries are memorable for their bar-food-grease-meets-fresh-vegetables taste. Tiny chunks of deep-fried beet are accompanied by thick Japanese Kewpie mayo. The first taste is of spice, grease and all the good things a dark bar like the Hole in the Wall should offer, but the second bite gets you nothing but the fiber of fresh vegetables. The combination may not be for everyone, but it makes for enjoyable innovative dining.
After the appetizers, order the Gekkeikan Sake to wash it down (provided, of course, you’re of age). A friend put it best when she said that Gekkikan is what you imagine children’s mixed drinks must taste like: refreshing, smooth, magical.
But the real standouts of the menu are the three ramen options (which, incidentally, are the only ones that don’t come in vegan or gluten-free options). Sapporo Beer Bacon Miso Ramen may seem a little heavy, especially when you read that it’s made with two different forms of bacon, beer, butter and pork belly, but you didn’t come to a dark bar to behave healthfully, did you? The beer foam that tops the ramen is the answer to every time you tried to slurp the foam off the top of your cup, and the option to add an extra egg — a soft-boiled, soy sauce-cured egg — shouldn’t be missed. The pork belly is as tender and tasty as Thanksgiving turkey.
Now, the real question: do the dishes still taste good the morning after, in the cold hard light of your refrigerator? Well, results are mixed. Some leftover-samplers wrinkled their noses and said only “tastes like fish,” while others, like this reporter, ate the gelled ramen in all its salty, fishy glory till her spoon scraped the bottom of the paper bowl.
Printed on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 as: Top chef debuts new Asian venue