Well, folks, it’s been almost a year and half since I braved a sushi trailer in June and lived to tell about it. In that time, I’ve circled Texas’ cities in search of the best trailer food. I’ve binged on bulgogi-and-kimchee tacos, bogarted some barbecue, gorged on doughnuts, imbibed a bacon milkshake, and become the queen of the pork belly slider. I’ve also gotten to know a ton of small business owners, as well as learned that you can’t always count on the food trucks to be open. But my trailer reign is coming to a close. Blame it on my high cholesterol or my growing need to eat somewhere with air-conditioning in the 106-degree heat, but don’t for a minute think that it means I don’t love the trailer scene, especially here in Austin.
But even though I’ve reviewed 62 trailers and eaten at dozens more (don’t remind me about the inedible salmon, feta, and raspberry vinaigrette hoagie from a place that shall go unnamed), I’ve never mentioned my favorite trailer of all time: East Side King. This baby has become the closest thing we have to a trailer chain, with locations at Liberty Bar, the Grackle, and its newest location, the Shangri-La.
While all three of Paul Qui, Moto Utsonomaya, and Ek Timrek’s brightly graffitied trucks serve delicious offerings, sometimes oldies really are golden. And I don’t care if that makes me sound like one of those indie snobs who only listen to Radiohead’s early albums. My favorite is still the Liberty trailer’s fried Brussels sprout salad, with crispy fried Brussels sprouts, crunchy cabbage, a sweet-spicy sauce, and more fresh basil, cilantro, and mint than an herb garden in springtime. The fresh jalapeños and onion are a nice touch too. Of course, it’s hard to beat the Thai Chicken Karaage, which is the Uchi/Uchiko chefs’ version of chicken nuggets on crack: tender chicken bites with a perfect fried crunch and an addicting sweet-and-spicy sauce. Junk food at its fusion finest.
The trailer at the Grackle has a nice menu as well. They were out of pork belly on the day I visited, but that suited me just fine (see above about the profusion of pork belly I’ve polished off in my time). I was happy with the yakitori with rice, an Asian-barbecue chicken thigh with slightly sour pickled cabbage and vegetables served with kewpie mayo and deliciously sticky rice with green onion on top. The pork ribs, though, stole the show. The huge grilled ribs were dry-rubbed and then doused with tare (a sweet Japanese barbecue sauce), then sprinkled with sesame seeds and green onion. I had to fight my friends for the last bits of tender, falling-off-the-bone meat.
Now, what I haven’t mentioned are East Side King’s buns. A twist on the classic Chinese bao, the sticky steamed buns are served at both the original and newest location. But they’re ideal at the idyllic, divey Shangri-La. I liked the “Pho” Buns Au Jus. Kind of like a sandwich, the pillowy bao wraps around all of the fixings for pho: slightly stringy, thinly sliced beef; fresh cilantro and jalapeño, Sriracha, Hoisin sauce, and onion slices, with crispy shallots on top. To top the bun off, you dip the whole thing in wonderfully salty pho broth, the “au jus.”
I wasn’t as much of a fan of the curry tteokbokki. The tteokbokki itself was amazing. A Korean street food described on the menu as a “rice cake,” it resembled very dense, chewy French fries. But the rich curry (with Enoki and king oyster mushrooms) was too gelatinous for my taste. With some refinement, though, this dish could be the Asian answer to Canadian poutine.
When I started this weekly series, East Side King was a six-month-old baby with only one location. The trailer scene itself was well on its way, but it was nothing like what we see today. Now trailers are a living and breathing force in Austin, and more and more of them are driving into Houston, San Antonio, and, hopefully, Dallas.
Don’t think my “epic trailer quest” ends here. There are still too many to try (Mrs. P.’s Electric Cock in Austin, Eatsie Boys in Houston). But carrying the torch for me on Eat My Words will be Jason Cohen and the rest of Texas Monthly’s fine web team. Going forward, you can read my writing in CultureMap Austin, Tribeza (forthcoming in October), and other publications around town. And you can always find me at megangiller.com, or the nearest food trailer.
At the Liberty: 1618 E. 6th. Open 7 days a week, 5 p.m.–1:45 a.m. At the Grackle: 1700 E. 6th (512-422-5884). Open Mon–Sat 5 p.m.–1:45 a.m., Sun noon–1:45 a.m. At the Shangri-La: 1016 E. 6th. Open Mon–Sat 7 p.m.–1:45 a.m. Closed Sun.
Photos of trailer, ribs, and pho buns by Marshall Wright.