Drag King: Paul Qui Takes Over at UT Landmark Hole in the Wall

East Side King’s first bricks-and-mortar kitchen is now bringing beet fries, brussels sprouts, and wild ramen combinations to the legendary dive bar and rock venue. 

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Jason Cohen

“The Hole in the Wall” has always been appropriately named.

An Austin institution for the better part of forty years, it is where the likes of Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith and Lucinda Williams once stood on the cornered stage that backs up to the Drag. Where countless University of Texas students grabbed a beer or greasy burger between classes. Where barflys watched the Astros or the Rangers lose games on a TV mounted in the other corner, then stuck around to either heckle or ignore the bands. Two Nice Girls recorded the crowd noise for their cult classic “I Spent My Last $10 (On Birth Control and Beer)” there. And I spent much of the ’90s there, first as a UT grad student (it was at the Hole in the Wall that one of my professors hit on me–I think), and then as a music fan and journalist. I also met my future wife there, which is why our wedding party happened at the Hole during SXSW 2005. We put down a few bucks for an open bar, and ordered pizza.

If we ever have an anniversary bash, there won’t be any pizza. This past Tuesday marked the birth of a new Hole in the Wall, without changing the old one.

At 9:30 p.m., even as a band sets up in front of seven people at the bar and four more at the tables, the adjacent beer garden and far back room are bustling, with fifty to one hundred people spread out among the picnic benches, indoor booths, pinball machines and foosball table, with a long line creeping past the brand new back door (and all-ages) entrance on San Antonio Street.

Sonic Youth and Black Sabbath blast over the PA as a half-dozen cooks man stations in the kitchen. But there aren’t fish sticks in deep fryer oil, or burgers on the griddle. Instead there’s a water circulator to sous vide pork belly and, beyond the sliding glass door, a walk-in fridge with a 40-gallon pot of ramen broth, made with 32 lbs. of bacon, cooling for the next day. On that glass door is also a markerboard calendar with just two notations: “86 coriander” and “ESK @HITW OPENS @ 11AM!”

Yes, this is the first bricks-and-mortar location for East Side King, the beloved Austin food trailer previously known for its three East 6th St. spots (at the bars Shangri-La, Liberty and Grackle).

On the restaurant floor, a convivial Asian guy in shorts with two-day stubble, black sneakers and no socks, a long sleeved t-shirt and a khaki work cap with a little French flag insignia drops off a paper bowl of ramen from an orange cafeteria tray to one table, then buses plates from several others. This is none other than Paul Qui, Top Chef winner, former Uchiko chef (he’s still a consultant there), and one-half of the original East Side King team along with Moto Utsonomiya (or just “Moto,” Qui likes to joke).

Bringing ESK to Hole in the Wall is the first of three new projects for Qui since he won Top Chef Texas (as well as the Southwest James Beard award) last year. Next up is a flagship restaurant (called Qui), then a stand-alone East Side King in South Austin. Qui’s fiancee, Deana Saukum, and his restaurant group’s new general manager, June Rodil (formerly of Congress), were also there for what turned out be a massive launch: 13 hours of service in what, Qui says, “is basically like a 500-600 seat restaurant.” By the time I got there, they’d gone through 300 bowls of ramen, 100 lbs. of brussels sprouts and 200 lbs. of pork belly. They’d also long ago run out of eggs.

The ESK/HITW marriage came about, Hole in the Wall general manager Alex Livingstone explains, when a friend asked the club’s owner Will Tanner, “if you could have anyone cooking food in your kitchen, who would it be?”

“And he said, ‘Paul Qui, of course. He’s got the greatest food trailer in town,’” Livingstone says. The friend got them together in May, and seven months later, it has actually happened.

“For me, I feel like, it’s an Austin landmark, and I want East Side King to be seen the same way,” says Qui. “Plus it’s the only place on the Drag that hasn’t closed. . . . It feels like everything fails on the Drag.”

A challenge, then?

“No, no, no,” Qui answers. “That’s why I stuck with the place that’s never closed!”

Being on Guadalupe opens up new markets for East Side King, and not just in terms of neighborhood. It’s the only one open for lunch, the only one that isn’t over 21 (though the Grackle trailer sits outside the bar) and the only one where there’s live music–appropriate, considering the food trailers were originally named after the Texas Eastsidekings, an Austin blues band that includes Moto as a member (they’ll play the Hole Saturday night as part of the grand opening).

“I really like that we’re partnered up with an iconic Austin bar that has music,” says Saukum, who does PR and a little bit of everything for ESK (her business card reads “East Side Queen”). “It’s different from what we’re normally doing.”

It’s been a while since I hung out at the Hole with any regularity (in part because I didn’t live in Austin from 2004 to 2011), and yet, the minute I walk in on Tuesday, I see people that I know immediately. In this case: Bobby Nall, who works for SXSW, and his girlfriend Shelley Smith, who’s in marketing for a local video game developer. They are both UT grads who’d come here during their separate college days. 

Tonight, they’ve just finished off a bowl of curry squid ink ramen topped with a homemade siracha bomb (“it was the jam,” Nall says) and also had the “Poor Qui” buns, the fried brussels sprouts salad and the beet home fries–three stalwarts from ESK’s Liberty location.

“What we have every time we’re at Liberty,” Nall said. “Every single time.”

Smith remembers seeing a video interview Qui did shortly after winning Top Chef, when he was in New York City as one of six guest chefs at a pop-up “culinary salon.” The interviewer asked him if, like many in the food business, he dreamt of opening a place in NYC.

“And he was like, ‘Oh, no–but what I’m really excited about is the Hole in the Wall!’” Smith recalled. “He actually said, it’s this dirty dive bar in Austin, and if you haven’t been, you just won’t get it. When I saw that, I was the happiest person.”

Of the “Liberty Classics,” Qui says “I wanted to open with a menu that I was sure of, and then we could change it up later.” They are joined on the menu by a trio of newfangled ramens. In addition to the curry squid ink, there is Sapporo beer, bacon & miso, and chicken tortilla:

It’s not that crazy of a combination, but I was surprised how much I liked biting into noodles and tortilla chips at the same time.

“Mexican and Thai food have a lot in common. just because, they’re on the same lines, they have limes, cilantro, coriander, the same flavors are really big,” Qui says. “They’re both warmer climate countries, and it just made sense to combine those flavors, and then to add the smoke of bacon.”

East Side King food is still essentially drinking food–and ramen, even when made from scratch, poor people and college food. So despite its bougie overtones, it fits in at the Hole, and it isn’t going to change the Hole. Jim Beam is still three bucks. The bathrooms are still dive bar bathrooms, grafittied walls and all. On Tuesday, there was no cover, with the usual metal tip bucket hanging at the front of the stage, the bands playing as pictures of Doug Sahm, Townes Van Zandt and other legends gazed down on them from their place of honor atop the Guadalupe picture window.

Despite one Daily Texan writer’s lament for the old Hole burger, everyone that I talked to is psyched about the change, including members of the Hickoids, who worked, played and drank at the Hole for many years, and another local musician who once cooked Sunday brunches there. (“This probably will work out better for everyone,” he cracked on Facebook.)

“I think this is even more the perfect college bar than it ever has been,” says Ray Colgan, the second familiar face I ran into almost immediately Tuesday. As the longtime frontman of Austin garage-blues-punk band the Crack Pipes, as well as the manager of Antone’s, he’s got a grasp on several different aspects of the Austin music scene. “Because you have a big area where a bunch of college kids drink and a small performance area where poor little bands play, but they actually make decent money, because there’s all those college kids drinking. And now they have really good food. I think that’s awesome.”

We’ve all buried so many Austin institutions in the UT neighborhood–burger-slingers like the GM Steakhouse and Mad Dog and Beans; coffee houses like Captain Quackenbush and Les Amis; the record stores, Inner Sanctum and Sound Exchange; and the rock clubs Raul’s and the Beach–that it’s actually quite special to be able to hold onto one that can accomodate the new Austin while still feeling like old Austin. Because if Hole in the Wall, the Armadillo, Raul’s, and the Beach were what defined Austin in the ‘70s and ‘80s, well . . . like it or not, the food scene has that energy in 2012. The Austin music scene is actually more vibrant than ever in clubs like Hole in the Wall, the White Horse, and Beerland, but it’s also already a cliche to say that opening a food truck is the new Starting a Rock Band.

And so, sometime in 2032, the University of Texas will take on Texas A&M in football (no doubt in the SWEC SuperConference), and today’s students will walk up and down The Drag with their impatient families, wondering where every place they knew in college went. Except: they’ll probably get to order up nostalgic bowls of ramen, and beet home fries . . . . That is, if they haven’t already been eating them at East Side King Dallas, or yes, East Side King New York. 

(For more on Qui and East Side King, read Layne Lynch’s interview with Deana Saukum.)

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