“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.