Foodies Paul Qui and Deana Saukam take a whirlwind tour of their selections of the best food trucks in town.
Paul Qui and Deana Saukam are accustomed to life in the fast lane. Including East Side King, Qui’s chain of Asian street food-inspired trucks, and his eponymous fine-dining establishment, the two Austinites have opened five eateries in just three years, and their popular Austin empire is still growing. Upcoming plans include a brick-and-mortar East Side King Thai Kun at The Domain, a new restaurant concept at South Congress Hotel, and pop-up restaurants around the world, including an East Side King in Singapore opening this April.
As they continue to expand, the media devour their every move. Qui—who is a Top Chef champion, James Beard Award winner, and Esquire’s 2014 Chef of the Year—has done much to put Austin on the culinary map. But if there is a single person who has helped him do so, it’s Saukam. Currently serving as the restaurant group’s PR, media, and events director, she has been with Qui since his days in the kitchen at Uchi, and has provided a delicate balance of love and professional support for the better part of a decade.
We followed the duo through a typical frenzied day on the town, the results of which were a gastronomic marathon—26 courses in all—spanning three food trucks.
[First stop: the modest Las Trancas food truck, where tacos start at $1.50 each.]
Paul Qui: This whole part of East Austin is blowing up. We started coming here because it was on the way home from Qui and still open at midnight. No one used to come here, and now look at this lunch rush.
[The window attendant calls Qui over to the truck to pick up their order: eight kinds of tacos—carne asada to lengua—the Hawaiiana torta, and a quesadilla trepas cooked extra crispy.]
Deana Saukam: What are you doing this afternoon? PQ: I’m doing this thing for Matt Duckor at Epicurious. It’s a story about what chefs will spend their $50 on at a restaurant-supply place, so I’m going to Ace Mart to buy $50 worth of stuff. DS: Sounds good; just don’t forget to do your Austin Food & Wine Festival thing for me. I need to know by today which two recipes you want to demo. I’m going to head to Qui for a meeting and then jump on a couple of calls to figure things out for our trips to Dallas this weekend and New York next week.
[A few hours later, Saukam and Qui merge at East Side King Thai Kun. The food truck—a collaboration between Qui, Thai Changthong, and Motoyasu Utsunomiya–relocated in early 2015 to East Austin cocktail haven Whisler’s. The duo orders one of everything on the menu.]
DS: People don’t think I can eat as much as I say I do, but I’m not making it up! PQ: Usually if I order from Thai Kun to go, I get two orders of khao man gai and two orders of chicken fat rice for myself. But I really need five orders of rice to get through it—it’s hot, even for me.
[Saukam picks up a tray of some of their orders including the beef panang curry and the day’s special, issan sausage—grilled, fermented pork sausage served with cold raw cabbage, mixed herbs, fresh ginger, and raw fresh Thai chile.]
DS: It burns! This one is my favorite—I like the back burn. PQ: Eat the sausage with a raw piece of basil and cabbage, and then a bite of chile. The reason why we started putting a fried egg on things like the panang is, one, because it’s traditional, but two, it cools down the curry.
[After an informal meeting with the staff, they head to Patrizi’s for dinner. Co-owner Nic Patrizi greets them outside his namesake food truck, which opened last year in homage to his family’s 50-year-old legendary Italian restaurant of the same name in Beaumont.]
DS: I’m so excited to try your food—we’ve never been here, but we’re already big fans. I signed up for your monthly dinners, but I had to cancel because our schedule changed. What you guys are doing here is so awesome.
[A waiter brings out the dishes. Fresh homemade pasta is cooked to order; the carbonara Alexandra is made with coddled egg, bacon, onions, and grana.]
Nic Patrizi: We cook the pasta for about 20 seconds. We do almost everything from scratch—we make the ricotta in-house daily; we infuse our own oils with garden herbs from the back. How are the salt levels in the carbonara? PQ: Perfect. DS: It’s so good—it’s my favorite dish tonight, actually. It’s hard to find good homemade pasta in Texas.
[Satiated, the two return to Qui, a $2 million project nearing its two-year anniversary in June. The chef repairs a broken ice machine while Saukam unwinds at the bar with friends over a bottle of Jansz sparkling brut rosé.]
DS: I feel like we’re babies, trying to learn from everyone we meet, because it happened so fast for us. But I’ve always felt like Paul is a culinary genius. He’s got a gift. If there’s anything I can do to help him use it, then I’ll do it.