AUSTIN, Texas — Nestled between taquerias and rundown hipster bars is a stark white cube with a line of young professionals curling around it. The restaurant Qui doesn’t accept reservations so out-of-towners and Austinites brave 100-degree weather and wait times of up to two hours.
Onto the parched landscape of central Texas, restaurateur Paul Qui has introduced the vernacular of Asian street food to everyday menus. Now dishes like chicken karaage and pork belly ramen seem to be as common as barbacoa and burnt ends. But with the opening of Qui (pronounced “key”), the chef’s signature restaurant, he combines the skill of his Japanese training with the homeyness of his two grandmothers’ Filipino kitchens. The “Top Chef: Texas” winner has made modern Asian fare the new flavor of Austin.
Along with his work at Uchiko, for which he won a James Beard Award, Qui became known for his East Side King trucks (he has two now, along with one brick and mortar and another on the way), painted with the artwork of Queens-based Japanese punk artist Peelander Yellow, typically in garish hues of purple or pink. But inside his new restaurant everything is more subdued, including white-on-white artwork and Kreeger Pottery plates (former Cape Cod craft gallery owner Keith Kreeger now lives in Austin). Indie standards bellow from the sound system and patrons mill about the bar, which was fashioned from a dying pecan tree previously growing through the center of the building. The chef worked closely with local artists to create plates, aprons, and fixtures.
Qui studied design at the University of Houston and abandoned that just shy of graduating. “One of the reasons I left Houston was for culinary school,” says Qui, who had fallen in love with Japanese cuisine while serving at a sushi restaurant. “But the other part of it was that I was getting into way too much trouble.” In a “Top Chef” episode, there was a cutaway to Qui casually mentioning his years of dealing hard drugs.
It might be obvious to compare Paul Qui to Los Angeles’s Roy Choi, who had a similar background of hard living and went on to open Kogi BBQ truck in 2008, at the forefront of the food truck scene. Qui wasn’t far behind, with East Side King in 2009 in the back of Liberty Bar, just a block away from his new flagship restaurant. You might also look to Momofuku’s David Chang for comparison, the influential New York restaurateur who instigated America’s craving for late-night, Asian-inspired food laden with fish sauce and chilies.
Fews chefs can match Qui’s brisk ascendency into the culinary spotlight. After signing up for Le Cordon Bleu in Austin, Qui was invited to apprentice under owner and respected sushi master Tyson Cole at Uchi, even though the student had no kitchen experience. Within a year, Qui started to rise. By 2008, Cole was looking to open a second restaurant — eventually named Uchiko — just to keep Qui motivated with a menu of his own. Philip Speer, culinary director of Uchi Restaurants in Texas, worked alongside Qui. “Paul is sort of an anomaly,” says Speer. “It was amazing how natural he was.” Speer also describes Qui as “hyper” and “scatterbrained at times.”
It was through Cole that Qui appeared on “Top Chef: Texas.” The restaurateur turned down a spot on the show and instead encouraged Qui to compete in his place. He was so confident in his protege that even before filming ended, Cole was mentally preparing for Qui’s departure from the Uchi group. Qui spent less than a month at Uchiko after he won on “Top Chef,” and when he was between restaurants, he won a James Beard Award for best chef in the Southwest.
With the “Top Chef” prize money, Qui traveled with his fiancee, Deana Saukam, stopping in Central Mexico (he fell in love with spit-grilled al pastor pork) and in Vietnam, where he went fishing on anchovy boats and discovered the crystalline by-product of fish sauce, which he uses as a condiment at Qui.
Earlier in the summer, the Qui menu included chawanmushi, a Japanese steamed egg custard with Texas corn and poached Gulf shrimp; it’s a specialty he made on “Top Chef.” There was also a thinly sliced smoked pork loin with a fat cap that melted like good pastrami. And something called “salmon butter,” olive oil-poached King salmon with a consistency delicate enough to spread on wafers along with salmon roe and caviar. But the standout was dry-aged Wagyu beef tartare, prepared in a traditional Filipino method with dense layers of spice and egg yolk creaminess.
As Qui expands and keeps adding new items to the menu, he doesn’t have the nurturing support system that he had earlier in his career at Uchi. Cole says, “Paul was like a son to me; it’s like a child leaving the nest. He has to make his own mistakes, but I know he’ll do well. He’s the best chef I’ve ever worked with.”
Qui, 1600 East 6th St., Austin, Texas., 512-436-9626,www.quiaustin.com
East Side King Hole in the Wall (restaurant), 2538 Guadalupe, Austin, 512-302-1470, www.eskaustin.com
East Side King at the Liberty (truck), 1618½ East 6th St., Austin, 512-422-5884, www.eskaustin.com
East Side King at the Grackle (truck), 1700 East 6th St.,
Austin, 512-422-5884, www.eskaustin.com
Christopher Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.