LISTEN UP Y'ALL. THIS IS IMPORTANT BELOW. I GOT SOME THINGS TO SAY ABOUT EKIBEN.
Those of you that love Ekiben will recognize the all caps nature of the way they announce themselves on social media. It's bold, playful and hip which is also a good way to describe their food. I've eaten at Ekiben more times than I can count. I've gone to their pop-ups (Défie Moi) , their collab at Bad Decisions, ordered a ton of buns for a board meeting lunch and even gone when I didn't take any pictures (gasp). I keep going back because the food never gets tired and is always delicious. But, the main reason I keep going back is because these boys are just getting started on something great and I want to be along for the ride.
The space at Ekiben reminds me of the first time I ever went to Momofuku Noodle Bar way back in 2007. it was a small narrow space with maybe 20 seats. Those David Chang buns were a revelation to me that the simple cuisine of my youth could be taken to new levels. Momofuku's ramen had the same effect and even though the space at Noodle Bar has made way for Ko (I think) and Momofuku is now a global empire with awards galore, I still just remember the small little bun & ramen shop where it all started.
The tone of Ekiben's social media and the brashness of the dudes running it is akin to Baohaus and Eddie Huang. Names like the Chairman Bao, Birdhouse Bao, and the Uncle Jesse Bao remind me of how Ekiben playfully names each of their buns. Baohaus may not have taken off to the heights of Momofuku but those buns are still damn good. It's definitely one of my go-to's if I find myself hungry and on the Lower East Side late at night or early in the morning which, thankfully, hasn't happened in a few years (thankfully not because I haven't gone to Baohaus but I'm getting old for the LES at 2am).
What Ekiben may remind me off the most is Num Pang. It's not necessarily because of the space but more of the food. Num Pang does killer Banh Mi's without calling them Banh Mi's. They all have pickled carrots, cilantro, etc..on some slammin', crusty french bread so you can identify them as something you'd recognize as a Banh Mi. But, these dudes elevate their sandwiches big time from the Pork Belly to the Tiger Shrimp to the Meatballs. The flavors scream that this is so much more than the sammies you're used to and yet still enhance that memory of taste you come to expect.
So, why am I talking about all these other places when I should be talking about Ekiben? Well...it's because all these other places are New York City. The type of city that embraces, celebrates and indulges in every type of cuisine. All these places started with a simple street food concept and made it their own, made it accessible and made it delicious because of technique, experimentation with spices, and with a disdain for the heavy handedness that's found in lots of late night street food places. What's different about Ekiben is that it's in Baltimore. Don't get me wrong, Baltimore has really grown as a restaurant town over the past decade or so. But, in my time here (and that's not just the last few months), a place like this has never thrived. A place with the combination of hipness, great food and accessibility. What's great is that it's not just some niche sandwich shop, it's being embraced and celebrated even though most people from Baltimore aren't necessarily familiar with this type of food. All these things, are good signs for Ekiben but also that Baltimore is really becoming a food town.
OH. HOW ABOUT THE FOOD THEN?
Okay, there's so many great choices and I'm pretty sure I've had them all. The Neighborhood Bird isn't their first bun but it will be the dish you fall in love with. When you first get it, it looks like an impossibly big piece of Taiwanese (right?) or Korean or something style fried chicken that you think may take you a few meals to finish off. But, minutes later, you'll be left wondering where it went. It's crispy, juicy and pairs well with the pickled veggies. The Original is my go-to when I want a bit of a different texture. A good sense of asian flavors drenched in a chicken meatball. The Spicy Bird is a rare occurrence that you need to take advantage of when you see it on the menu. It's the Neighborhood Bird but with the volume turned up with African spices (harissa is one I believe). The Big Moo is the brisket choice which gives a nice smoky, fatty, beefy flavor to the buns. Even the veggie option, The Tofu Brah, is ridiculous. Crispy fried tofu set against those toppings. The Fat Bowl gives you a cold zesty noodle option that you mix in with pieces of fried chicken. They can make ramen, they've served a collab sausage, and maybe they'll do that dessert bun again someday. I would recommend always getting the bun option. That bun! It's so silky and sweet that it's texture and flavor help offset anything put in between it.
Now, I'm not saying that Stevie Chu and his boys are the next David Chang. I'm just saying that Ekiben is not only a litmus test for Baltimore as a town that embraces all kinds of great cuisine but it's also just the beginning for these guys. They seem tireless, ultra-creative and are devoted to being part of and helping the community of Baltimore. My stomach and me can't wait to see what's next.
Ekiben, 1622 Eastern Avenue, Baltimore, MD, 410.558.1914