Not-So-Starving Artists: Fells Point’s Ekiben Restaurant
By Miriam DesHarnais
Sometimes a restaurant completely nails it from day one. Ekiben in Fells Point is such a place.
Admittedly its owners had some practice, including serving their succulent fare at the Fells Point Farmers market for two years and popping up at other foodie destinations around town. Their motto is “Three guys sharing the Asian food we love with the city we love.” That love shows in Ekiben’s attention to detail.
The menu is small, so that everything on it can be done just right. Each day’s offerings are posted online (via Facebook and Instagram); Ekiben’s social media-centered approach to web presence wouldn’t work so well if their food were not so eminently camera-ready. Satisfied eaters want to share the love. On several recent visits it’s seemed that the majority of diners paused to snap a shot of their meal before digging in.
So what’s on the menu? Tempura broccoli is a mainstay; so good I can picture even the most serious broccoli hater being won over. “It’s like broccoli candy!” a friend enthused between bites.
If that sounds weird picture this: nice fresh broccoli, chopped smallish, in light, non-greasy batter, dressed in what tastes like a bit of sweet vinegar (mirin?) and covered with tiny pieces of pickled sweet onion and slivers of fresh herbs. It’s the least heavy fried dish I’ve ever tried.
The Neighborhood Bird ($9 on a bun, $12 in a rice box) is Taiwanese curry fried chicken with sambal mayo and cucumbers. In the bun version of the dish a soft white steamed bun is split to accommodate a generous portion of ultra hot, perfectly done, crispy pieces of boneless chicken. The curry flavor is subtle and satisfying, set off by the snappy and sweet pickled veggies and a hint of heat from the mayo. You have to really dedicate yourself to eating it. It’s both physically hard to get the sandwich in your mouth, and a fully immersive eating experience.
For all of the bun version’s merit, I’m a fan of ordering a box and splitting it. The box meal takes the same components of fried chicken, cucumber and sambal mayo, and gives them a perfect bed of rice to soak into, plus some additional pickled vegetables to lounge beside. This approach also allows one more room to try other menu items, such as a dessert special offered earlier this summer, a “shortcake” consisting of strawberries with a little balsamic and black pepper, slathered in whipped cream stuffed inside a pillowy steamed bun.
Vegetarian pals, be not afraid, the Tofu Brah (crispy tofu, spicy peanut sauce, papaya slaw and herbs at same pricing as above) appears to be a menu regular as well. At Artscape this July Ekiben was serving up The Original (Thai chicken meatballs) and The Maryland (steamed shrimp, Old Bay aioli, tropical slaw).
Although normally I’m not one to buy street seafood, except from The Local Oyster, The Maryland turned out to be a refreshing and fairly classic version of shrimp salad. I’d asked after The Neighborhood Bird and they explained that it wasn’t a fit for the way they needed to work for the festival, and they didn’t want to serve an inferior version of the dish.
This is part of what I like about Ekiben: they’re sensible. I know sense is a funny quality to praise in a restaurant, but it’s one of the things you need to make a meal feel effortless for your diners.
At least one of the three owners comes from a restaurant family (Jumbo Seafood in Pikesville, whose General Tso’s is no slouch itself in terms of crispy chicken). I suspect this influence is one of the factors in this relative newcomer’s sure-footedness.
Twice I’ve brought buddies who were feeling down to eat at Ekiben. Even on a hot day, the friendly service, clean white tiled walls, and upbeat hip hop set the stage for bad moods to be budged. Once the food arrives, well, it’s all over but the munching.
Author Miriam DesHarnais has lived in Baltimore since 2002 and is passionate about exploring tucked-away spots to find food that is satisfying on all levels. She loves the podcast Undisclosed and borrowing audiobooks for free from the public library.
1622 Eastern Avenue
Baltimore, MD 21231
More info can be found here: www.facebook.com/EkibenBaltimore/
Photos by Miriam DesHarnais and courtesy of Ekiben