It is a flat grey morning in the district. A line of about thirty people snakes out of a small entryway marked with a bright blue floral logo, a mix of Toki dedicates and in-the-know food fans outfitted in knit caps and leather jackets. We all kick at the snow with the toes of our boots and stare off down a bleak roadway, united by hunger and the knowledge we are going to be waiting a while. Paul Qui, Moto Utsunomiya and Jorge Luis Hernandez of Austin, Texas’s East Side Kings are running a pop-up out of Toki Underground and it goes unsaid that we will shiver in the cold as long as we need to.
As we pass through the threshold and upstairs into Toki, there is a palpable shift in the atmosphere. It’s delightfully warm and loud. A mix of hip-hop and indie rock plays over the speakers competing with the noise from the kitchen, where the boys of East Side Kings are executing orders with fervor. We are ushered to a crowded corner and onto the only available bar stools, which face a large window overlooking the street where I can triumphantly look down on the unfortunates still in line. Shedding layers and stuffing coats wherever we can, we shout an order of one of everything, yes, everything.The orders come out quick and hot. First there are the beef tongue kare kare buns, which we eat with full disregard for their messiness, licking fingers as we go. A bowl of liberty rice comes out alongside the beet home fries, which are deep-fried and served with a kewpie mayo. I have to direct my colleagues to try these immediately because they aren’t going to last long in front of me. Next is the Thai chicken karaage, a deep-fried chicken thigh with sweet-spicy sauce, fresh basil, cilantro, mint, onion and jalapenos. It was the kind of dish where everyone eyes you when you go to take your portion. Luckily my neighbor was pretty committed to the fried Brussels sprout salad: she didn’t even comment when I snagged that last, delectable bite.