Ekiben shines with its fresh take on Asian fusion in Fells Point

For The Baltimore Sun
Ekiben: From food cart to inventive Fells Point hotspot.

It sounds like the beginning of a sitcom: Three guys meet at college and start cooking together.

Three University of Maryland Baltimore County graduates, who enjoy putting twists on Asian comfort food, turned a hobby into a business, eventually serving their fare at the Fells Point Farmers' Market.

They called their cart Ekiben after the Japanese lunch boxes that are served at railway stations.

Because of an enthusiastic response to their Thai chicken meatball steamed buns and Taiwanese fried chicken, owners Nikhil Yesupriya, Ephrem Abebe and Steve Chu found a small storefront on Eastern Avenue, near Broadway.

They opened a brick-and-mortar Ekiben in March.

"We wanted to be in Fells Point," said Yesupriya. "The community raised us."

The menu is small and posted on a white board behind a counter, where diners order food for carryout or to eat in the 10-seat dining area.

The chicken meatballs and fried chicken are available on a steamed bun or as a rice bowl. A special dish changes. On our visit, it was a cold noodle bowl; another time, pork vindaloo; and, on a recent day, beef brisket.

The owners rely on their native cultures to come up with their dishes. Their backgrounds vary: Yesupriya's is South Indian, Abebe's is Ethiopian and Chu's is Taiwanese.

"We don't know how to describe our comfort food," Yesupriya said. "We cook what we feel like."

For now, they have decided to call it Asian fusion.

Scene & Decor A minimalist dining area gets a tidy treatment with white subway tiles, aluminum counters and wood stools. The tiny space seats 10 with two standup tables. The open kitchen allows diners, who eat in or order carryout, to converse with the congenial owners, who are the cooks. On our visit, Kanye West was pulsing from the sound system.

Appetizers The sides can double as appetizers. We were captivated by the tempura broccoli ($5) with a smidge of sweetness. Red onions gave the addictive nuggets a balancing piquancy. You can add sausage for $1.50.

Entrees Ekiben's signature dish, the Original ($9 on a steamed bun), is a sandwich of note. The pillowy buns house Thai chicken meatballs slathered with coconut sauce and smothered with a delicious papaya slaw. One of the most popular dishes is The Neighborhood Chicken ($12 as a rice bowl), Yesupriya said.

It's a fabulous dish. Two Taiwanese curry fried chicken fillets get a kick from spicy sambal mayo and pickled Napa cabbage. Other vegetables vary, depending on the cooks' whim. We enjoyed chunks of pickled daikon radishes with our bird. We also savored the special of the day — a bowl of cold noodles ($14). The pasta, entwined with a sesame-seed tahini broth, was very good, especially with crispy chicken (you can also get tofu) on the side.

Drinks Complimentary water is offered from a cooler. Diners can also purchase $2 cans of Japanese unsweetened green tea, herbal tea, white grape juice or a milk-coffee beverage.

Service Customers order at a counter. One of the kitchen staff will bring your meal to you on a tray in takeout containers.

Dessert None available.

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Backstory: The owners — Nikhil Yesupriya, Ephrem Abebe and Steve Chu — met as students at UMBC and began cooking together. A couple of years after graduation, the three men started offering their Asian fusion food under the name Ekiben from a food cart at the Fells Point Farmers' Market. They realized their dream of opening a brick-and-mortar location in March.

Signature dish: The Thai chicken meatball steamed-bun sandwich

TVs: No TVs

Where: 1622 Eastern Ave., Fells Point

Contact: 410-558-1914, ekibenbaltimore.com

Open: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday

Credit cards: All major except American Express

Reservations: Not accepted

Bottom line: This small eatery is filled with good vibes and food. Don't miss the wonderful Asian fusion cuisine the creative owners are serving.