The second time Steve Chu, 56, visited his son’s tiny Fells Point Restaurant, Ekiben, he bit into the fried chicken sandwich.
It tasted too salty.
Chu runs his own successful restaurant, and he advised his son, also named Steve Chu, to cut back on the salt. “Otherwise, you’re going to finish your business.”
Nearly four years later, that sandwich has become one of the most beloved dishes in Baltimore, winning national recognition from outlets like Buzzfeed and Travel & Leisure. A second Ekiben location opened in Hampden in February, drawing huge crowds who waited in the rain to be the first to snag a free sandwich from the small alleyway shop.
Steve Chu, 29, who started the company with friends Ephrem Abebe and Nikhil Yesupriya, serves Taiwanese-influenced cuisine in a fast casual environment. The younger Chu makes sandwiches for a blue-collar city, meals that can be eaten on the go, and that keep diners full and nourished. He grew up immersed in cooking and restaurants, at his father’s side. Their relationship has influenced much of the younger chef’s journey.
Steve did not have his great work ethic when he began helping out at his father’s Pikesville restaurant, Jumbo Seafood, where he is now and forever will be known as “Junior.” Perhaps that was because it was summer vacation and Steve was in middle school.
“Any 8-year-old does not want to spend their summers working at all, period,” Steve said, sitting in his Fells Point restaurant recently with his dad.
After his parents divorced when he was 2, the younger Steve moved to Montgomery County to live with his mom. Papa Chu came weekly to see him. Those visits revolved around food. Often, it was a stop at a Chinese restaurant or Old Country Buffet, a place both father and son respect for its consistency.
As Steve got older, he’d pick new restaurants for him and his dad to try. The bombs were more memorable than the hits. They vividly remember the rude service at one restaurant, or the overpriced fondue at another, where they spent $100 for four pieces of bread, two pieces of cheese and a lobster tail split in half. Steve digested his father’s criticisms along with the food.
“All they have to do is put a little bit more care into this food and it would be so much better,” younger Steve would tell himself during such meals. “I can do better.”
From his father, he learned to cook with heart. “You have to cook with love,” Papa Chu said. “You angry? Your food not going to taste good. You have to cook with your feeling and your love. Like a mommy cooking for her kids. It always good.”
One of the best meals they shared during that time was at Jumbo Seafood, in the morning hours before the restaurant opened. With the lights out in the dining room, they shared unseasoned congee, or porridge, topped with a fried egg and some soy sauce. “It was just him and I at the restaurant,” Steve said, savoring the memory of that quiet time alone with his dad.
At age 13, Steve got his hands on a copy of “Kitchen Confidential," Anthony Bourdain’s gritty memoir of a chef’s life. "It was very romanticized. I thought this is great, I can totally do this with my life, maybe except for all the drugs and alcohol,” Steve said. When he brought it up to his dad, Papa Chu was enthusiastic — maybe too enthusiastic. He told Steve to drop out of school to follow his dreams.
“Did I say that?” Papa Chu asked, with a hearty chuckle, during one interview.
“Yeah, you did,” Steve told him. The idea made sense to Papa Chu, who had hated school and dropped out at 16 to begin his career in restaurants. He did time as a cook in the Taiwanese military — one time working 48 hours straight with no sleep — before moving to the U.S.
Steve’s mom quickly nixed any plans of dropping out. He would go on to study economics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. But much of his education happened outside the classroom. On weekends, he scrubbed toilets at Chipotle and put in grueling hours at ShopHouse, a fast-casual concept in Washington.
After graduating, he moved in with his dad and helped out at the restaurant. Tensions rose as Steve began offering suggestions for Jumbo Seafood that his dad wasn’t willing to take. On top of that, he showed up late to work every day.
At the urging of family members, Steve offered to take over his dad’s restaurant. “In the Asian culture, that’s kind of like the thing, right?" Steve said.
Papa Chu didn’t think it was a good idea. "I said, ‘I’m not gonna give it to you.’ Because you know why? He always sleeping. ... Everybody working, he’s still sleeping.” He erupted in laughter.
But Papa Chu also knew there were limits to the business model at the traditional Chinese kitchen, with its long roster of dishes and demands for consistency. "I tell him, ‘I want you to do something simple, easy ... like Chipotle.’” Doing something like that, he figured his son might be able to serve as many as 1,000 customers a day.
Steve held other jobs in those days: waiting tables at Roland Park’s Petit Louis — undergoing training so rigid and disciplined, he says, it was “like a semester in college crammed into three weeks.” He later was a line cook at New York City’s Kin Shop, where his first order was for James Beard Award-winning chef Andrew Carmellini. Like his father, he learned to perform under pressure.
A few months after Steve arrived in New York, Papa Chu’s own father became seriously ill. Steve came home again to help out at the restaurant while Papa Chu tended to his own ailing father.
After his time in New York, Steve was hungry for a new challenge. He was still general manager at Jumbo Seafood when he, Abebe and Yesupriya came up with the idea of selling sandwiches from a hot dog cart. They called their business Ekiben after a boxed meal sold on trains in East Asia.
After the hot dog cart was delivered, Steve tried storing it in his father’s Pikesville garage. When Papa Chu protested, Steve offered the example of pizza empire Papa John’s, which John Schnatter started in a closet of his father’s restaurant.
“I said, ‘Your daddy is not Papa John,’ ” the elder Chu recalled with a laugh. "Your daddy is Papa Chu.”
However, Papa Chu did let them use the Jumbo Seafood kitchen to prep, once the dinner service had ended for the evening.
In the early days, business was abysmal. Customers at the Fells Point farmers market where they parked the hot dog cart were often limited to Papa Chu and other family members. And even they weren’t always fans.
On one visit, Papa Chu ordered a chicken meatball sandwich and a Thai iced tea. After one bite, he told his son: “I’m gonna die, this is so sweet," he said. "This is a very bad combination. ... I cannot eat it.”
Undeterred, Steve began handing out samples with a hustle — he’s not afraid to say aggression — the same approach he had seen from vendors at the night markets in Taipei on trips to his parents’ homeland. “We were very stubborn," he said. In time, Ekiben cultivated a loyal following of Baltimore customers who would make it one of the most recognizable names in the city.
Key to the early success is the sandwich that Papa Chu advised him on. One week after he first tasted it, when he tried it again he discovered his son had listened. “The flavor is perfect,” Papa Chu said.
As evidence of Papa Chu’s support, he recently cashed in his Under Armor stock and invested the money in his son’s Hampden location.
On a recent afternoon in the midst of a downpour, Papa Chu stopped by the Fells Point shop in between running errands for his own restaurant. Before leaving, Steve offered to make him a sandwich. Even now, Steve feels some anxiety as his father takes his first bite. Will he like it?
His father happily devoured it, then ran off into the rain.
Baltimore’s famous sandwich
At a time when chicken sandwiches are a national obsession, Ekiben’s neighborhood bird manages to inspire even greater — and perhaps longer-lasting — enthusiasm.
Served in a sweet, steamed mantou bun or bao, the Neighborhood Bird was a last minute addition to the menu when Ekiben opened its first brick-and-mortar shop in Fells Point. The spicy version gets its heat from a dusting of a red spice blend, similar to mitmita, that Steve’s business partner Ephrem Abebe imports to U.S. from Ethiopia. To Steve, it represents the essence of Ekiben — a multicultural mix that, above all, tastes amazing.
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“We don’t really try to adhere to tradition,” Steve said. “We just want to make delicious food and make people happy.”