The Team Players

By Jane Marion

Photography by Scott Suchman

Illustrations by JORDAN AMY LEE

The Tastemakers

The Tastemakers: Steve Chu & Ephrem Abebe

The most influential movers and shakers on Charm City's Hospitality scene.

By Jane Marion

or Steve Chu and Ephrem Abebe, Ekiben’s story begins in 2014, with some chicken meatballs coated in coconut peppercorn sauce and swaddled in bao buns sold out of a scrappy hot-dog cart at the Fells Point Farmers Market. Before long, in a city that had never seen a proper bao, they quickly developed a cult following. In 2016, they opened their first brick-and-mortar business, a speck-of-a-spot on nearby Eastern Avenue, with an expanded menu of inventively trendy items like the “tofu brah” in spicy peanut sauce and a “tackle box” of crispy catfish over rice—and the city’s first localized fast-casual restaurant was born. In 2020, another spot in Hampden followed, and then yet a third in Riverside in 2022.

Exactly what was the driving force for Chu, 32, and Abebe, 35, to go into hospitality? “It’s an honorable profession in a world where people put up a lot of smoke and mirrors,” says the first-generation Chu, whose grandmother was in the restaurant business in Taiwan and whose dad owns Jumbo Seafood in Pikesville. “You can’t lie about the food or the quality of your product. Our food is really a reflection of who we are as people.”

The amiable entrepreneurs, who don T-shirts and baseball caps in their dining establishments, circulate cheeky memes on Instagram, and could easily be confused for students at UMBC (where they first met in 2008), were not seeking fortune or fame when they opened Ekiben. Their renown just happened, though in retrospect, it’s easy to wonder how fusion fare this delicious and a duo this likable could not steal the spotlight. Their best-selling buns, including the “Neighborhood Bird,” a Taiwanese curried chicken thigh topped with spicy sambal mayo, is one of Baltimore’s simplest pleasures. Neither can say for certain how many buns they sell a day, but Chu is quick to joke: “We make sandwiches for a living—we can’t really count that high.”

Not that they’re counting, but the awards keep racking up, too: They’ve gotten shout-outs in Vogue, Travel & Leisure, and Eater, in addition to twice landing on Yelp’s coveted list of top 100 restaurants in the U.S. In 2021, when they famously drove from Baltimore to Vermont to cook broccoli tempura for a longtime customer with terminal cancer, they garnered national press, somehow becoming even more beloved. Of course, the ever-humble duo was not motivated by publicity. In fact, Abebe says he wishes it had stayed on the down-low. “It would have been wrong not to feed someone who was an integral part of when we started, who remembers coming here and just wanted the broccoli,” he says of their six-hour sojourn north.

Despite their best efforts to stay grounded, the attention keeps coming, like Chu’s James Beard nomination this year for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. When he shared the news with his young staff, however, they were unfazed. “They were like, ‘Okay, cool, who is James Beard?’” he says with a laugh.

In Baltimore, nice guys can finish first.

The Torchbearers

David & Tonya

The Showmen

Alex & Eric Smith

The Sober Ambassador

Ashish Alfred

The Community Activists

Mera Kitchen

The Crab Queen

Nancy Devine

The Team Players

Steve Chu &
Ephrem Abebe

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