Food & Drink
How Ekiben Went From a Modest Start-Up to the Toast of the Town
The Asian fusion spot has become known, not only for its legendary steamed buns, but also for uniting the community.
As the pounding beat from a hip-hop heavy playlist fills the room, the Ekiben team gets to work: Chicken gets dropped in the deep fryer, broccoli is battered, and the kitchen staff hustles at the line, piling pork shoulder and mango-papaya slaw into cardboard containers scrawled with a handdrawn heart and the words, “Thank you! Ekiben Fam.” The pulsing music sets the tone, and the air is electric with energy, as the mostly young staff steadily works to fill orders for steamed bun sandwiches and rice bowls brimming with Thai chicken meatballs or tofu in spicy peanut sauce.
By nightfall, beneath the black-and-white awning at the Hampden eatery’s entrance, the line continues to grow, and not just because COVID-19 has forced the spot to allow only one customer inside at a time. Beginning at 11 a.m., when the lunch shift starts, the joint is jumping. And by night’s end, some hundreds of Neighborhood Bird sandwiches—that is, Ekiben’s legendary Taiwanese curried chicken on a steamed bun—will fly past the vestibule plastered with manga and out the double glass doors. Of course, an equivalent scene is also unfolding at the Ekiben in Fells Point, the first brick-and-mortar location of this Asian-fusion street food spot that opened on Eastern Avenue in 2016.
This second location of Ekiben opened in February 2020, on a scrappy, off-the-beaten-path alley in Hampden just weeks before the pandemic hit, though that hasn’t stopped patrons from finding it. And while the past year has led to a major loss of revenue from their sizeable events business—some 172 catering gigs were canceled in 2020 alone—the nightly takeout grind at both locations has largely stayed steady, in part because Ekiben was already geared toward grab-and-go.
“It took eight months to build in Hampden what took us five years to build in Fells Point,” says Steve Chu, who co-owns Ekiben with his college friend Ephrem Abebe. “It’s kind of crazy.”
Since the opening of the original space, the restaurant has earned praise from Travel & Leisure, Vogue, and Eater, in addition to landing a spot on Yelp’s coveted list of top 100 restaurants in the United States and being named a Rising Star by StarChefs D.C.-Chesapeake. And while Chu says the national recognition is great, it’s the locals who keep the place going. “I’ve come here once a week since it opened,” says Hampden resident Jeff Crumb. “Every time we get it, the food is consistently great.”
“This all comes from the support of the city and the people who live here,” says Abebe, 31, who oversees operations, while Chu serves as chef/CFO/marketing maven—“basically, everything else,” says Chu. “Baltimore is a true blue-collar city and likes seeing the success of small-time businesses and people growing and grinding it out. We get tourists coming in, but it’s the people two doors down who are sustaining us. The community has allowed us to get to this point.”
Case in point: Baltimore resident Tony Trapp was a customer long before he started working at the Ekiben in Fells Point three years ago. “I loved the food,” says Trapp, who is now a manager at the Hampden location. “But I also love working here—everyone here is like family.”
In fact, the culturally diverse staff, hailing from all over the world—the Philippines, Mexico, Honduras, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, China, Korea, Taiwan—refers to Chu and Abebe as “mom” and “dad,” respectively. “I guess I’m dad because my jokes are like dad jokes,” says Abebe, who is a dad to a toddler boy. “And Steve is super nurturing and helpful. He’s always there for you and gives good advice.”
Chu’s own dad, who immigrated from Taiwan in the ’70s and opened Pikesville’s Jumbo Seafood in 1993, practically raised his only son in the Chinese food restaurant, though, Chu, whose parents were divorced by the time he was 2, hated hanging out there.
“When you’re an immigrant running a restaurant, you definitely can’t afford childcare,” says Chu, whose uncle also owns a restaurant, Sonny Lee’s in Reisterstown. “I hated going to the restaurant because I didn’t have anything to do. I would roll glasses off the table until a busser told me to stop or my dad would stick me in his office, which is smaller than Harry Potter’s closet. During dinner service, my dad would tell me to lay down and go to sleep and I’d have a tablecloth as blankets, which were starched and very cold. And, once in a while, he’d open the door and all of this light would come rushing in and he’d drop this big plate of food that no 4-year-old could ever finish, and I’d eat in the dark because I couldn’t reach the light switch.”
But reading Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential at the ripe old age of 13 gave him a new perspective. “I was like, ‘I think I can do this, minus the hard drugs,’” cracks the 30-year-old Chu. “That book convinced me that it was going to be a fun ride.”
“RUNNING A RESTAURANT IS LIKE PUTTING ON A SHOW FOR YOUR CLIENTELE,” SAYS STEVE CHU.
In the meantime, Chu’s dad put his growing son to work at Jumbo Seafood, running paper ticket orders to the kitchen, working the register, and answering the phones throughout his teen years. “At 14, I was awkward and chubby, and shy,” says Chu. “I didn’t want to be talking to people. I hated it, because I wasn’t learning anything. I was like, ‘I don’t f**king want to be here.’ It was awful.”
When Chu reminisces about his past, it’s clear that those years spent at Jumbo were formative. And though he tells it with a sense of humor, and peppers his stories with expletives, the pain is still palpable, as he recounts facing an age-old issue—the tug between putting family first versus the desire to chase one’s own dreams.
By the time he attended University of Maryland Baltimore County in 2008, he was majoring in economics and contemplating a career in law or teaching economics. Instead, he had an epiphany. “I realized that I loved restaurants,” he says. “I love going to them. That’s kind of like my theater. Running a restaurant is like putting on a show for your clientele. This business is so labor-intensive, I figured I’d do it while I still had the energy.”
It was also at UMBC where he met Abebe and Nick Yesupriya, a third Ekiben founder who has since left the business, while working for Habitat for Humanity. The trio shared a dream about opening a restaurant together, though it was Chu who really put himself on the path to pursue a career in hospitality.
“It pissed my family off so much,” says Chu, who landed a job as a line cook at Chipotle Mexican Grill his junior year. “The whole idea behind going to college is you are learning skills to take you to a higher-paying job. In our family, if you’re studying economics, you’d better go into banking or doing something white collar, not graduating with college debt and making nine dollars an hour at Chipotle, which is what I did—they were so mad.”
While still at UMBC, he became obsessed with not only working at Chipotle, but reflecting on why it was such a success story. “It was just all the flavor profiles. The rice was delicious, the smokiness of the chicken, how the sour cream balances out all the heaviness but still adds fat to it, having that romaine lettuce in there instead of iceberg—all the things they did there was pretty life-changing,” says Chu. “What Chipotle showed me was that Americans are ready for this food culture revolution. I don’t have to go get prime rib if I want a good meal.”
By his senior year, Chu had landed a job at ShopHouse, a Southeast Asian spinoff concept by Chipotle founder Steve Ells. At ShopHouse, he worked alongside luminary chefs such as the Michelin-starred Kyle Connaughton and James Beard Award-winning Nate Appleman. “I was head toilet-scrubber and mop lord,” he says with a laugh. “Eventually, they brought me up to management.” But the killer commute from his dad’s home in Reisterstown to D.C. led him to quit after a year.
In 2013, Chu was working as a server at Petit Louis, which he says was one of the most formative restaurant experiences he’s ever had. From the maître d’ Patrick Del Valle, he learned “intense attention to detail and taking care of every guest who walks in the door,” he says. “Patrick and [then] sommelier John Kelley also taught me how to taste.”
At Louis, Chu also learned that not every chef communicated by screaming. “Every chef I ever worked for prior to going to Louis was fire and brimstone,” he says. “My dad was fiery—if the delivery guys were late, he’d shout obscene things. But Ben Lefenfeld [the chef at the time, who is now the owner of La Cuchara] was the calmest chef I’ve ever met. I never saw him yell at anyone, and if he got really mad, he’d get really quiet and you could see it on his face. I had a lot of respect for that.”
After only a few months, Chu reluctantly quit when his father’s manager fell ill and he was needed back at Jumbo. Once the crisis was resolved, he applied for restaurant jobs in New York and got a coveted gig as a line cook at Kin Shop, a Greenwich Village restaurant owned by Harold Dieterle, a Top Chef winner from season one. It was his dream job, but once again, family duty beckoned when his grandparents both got sick and he came back to Maryland to help his father with the business. When things settled down, he had the itch to pursue his own dreams.
“I wanted to have a creative outlet, but Jumbo wasn’t the right place for that.” He reached out to Abebe and Yesupriya to see if they were still interested in opening a restaurant. “I was like, ‘I know that we talk about this all the time. Are you guys in?’ And they were like, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Abebe, an Ethiopian immigrant who had studied IT at UMBC, was eager to join forces with his friend whose early lessons of watching his father work at Jumbo served him well. “Steve is a hard worker,” says Abebe. “He will outwork anyone, and I appreciate that in people. Going into business with him was a no-brainer for me.”
Initially, they set out to get a food truck. “But a food truck is like $80,000,” says Chu. “I did some research and found a hot-dog cart. That was $3,000 and we didn’t have the money. Still, we had to work and save up for it and asked our friends for micro loans. We’d be like, ‘Can we borrow 50 bucks?’ and they’re like, ‘What the f**k? Just take it.’”
The concept for steamed buns came about organically because Chu says he’s always loved steamed bun sandwiches. “The buns themselves are a staple of my childhood,” he says. “My grandparents ate them every morning. I just felt like they were underutilized in America. You have a lot of really bad steamed bun sandwiches here. I thought that it was a disservice to our culture. I was like, ‘I’m going to make this a lot better.’”
“YOU HAVE A LOT OF REALLY BAD STEAMED BUNS IN AMERICA—THIS IS A DISSERVICE TO OUR CULTURE.”
In the early days at the Fells Point Farmers Market, using the kitchen at Jumbo Seafood to test recipes during off hours and a hot-dog cart they ended up building themselves, business got off to a slow start.
“Day one was awful,” recalls Chu, who continued to work at Jumbo six days a week while running the cart on the weekends. “On paper, we had the best spot right by the Inner Harbor water taxis where 16,000 tourists a day would walk by. And we were like, ‘Hey, would you like some of our Asian steamed bun sandwiches filled with chicken meatballs, mango-papaya slaw, and roasted garlic aromatics?’ And they’d be like, ‘Do you have crabcakes?’”
But over time, thanks to exposure at local events like Artscape and the Emporiyum, word traveled locally that their buns were a must-try.
By March 2016, close to a year after the Baltimore Uprising, they opened Ekiben in Fells Point, a speck of a spot with a counter, a closet-sized kitchen, and a bunch of barstools on the site of a former Mexican restaurant.
“We realized that the city was super divided at that time,” says Chu. “But when you travel a lot, you realize that people are just people. We all want the same thing. We all want to be happy. We all want to be taken care of and be heard. In America, you can have a very divided culture, and if you just sat down and talked to someone for five minutes, you’d realize we are not very different. We built this space around the idea that everyone listens to the same music and everyone eats the same food.”
One look at the community board in Hampden plastered with photos, picture everything from catering gigs for the Ravens to photos of Ekiben staff members feeding the health care heroes at area hospitals, and it’s clear that the eatery has, in fact, been a unifier.
“It’s been amazing to see the growth,” says Ekiben Hampden’s general manager, Mary Ann Delano, who is also a friend from the UMBC days. “I remember when this was just an idea. I was an environmental science major in college, and I wasn’t sure I was going to stick with this, but they’ve put so much trust in me and we’re like family here in our own little world.”
“Steve is just one of the most genuine people I’ve ever worked with,” says Lefenfeld. “He’s always trying to bring the people up around him, which is really important in this industry and at this time. He’s a great representation of the cooking scene in Baltimore.”
Though he’s finally broken out on his own, for Chu, who still works the dinner shift at Jumbo Seafood on Christmas—the restaurant’s busiest day of the year—all roads lead back to family.
“As a kid, riding around in the backseat of my dad’s car, one of the first lessons he ever taught me was ‘whatever you do, you have to be the best,’” recounts Chu. “At the time, I was like, ‘Okay, whatever, I’m like 3 years old.’”
Decades later, the throngs outside the restaurant’s doors are living proof that he’s done just that.