Ekiben owners Steve Chu and Ephrem Abebe tried to remove their famous “Neighborhood Bird” sandwich from the menu once. As fans might expect, it didn’t go over well.
“People came in and they were like, ‘Come on, I drove from Delaware,’” Chu remembers. “We were like, ‘Oh they’re definitely going to burn this place down.’”
Rest assured, the change only lasted as long as a special event. And when the new Ekiben location in Hampden debuts in soft-opening mode on Monday, February 10—a grand opening will follow the next day—all of the Asian-fusion staples that diners have come to rely on at the Fells Point flagship will transfer over. (That, of course, means dishes like the Taiwanese fried chicken-topped “Neighborhood Bird” bun or rice bowl, as well as the spicy peanut-flavored “Tofu Brah” nuggets and the addictive tempura broccoli.)
In fact, thanks to an expanded kitchen with additional equipment and prep space, Chu says there’s room for more dishes to become a part of the regular roster: “We’re definitely going to expand the menu a little bit,” he says. “Our whole team is really excited.”
Since taking over the former home of TigerStyle in the alleyway behind Avenue Kitchen & Bar last summer, the owners have gutted the interior to make way for updated plumbing, electricity, and equipment including woks and convection ovens. In true Ekiben fashion, they have also added their signature white subway tile and covered the walls in local art. A mural hand-painted by Baltimore artist The Groovy Vandal will welcome visitors into the intimate space, which features Ekiben’s counter-service model and 12 barstool seats.
Though the dining experience will be similar to the Fells Point location, the open kitchen and separate prep room will allow the team much more room to breathe during service in Hampden. It’s the staff, after all, to whom the owners are quick to attribute their success.
“They make the experience,” Abebe says. “Food is something you can get anywhere, but it’s about the way somebody makes you feel when they serve it to you. Our staff is like, ‘I love being here, so I’m going to make every person that walks in love being here, as well.’ People like that—I like that. That’s what I want when I walk into a restaurant.”
When they first learned about the available space, Chu and Abebe were excited by the thought of joining the Hampden food scene—specifically mentioning friends at La Cuchara and Union Collective.
“Hampden has a lot of energy,” Abebe says. “It has a good heartbeat, and it’s always really exciting every time we come here to do events.”
Another plus was the idea of a space that was a bit removed from the hustle of the Avenue: “It’s really off the beaten path, just like where we are in Fells is off the beaten path,” Chu says. “Everyone wants that dream alleyway restaurant.”
Owners Chu (left) and Abebe (right) pose at the new shop. -Lorann Cocca
Since the UMBC grads first launched their steamed bun startup at the Fells Point Farmers’ Market in 2014, collaborating with other chefs has been a main part of their mission. Their signature mashup events, which have recently brought in the likes of Washington, D.C. chefs Johnny Spero and Jerome Grant, will continue in the new space.
The duo says they especially enjoy hosting the visiting chefs because it gives them the opportunity to highlight what the city, and its food scene, have to offer. “At the end of the day that’s what we care about,” Abebe says. “This is the city that raised us, and we want to show it off.”
Details about the grand opening celebration will be announced on Ekiben’s Instagram in the coming days, but, in the meantime, the owners are looking forward to tying up loose ends and finally getting their customers in the door.
“We try to keep it simple,” Chu says. “There aren’t too many frills in Ekiben, just good people. That’s kind of like the charm of Baltimore, right? If you stay here long enough you’ll understand why it’s called Charm City. It’s good people who really care about what they’re doing, and that’s what Ekiben is.”