Charleston is a renowned restaurant town. It’s home to refined Southern restaurants Husk and Fig, as well as essential American restaurants the Grocery and Bertha’s. But, some New York transplants are standing out in the city’s thriving dining scene by serving up eclectic flavors and taking inspiration far from the Lowcountry.
Josh Walker, Duolan Walker-Li, and Joey Ryan opened Xiao Bao Biscuit in a former gas station in 2012. Inspired by travels through Asia with his wife Walker-Li, Walker, Xiao’s Bao Biscuit’s chef, put together a menu of comfort food dishes from China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam.
But Walker notes that this doesn’t mean Xiao Bao is serving “Asian food.” “You can say, ‘Oh it’s Asian food.’ But what does that mean?” Walker says. “It means so many different things to different people. It’s a short answer, but it’s not always a very accurate one.“ Xiao Bao Biscuit is now an essential Charleston restaurant, known for dishes like okonomiyaki covered in “pork candy” and an effortlessly hip vibe, helped by playlists from Walker-Li, who is also a DJ, and creative cocktails from bartender Ryan.
Tu, the trio’s newest restaurant, opened late last year in an unassuming house on Charleson’s Meeting Street. Here, Walker has moved away from the cuisine served at Xiao Bao to play with eclectic flavor combinations and out-there ingredients, as in a crudo with guava, “cheese ice,” and habanero. The undefinable food at Tu is attracting Charleston diners, as is the funky, festive space, which includes a main dining area and patio and separate, moodier private dining room. It’s one of the most beautiful Charleston restaurants of 2017, which makes sense given Walker’s background — he was an artist and designer in New York before getting into cooking.
Tu is only the second restaurant from this group and it already has a reputation outside of Charleston. At this year’s Charleston Wine + Food Festival, it was the buzzed-about restaurant among visiting chefs and industry attendees. Eater caught up with Walker during the festival to discuss learning from his first restaurant and creating without restrictions.
On opening Xiao Bao Biscuit:
“My wife and I were living New York, and before opening Xiao Bao, we were ready for a change. We quit our jobs and ended up traveling for seven and a half months, and that was the impetus to open Xiao Bao. She’s ethnically Mongolian but grew up in China. She has some relatives out there. We have some friends in Tokyo, some friends in Vietnam, so it was kind of like this whole epic journey.
“And then we got back here and I didn’t know what we were going to do. Part of me was like, ‘Oh we’re going to go overseas. What are we going to do after living in New York?’ And then one thing led to another and we were thinking about all this food that we were missing. We had become more familiar with Charleston, and it seemed like a great opportunity, when we saw these things magically align, to open Xiao Bao.”
On why they opened Tu:
“I love Xiao Bao and I love cooking Asian food. It’s changed forever how I see food in general. But I also missed using butter and milk and other ingredients from different countries around the world. So that was the challenging part with Tu. We were like ‘Okay, we can do anything. So what are you gonna do?’ Hopefully the food there is similar to Xiao Bao in that way — it’s eclectic, its comforting, but it’s also unique and different. We wanted it to be fun, and we wanted it to be delicious.”
On learning from the first restaurant:
“When we started Xiao Bao I aggressively wanted to do Asian food our way without catering to expectations, because I felt like so many people had different conceptions of what Asian food could be, or could showcase. I was a little more aggressive with doing this food that I wanted to do, and this is how it is. I think because I’m older now, or maybe it’s a different team, but I’m definitely more concerned with... Just because we love something doesn’t necessarily mean that other people will. As I get older and I pay more attention to every aspect of the restaurant, I’m also very curious how things are connecting with guests. That’s when it’s really a home run. When you’re happy, when all the cooks are happy with what they’re doing, and the guests are happy, that’s just the best feeling.”
On serving “weird” food in Charleston:
“That’s what I love about Charleston. We renewed this noodle dish [at XBB] and the noodles are made from pork skin. And so when you sell pork skin noodles to somebody, some people are going to get a smile on their face, and some people are going to be like, ‘Um, no thank you.’ But it sold really well, so that was cool. Everything is such a balance. You don’t want to be weird just to be weird, you want to try to do something different and for it to be delicious and interesting and to continue that legacy of moving things forward.”
On designing Tu’s striking space:
“My wife and I did all the design together. We wanted to create a space that was a little bit more feminine and a little softer. It was definitely a challenge because at Xiao Bao we have this old gas station space, which had such good bones already. It just worked. We didn’t have a lot of money, we were trying to open a restaurant for the first time, and there were so many things I had to figure out that we had never done before. We lucked out.
“We bought the house [where Tu is located] after it had a fire. The medical students at the university here had decided to light a fire in the fireplace and they used gasoline, so that didn’t work out too well. But it was fun because we got a chance to buy the house and renovate the whole thing. I had never done new construction before. It’s not that there are no rules, but if you can do anything, there’s almost more pressure. I think I’m pretty happy with it. There’s always things that I would change afterwards.”
On Tu’s millennial pink-tiled bathroom:
“I didn’t know that was a thing! That’s really funny. I’m too old to know what millennial pink is. Bathrooms are such a fun expression because they can look so different from the rest of the restaurant. That’s very much a tradition. Do you know Progress in San Francisco? It’s just beautiful. The whole building is a huge theater. But you go in the bathroom, and it’s like a gold glitter bomb. That was something of an inspiration. We thought that bathrooms were a place to try to be more fun.”
On what he loves about restaurants:
“There’s so much to talk about with restaurants. Restaurants are really fascinating. It’s such an intersection so many things come together. When I see restaurants I love it’s really inspiring. It’s the design, it’s the décor, it’s all these little details. It’s the same for cooking. And it’s all about service and creating a family, and having good people and creating a culture that hopefully connects with people while they’re there.”