When Xiao Bao Biscuit co-owners Josh Walker and Joey Ryan first announced their plans for a second restaurant, they repeatedly cited their excitement at not being confined by the strictures of Asian cuisine.
Walker was keen to cook with milk and butter, while Ryan wanted to pour Spanish red wines, which clashed with Xiao Bao’s signature Sichuan peppers and pickles.
Yet after a year without limitations, Walker says the lack of structure turned out to be a hindrance at Tu. The restaurant is switching to a full-time exploration of Indian cuisine in 2019, in part because Walker’s team needs established rules to break.
“I think it’s more difficult when you don’t have that box,” Walker says. “For sure, 100 percent, it was fun and it was such a learning experience. But ultimately, I felt more excited with having that box of Indian food and traditions, rather than ‘the whole entire world is your box.’”
Tu will reopen following a New Year’s Eve farewell to its original incarnation, offering dinner service on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Walker says lunch hours will be added to the schedule as the kitchen further develops its menu. “We have so much to learn, and I’m trying to make it plain that I understand that very well,” he said.
Walker is also aware that Indian cuisine isn’t a monolith. Although he’s in talks with the owners of India Spice about a collaborative brunch featuring snacks from their native Gujarat state, he envisions regularly serving dishes inspired by various corners of the country. As he reads up on Indian cooking, he’s paying careful attention to Goan curries and other seafood preparations.
“We definitely want to be a mix of foods that are somewhat familiar to people, but also showing off the diversity of India,” he says.
While Walker says Tu has made its customers happy since opening in November 2017, he says the eclectic nature of its menu was frustratingly hard to convey to people who weren’t sure what kind of food to expect.
“The Charleston restaurant scene is really competitive now, and it was a problem to not be able to answer that in an easy way,” Walker says, adding that keeping up an avant-garde spirit in the kitchen “was a bit of a challenge to kind of consistently do and move forward.”
According to Walker, he’s captivated by Indian cuisine in much the same way that East Asian cooking traditions commanded his attention before he launched Xiao Bao. In November, he experimented with serving Indian-style food at the restaurant’s anniversary celebration, which amounted to a public disclosure of his current passion.
“A number of people, whether seriously or half-seriously or whatever, joked and said, ‘Are you going to do an Indian restaurant?’ It’s weird for me, because I feel like it wasn’t anything I was prepared to take on.”
But Walker ultimately decided it made more sense to transform Tu than to continue slipping Indian dishes on to Xiao Bao’s menu.
“I didn’t want to half change,” he says. “It just seemed like a cleaner way to do it. To kind of have Tu 1.0 be the thing it was, and clearly mark the difference. I think most people would probably think it’s crazy, but we’re in business because we love what we do, and that’s what I base my decisions on. If we don’t act like a normal business, it’s because we try not to be.”
Tu will reopen on Jan. 4, with the same name and decor. The restaurant will not take reservations.