Seattle’s (go)Poké Future Is Bright


Getting good poké in Seattle was like getting good ramen used to be, a challenge. Now, very good ramenya are popping up with increasing regularity. Anyone who’s had ahi poké in Hawaii might agree with me that in Seattle, it’s been a disappointment. The primary reason is the fish quality. There’s something about tuna freshly caught off Hawaiian shores that makes it almost impossible to make bad poké on the islands. I’ve had great eating experiences at Ono Seafood (Kaimuki), Hawaiian Style Cafe (Hilo), Me Bar-B-Q (Waikiki), Poké Stop (Waipahu). My sister-in-law even swears by poké sold by Foodland, a Hawaiian supermarket chain. And like ramen, it seems poké is experiencing exponential growth in the U.S.

Last December, brothers Bayley, Michael and Trinh Le opened goPoké in Seattle’s International District. They have island cred because they grew up in Hawaii, the father was a tuna fisherman and the mother responsible for selling the catch and who developed her own version of poké to sell. Even the children got involved in door-to-door sales. This is the time when other vendors are establishing their own ventures in Seattle, including Hawaiian celebrity chef Sam Choy with Poké to the Max (3 food trucks, 2 brick-and-mortars), his only restaurant in the U.S. outside of Hawaii.

The three brothers wound up in Seattle and decided after a time to start goPoké across the street from Hing Hay Park. They would draw on decades of collective experience. Automatic success was not assured, though opening day last December saw a line form around the block. But after Bayley Le’s KING 5 appearance in February on the New Day show, there was valuable media exposure. Did it make a difference? Maybe so, with help from word-of-mouth and social media, because goPoké is going gangbusters. The name itself seems intentionally or not a play on Pokémon Go.

Theirs is a great ahi poké, cut (cubed) in uniform bite-sized pieces, firm and smooth, dressed with the right balance of Hawaiian sea salt, limu, white onion, scallions, toasted sesame seeds and sesame oil and, above all, fresh. There is also a spicy aioli version, as well as an extra-spicy one, the latter of which would seem to mask (disrupt) straight poké’s delicate and natural flavors. In a gesture to Northwesterners, there are also three styles of salmon poké. An invention of goPoké’s own is the Combo Bowl in which three kinds of poké are combined with rice, edamame, krab (faux crab made from pollock) salad, seaweed salad, pickled ginger (gari, sushi ginger), cucumber sunomono, and two toppings (from among fried shallots, fried garlic, furikake, chopped macadamia nuts). Friend KirkJ (and his wife), who was with us, ordered one and enthused over the tako and salmon poké.

o1

Aloha Combo Bowl (image posted on Yelp by Michelle C.)

The fun doesn’t stop with poké. I was personally excited about five—yes, five—menu items that I happen to love from Hawaii: Bubbies mochi ice creams, SPAM musubi, Kona Brewing Company beers, Hawaiian shave ice (with snow cap!) and Dole pineapple whip (which many of you know is a Disneyland staple). With enticements like these, do I need excuses to visit the International District more?

Passionfruit/mango shave ice

Passionfruit/mango shave ice (partially eaten)

Bubbies passionfruit, lychee and guava mochi ice creams

Bubbies passionfruit, lychee and guava mochi ice creams

Dole pineapple whip

Dole pineapple whip

goPoké
625 S King St.
Seattle WA 98104
206.799.9560

Mo’ Betta No Can Get: Side Street Inn on Da’ Strip (Honolulu, HI)


It wasn’t until Anthony Bourdain in 2009 featured Side Street Inn on “No Reservations” that this local hangout became nationally famous. It’s the answer to the oft-asked question, Where do famous chefs go to eat after work? Some of Honolulu’s top chefs, including Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong, had been coming all along just to “hang out” and have good grub. The restaurant bar on Hopaka Street has also become a rock star among local and visiting foodies, appearing on many lists of ‘must eat’ places in Honolulu. The concept is simple: serve tasty comfort foods at reasonable prices and big portions. Woe be to the couple who wants to try more than a thing or two. It’s much better to be part of a larger party.

side street inn

In July of 2010, a second location opened up along Kapahulu, a street at the eastern end of the Ala Wai Canal that is fast becoming a food mecca for locals and tourists alike, especially those who want to stay clear of Waikiki. Kapahulu also hosts Leonard’s, Rainbow Drive-In, Ono Hawaiian Foods, Ono Seafood, Irifune, Uncle Bo’s, and more. The new digs are classier (but not stuffy) than the Hopaka site that has a more down-to-earth ambience. What better place for my wife and me to have a final meal in Hawaii, and with my wife’s sister and her family to boot.

It would be an understatement to say the menu is astonishing. You could stare at the menu and have a frustrating time trying to decide what you want. The menu is that seductive—and mind-boggling. It’s said that the Kapahulu location has more on the menu than the original one. Let me see, shall I have smoked pork, musubi, garlic fries, rib-eye steak, kalbi, cheeseburger, steamed clams, furikake ahi, yakisoba, buffalo wings, chicken katsu, misoyaki chicken, yakisoba, oxtail soup, Hawaiian-style short ribs? The specials menu tempted us tonight with Korean chicken wings, Chinese ribs, blackened ahi, and more. See what I mean?

Even if a litany of delicious-sounding items made our eyes glaze over, in the end our first meal here had to include two of Side Street’s signature dishes: pork chops and fried rice. We could worry about da’ udda stuff some other time. We also augmented our meal with fresh poké and On Da’ Strip’s Chinese Chicken Salad.

The salad was beautiful to behold, a tower of nicely piled greens and shredded chicken, topped with fried wonton strips. But it was underdressed, like eating raw greens (☆☆½). Despite the whole foods appeal, substituting mixed greens for, say, simple shredded Romaine lettuce does not add anything.

chinese salad

On Da’ Strip’s Chinese Chicken Salad

In Hawaii, it’s almost impossible to get bad poké. Ahi is always fresh off the hook. Not surprisingly, Side Street’s was very good (☆☆☆), although Ono Seafood’s (also on Kapahulu) is now my new standard. Market price likely is responsible for having kept the portion size reasonable, about a cup and a half’s worth.

poke

Ample portion sizes are a different matter for the remaining two dishes. Three large chops constitute Da’ Famous Pan Fried Island Pork Chops. The crispy flour and cornstarch batter is thinly applied on succulent, thick and lightly seasoned chops, then pan-fried. Rather than serving them whole, the kitchen separates the bones from the meat, which it slices into half-inch pieces. The bones, which can only be sensibly eaten with your hands, are like ribs and terrific to gnaw and suck on. A plastic tub of ketchup is served on the side. Great chops (☆☆☆½).

pork chops

Da’ Famous Pan Fried Island Pork Chops

Side Street’s standard fried rice is a combination of Portuguese sausage, bacon, char siu, peas, carrots and green onions, flavored with oyster sauce. That combination is enough for good Hawaiian flavors, but the addition of hon dashi is the ingredient that makes the rice an umami bomb. (Yeah, I know hon dashi contains MSG.) We got Da’ Works Fried Rice instead, which adds lop cheung and kim chi to the mix. All—and I mean all—kim chi fried rice I’ve had up to this point have been too soggy, likely from using too much kim chi or not wringing out enough liquid. Side Street managed to escape that shortcoming to provide a nice tangy accent to an exceptional symphony of ingredients (☆☆☆☆), the second great fried rice dish I’ve had on this trip.

fried rice

Da’ Works Fried Rice

Side Street Inn deserves repeat visits. Mo’ bettah no can get.

Side Street Inn on ‘Da Strip
614 Kapahulu Ave
Honolulu, HI 96815
808.739.3939

Poké at Ono Seafood (Honolulu, HI)


Poké is ubiquitous in Hawaii. Virtually any restaurant serving island food will have it on the menu. It is typically made with raw yellowfin tuna (ahi poké). Combined with sea salt, soy sauce, sesame oil and limu (algae), it’s a distinctively Hawaiian creation. Variations include other seasonings and aromatics. While it has been a popular food staple in the island diet since the 1970s, it wasn’t until Sam Choy introduced it on his TV show and featured it in his cookbooks that poké became more widely known in the States. In the Seattle area, Choy has a food truck called Poké to the Max.

In 2010, I ate a very good version at Poké Stop (in Waipahu), which also included Maui sweet onions. The truth is that it’s hard not to have a decent poké anywhere in Hawaii since the ingredient that makes or breaks the recipe is the freshness of the tuna. And tuna right out of the sea is readily available. On our trip to Oahu last year, my wife and I tried in vain to find Ono Seafood that makes the best poké in Oahu, according to many. While it’s located on arguably the best restaurant avenue in all of Honolulu for local food (Kapahulu), others have had equal difficulty in spotting it, for it’s set back, almost obscured by a Shell gas station, on the bottom floor of an apartment building. But, my sister-in-law knew exactly where it was. While there are two picnic-style tables outside, most customers order takeout, which we did. Be warned that there are only a handful of parking spots in the lot. The rest have tow-away signs.

ono seafood

The inside is quite small but colorfully painted in turquoise. The menu and pictures are prominently posted on the wall. There are exactly eight styles to choose from, permutations of ahi or octopus (tako) and seasonings. The thing about Ono’s is that the poké is made to order, which means that there aren’t deli displays of their seafood already prepared in advance. What’s the big deal? Sea salt, a prominent seasoning in poké, will draw out moisture from seafood and toughen it. Looking over the menu, my wife and I decided on the shoyu ahi, simply prepared with tuna, soy sauce, green and white onions, kukui (candlenut), dried chile peppers and sesame oil. The accommodating server went so far as to omit the chile peppers for my wife. There is also a choice between white or brown rice, regular size or super bowl, and a choice of drink.

We ate our dinner in the condo where we were staying. Let me be quick to say that it was the best poké I’ve ever eaten (☆☆☆☆). The ahi melted in the mouth, buttery in texture and sweet. The other ingredients were added in perfect proportions, not too much soy sauce to make it too salty, not too many onions to make it too harsh and sulfurous, not too much chile to make it overly spicy, with just enough limu to provide crunch. My brother-in-law and nephew were so enamored of Ono’s poké that they had to pick some up en route to the airport to eat on the flight home. Now, that says something.

ono poke

Shoyu ahi (image from Yelp, submitted by Kelli L.)

Ono Seafood
747 Kapahulu Ave
Honolulu, HI 96816
(808) 732-4806

Fried Rice at Eggs ’n Things (Honolulu, HI)


During every trip to Honolulu, my wife and I have breakfast at Eggs ’n Things, an excuse to eat their Portuguese sausage with eggs and two scoops of rice. My wife ordered it (this time, she substituted home fried potatoes for the rice, which turned out to be a bad idea), while the Island Style Fried Rice & Eggs caught my eye. When the plate was set before me, all I could think of was Mauna Loa, it was that big and sprawling.

It was more than bulk that was impressive. The fried rice was quite good (☆☆☆½), a kitchen sink of diced Portuguese sausage, ham, kamaboko (fish cake), bok choy, bean sprouts, julienned carrots, mushrooms, celery and green onions. More than that, the rice was savory and avoided the mushiness that I’ve encountered more than once on this trip. To be honest, all I could manage was less than a fourth of it, the rest taken away to be eaten by both of us for another breakfast at the condo. If it weren’t for its sheer size, the rice would be something to order again. But then, we could think of it as future breakfasts.

Ken’s House of Pancakes (Hilo, HI)


My wife and I wound up eating three times at Ken’s House of Pancakes, near Arnott’s Lodge where we were staying during our time in Hilo. It came up as a local favorite in a couple of sources. Our Mauna Kea tour guide also said it was his favorite place to get saimin.

The fact that Ken’s has been around for over 35 years says a lot about its popularity—“jammin’ since 1971,” as Ken’s is fond of publicizing. It’s one of those places that you sense immediately that locals come here often, even if the corner parking lot can inconveniently be entered only from Highway 19 driving eastbound.

ken's house of pancakes

The breakfast menu is impressive. The first item listed is pancakes, which comes in different sizes and combinations, including island-popular coconut and macadamia versions. And what would any respectable diner be without its signature huge portion-sized concoction? Try their Kilauea, Our King of Stacks: three huge buttermilk pancakes layered with bacon, slab of smoked ham, and topped with two eggs. I can’t end this paragraph without mentioning Ken’s three house-made pancake syrups: coconut (my favorite), lilikoi and guava. They are intensely flavored and just sweet enough, justifiably famous. Other carbofoods include French toast and waffles.

Eggs ’n’ Things include two eggs, rice/hash browns, and pancakes with a choice of standard breakfast meats, but also different kinds of sausages (Portuguese, blood, Vienna, Scottish bangers) or mahi mahi, Spam, ground beef patty, or steak. There are many house specialties too numerous to mention, including snow crab or lop cheung omelets.

For our first breakfast, we split Portuguese sausage Eggs ’n’ Things (☆☆☆), which the kitchen was nice enough to divide for us. A good breakfast, but the fried rice was too soft. The choice for a side of fruit was either canned peaches or fresh papaya. Duh. The ripe papaya was served with a slice of a local lime, which was gigantic.

Portuguese sausage eggs 'n' things with fried egg, buttermilk pancake and fried rice

Portuguese sausage eggs ‘n’ things with fried egg, buttermilk pancake and fried rice

Lilikoi, guava and coconut syrups (left to right)

Lilikoi, guava and coconut syrups (left to right)

We returned for dinner later in the day after spending the day at the Hilo Farmers Market, Queen Lili’uokalani Birthday Celebration, Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, Akaka Falls and Mr. Ed’s Bakery. A customer favorite is Ken’s ox tail stew. Tonight was an opportunity to try the saimin, too.

I don’t know if it’s an island thing, but my preference is for a thinner stew, one that’s not thickened with gobs of flour. Ken’s was very thick and flavored with herbs that were overpowering. All the vegetables—carrots, bell peppers, celery, onions—were cut too large, about 3″, also distracting. Meat from ox tails are always a challenge to free up from bone, and they were no exception tonight. This normally is not an issue with me, but combined with the other annoyances, it was. The stew may be a customer favorite, but it wasn’t mine (☆☆).

Oxtail stew

Oxtail stew

Hawaiians like their saimin noodles soft. Such was the case tonight, as were the wrappers around the wonton. The flavor of the shrimp-flavored broth was quite good, much better than Zippy’s, but the chashu had the off-flavor of having been refrigerated for too long. Overall, not a bad saimin (☆☆½).

Our last breakfast in Hilo was spent at Ken’s because it was close to the airport. One of the specials was a kalua pork hash loco moco served over rice and topped with fried eggs. A great attribute of hash is its crispiness, our preference being the crispier, the better. This quality is not compromised much by corned beef since it doesn’t exude much moisture. Thus, it should’ve occurred to me that kalua pork, which is inherently very juicy, and gravy poured over loco moco are recipes for sogginess. If I didn’t think of it as hash, the dish was still tasty (☆☆½).

Kalua hash loco moco

Kalua hash loco moco

While there was nothing extraordinary we had there, Ken’s is a solid restaurant with a broad menu and good breakfast options. And it has a neighborhood vibe, even at the crossroads of two highways.

Ken’s House of Pancakes
1730 Kamehameha Ave
Hilo, HI 96720
(808) 935-8711

Malasadas at Tex’s Drive-In (Honoka’a, HI)


The word is that Tex’s Drive-In has the best malasadas on the Big Island. We were only a short distance away from where we started on our guided tour down to the Waipio Valley. There’s more here than Portuguese donuts: breakfasts (including Hawaiian-style), burgers, musubi, salads, loco moco, and Hawaiian plates. Our Bavarian cream and mango malasadas came hot from the oven. Inevitably, comparisons must be made to Leonard’s, and both my wife and I gave the nod to Leonard’s. Their dough is lighter and they have more fillings, Tex’s only having a half dozen. Still, the malasadas there are no slouch. The Bavarian cream is justifiably their most popular.

Tex’s Drive In
45-690 Pakalana St #19 (Highway 19, mile marker 43)
Honoka’a, HI 96727
(808) 775-0598

Ono Grindz at Hawaiian Style Cafe (Hilo, HI)


“What’re your most popular dishes here?” I asked the waitress.

“Everything’s good on the menu. It doesn’t matter what it is.”

Normally, I would throw away an answer like that. In this case, the restaurant is Hawaiian Style Cafe in Hilo. I wasn’t so quick this time to disregard it because Travel & Leisure Magazine voted its pancakes among the best in America and because the restaurant has been a hit among locals for some time. It’s  been in operation since only 2011, but you’d never know it when you first walk in, exuding an atmosphere of having served satisfied local customers for a long while. Because of its location on Manono Street, it doesn’t attract the casual tourist who may be sightseeing around the main part of Hilo around Lili’uokalani Gardens. It turns out I also had the original Kamuela (Waimea) restaurant on my list of possible eating spots if we visit the North Kohala area.

When we first got to Hawaiian Style, we stared for the longest time at the sandwich board outside.

specials menu

These were only the specials!

The regular menu is impressive in its own right. Just perusing the breakfast list is enough to make you want to come back. Suffice it to say that all the standard Hawaiian items are on it, including the famous pancakes, pork chop and eggs, omelets which any of four meats (the cafe makes its own Portuguese sausage), chicken fried steak and loco moco. Its most daring breakfast entrée is something called the Mok-a-Saurus, a dinosaur-sized plate of Spam, chicken cutlet, kalua pork, hamburger patty and two eggs on top of fried rice, smothered in plenty of gravy. And one other highly regarded item is kalua hash (served with two eggs and fried rice). This is a serious eating place, more for gourmands than gourmets, anathema to the yogurt-eating crowd. Anything on the menu is served all day, announced the waitress.

It took a while for my wife and me to decide what we wanted. The first roadblock we had to get past was the enormous portion sizes. “We don’t want you to go away hungry,” another waitress beamed. The quandary was reconciling the conflict between quantity and wanting to try different things on such an interesting menu. We wound up ordering seared ahi and Seoul Bowl, both from the specials menu. We would leave behind much of the rice if we had to (and we did have to), two scoops with the ahi and a big bowlful that came with my Korean-inspired dish.

The tuna, sprinkled liberally with a nori (seaweed) and sesame seed (both black and white) furikake, was cooked perfectly, a remarkable feat to sear the outside while keeping the inside moist in fish sliced a half-inch thick. A similarly prepared ahi we had at Eggs n’ Things last year was in fact overcooked though tasty. Even if my wife would’ve preferred furikake coverage on the concealed parts of overlapping slices, she praised the fish (☆☆☆½), dressed with a subtle wasabi aioli. Instead of a mac salad that came as a side, she chose a dinner salad, another way to cut down on the carbs.

Seared ahi with wasabi aioli, rice and salad

Seared ahi with wasabi aioli, rice and salad

Seoul Bowl is actually a donburi, the best tasting one I’ve had since Sawa Tea in Vancouver (now closed). Spicy and sesame oil-coated ahi poké, Korean chicken wings (dakgangjeong) and avocado were served on rice, scattered with lots of flavorful furikake and green onions. The tuna was faultlessly fresh (as you’d expect in Hawaii) and the wings were heaven itself, supremely crispy, moist, a tad too sweet and salty. An outstanding donburi (☆☆☆☆).

Seoul Bowl (spicy poke, Korean fried chicken and kimchi)

Seoul Bowl (spicy poke, Korean fried chicken and kimchi)

It would be easy to come back here for dinner (or lunch) if it weren’t for the fact that there are so many other places to eat in Hilo. Hmm, breakfast could be another matter.

hawaiian style cafe

Hawaiian Style Cafe
681 Manono St.
Hilo, HI 96720
808.969.9265