Honolulu Aquarium’s Giant Clams


As aquariums go, Honolulu’s in Waikiki may be small, but it is no less interesting than others twice its size. It has several captivating specimens, all of which inhabit the Pacific Ocean. The collection includes several species of giant clams (Tridacna gigas). When I first saw one there, I couldn’t tell it was a clam. I was looking for colossal shells when I should have focused my attention on what was there. All I could see was the beautiful mantle, which is actually a colony of single-celled algae (zooxanthellae) that do the job of feeding the mollusk through photosynthesis. Amazingly, the clams need no additional food to stay alive. The mantle looks like a huge, purplish cloud ear fungus. That these algae can organize themselves into this amazing organism is beyond belief.

Equally splendid was the exhibit for syngnathids, the fish family to which seahorses belong. While seahorses are always fun to watch, other members of the family in tanks were more fascinating, probably because they’re rare. I’d never seen seadragons before. Leafy seadragons look like floating seaweed, which as it happens is part of their camouflage. The species in the aquarium is the weedy seadragon, which is not as “leafy.” Pipefish look like small, colorful cousins of eels with pointed snouts. I may have been witnessing a mating ritual where a pair of them seemed to be involved in a courtship dance.

Weedy seadragons

Weedy seadragons

Pipefish

Pipefish

The Conservatory at Foster Botanical Garden


Foster Botanical Garden in Honolulu is known for its outstanding collection of tropical trees, including an impressive set of palms. There is also an orchid garden, but we didn’t see many flowers in bloom. Inside the conservatory was another matter. Although not the largest orchid collection I’ve ever come across, there were some beautiful specimens interspersed among plants that are splendid for their leaf patterns and color contrasts.

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

Back to Jimbo (Honolulu, HI)


One of the under-appreciated Japanese restaurants in Honolulu has to be Jimbo, which specializes in udon. The buses and people lining up in Waikiki suggests that Japanese tour companies favor Marukame Udon, which features make-your-own udon, a concept that has been picked up by U:Don in Seattle’s University District. Jimbo is located in a part of town north of Waikiki (McCully-Moiliili, on the other side of the canal) that is somewhat worn, certainly without Waikiki’s glamor and glitz. But locals know about it and could very well be glad to keep this place to themselves.

We were here before in 2010 and were looking forward to a return visit. My wife got her ume wakame udon that she had been dreaming about ever since the last visit and wasn’t the least bit disappointed this time around.

Ume Wakame Udon

Ume Wakame Udon

For me, the memory of their wonderful nabeyaki udon tugged at me, but one of the chef’s specialties on the menu was Japanese curry nabeyaki udon, which I felt I at least had to try. I like curry udon in general, but was hesitant about ordering it tonight for one big reason. It would overwhelm Jimbo’s wonderful broth. And it did. Yet, Jimbo’s was a very good version, served in a very hot iron bowl with shiitake, baby bok choy, nappa, broccolini, shredded carrot, snow peas, kamaboko and a raw egg that gets cooked by the piping hot liquid. A good broth is hard to keep down; it shone through the curry with its substantial umami. On the side came single pieces of excellently made shrimp and sweet potato tempura, a welcome change since our last visit when they were served in the bowl, the batter soaking up and softening in the broth. Any respectable udon restaurant should have excellent noodles. The udon at Jimbo is made in-house by a dedicated chef and it shows. They have a unique al dente texture, having a slippery and soft surface but firm interior chewiness that characterizes the best of them. To make their dashi, Jimbo imports its dried bonito (katsuobushi) directly from Japan.

Curry Nabeyaki Udon

Curry Nabeyaki Udon

Our dinner at Jimbo was a happy return visit.

Disappointment on My Return Visit (March 2016)

I hate when the food changes at your favorite restaurants. I’d been to Jimbo twice before, and I loved their nabeyaki udon. The noodles were wonderfully chewy and the broth soul-satisfyingly rich and flavorful. The current disappointing version consists of oddly cut noodles (thinly rectangular in cross-section) and while starting out firm, they quickly became soft. These were not the noodles I had in the past. And the broth? It had none of the smoky and umami-deep flavor of my memories, having transformed into a thinner version of the original. I’ve discovered since that other recent reviewers apparently felt the same. Something has changed in the kitchen. I will not be going back. Marukame now has a better udon.

Jimbo
1936 S King St # 103
Honolulu
808.947.2211
 

 

Mana Nalu Mural Project (Honolulu, HI)


In the middle of Ala Moana (between the shopping center and Ward Center) is a mural painted on the side of a building. Like many murals, you wouldn’t notice it unless you’re oriented correctly. It was difficult for us even when we were looking for it. The work is a masterpiece of trompe l’oeil as part of a project led by John Pugh, the great artist who has several public works in other parts of the U.S. as well as one in Rotorua, NZ. The panel displays two historic Hawaiian figures, Queen Liliuokalani and the great surfer Duke Kahanamoku, painted on a curved glass surface featuring a huge wave that is cresting on top, a portion of which appears to be reaching through a skylight. Along the right side, a painted window, through which someone appears to be looking out toward the wave, and a doorway give a strange illusion. But, the most masterful depiction/illusion is a group of children, serenely looking up at the queen and seeming about to be engulfed by the wave.

How appropriate that today should be April Fool’s Day.

Mana Nalu Mural Project
401 Kamake’e St.
Honolulu, HI
(painted on the southeast-facing wall toward the parking structure)
 

Lunch at Shirokiya (Honolulu, HI)


For me, no visit to Honolulu would be complete without a stopover, not to mention a meal, at the food level of Shirokiya, the Japanese department store in Ala Moana Shopping Center. I might lust after a ramen shop here, a tonkatsu restaurant there, poké at various places, Leonard’s, even mochi ice creams at Bubbies. But when it gets right down to it, none of these places holds a candle to Shirokiya for its eye candy and staggering variety of food, all conveniently packaged in plastic containers, ready to pick up at one of many specialty stations, to eat at one of the few tables there or take out. A big part of the allure is the ability to eat whatever fancies you at the moment, whether it’s tempura, sushi, nigiri, musubi, fried or mochiko chicken, takoyaki, tonkatsutsukemono, and a seemingly endless selection of little side dishes. The wonderful displays make you want to buy one of everything. It’s basically the biggest display of my comfort foods ever. We made our usual careful rounds whenever we visit, as if circling our prey, and settled on a good, eclectic selection.

If I had to put together a bento or provisions for a day-long hike, I would most definitely come here.

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IMG_0997

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Breakfast at Rainbow Drive-In (Honolulu, HI)


One of the island’s favorite foods is loco moco, a fried ground beef patty served over two scoops of rice, all smothered in brown gravy and topped with two fried eggs. Personally, I find very little to get excited about basically a hamburger without the bun, even with gravy and rice. But, we were standing in front of Rainbow Drive-In which fans say serves a legendary loco moco. Speaking of legends, President Obama was supposed to have frequented Rainbow in his youth. Not one to let food prejudices get in the way of possible enlightenment—once in a while anyway—I ordered a first-time-ever loco moco plate. A single bite was enough to confirm that I was still underwhelmed. Let’s just say it’s a dish that doesn’t appeal to me, regardless of how well it might be made.

Loco moco plate

Loco moco plate

On the other hand, my wife’s fried rice was pretty good, studded with bits of Portuguese sausage and green onions. Some of the rice was nicely crusted from a hot pan—what Japanese call koge—adding to the appeal.

Fried rice with eggs

Fried rice with eggs

We topped off breakfast by walking up a few blocks to Leonard’s to have their heavenly haupia malasadas.

Rainbow Drive-In
3308 Kanaina Ave
Honolulu, HI
808.737.0177 ‎