Oahu Grinds—Local Food and Spirits


What’s a week on Oahu without glutting ourselves on local grinds? We revisited some old ‘friends’ and made some new ones. Hawaii is the land of shave ice; we did our best to support that sub-economy, as much to have the best in the world as to be a foil for the Hawaiian sun. Wherever we could include island fruits in our diet, whether it be fresh or as flavorings, we found no excuse to refuse. In the flow of cocktails, wine and beer that crossed our lips, the most interesting spirit turned out to be agricole rum that we sampled at a distillery in Kunia.

Me Bar-B-Q (Waikiki, Honolulu)

Our taxi driver who picked us up Honolulu Airport recommended the barbecue restaurant near where we were staying. “Lots of food, good prices,” he said. As it turns out, Me Bar-B-Q was on my short list of new places to check out anyway. What a terrific way to start our dining experiences on Oahu! The BBQ is likely a reference to the Korean style of grilling meat and vegetables at your table, but really the word limits how this cafe should be seen, a place that serves Korean food in huge, delicious portions in styrofoam clamshell containers that seems right at home with Hawaiian plate lunches. There are a few tables outside for customers (no grilling), but most people order takeout. The small ordering area belies the extensive repertoire, ranging from kal bi, chicken katsu, man doo, bi bim bap, fried squid, oxtail soup, yook gae jang, seafood pa jeun, Korean wings, and more. Most dishes come with what they call four ‘sides’ (along with two scoops of rice) but they are really banchan. And how about breakfast at 7am—2 fried eggs, 2 scoops rice with your choice of bacon, spam, Portuguese sausage or corned beef hash? Yowza!

The combination plate of kal bi and chicken katsu was terrific, as were the sides of broccoli, cabbage kim chee, spicy cucumbers and chap chae. The two meat preparations were as good as I’ve had anywhere.

On another night, I got an order of Korean Spicy Chicken Wings, whose batter was too thick and crunchy, the wings served sauceless, tasty nonetheless.

Me Bar-B-Q
151 Uluniu Ave
Honolulu, HI 96815
808.926.9717

Musubi Cafe Iyasume (Waikiki, Honolulu)

Iyasume was also near our accommodations in Waikiki, with an entrance on Kuhio (part of the Aqua Pacific Monarch Hotel) and two additional (and more direct) ones on Uluniu. It’s been getting a lot of love; it made Yelp’s top 100 places to eat in 2016 and the local media praised it. This kind of rice ball can be eaten any time of day, which is the reason it opens daily at 6:30am and closes at 8pm. Every musubi is wrapped in plastic wrap, which helps to prevent them from drying out. It’s best eaten when still warm, which is how they’re sold at Iyasume. A small quibble is that their spam is flavored with teriyaki sauce; I like mine just plain fried. But, otherwise all their musubi are spot on. They’ve become so popular that other Waikiki outlets have opened up.

Musubi Cafe Iyasume
2427 Kuhio Ave
Honolulu, HI
808.921.0168

Hawaii Crown Plantation (Waikiki, Honolulu)

Hawaii consistently has the best pineapple I have ever eaten. Maybe because they’re field ripened. They’re so sweet and juicy. Here, not once did I ever have anything less than excellent. Mainlanders who have access to the fruit from faraway places may be excused for possibly not being too gaga over pineapples, but they would quickly change their attitudes if they have what Hawaiians have available to them, seemingly year-round. We went through two whole pineapples in a week, purchased at the Waikiki Food Pantry. Only two blocks away from the supermarket is Hawaii Crown Plantation that not only sells chocolates, coffee and mac nuts, but pineapples that are grown at their Big Island and Oahu farms. They also make smoothies. The pineapple one is the most refreshing smoothie I’ve had in a long time.

smoothie

IMG_0592

Hawaii Crown Plantation
159 Kaiulani Ave, Ste 105
Honolulu, HI 96815
808.779.7887

Leonard’s Bakery (Kaimuki, Honolulu)

No trip to Honolulu, indeed all of Hawaii, would be complete without a pilgrimage to Leonard’s, home of the malasadas. Every malasada is warm out of the oven. In the plain-versus-filled wars, I’m in the latter camp, their creamy tropical fruit fillings making me forget that I’m not really a fan of custards. We did not have a chance to sample Champion’s, though doubtless one day we will.

Haupia and mango malasadas

Haupia and mango malasadas

Leonard’s Bakery
933 Kapahulu Ave
Honolulu, HI 96816
808.737.5591

Fumi’s Kahuku Shrimp (Kahuku)

We love Fumi’s, absolutely love it. It doesn’t get the adoration or crowds of Giovanni’s or Romy’s. They use plenty of butter and garlic, which already is a recipe for decadence. Plus, their shrimp is very fresh, shells intact (except for their fried shrimp), backs slit perfectly and cleanly deveined. The shells are easy to remove in one or two quick pulls. Lots of good sauce coats the shells, so I find it imperative to suck it off before peeling. My favorite is their Spicy Garlic Shrimp whose sauce is a to-die-for combination of butter, garlic, chile pepper sauce and sriracha. The sauce over rice is enough incentive to finish both scoops, where normally I might leave some behind.

Fumi’s Kahuku Shrimp
56-777 Kamehameha Hwy
Kahuku, HI 96731

Ted’s Bakery (Haleiwa)

Recently, Ted’s added island foods to its menu of pies and cakes. I’ve not had any because I can’t get past Fumi’s. I only stop at Ted’s for its legendary chocolate haupia pie, the single dessert item that made it famous. It’s even sold in Honolulu at local supermarkets, it’s that popular. We’ve stopped here each time we do a North Shore run, just for a slice of that pie.

IMG_7903

Ted’s chocolate haupia cream pie

Ted’s Bakery
59-024 Kamehameha Hwy
Sunset Beach, HI 96712
808.638.8207

Jimbo Restaurant (Moiliili, Honolulu)

I hate when the food changes at your favorite restaurants. We’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. 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. My sister-in-law’s curry was ordinary. Sadly, it was the only restaurant on this trip that didn’t equal our previous experience. I will not be going back. Marukame now has a better udon.

Jimbo Restaurant
1936 S King St #103
Honolulu, HI 96826
808.947.2211

Eggs ‘n Things (Waikiki, Honolulu)

My wife really loves the Portuguese sausage here, made specially for Eggs ‘n Things. It really is tasty, not quite as garlicky as our favorite commercial brand (Purity). I also like their fried rice. We usually refrain from their sweet breakfast items, like their famous (and gigantically sized) pancakes (their syrups are cloyingly sweet). This time, we went to the Kalakaua branch in Waikiki rather than the flagship restaurant on Saratoga (also in Waikiki, across from the post office) . There was a line out the door, but we got seated within 30 minutes. The operation is more regimented here, from (politely) insisting on an orderly waiting line, to ordering and paying for your breakfast before getting seated, even requesting that your party not spread out too much when pre-ordering lest you block the entrance. The younger staff also are less genuinely friendly than the old-timers on Saratoga.

Eggs ‘n Things Waikiki Beach Eggspress
2464 Kalakaua Ave
Honolulu, HI 96815
808.926.3447

Manulele Distillers (Kunia Camp)

Manulele is one of the rare distilleries that make agricole rum—rum made from cane sugar (which the Hawaiians call kō) rather than molasses and other ingredients. Located on several acres of what used to be part of the Dole sugar cane fields, Manulele produces several styles of rum— whites, barrel-aged and liqueur, the manufacture of which were explained on a (fee-based) tour we took. I’m not a rum enthusiast, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed their distinct flavor profiles. Rum-tasting is available. A very eco-friendly, socially conscious operation.

Manulele Distillers
92-1770 Kunia Rd #227
Kunia Camp, HI 96759
808.649.0830

Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha (Honolulu)

It’s worth the drive out to the Aina Haina Shopping Center to get shave ice made with fruit-based syrups and combined with Tahitian vanilla ice cream. The ice wasn’t as fluffy as Wailua Shave Ice in Kapa’a (Kauai) or Waiola Shave Ice in Honolulu, but fine enough. Classic Rainbow (strawberry, mango, and pineapple syrups) and Tropical Delight (guava, pineapple and lilikoi syrups) were extremely good.

Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha
820 W Hind Dr #116
Honolulu, HI 96821
808.373.5111

Side Street Inn on Da Strip (Kaimuki, Honolulu)

It’s a good idea to book a reservation here, otherwise the wait can be a bit long during popular dinner hours. This place opened up on Kapahulu to be closer to the Waikiki crowd (the famous original is near Ala Moana Shopping Center). Portions tend to be large, so sharing is essential. It’s best to come with a large party to taste more than a few things. Two years ago, we thought highly of their Da’ Works Fried Rice and Da’ Famous Pan Fried Island Pork Chops, both signature dishes. This time around, Kula’s Farmer Blend Salad, a good salad, had an interesting garnish of fried Okinawan sweet potato curls and capers. But, leathery beyond belief was their special Chinese-Style Pork Ribs. Better was Misoyaki Chicken, cooked perfectly with nice grill marks.

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

The Pig and the Lady (Chinatown, Honolulu)

My sister-in-law read about The Pig and the Lady and took us there for dinner back in 2014. It’s located in Honolulu’s Chinatown and has a non-descript storefront that you would be hard-pressed to associate with one of Bon Appetit’s best restaurants of 2014. After that memorable dinner, my wife and I saw their stand at Honolulu’s Saturday Market and had one of the best sandwiches we ever ate (Pho French Dip). So, it was a no-brainer to go back. We originally intended to have dinner there, but it was booked solid throughout our entire stay. We went for lunch instead, sharing the Pho French Dip Sandwich, Laotian Fried Chicken Wings and Smoked Eggplant & Crispy Rice. The sandwich was as legendary as before. The eggplant appetizer was kind of like baba ghanoush with Vietnamese flavors on toasted crispy rice crackers. Crispier wings I’ve never had. With that killer sauce (and fried shallots, roasted peanuts and finely shredded kaffir lime leaves), it was all I could do not to order another round. Superb.

But, the amazement didn’t stop there. We shared a couple desserts. P&L has what it calls a soft serve program in which a special frozen custard and sorbet are featured for limited times. Today’s custard was lilikoi. Infused with coconut liqueur (I think the waitress said), sprinkled with candied mac nuts and generously served with Frangelico whipped cream, the pumpkin chiffon pie was divine. The Pig and the Lady is a stellar restaurant, clearly the best dining experience of our entire trip.

The Pig and The Lady
83 N. King St.
Honolulu, HI 96817
808.585.8255

Grilled Abalone (KCC Saturday Farmers’ Market, Kaimuki)

The Big Island farms abalone that is sold commercially, mainly to Japan. They are also sold at the Honolulu farmers’ market every Saturday. Rather small in size (they are a species from Northern Japan called ezo), they’re grilled and sold in pairs. Once you pick up your order, you can sprinkle any number of sauces on them, including soy sauce, bottled lemon juice and yuzu sauce. They’re meaty and mild in flavor and a unique experience if you’ve never had fresh abalone.

OnoPops (KCC Saturday Farmers’ Market, Kaimuki)

Ice pops seem to be the rage these days. As with many things mundane, artisanal updates use quality ingredients, sometimes organic, including fresh local fruit, such as OnoPops based in Kauai. As you would expect, quite a few island fruits get to show off their flavors. I got their lychee pop. It wasn’t strongly flavored of the fleshy nut and was too crunchy, like ice cubes, as if it had partially thawed and re-froze.

onopop - 1

Lychee pop

Mean Da Chicken (Kaka’ako, Honolulu)

Huli huli chicken is the signature chicken dish of Hawaii. Recipes usually call for teriyaki blend (half soy sauce, half sugar), ketchup and pineapple juice. They’re grilled over kiawe wood in large barbecue trailers and can be seen only on weekends where some sort of fund-raiser is going on. We’ve never been lucky enough to stumble on one, mostly because we don’t usually have a car (except a rental to go to the North Shore). So, I went on an internet search for more stationery purveyors and found three. One is in Haleiwa (Ray’s Kiawe Broiled Chicken, only on Saturdays), one in Kaneohe (Mike’s Huli Chicken, everyday) and one across from Ward Warehouse in Honolulu (Saturdays only). The last used to be Stanley’s Huli Huli Style BBQ Chicken but is now (or been replaced by) Mean Da Chicken. Da Bag included a half chicken, 2 musubi, choice of kim chee or chips and a drink. You can also get just a half chicken (no sides). Flavors were smoky, savory and slightly sweet, nicely balanced. The problem was that by the time we got there at noon, the grilling had already been done and the chicken sealed in plastic baggies and kept hot in containers. This promoted steaming and ruined the crispy skin. While the dark meat was succulent, the breast meat was too dry. Nothing is served on plates; everything is packed in a brown bag and in plastic grocery bags, which makes things messy when you want to eat on the spot. Overall, not the best experience but a tasty chicken.

Grilling huli chicken (image on Yelp by Nadine C.)

Half chicken (image from Yelp by Lori I.)

Mean Da Chicken
940 Auahi
Honolulu, HI 96814
(Sports Authority parking lot across from Ward Warehouse)

Waiola Shave Ice (Kaka’ako, Honolulu)

I noticed it first when we strolled through Ward Warehouse a few days before. The great Waiola Shave Ice just off Kapahulu Ave now has an operation at the Warehouse. Plus, there are places to sit down in a common eating area shared with other restaurants. What intrigued me was a product called milk ice (which seems like a variation of Taiwanese snow ice). This is the way they describe it: “Made with real cane sugar, regular milk, and concentrated syrup which contains real fruit juice. After we mix the liquids, then we add the shave ice and mix it up again. Finally, we dress it up with condensed milk and fruit toppings.” They were very good, both the lilikoi and mango versions. They’re thicker than regular shave ice because of the milk, almost custardy. They come only in the ‘large’ size—humongous. Next time, I’ll stick with regular shave ice, which my wife did. She ordered one with an intense flavor of lilikoi.

Mango milk ice (image from Yelp by Val D.)

Waiola Shave Ice
1050 Ala Moana Blvd
Honolulu, HI 96814
(Ward Warehouse)
808.591.9922

Ono Seafood (Kaimuki, Honolulu)

I’ve only had excellent ahi poké in Hawaii, and nowhere else. It has to do with the absolute freshness of the ahi tuna, which the Islands have in abundance. The texture is smooth, almost buttery, the flavors clean and sweet. You could say it’s almost impossible to have bad poké in Hawaii. Ono Seafood on Kapahulu Ave is one of the best. Almost impossible to find, with no street signage and set back in a parking lot on the bottom floor of an apartment building (it’s the first lot mauka the Tesoro gas station), even the interior space is tiny, awash in turqoise like you’re underwater. My favorite is #1, ahi poké which combines tuna, sweet onions, kukui nuts, limu, sesame oil, soy sauce and chile peppers. I had it for the first time in 2014, and now, almost two years later, it did not disappoint. Wonderful.

Ahi poke

Ahi poke

Ono Seafood
747 Kapahulu Ave
Honolulu, HI 96816
808.732.4806

Advertisements

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