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Restaurant and food reviews (Oahu)

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Restaurant and food reviews (Oahu)

chazuke | Mar 13, 2010 09:42 PM

We just got back from Oahu this past Monday. It was windy the entire time, gusting up to 30mph in Honolulu. Then, rain came later during our stay. We had planned on exploring outdoor Oahu somewhat, but the weather prevented that. There is one silver lining—we were able to concentrate on where we were going to have the next great meal. Thanks to the many discussions on this board and Yelp reviews, we were able to narrow down our choices. Regrettably, we weren't able to get to a few places we wanted to try, e.g., Side Street Cafe, Mitsuken, and others, for lack of opportunity. But, there's always next time. Following are short summaries of our dining experiences. I welcome your comments.

MATSUMOTO (located in Haleiwa) VS. WAIOLA (Kapahulu) SHAVE ICE - We had the good fortune of visiting both on this trip, a great way to compare two of the best on Oahu. Waiola's is definitely finer, more fluffy. The downside of such driven snow is that it will melt more quickly when it's hot outside or if the syrups are not super-cold. This was borne out by experience: Waiola's ice mounds slumped somewhat from the warmer syrups, while Matsumoto's held their shape. Our favorite was Waiola's by a small margin because of the fineness of the ice. Both have great syrups. Since we like tropical fruits so much, we tended to get lilikoi, lychee, pina colada and the like. I had mine with vanilla ice cream at both places, a remarkable combination to my taste. I have never taken to kintoki, so I didn't bother. At Waiola, you can get other extras, like li hing mui powder, Hershey's chocolate syrup, and lilikoi cream, plus elaborate bowls of combinations of ice cream, azuki beans, chocolate, flan and condensed milk, all of which to me are detractions from the main event. There is nothing like Hawaiian shave ice.

GIOVANNI'S VS. FUMI'S (both in Kahuku on the North Shore) - On our swing through the North Shore, we decided to compare the shrimp made at the original and most famous purveyor and at the place we tried (and loved) last year. As for the garlic and butter, it was a draw: Fumi's more buttery, Giovanni's more garlicky. On the other hand, Fumi's was the clear winner on the spicy version. Their combination of chile pepper sauce, sriracha and butter clearly was superior to Giovanni's sauce of what seemed to be an uninspired combination of chile pepper sauce and vinegar. In addition, Giovanni's spicy shrimp were overcooked. Our choice: Fumi's.

BUBBIES - These are wonderful island-made (in Aiea) mochi ice creams. If you've never had a mochi ice cream, you're in for a treat. Mochi (pounded sweet rice) encases a flavored ice cream center. Biting through the soft, chewy mochi exterior to the cold ice cream inside is a textural and flavor inspiration. There are a good number of flavors. The lilikoi and lychee were simply delicious. There are two outlets on Oahu (one on University just outside of Waikiki, the other in Koko Marina Shopping Center in Hawaii Kai). You can also get a small selection at the Coffee Bean as well as selected Japanese restaurants in Honolulu.

KONA BREWING COMPANY (Koko Marina Shopping Center, Hawaii Kai) - Home of the Pipeline Porter (available on the mainland), KBC makes several more brews, some of which are available only on tap. Everything is brewed on the Big Island, the headquarters which the staff affectionately calls the Mother Ship. Pipeline is the remarkable brew blended with Kona coffee. At the Koko Marina Shopping Center pub, you can get a flight of four 4-oz glasses. Our flight consisted of Black Sand Porter (very dark, bitter chocolatey, roasty), Duke’s Blond Ale (light, crisp), Lavaman Red Ale (caramel, orange-red in color, malty), and Wailua Wheat (medium, slightly sweet, passion fruit, tangy). Pub food is also available, though we didn't partake.

LEONARD'S (Kapahulu) - No visit to Honolulu would be complete without a stopover at Leonard's. Their malasadas are to-die-for. Warm out of the oven, they are dangerously addictive. Our coconut- and lilikoi-flavored custard fillings were astonishing. Their coffee is forgettable, but then who goes there for the coffee? There is always a line, including Japanese tourists who have discovered Leonard's. You can also get dobash and haupia fillings, and even plain, but I lust after the custards. Yowza!

SWEET HOME CAFE (McCully/Moiliili) - Taiwanese hot pot is their specialty. First, you select a broth from among many. Their most popular are the house special, spicy and healthy herb broths. Then, you choose one or more meats (beef, pork, lamb, or beef tongue). If you want two broths (should those in your party want to try different ones), you will be charged for two broths, which will be served in a divided vessel. We selected the spicy and house special broths, both of which were excellent. Once you get seated, you then select however many wrapped plates of other ingredients you want from the coolers along the back wall. Each plate is color-coded, each color corresponding to a price. There is a bewildering selection of vegetables, seafood, organ meats, noodles, and several kinds of tofu from which to choose. I can’t even provide a complete list. We chose soft tofu, watercress, sliced squashes, nappa, lobster balls, and fresh shiitake. As if selecting ingredients weren’t enough, you can choose one or more of fourteen different dipping sauces. Once the meal is over, you will be given a dessert gratis. Finely ground ice (not as fine as shave ice) was surrounded by scoops of green tea and pineapple tapioca pearls, coffee mochi cubes and soft tofu, and the whole works drizzled with almond cream, condensed milk and topped with an espresso mousse. Despite the fact that the tapioca flavors were artificial and the ice clumped in several places, the mousse, mochi balls and almond flavor broke da mout. If you stuffed yourself with the main meal, you’ll still find the room to (mostly) finish this stellar dessert. It’s possible that the dessert might change periodically. The staff is very friendly. A true dining experience.

JIMBO (McCully/Moiliili) - For udon lovers, this is the place. Made in the Hokkaido style (according to the waiter), the broth is rich and smoky. Jimbo's dedication to quality is clear: one chef makes the broth at night, another makes the udon fresh in the morning. The result is a superior noodle, soft on the outside, chewy on the inside. They can also be had in large or skinny sizes, though I prefer the regular. We ordered nabeyaki and ume wakame udon. The former comes piping hot in a traditional nabe with a single crispy, thinly battered shrimp tempura, a slice of Japanese eggplant tempura, kamaboko, baby bock choy, snow peas, negi, spinach, nappa, shiitake, and raw egg. For the ume wakame udon, the ume flesh is scraped from the pit and minced. It provided a tart counterpoint to the smoky broth, a wonderful combination. For you adventurous types, Jimbo also has natto bukkake udon, which comes in a darker broth and topped with the ultimate slime combination of natto, grated okra, and daikon oroshi. This was one of our favorite restaurants.

POKE STOP (Waipahu) - On our way to leeward Oahu, we stopped in Waipahu to have chef Elmer Guzman's poke at Poke Stop, located in Waipahu Town Center. There is quite a list to choose from. We ordered sweet ahi tuna (ahi lightly seasoned with sesame oil, sprinkled with green onions, raw onions, chile flakes and toasted sesame seeds), seared ahi bowl (seared ahi served atop a bowl of furikake-sprinkled rice), and crispy chicken chunks (chicken thigh pieces lightly battered and combined with a spicy taegu sauce). Everything was delicious. A big minus is that there is nowhere to sit down inside; there are a few tables outside, but the noise from the highway and strip mall traffic was loud.

GULICK DELICATESSEN (Kalihi) - Only a few blocks from Bishop Museum, this place, oddly sounding like a Brooklyn diner, is worth seeking out as a super-okazuya. Locals have been eating here for a long time. If you're a first-time customer, you'll be intimidated by the choices, all nicely displayed behind glass counters. Here is a partial list: fried rice, tempura (both shrimp and vegetable), nishime, shoyu salmon, musubi (ume-filled or wrapped in nori or coated in furikake or Spam), chicken katsu, shoyu chicken, fried chicken, kimpira gobo, kombu maki, teri burger patty, chicken long rice, namasu, pork long rice, chow fun, shoyu hot dogs, garlic eggplant with pork, corn beef hash patties, sliced omelet, cucumber salad. It may not be gourmet, but this is Hawaiian comfort food, and it's cheap. You can mix-and-match or order plate lunches. You have more choice when you do the picking. Take-out only, we walked back to Bishop and ate there. It's located in a residential neighborhood, just off N School St. Closer to Waikiki, there is another Gulick's on S King, next door to Jimbo's.

YOTTEKO-YA (McCully/Moiliili) - There are many ramen shops in Honolulu. Everyone will have his/her favorite. We haven't eaten at any of the others, but I will say this—Yotteko-Ya is clearly one of the best we've had anywhere. Theirs is a paitan broth, cooked for 10 hours, using crushed pork bones, chicken and vegetables. It has a milky consistency, mainly due to the great amount of collagen that has been released during its painstaking manufacture. This is the broth, probably of Chinese origin, beloved by Kyoto-ites and rameniacs, at once subtle, refined and rich. And the ramen noodles are perfectly cooked, which by my preference is Japanese-style (al dente). You can also choose local-style (softer). The chashu is sinfully tender with teriyaki flavors. The various paitan choices differ mainly in the quantity of said chashu that is included. I got the Yasai Paitan, which included a single teasing slice of chashu, cabbage, onions, bean sprouts, green onions and carrot. Other variations dispense with as much vegetables in favor of more chashu. The restaurant is located on the second floor of McCully Shopping Center on the west end; the sign outside only reads "Kyoto Ramen," rather than "Yotteko-Ya."

LILIHA BAKERY (Kalihi) - famous for its coco puffs. The puffs are renown for their chantilly frostings and custardy centers. Some can be ordered with powdered sugar on top instead. These were very good, but personally, I'd rather have a Leonard's malasada if I'm going to keel over from cardiac arrest (figuratively speaking, of course). When it gets busy, you take a number and wait your turn. All the pre-packaged puffs in the self-help refrigerator were all gone by early afternoon.

HELENA'S HAWAIIAN (Kalihi) - Here is a neighborhood institution that was awarded the 2000 James Beard Regional Classics Award. Helena's is off the beaten path, i.e., far enough away from Waikiki that tourists aren't likely to seek it out (unless of course you're a chowhound). It's been serving local food for a long time and the prices are unbelievably cheap. Expect to find laulau, opihi, lomi salmon, fried butterfish collar, boiled butterfish collar with watercress, beef with watercress, kalua pig and chicken long rice. The best dish here undeniably is their pipikaula short ribs. The ribs are first marinated and then hung to dry over an oven. When ready to serve, they are fried in hot oil to crispy perfection. Even the slightly charred edges of fat explode with flavor. These are best eaten out of hand (your fingers will be slathered in grease). There is also occasional pockets of gristle to get past (unless you enjoy eating it), but most of the pieces are meaty. Dipped in poi, chili water and sprinkled with a little rock salt, you're in lani. The hearty beef flavor lingers long after the bones are discarded. If you've never had luau squid, here is your chance. Not unlike Indian saag in appearance, it is a stew of taro leaf, coconut milk and squid. Incredibly tasty. Helena's haupia is also darn good. You can order a la carte or choose among four plates. With menu D, you get kalua pig, lomi salmon, pipikaula, luau squid, small or large poi, and two scoop rice, a great way to sample Helena's good stuff. Highly recommended.

ONO'S HAWAIIAN (Kapahulu) - Very similar to Helena's menu, Ono's has also been around for a while (since the early 60s). It's much closer to Waikiki, and therefore prone to get the local and tourist crowds. Their kalua pig is excellent, cooked in the traditional way—imu, as is Helena's. The place isn’t much to look at from the outside, but once you step through the doors, you step into the small dining space and are greeted warmly by owner and staff alike. The walls are adorned with memorabilia and old photos, presumably of celebrities who’ve dined here. It seems that not much has been upgraded since the first day. The lady who brings your meal scopes you out and asks, “First time?” If it is, she will show you how to eat the meats with the poi, sliced raw onions, rock salt and chile water. We ordered a Kalua plate and salt meat with watercress (a la carte), an excellent dish. The plate is a good way to sample many of the islands’ favorites. Not only do you get whatever the plate is named for (such as Kalua pig) but every plate also gets lomi-lomi salmon, pipikaula, poi, rice and haupia. The salt meat with watercress was supposedly created by Ono's in the early days. Now, a few other island restaurants serve it. The pipikaula here is a kind of beef (flank steak) jerky, though not in the sense that most Americans know it. It is marinated, then dried, but not to a leathery texture. You can eat these with dentures. The prices here are more expensive than Helena's. Both places are great, with a slight nod toward Helena's.

SHIROKIYA FOOD LEVEL (Ala Moana Shopping Center, across from Macy's) - Anyone who has ever visited a department store in Japan knows that an entire floor is devoted to food. The second floor of Shirokiya extends that experience to Hawaiians (although a small portion stocks non-food items). There are both restaurants and small family-owned businesses that prepare the food. Most of the food is purchased for takeout, but there are some tables inside. The variety of food available is staggering. If you decide to pick up something for lunch or dinner, you'll have a hard time deciding what to choose. You can watch one place making takoyaki in those ebelskiver-like contraptions. There are all sorts of musubi and nigiri, too, including some with natto. Mikawaya, the confectionary from LA, and Yoku Moku, which makes those incredibly delicate and delicious cookies, also have a presence here. Occasionally, there will be a special celebration of foods from a particular province in Japan, like we discovered last year. These should not be missed. Learning from a great suggestion by Miss Needle who contributes to this board, we purchased some foods here to take on our flight home to the mainland.

EGGS 'N THINGS (Waikiki) - Eggs ‘n Things must be on every Japanese tourist’s guidebook. There are so many Japanese customers that the lady taking names at the door for the waiting list speaks fluent Japanese, though she’s obviously a local. There is almost always a line out the door to get seated. While you wait, you can pre-purchase coffee in paper cups, which will be re-filled when you get seated. We arrived a little before 8am, and that is probably a good bit of advice for anyone. Our wait was no more than 15 minutes; we climbed the outside stairway to the second floor where the restaurant actually is located. Their specialties are the pancakes, waffles and omelets, which can be ordered with a variety of toppings, including a light house-made cream. Pancakes can also be topped with their own coconut or mango syrup. The menu indicates which items are the most popular (ahi & eggs, Portuguese sausage & eggs, minced pork [the pork meaning a choice of sausage, ham, spam or bacon] & scrambled eggs, sour cream blueberry crepes, mac nut pancakes, etc.). Both of us wanted the Portuguese sausage and eggs, mine with scrambled and pan-fried potatoes, my wife's with fried eggs and rice. Without question, the sausages were the best we can remember ever having had. My potatoes were like an afterthought, because they were mealy on the inside. Go with the rice and fried eggs. This is definitely an upgrade to eating at Wailana Coffee House, also in Waikiki.

TONKATSU GINZA BAIRIN (on Beach Walk in Waikiki) - If you love tonkatsu, you owe it to yourself to go to Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin. They take its preparation to the next level, a dedication to quality that starts with the selection of choice Canadian kurobuta, to the use of fresh, high-quality cottonseed oil for frying, to the making of their own house tonkatsu sauce that, to my taste, has no equal. The batter is thinly applied and crispy. The prices are pretty steep, up to $35 for a kurobuta tonkatsu teishoku, $32 for a la carte. For a brief time, the restaurant is offering a special of Kurobuta Tonkatsu with Demi-Glace Sauce for “only” $26, which includes “mashed” potatoes that served as a bed for the tonkatsu (it had the consistency of soft potato salad), shredded cabbage, and spaghetti Japanese-style (mediocre). Having them serve the demi-glace on the side let me sample their signature tonkatsu unadorned and also left me with other sauce options, including their tonkatsu sauce and the dipping sauce that came with my wife's Wafu Oroshi Pork Loin Katsu ($21). The demi-glace is a viscous creation of two kinds of mushrooms (nameko and shiitake), stock and long-cooked onions (as in an onion soup) and other ingredients I couldn’t identify, an interesting, tasty enough sauce that seemed oddly unsuited to tonkatsu. But the tonkatsu sauce and the wafu oroshi were better. The wafu is an astounding dipping sauce--grated daikon artfully mounded in a pool of ponzu, soy sauce, and dashi, with shreds of katsuobushi for added flavor and texture. Even the shredded cabbage gets special treatment. You get your choice of several kinds of light and refreshing dressings. We chose the ume and the wafu. Lunchtime offers a plate for $13. The beverage list includes several premium sakes and beers. There is also a branch on the Shirokiya food floor, where you'll find pre-packaged tonkatsu (not recommended), but they can be cooked to order.

SATURDAY FARMERS MARKET (Kapiolani Community College) - This is, without doubt, one of the best farmers markets in the country for foodies. It has its share of produce stalls; they mainly benefit the locals who come here for fresh fruits and vegetables. But, I’ll wager that the vast majority of visitors come here for the incredible selection of prepared foods. We’re talking about food that Hawaiians love. The merging of cooking influences mostly from Asia is apparent in the offerings. While the food may not be the best you’ll ever have of this kind of comfort food, it is good. The variety alone in an open-air market setting is exciting. After carefully looking over all the offerings, at approximately 10:15 am (45 minutes before the market closed) we decided on a salmon fried rice and grilled kasu cod, grilled corn daubed with shoyu butter and furikake, grilled abalone and a mango and ginger drink. We almost lost out. The abalone that were selling for $5 a small pair had all sold out. I managed to get one of the last grilled corns. I did get the last fried rice combination, too. The moral of the story is that it’s best to get what you want early, even if it isn’t quite the lunch hour. As for the food itself, the kasu cod was delicious. The salmon fried rice tasted less interesting than it sounded, though it wasn’t bad. The corn was dried out from over-grilling and the furikake made it too salty. Any drink from the PacifiCool booth is always refreshing, although the large amounts of ice cubes tend to dilute the drink if left too long. For dessert, we snagged a couple of shave ices, one topped with lilikoi syrup, the other with ginger syrup which was also sprinkled with dried ginger flakes.

HONOLULU COOKIE COMPANY (multiple locations) - Outlets for this store can be found everywhere, including many locations in Waikiki. We discovered them last year. Their incorporation of tropical fruit flavors and Kona coffee in their shortbread cookies is astonishingly delicious. The good thing is that you can sample any of their cookies at any location. They just introduced coconut in their line just to tempt me, LOL. The coffee cookies have a deep coffee flavor. The one combined with dark chocolate is especially good. My favorites are the cookies with tropical flavors: lilikoi, coconut, pineapple and mango. It's probably a good thing that it costs a fortune to have them shipped via mail order.

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