Dining: Crying Uncle
In which I get over my prejudice against restaurants named Uncle’s.
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It was the Chicago novelist Nelson Algren who wrote, “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s.”
Algren was sadly silent about restaurants called Uncle’s, but I’ve always felt a similar skepticism should apply. Uncle’s, indeed! I want to eat, not join the family. Besides, none of my uncles, real or hānai, could cook a lick.
Without it rising to a conscious prejudice, I’ve avoided places named Uncle’s This or That. Until this month when, for reasons more complicated than interesting, I ended up with a friend waiting on a third friend at Uncle’s Fish Market on Pier 38.
Uncle's Fish Market and Grill
Pier 38, 1135 N. Nimitz Highway // 275-0063 // Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Friday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. // www.unclesfishmarket.com
Uncle’s is located in what’s now called the Commercial Fishing Village, near Nico’s and the fish auction. To get to the restroom, you have to leave the restaurant and walk across the street to a state facility.
On my way back, I ran into singer Eric Gilliom. Something of a surprise, since he lives on Maui.
“I’m over here all the time,” he said. “My uncle owns this place.” Really? Someone’s real uncle?
Gilliom introduced me to an engaging gentleman named Bruce Johnson. Johnson’s mother and Eric’s grandmother were sisters, so technically they’re first cousins once removed. “But I’ve always called him uncle,” said Eric.
It turns out that Johnson owns a major wholesaling firm called Fresh Island Fish, and the restaurant is actually a corner of his Oahu headquarters. He toured us through the quiet, empty, giant refrigerated rooms in the back. “You should see this in operation,” he said. “We do 30,000 pounds of fish a day.”
Johnson didn’t name Uncle’s after himself. He first came to the Islands at age 13, part of a touring Pop Warner football team. He stayed with a Hawaiian family in a pink Waikīkī bungalow, and left after a few weeks in tears, vowing to return. That he did at age 17, determined to learn the fishing business.
He says he owes a debt to all the “uncles,” Hawaiian, Portuguese, Japanese, who showed him the ropes.
Those uncles were no-nonsense, no-frills guys. Uncle’s the restaurant also dispenses with frills, like, for instance, service.
Earlier in the evening, while my friend and I were waiting for a third friend to join us (and she was much delayed), we decided nothing would blunt the edge of our impatience like drinks and oysters.
Drinks you get from a cocktail waitress. Food, you order at the counter. The counterman took our money, reached into a refrigerator and handed us a half-dozen oysters on the half shell, a lemon wedge and a plastic container of cocktail sauce—all shrink-wrapped to a foam tray, like the kind on which supermarkets sell meat.
I’d never encountered a $12 appetizer on a meat tray before. But we had to admit the oysters were fresh, plump and great with just a squeeze of lemon.
Our friend called, said she was off work, but going home to shower first, so we ordered yet more appetizers.
This time we were handed one of those flying saucer-shaped pagers. When it lit up and buzzed, we picked up our food at the counter.