Dining: Best Local Food
The tasty portion of our Best of Honolulu 2004 issue.
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Best Ahi Salad
It’s $7, crunchy, soft and spicy. A small eatery called Sushi Land serves up an ahi vegetable salad, an attractively arranged bowl of slivered green and purple cabbage, chopped iceberg lettuce and finely julienned carrots and cucumbers—all topped with ahi sashimi, garnished with tobiko and slivers of nori. Drizzle it with sesame seed or ko chu jang (Korean chili paste) dressing or both, mix it all up and your taste buds will delight in the mix of crunchy and soft textures and spicy flavors. Adding warm rice makes it even better. The salad comes alone ($7) or in a "set" with miso soup and rice; there are salmon and hamachi variations, too. The best part is you feel like it’s so good for you. And it probably is. Sushi Land, 1610 S. King St., 945-2256.
Best Pastries, Breakfast
Lots of bakeries in Honolulu can supply reputable Danish, doughnuts or croissants to supplement your morning coffee. But we ducked into Kakaako Kitchen one morning, and found some baked goodies that were out of the ordinary, and, frankly, scrumptious. They are the work of pastry chef Lisa Siu. Siu’s morning buns are cinnamon rolls, with just enough spice and sugar, not the gooey mess of similar concoctions. Her scones are well flavored, light and crumbly, and her dense, but remarkably moist banana poi and pumpkin ginger breads are so good you’ll be amazed when your slice disappears lickety-split. (Most of these pastries are big enough to split.) Morning is hard enough, it should always taste this good. Kakaako Kitchen, Ward Centre, 1200 Ala Moana Blvd., 596-7488.
Best Bread, Baguette
Nothing beats a baguette with a crisp-but-not-tough crust surrounding a chewy, moist interior. After tasting so many baguettes that our table was covered with bread crumbs, we found the perfect combination in the baguette from the Patisserie. We loved it plain, and we loved it slathered with salted butter and accompanied by red wine. There are so many good breads around now that it was tough distinguishing this loaf. But it easily surpasses some of the recently popular Mainland breads (La Brea, Grace, Raymond and others) that arrive as frozen dough and are baked in Hawaii’s supermarkets. Some of these, let it be known, deserve a few more minutes in the oven to achieve their intended good flavor and texture. Patisserie, Kahala Mall, 4211 Waialae Ave., 735-4402.
Best Bread, Specialty
This wasn’t true even five years ago, but Hawaii now has wonderful breads, everything from cheese loaves to pain rustique. Of all the specialty breads we tried, the stand-out was La Brea’s Whole Grain Bread, available in a two-loaf pack at Island Costco outlets. We felt virtuous eating this—it’s full of things like flax, millet and cracked wheat—but what we liked best was the rich, slightly sweet flavors, the wonderful soft texture and the firm crust. Devotees of complex carbs should know this bread does contain some refined white flour, but it’s also full of everything from soy to rye to sunflower seeds. Also worth noting: Most Costco outlets sell this in the standard paper La Brea bags, but at Costco Hawaii Kai it’s sold in plain plastic bags with a Kirkland label. "We had trouble with the paper bags breaking," said a bakery worker there, "but it’s La Brea bread." Costco, five Island locations.
Best Shave Ice
Yummy Ice Garden doesn’t have the reputation of a Matsumoto’s (yet), maybe because it’s tucked into a tiny space off Fort Street Mall, but it makes a near-perfect shave ice. The ice is powdery fine, comparable to Waiola’s, our other top contender, and the serving size generous. The toppings range from the familiar (mochi balls and ice cream) to the adventurous (grass jelly and sweet corn). In the end, though, it’s all about the syrup, and Yummy’s has plenty. The owners add simple syrup after packing the first scoop of ice, which ensures you never hit a dry spot. The result is an overload in the best sense of the word, sure to leave you bouncing off the walls for hours. Making one does take time, but then, good things do. To keep your waiting time to a minimum, call or fax in an order ahead of time. 79 S. Pauahi St., 533-3142.
Here’s the scoop on the ice:
Most of us think you just freeze water from the tap to make ice for shave ice. Wrong. This is serious business, a labor-intensive one at that, according to Joyce Lai of Pure Gold, a company that supplies many of the shave ice vendors on O‘ahu. Her company specializes in block ice for shave ice, using stainless steel molds in square or rectangular shapes, filtered water and special freezing tanks. It takes 16 to 20 hours to properly freeze a block of ice. “During the summer it’s difficult to keep everyone supplied,” says Lai, “but we refuse to cut down on the time. We don’t short cut the process.”