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Kakaako's newest pop-up venue: Taste

Now Playing: Taste, a pop-up venue, isn’t a restaurant itself, but a host to new concepts.


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photos: rae huo

It’s hard to know what will appear in Kakaako next. Restaurants, cafés, gastropubs, cookspaces and burgermobiles have sprung up seemingly overnight amid night markets, art galleries and parklets (tiny, temporary parks). So Taste, in the middle of ever-evolving Kakaako, is very much a restaurant of its time and especially its place.

Four Kakaako entrepreneurs started this pop-up venue, which seats about 12. You can triple that number if you include the fold-up tables and chairs on the sidewalk and the seating in the back alley, which once looked like a part of Gotham City, but has been spruced up with bright colors, Christmas lights and stenciled messages: “Don’t grow up; it’s a trap,” and “Laugh until your stomach hurts.”

The fresh paint in this alley is more permanent than the menu at Taste, for, in many ways, Taste works more like a neighborhood movie theater than a restaurant. The attractions change regularly, and the restaurant itself isn’t as important as what’s playing on a given night.

Newbie cooks and established chefs occupy the same kitchen on different days: One lunch may feature an EMT who’s never cooked commercially before, but, Boom Musubi! suddenly decided to sell mochiko chicken musubi; another day, it may be Quinten Frye of Salt laying down lines of brisket and carrot habanero salsa on homemade corn tortillas.

There have been box-office hits (LeAnne Wong of Top Chef and Unique Eats cooking up pork kimchi gyoza and Katsu King Sammies) and flops (breakfast, apparently the most important meal of the day, which no one eats).

It used to be Aikane Café, a nondescript plate-lunch eatery; now it’s a hub for chefs, a meeting place for Kakaako movers and shakers. The partners involved are big community organizers, and perhaps because of the communal tables, informal nature, and novelty and uniqueness of the place, it has become a very social space. Every time I go, someone I have never met before will ask me questions: Have you been here before? What are you eating? Are the Brussels sprouts good? What’s a Gooch?

From left to right: partners Mark Noguchi, Amanda Corby, Brandon and Poni Askew, and Taste general manager Adam Lock.

The showmen (and women) of Taste

There are four partners in Taste—Mark Noguchi and Amanda Corby, and husband-and-wife team Poni and Brandon Askew of Eat the Street, the monthly food-truck rally. Noguchi, though, is usually the face of Taste.

His friends—and he has many; you may be one of them—call him “Gooch.” His personality is as memorable as his nickname; his head shot for the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival depicted him shirtless, muddy, ebullient, instantly recognizable in a program featuring starched chef whites.

Before Taste, Noguchi was the chef at Heeia Pier General Store and Deli, garnering national press including Travel and Leisure and Food Network. When HONOLULU first featured Heeia Pier, we wrote: “‘Some people are already calling it Gooch’s place,’ [Noguchi] says, with a faraway look in his eye. In an era of short-lived eateries, it might even be Gooch’s place for another generation: His lease runs for 35 years.” But last year, Noguchi and He‘eia Pier business partner Russ Inouye parted ways: Neither will say much about the split on record, just that they had different ideas of what “serving the community” meant.

“Heeia Pier changed my life and then it came to a screeching halt,” Noguchi says. “It was almost as bad as my divorce.”

After the Pier, Noguchi and his girlfriend Corby started Pili Hawaii, a catering company whose Hawaiian name means “to be intertwined, connected.” While Noguchi was depressed about his breakup with Heeia Pier, Corby was forming ideas about the space vacated by Aikane Café. She and Poni Askew dreamt up Taste as a culinary playground. They installed Noguchi as the resident chef, the kick in the pants he needed to move on. He set up the kitchen, but other gigs, including a Cooking Channel stint, pulled him away. Now that he’s back in town, he’s on this quarter’s roster, whipping up bites such as sweet and tart miso-glazed Brussels sprouts, smoked adobo stew and pork bruschetta topped with crispy pork ears.

Since Taste opened last October, 19 vendors have come through its kitchen serving dishes in the $8 to $12 range. On the next page, find synopses of several of Taste’s previous engagements, current features and a preview of coming attractions.

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Honolulu Magazine January 2018
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