Drinks and Pupu in Hawaii
Pupu on the Rocks: You can’t always judge a great drinks and pupu place from the outside.
Years ago, when the original Side Street Inn had not yet become a legend, you might have taken a look at the place from the outside, and said, Uh, no, let’s go someplace else.
You would have missed the pork chops and fried rice.
I’ve been thinking about how drinks and pupu are a kind of local art form. Sure, there are bars and bar food all over America. In Anytown, U.S.A., you can probably find all the fried calamari or Buffalo wings you want. But only in Hawaii would you hear, “It’s a great bar. Make sure to have the pork chops.”
Hawaii takes getting together with friends, having a few drinks and eating pupu seriously. We don’t just drink, we want large platters of something local style, delicious and not too expensive.
Places like that—like the original Side Street—are often places you’d hesitate to go if you didn’t know about them.
Home Bar & Grill
1683 Kalakaua Ave., (808) 942-2235, Daily 2 p.m. to 2 a.m., Valet (and some free) parking, major credit cards.
Such was the case for me with Home Bar & Grill.
Upon opening early this year, Home Bar & Grill exploded into the Twitterverse and Blogosphere. Instantly famous. I wondered why.
Home’s uninviting, squat, gray exterior screamed Dive Bar. Not much parking in the patchy asphalt lot, either.
Of course, my first glimpse of the original Side Street Inn was hardly heartening. I went inside only because Alan Wong insisted the food was good.
Soon, people started messaging me with pictures of Home’s Nacho Tater Tots. Really? I thought. A place whose signature item is Tater Tots glopped with stadium-style cheese? This is making people happy?
Finally, I gave in and met some younger friends there. Almost didn’t make it: No place to park. More or less by accident, I navigated to the back entrance on Kalauokalani Way, where mercifully there’s valet parking.
Inside, not exactly the bar at Morimoto’s. Larger than it looks on the exterior. Lots of black vinyl booths and beer signs. Lots of young guys in cargo shorts, T-shirts and baseball caps. Also groups of women, mostly coworkers out for pau hana, I’m guessing.
Not a dive, definitely not a dive, too comfortable and friendly. It wasn’t upscale, but it was, well, sort of homey. The young waitresses in Home T-shirts seemed eager to take your order.
I decided to get it over with quickly: Nacho Tater Tots. “Don’t worry,” said my friends. “We already ordered them.”
I am of two minds about Nacho Tater Tots. On the one hand, nachos are nachos: gooey, liquid “cheese” squirted out of a pump, salsa, sliced jalapeno, black olives, green onions and sour cream (if I had to guess, artificial). Yawn.
On the other hand, Tater Tots are a childhood favorite of mine. They’re a step up from corn chips. They’ve got crunch and salt, but also better flavor and (is this a word?) biteability.
As nachos, they’re a mess. With a chip, you can at least theoretically scoop up the toppings with only one end, keeping your hands from getting covered with goo. “Oh, go on, get your hands dirty,” urged my friend. “They’re worth it. Aren’t they?”
Yes, in the sense that they’re food that you don’t have to take seriously, nor can you take yourself seriously while eating it, which may make sense as you order your second round of Jim Beam on the rocks.
No Maker’s Mark; it wasn’t that kind of bar. Hardly the kind of place with hand-squeezed juices and exotic bitters. “Don’t order anything complicated,” instructed my friend. “We did once and regretted it. We’re here for food.”
Kalbi noodles: Unexceptional yakisoba with some standard kalbi ribs piled on top. This wasn’t exactly a dish, just two things piled on the same plate.
Pork chops. “Since Side Street, all local pupu places have to have pork chops,” said my friend. Home’s pork chops were similar to Side Street’s, not an exact copy.
Home’s chops are thinner, with a remarkably even brown crust, which gave them an exceptional crunch. They were piled with grilled onions, which added a just enough sweet bite. Not Side Street’s, which have the aura of legend when you bite into them. But certainly good on their own, and a nice attempt not to reinvent the dish, but put Home’s own spin on it.
Finally, and this should be Home’s signature item, garlic chicken. Real chicken pieces, boneless, heavily coated with batter and deep-fried. (This is bar food, after all, not Peace Café.) The real winner was the sauce, good, sweet-spice-garlic flavor, and nicely drizzled, just enough. The sauce soaked in and didn’t make your fingers sticky. Then you could dive in and pick out the garlic chips. Bar-food heaven.
Drinks and pupu for three was only $80 with tip. I’ll come back Home one of these nights.
Café Duck Butt
901 Kawaiahao St., (808) 593-1880, Daily 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., Limited parking, major credit cards, Facebook: Café Duck Butt.
I told the g.m. of a major Hawaii restaurant chain I was going to Duck Butt. He said, “I’ve driven by it, but I was scared to go in.”
It’s a gray, one-story, nearly windowless building in the back streets of Kakaako, hardly any parking. It does have a comic duck on the sign, but, given the exterior, the duck seems slightly sinister.
I was prompted to try Duck Butt by my far hipper and younger friend, Gene. Did Gene know the place? When he walked in, late, because cool dudes are always late, the waitress said, “Oh, hi, Gene.” She fetched him his vodka and soda without even asking.
Inside, Duck Butt’s a reasonably nice, lit bar, with white booths. In the back, two karaoke rooms, which means that the main room stays blissfully karaoke free, although it does have K-pop music videos playing incessantly on eight large TV screens, with girl groups in matching outfits singing about bubbles or something.
My favorite part of the décor: fluorescent Post-It notes overflowed a bulletin board on the back wall, scores and scores of them. If you loved Charlene or felt Hilo was Da Best, you could register your sentiments without resorting to graffiti. Just write it on a provided Post-It and stick it on the wall.
I assumed that Duck Butt got its name because someone was deaf to its overtones in English, much like the Chinese restaurant, Fook Yuen.
“No,” said Gene. “Duck Butt is the way you praise a woman’s a** in Korean. As in, ooh, look at the Duck Butt on that girl.”
Life is an education.
There were eventually four of us, the better to work our way through the menu during the 5-to-8 p.m. happy hour. The pupu at Duck Butt, we soon realized, were Korean style.
With a modern spin. Having learned from lunch trucks, Duck Butt makes a big deal of its Korean tacos, a variety of flavors, pork, kalbi and so forth. The problem: No matter which meat you try, the tacos all taste like only two things, tortilla and hot sauce. Skip.
Fortunately, there’s better to be had.
Appealing ginger pork slices, a little sweet as they often are in Hawaii.
Some tasty, not-too-thick jun, red with kim chee, perfect with drinks.
Finally, a drum roll, please, Korean fried chicken.
Duck Butt’s chicken does not perhaps rise to the heights of Choon Chun Chicken BBQ’s, but it is real Korean chicken. The Koreans have perfected this American dish, using smaller chickens, deep-frying them twice, uncoated, so that the skin is wondrously crisp. It’s served simply with a salt-pepper mix and daikon cubes. Did we like it? We ate one whole chicken and ordered another.
You couldn’t ask for more. The waitress even warned us that it was five minutes before the end of happy hour, so we could order a round of drinks before the price went up.
The price tag on the evening was $150 with tip, but there were four of us, we’d ordered, ahem, more than one bottle of soju, a few vodka sodas and, for the young woman in our party, a sweet blue cocktail called AMF. I am not sure whether I want to know what that stands for.
1272 S. King St., (808) 596-0700, Monday-Friday 4:30 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Saturday - Sunday 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., Free parking behind the restaurant, major credit cards, tsunamihawaii.com.
Someone suggested I try a King Street lounge called Tsunami. Lots of positive reviews on Yelp. That will teach me to trust Yelp.
It fit my criteria. Blank façade on the outside, windowless. Inside was another matter. Tsunami has nightclubby pretensions—black leather couches, coffee tables, big-screen TV monitors, waitresses in short shorts and boots, a sort of blue glow to the lighting.
Trying too hard, I thought.
Same with the menu. It’s much the usual Honolulu pupu, dressed-up, fancy presentations that didn’t quite live up to their looks.
Once again, thanks to Colin Nishida’s Side Street, there were pork chops. Tsunami’s were elegant, a boneless chop, slightly breaded, then thin sliced and spread in a semicircle around a black plastic ramekin of not particularly delicious chipotle mayo.
Yelp had praised the poke balls, softball-size, deep-fried balls of rice, with poke inside. The poke was good, standard stuff, though difficult to eat with its thick coating of crisped-up rice. It was far better as a plain platter of poke.
The spicy ahi was beautiful, arriving in a bowl created by coating nori in a batter and deep frying it. Looked good, the ahi in spicy mayo overflowing the bowl, topped with tobiko. But the spicy ahi was pretty standard, and neither the bowl (made perhaps a day or two ahead) nor the rice was good to eat.
Not the rice? The four of us had ordered a lot of food, including a platter of kimchee fried rice. Nice color, decent spice, but the rice sodden, wet. “It’s not cooked all the way,” said one of my friends. Perhaps scooped out of the rice cooker too early. We left it, hardly touched.
The drinks on the rocks were honest pours and only $7. The pupu weren’t expensive, the waitress was pleasant. Four of us for $150, but, after we sampled the food, we went off to try somewhere else.
39 N. Hotel St., (808) 585-8439, Tuesday - Saturday 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., No parking, major credit cards.
If Yelp led me astray, Facebook came to my rescue. I’d asked for drinks and pupu suggestions. One of my friends wrote that the shot she’d ordered at Duck Butt came flaming, and posted a picture. Wild friends.
Not the two I was going out with that night, however. These two ladies were dubious about the entire idea of bars that looked like you might hesitate to enter.
“How about the bar at Nobu?” they asked. “Vino? Morimoto’s? SALT?”
All wonderful, all a little off concept.
Finally, on Facebook, young-man-about-town Brent Nakano came to my rescue. Take them to thirtyninehotel, he suggested.
Now, thirtyninehotel is not exactly a dive, but it does have zero parking and you have to climb a narrow stairway off Hotel Street to get there. Close enough, considering the company.
“But thirtyninehotel doesn’t even have a kitchen,” they complained.
Turns out it has barely a kitchen, a four-burner stove and a tiny prep area. In that unpromising space, young chef Jamal Lahiani works miracles.
Lahiani (Moroccan-German by ancestry) was born in Chicago, grew up here, Pearl City High. Back to the Midwest for a degree in anthropology, some restaurant jobs.
He moved to Morocco to become a Moroccan chef. That didn’t work out.
Torn between returning to Chicago or Hawaii, Lahiani chose Hawaii. Short stints at Casablanca and Town, then his own kitchen, if that’s the right word, at thirtyninehotel.
We sat on the pleasant rooftop lanai, enjoying the fresh, skillful, well-thought-out cocktails (at last, a decent drink). The menu, “Modern Multiethnic Cuisine,” was short and spare: shrimp skewers, fried chicken, mahimahi, steak.
The menu seriously undersells the food, which, when it started to arrive, was near brilliant, especially for food in a Chinatown bar.
The lemongrass-marinated shrimp were touched by some deft Indian spicing. We fought over them.
The fresh mahimahi was done butterfish-style, tender, rich with sake and mirin flavors. The fish was served over warm, marinated soba noodles, in a sesame oil-green onion vinaigrette. For a sauce, much the same vinaigrette enriched with tahini.
The sirloin strip, cut pupu style, was rubbed with Italian sausage spices, nicely grilled.
Finally, a dish the menu called chicken and mashed potatoes. Oh, my goodness. The chicken was braised for five hours in a seasoned stock, then cooled. Before frying, it was coated in gluten-free rice and tapioca flour batter.
The chicken was remarkable, but we ended up fighting over the mashed potatoes. They were orange with ancho chilis, touched with garlic and bay leaves. I could have eaten a whole bowl full.
The plate even looked great, touched up with lightly pickled red cabbage.
You have to try this guy’s food.
It’s a huge bonus that it’s casual and inexpensive: The fish and steak are $15, the chicken $11, the evening for three, complete with lots of well-crafted, interesting cocktails, $135.
If Lahiana’s food is just the sort of thing to share with friends over drinks, well, that’s one of the joys of living in Honolulu, where we take bar pupu seriously.
John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.