4 Hawai‘i-Grown Ingredients Are Having a Moment at Our Favorite Restaurants
What do ‘ulu, mushrooms, shrimp and pork have in common? More farms are growing and raising them locally, inspiring chefs to create innovative dishes.
Unsurprisingly, things may be looking up for ‘ulu, another starchy canoe crop after kalo and banana—after all, it’s easy to grow and cheaper than taro. “‘Ulu is as whole a food as you’re going to get,” says Dean Wilhelm, who grows it at Ho‘okua‘āina farm in Maunawili. “It can go either savory or sweet. It’s gluten-free and can be processed into flour. Its versatility is amazing.” Start with these dishes:
Miyazaki Wagyu Chuck Rib Fricassée
Beef is the headliner, but Kāko‘o ‘Ōiwi’s ‘ulu features prominently in Honolulu’s most upscale breadfruit dish. Lightly fried and seared, it’s tossed with warabi ferns and tomatoes amid tastes of chimichurri and mustard seed—a fixture on Mavro’s $135 five-course menu. Curried ‘ulu with parsnips and chutney is on the $118 vegetarian prix fixe.
1969 S. King St., (808) 944-4714, chefmavro.com
Mud Hen Water
Mud Hen’s deceptively simple dish uses ‘ulu from 10 farms (primarily MA‘O Organic Farms in Wai‘anae, though it rotates depending on availability) and poaches the skinned chunks in salted water, then steams, cools and pan-fries them in olive oil and garlic with a dab of butter. House black bean sauce tinged with Hawaiian chili peppers, along with fresh scallions and cilantro, finishes the dish.
$8, 3452 Wai‘alae Ave., (808) 737-6000, mudhenwater.com
‘Ai Love Nalo
Starchy bits swim in a sea of mossy green in this vegan side dish, with hints of coconut and onion rounding out the lū‘au leaves. The dish is available when ‘ulu is in season—which varies with the weather—and lū‘au leaves are plentiful, so call ahead to check.
$7, 41-1025 Kalaniana‘ole Highway, Waimānalo, (808) 888-9102, ailovenalo.com
Garlic hits you first, then sweet pops of onion and corn. And then your teeth sink into chunks of soft, bready ‘ulu. Juicy Brew’s vegan chowder is sold at all O‘ahu Whole Foods stores, but at the two restaurants it joins breakfast burritos and other dishes in the island’s best ‘ulu lineup.
$8.50, 3392 Wai‘alae Ave., (808) 797-9177; 1401 S. Beretania St., (808) 469-1991; juicybrewhawaii.com
“If we grow Hawaiian staple foods like kalo, ‘ulu and banana, we’ll never starve.”
—Dean Wilhelm, Ho‘okua‘āina
Twenty minutes from downtown, off a winding residential lane in Maunawili, more than 50 ‘ulu trees rim a verdant lawn at Ho‘okua‘āina. Dean Wilhelm, executive director of the nonprofit, ticks off the varieties: Hawaiian, ma‘afala, pi‘ipi‘ia, pua‘a, ‘ulu fiti. “I’m trying to grow ‘ulu so we can feed our community,” Wilhelm says. “If we grow Hawaiian staple foods like kalo, ‘ulu and banana, we’ll never starve.”
Ho‘okua‘āina’s mission is to teach life skills to disadvantaged youth, many of Hawaiian ancestry, through mentoring and hands-on work—primarily cultivating kalo, which is grown and sold here. ‘Ulu is a more recent addition. To Wilhelm it’s a no-brainer: Plant a tree and it fruits every year with minimal maintenance compared to the back-bending work of tending a kalo lo‘i.
Demand is growing, he says, from individuals, organizations and restaurants like Juicy Brew. “At the end of the day I show the kids which ‘ulu is ready to pick, and within 10 minutes I have hot oil in the wok and I’m frying ‘ulu chips with a little salt and the kids are eating it. It’s the power of seeing the fruit come off the tree and made into food—I’m building demand for the future.”
Most of the mushrooms we eat are imported. Roughly 2 million pounds are shipped in every year, to top pizzas, pair with steaks or add depth to pasta. Local mushroom cultivation is increasing, with a few farms across the state supplying restaurants and grocery stores with various varieties, from shiitake to portobello. Here are four ways to try them:
Roy’s Hawai‘i Kai
Hawai‘i loves poke. Recently, local chefs have been playing with the dish’s basic ingredients to create exciting fishless versions. That’s what executive chef Lyndsey Simone at Roy’s Hawai‘i Kai did when she concocted a poke using three kinds of local mushrooms—portobello, cremini and shiitake—roasted and tossed with a kiawe-smoked sweet onion soy sauce and topped with a 63-degree soft-poached egg. It’s not currently on the menu, but this dish can be created upon request.
$12, 6600 Kalaniana‘ole Highway, (808) 396-7697, royshawaii.com
Maui Lehua Taro Cake
It may not be obvious this dish features Hāmākua mushrooms, but one bite into these taro cakes at Merriman’s Kapalua and you’ll taste the earthy fungi. The pan-sautéed cakes are soft but substantial, served with zucchini cut like fettuccine, Hirabara Farm Swiss chard and a tangy tomato-ginger coulis.
$31, 1 Bay Club Place, Lahaina, (808) 669-6400, merrimanshawaii.com
“Chefs … can feel the higher density and the firmness [of local mushrooms] under their knives.”
—Fung Yang, Small Kine Farm
Shiitake Mushroom Lasagna
What started out as a special for Restaurant Week last November is now on the dinner menu at Pai Honolulu. Local shiitake shine in this decadent lasagna, served in slices, with layers of a kombu-infused Mornay sauce—basically a classic béchamel sauce enriched with Gruyère—and pecorino, white cheddar and Gruyère cheeses.
$22, Harbor Court, 55 Merchant St., (808) 744-2531, paihonolulu.com
Hāmākua Wild Mushroom Pizza
Since Moku Kitchen opened in October 2016, the wood-fired pizzas have quickly become one of its most popular menu items—and its source of pride. Baked in a kiawe-wood-burning pizza oven, these 10-inch pies are hand-tossed and made with a dough that’s fermented for three days, which gives it a nice rise. While you can order a basic margherita pizza or one topped with smoky kālua pig and roasted pineapple, fungi fans won’t want to skip the Hāmākua mushroom pie. It combines garlic, Parmesan and truffle oil with the woodsy flavor of local mushrooms. It’s meant to be shareable, but we won’t judge if you wind up eating it all yourself.
$17, 660 Ala Moana Blvd., (808) 591-6658, mokukitchen.com
Small Kine Farm
For 10 years, Fung Yang has been growing certified organic portobello mushrooms in climate-controlled chillers on less than an acre of land in the back of Waimānalo. Called Small Kine Farm, it’s still the only certified organic mushroom farm on O‘ahu, churning out a few thousand pounds of mushrooms a month.
Yang grows two kinds of mushrooms: crimini mushrooms—called keiki portobello—which have a milder flavor and crispier texture, and large portobello mushrooms—or tūtū portobello—which are at least 4 inches in diameter and more robust in flavor.
Over the years, demand has increased and Yang streamlined production, making him able to supply more specialty grocers and local restaurants, including Alan Wong’s, Moku Kitchen, 12th Ave Grill and MW Restaurant.
“Our mushrooms have a longer shelf life and are juicier,” Yang says. “Chefs tell us as soon as they start cutting our mushrooms, they can feel the higher density and firmness under their knives.”
Shrimp continues its reign as the most popular seafood consumed in the U.S., with the average American eating more than four pounds a year. At least 80 percent of the shrimp we eat in the U.S. is farmed, mostly in Asia and South America. In Hawai‘i, we import most of our shrimp, too, though there are local aquaculture farms trying to change that. Here are four ways to sample locally grown shrimp:
Kaua‘i Shrimp Kabocha Risotto
Mahina & Sun’s
Kaua‘i shrimp lounge in a pool of bright kabocha risotto, which adds some sweetness and color to the plate, at Mahina & Sun’s. This is a local twist on the classic shrimp risotto dish, with locally grown long beans, fried sage and pumpkin seeds for crunch. What works here is the combination of the shrimp’s succulent texture and the chewy rice.
412 Lewers St., (808) 924-5810, mahinaandsuns.com
Antipasti di pesce
Arancino on Beachwalk
Everything on the plate—from the halved cherry tomatoes to the perfectly arranged black-shelled mussels to the delicate sea asparagus—is meticulously plated at Arancino on Beachwalk, turning this unassuming appetizer into a gorgeous work of art you almost don’t want to mess up. The crown jewel is the Kaua‘i shrimp, luscious and displayed in the center of the plate. All of the elements of this elegant antipasti—which include clams, scallops, calamari and octopus—are lightly tossed in a simple, well-balanced Italian dressing to let the ingredients shine.
$27, 255 Beach Walk, (808) 923-5557, arancino.com
Bouillabaisse with Kaua‘i Shrimp
Mama’s Fish House
This showstopping dish at Mama’s Fish House has been on the menu as far back as Karen Christenson can remember. The bouillabaisse is stacked with seafood all-stars: Kona kampachi, ‘ahi, ‘opakapaka, king crab, clams, scallops and, of course, plump Kaua‘i shrimp, all simmered in a saffron broth with traditional garlic rouille. “There have been times when we have taken it off the menu to make room for something more,” says Christenson, whose parents founded the iconic restaurant on the island’s north shore, “but we always end up bringing it back.”
$70, 799 Poho Place, Pā‘ia, (808) 579-8488, mamasfishhouse.com
Cold Noodles with Kaua‘i Shrimp
The Pig & The Lady
The latest menu at The Pig & The Lady is a culinary tour of Vietnam, with dishes inspired by specific regions of the country. The cold noodles, served only at lunch, is a modern take on the traditional bun (pronounced boo-un) dish of rice noodles served often with grilled fatty pork, fresh herbs and a side of nuoc cham (dipping sauce). Here, cold vermicelli noodles are paired with a choice of protein, which includes twice-fried salt-and-pepper shrimp raised on Kaua‘i or Hawai‘i Island. The dish also features roasted peanuts and fried shallots for texture, house pickles for acidity and aromatic herbs—mint, Thai basil, dill and rau ram (Vietnamese cilantro) grown in Kunia.
$18, 83 N. King St., (808) 585-8255, thepigandthelady.com
“I eat the heads, too. There’s so much flavor in the head.”
—Kimo Ka‘uhane, Kualoa Ranch
It’s no secret the stretch of Kamehameha Highway from Kahuku to Hale‘iwa is dotted with food trucks and roadside eateries serving plates of buttery garlic shrimp. But miles before you hit that first food truck, you’ll pass Kualoa Ranch, a 4,000-acre working ranch that, for a few years now, has been quietly raising Pacific white shrimp, for sale at its visitor center and, soon, in restaurants on O‘ahu. Every month the ranch harvests about 15,000 to 17,000 pieces of shrimp—Panaeus vannamei variety—from nine earthen ponds in Hakipu‘u. To ensure freshness, the shrimp is harvested daily in small batches by workers using a throw net—rather than scooping up an entire pond and storing them. They’re sold frozen at the ranch’s visitor center for $12 a pound and in the garlic shrimp plates ($16) at the restaurant, Aunty Pat’s Paniolo Café.
“Our shrimp is a little sweeter,” says Kualoa chef Kimo Ka‘uhane, who joined the ranch last year. “I don’t know if it has to do with the way the ponds are set up here, but it’s good. I eat the heads, too. There’s so much flavor in the head.”
Pig farms once dotted the Islands, providing an important protein in local diets. But over the years, many of these small family-run operations found the business too expensive or challenging. Over the past four decades, the number of pig farms in Hawai‘i dropped from 399 in 1978 to 131 in 2012. But interest in local pork has been on the rise, and today, you’ll see more restaurants highlighting it on their menus.
Braised 2 Lady Farmers Pork Shoulder
Basalt sous chef Justus Keliehor has a major thing for pork. “Bacon, pork belly—that’s always been my go-to,” he says. So it’s no surprise he came up with this dish. The pork shoulder, which comes from 2 Lady Farmers in Wai‘anae, is marinated in white wine, garlic, thyme and shoyu, then cooked sous vide for at least 24 hours. After it’s seared and roasted, the meat is served with an herby sauce verte and a side of house-made mustard jus made with the pork drippings, Dijon mustard and whatever IPA is on draft.
$25, Dukes Lane Market & Eatery, 2255 Kūhiō Ave., (808) 923-5689, basaltwaikiki.com
Pork Meatball Sandwich
Who doesn’t love a meatball sandwich? The version at Fête boasts fall-apart meatballs made with the Italian sausage that chef-owner Robynne Mai‘i crafts in-house, using 2 Lady Farmers pork. The meatballs are served on a toasted mini baguette from La Tour Bakehouse with house-made ricotta, provolone, grilled peppers and onions, tomato compote and a little arugula. The drawback? It’s served only at lunch.
$19, 2 N. Hotel St., (808) 369-1390, fetehawaii.com
Adobo-braised Pork Belly Bao Buns
Wade Ueoka and Michelle Karr-Ueoka love the pork from Mountain View Farms in Wai‘anae so much, they showcase it in a special entrée every day at MW Restaurant, along with pork-and-foie-gras wontons and pork meatballs. A standout dish on the dinner menu featuring this pork is the adobo-braised pork belly bao bun. The vinegary pieces of succulent pork are balanced by fresh tomato salsa and pickled jalapeño, making for a truly satisfying bite.
$12, 1538 Kapi‘olani Blvd., #107, (808) 955-6505, mwrestaurant.com
Two Lady’s Pork
Chef-owner Ed Kenney has been using 2 Lady Farmers pork at Town in Kaimukī for more than two years—and he named this dish on the menu after the Wai‘anae farm. Makes sense considering the local pork is really the focal point here. It’s juicy and tender, and served with buttery polenta, escarole, pickled mushrooms and mustard-seed jus. Only available at dinner.
$31, 3435 Wai‘alae Ave., (808) 735-5900, townkaimuki.com
“Customers have said they can’t buy pork from the stores after having our pork.”
—Stacy Sugai, 2 Lady Farmers
2 Lady Farmers
Nine years ago, Stacy Sugai, a school counselor with no farm experience, bought a pig farm in Wai‘anae. She had no idea what she had gotten herself into.
Luckily, her neighbor, Patsy Oshiro, was a third-generation pig farmer and offered to help. She and her husband were downsizing their own farm, which gave Oshiro more time to spend with her new neighbor.
Six years later, Sugai and Oshiro officially went into business, starting 2 Lady Farmers with a commitment to feeding their pigs high-quality grain feed—not slop—never using hormones or antibiotics, and always treating their animals with love and compassion.
They have about 300 pigs in their 15,000-square-foot piggery and sell pork to more than 20 restaurants, including Town, Basalt, Vino Italian Tapas & Wine Bar, Chef Mavro, Arancino at The Kāhala and Fête.
“One chef recently said he loves the flavor of the pork, so he tries to add the least amount of seasoning possible,” Sugai says. “Our pork has a fresh, clean, sweet smell and taste. Customers have said they can’t buy pork from the stores after having our pork.”