Dining: Best Local Food
The tasty portion of our Best of Honolulu 2004 issue.
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.”
Kaka‘ako Kitchen pastry chef Lisa Siu, here with her brownies, also does the best breakfast pastries in town.
Photo: olivier koning
Best Pastries, Dessert
We’re not sure that Honolulu, with its love of Dobosh cakes and custard pies, really deserves a pastry shop the quality of Jinjie "JJ" Laungkhot Praseuth’s JJ French Pastries. The little Kaimuki pastry shop now sells elegeant little pizzas and sandwiches to the Kaimuki lunch crowd, but the real joys are the pastries. They are pricey, stunning to look at, remarkable to eat. JJ daily makes such beautiful things as mocha opera cakes, green tea cheesecakes, rum walnut tarts, classic cream puffs and his signature Chocolate Pyramids, shaped like I.M. Pei’s pyramid-shaped extension to the Louvre and filled with the world’s smoothest and richest chocolate or chocolate-raspberry mousse. Our favorite thing: You can buy Chocolate Pyramid in all sizes, from a cake that will feed 40 people ($120) to a bite-size pyramid for 96 cents. It’s the best dollar you ever donated to your sweet tooth. 3447 Waialae Ave., 739-0993, jjfrenchpastry.com.
Best Place to Buy Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
There’s a problem with most of the farmers’ markets around town—no farmers. Instead, they are often filled with vendors who have bought Mainland or Island produce at wholesale or even at Costco and repackaged it. We salute anyone who makes life less expensive and more convenient. But if you really want Hawaii produce straight from the producers, you need to go to the Saturday Farmers’ Market at Kapiolani Community College. Sponsored by the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation and The Culinary Institute of the Pacific, the market brings together dozens of real farmers. There are greens from Nalo Farms, fresh hearts of palm from Hilo’s Wailea Ag Group, stunning red, yellow and green tomatoes from Big Wave Tomatoes, fabulous citrus from Hamakua Coast Farms. On any given Saturday, you might find organic eggs from Blue Lotus Farms, Island-harvested honeys from Manoa Honey Co., fresh mozzarella from C&C Pasta, hummus from Beau Soleil, even farm-raised shrimp from Kekaha, Kauai. If great cooking starts with great ingredients, this is a necessary first step to a great meal.
There’s food to eat on the spot as well, fried green tomatoes, grilled mochi and breakfast from a rotating line-up of star chefs. One Saturday you might find D.K. Kodama serving up $5 crab omelets, the next Glen Chu putting toppings on breakfast udon.
It’s a casual Saturday morning social scene as well, full of chatter and unexpected meetings. People bring their families, their dogs, their friends.
Saturday Farmers’ Market, every Saturday, 8 a.m. to 12 noon, Kapiolani Community College, 4303 Diamond Head Road., 848-2074.
Best Mac Salad
Balance is key to everything. Even macaroni salad. To make a great mac salad, there has to be sufficient mayonnaise to coat the elbow macaroni, but not so much that it coats the mouth and masks all the rest of the flavors. A great mac salad needs a hint of onion, plus a judicious amount of crunch from grated carrot and shredded cabbage. Of course, this creamy, soft specialty of the Islands needs a sufficient amount of salt not to be bland, but not too much, since we often eat it as the perfect counterpoint for shoyu-based teriyaki or butterfish. When it comes right down to it, a great mac salad isn’t easy to find. We put together a plate full of the best reputed mac salads in the Islands and tasted them side-by-side. The winner? The mac salad came from Alakea Delicatessen, not too much salt, the right touch of onion, the right amount of mayo. In the mouth it all adds up to: Yes! Alakea Delicatessen, 201 S. King St., 533-4666.
Best Local-Style Sushi
Local-style sushi is a genre unto itself. It’s a large maki sushi with moist, vinegary rice, tuna, crunchy vegetable, a hint of shrimp powder, soy-laced kampyo, maybe some egg or kamaboko, all wrapped up in nori. There are countless variations, but the best come from okazu-ya, those Japanese delis where the sushi, teriyaki, mac salad and tempura are sooo good. One of the best is Gulick Delicatessen in Kalihi, now all gussied up in stainless steel and glass, but still making some of the best okazu around. And, yes, Gulick’s sushi is really good, in fact, the best we tasted. A strip of cucumber and carrot add crunch, the soy-sugar seasoned tuna is seasoned with shoyu and sugar and, best of all, the rice is moist, with just the right touch of sushi vinegar. Gulick Delicatessen, 1512 Gulick Ave., 847-1461.
At crowded Pho To Chau, we ended up sharing a table with two ladies who’d driven from Aiea to sample To Chau’s renowned version of pho (pronounced feu as in pot au feu). "I think pho is replacing saimin," said one of the ladies. She had a point. The North Vietnamese beef noodle soup does indeed seem to be the new saimin, judging by the number of places that serve it and the varied ethnic backgrounds of those eating it.
The To family (two brothers and a sister) has been serving up a couple hundred delicious bowls of pho every day since 1987. As the steaming bowl is placed in front of you, pause a moment. Inhale. It’s all about the lovely aromas of star anise, cinnamon, cloves and ginger that immediately stimulate the senses. A sip of the clear beef broth is telling: not too salty, a hint of sweetness and savory flavor. Fresh crisp bean sprouts, ngo gai (saw leaf herb), Thai basil, chili pepper slices and fresh lemon wedges are plentiful for adding to the bowl of perfectly cooked, slithery rice noodles. Thin slices of beef are served alongside to cook in the broth. At Pho To Chau it’s about pho and only pho. You have to stand in line on the sidewalk and endure brusque service. But the pho is delicious, it’s satisfying, it’s addictive and, dare we say it, it’s better than saimin. It’s got a wider range of textures, a great depth of flavor and, as the ladies from Aiea reminded us, "It really fills you up." Pho To Chau, 1007 River St., 533-4549, 8 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. daily.
Best Next Step After Pho
The Vietnamese can really do soups. Now that pho’s part of your everyday diet and you find yourself longing for something even more adventurous, try the spicy Bun Bo Hue at Pho Mai, where this soup substitutes a bit of pork shank for the beef. The bowl’s filled with noodles and the spiciest pho broth you’ve ever encountered, lively with lemon grass, red with enough red pepper to clear your sinuses. This is hot and spicy soup to erase the memories of all others. In fact, we dare you to drink off all the broth at the end. Pho Mai has two locations, we prefer the one at 1427 S. King St., 955-6583.
Best Seafood Store
Fifty years ago the Tamashiro family began to specialize in seafood at their corner store in Kalihi. Today the third generation continues to supply Honoluluans with the widest array of fish, shellfish and all other critters from the ocean. Live Maine lobsters and Dungeness crab are flown in along with Manila and littleneck clams, geoducks, oysters and blue crab. If it’s not fresh, it may be frozen: shrimp, soft shell crab, scallops, mussels, squid and more.
Best of all is Tamashiro’s selection of locally caught fish from the small and colorful reef fish to the deep ocean varieties. "Ahi is our biggest seller," says Cyrus Tamashiro, one of the three brothers who run the show. "We have various grades of ahi fillet: high fat, high price to lower fat, lower price. We have something for everyone’s pocketbook and palate."
With 30 to 35 different pokes each day, tobiko, live tako (octopus) and, occasionally, namako (sea cucumber), fresh butterfish and wild salmon in season and much more, this small, homey market is a gem. Quail eggs can be found here, too, and some of the best Chinese and Hayden mangoes in season, along with fresh produce and a limited array of grocery items.
Tamashiro’s may look like a parking nightmare, but there’s parking at Kaumakapili Church next door. Even on Tamashiro’s busiest day (New Year’s Eve Day), you can get into a parking space in just a few minutes. That says that the folks at Tamashiro’s are efficient at getting you in an out, even if they’re cleaning and filleting that opakapaka for you. When you’re going to splurge on a bouillabaisse, crab boil, clambake, paella or the best sashimi money can buy, head to Tamashiro’s. 802 N. King St., 841-8047
Best Wine Store
We polled dozens of the winey-est people we knew—serious collectors and wine geeks included. Serious wine people tend to shop at all the various wine outlets, but their clear favorite was Fujioka’s. Proprietor Lyle Fujioka and his staff have developed a loyal following. "Lyle has great selection, great prices, and for his best customers, he can get his hands on some rare bottles." Less serious collectors also liked the store because Fujioka’s "leads you to good wine" at pretty much any budget point. Fujioka’s, Market City, 2919 Kapiolani Blvd., 739-9463
Editor’s Note: Although it was hardly a blip on our informal survey, there is a new wine shop in town. Liane Fu and Kim Karalovich have transformed one of the last remaining Lewers & Cooke bungalows on King Street into The Wine Stop. Don’t let the aqua-and-orange exterior scare you off. Inside is a tidy assemblage of wooden wine racks and a pleasant selection of mainly moderate priced, mainly New World wines. Plus, this is the only place on Oahu where you can buy cheese from Maui’s Surfing Goat Dairy. The Wine Stop, 1809 S. King St., 946-3707 (WINES07).