Dining: Crying Uncle
In which I get over my prejudice against restaurants named Uncle’s.
Uncle’s Fish Market’s generous poke stack—rice, ahi poke, guacamole, ahi tartare and tobiko. The goal is to get all the elements in one bite.
Photo: Monte Costa
It was the Chicago novelist Nelson Algren who wrote, “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s.”
Algren was sadly silent about restaurants called Uncle’s, but I’ve always felt a similar skepticism should apply. Uncle’s, indeed! I want to eat, not join the family. Besides, none of my uncles, real or hānai, could cook a lick.
Without it rising to a conscious prejudice, I’ve avoided places named Uncle’s This or That. Until this month when, for reasons more complicated than interesting, I ended up with a friend waiting on a third friend at Uncle’s Fish Market on Pier 38.
Uncle’s Fish Market and Grill
Pier 38, 1135 N. Nimitz Highway // 275-0063 // Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Friday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. // www.unclesfishmarket.com
Uncle’s is located in what’s now called the Commercial Fishing Village, near Nico’s and the fish auction. To get to the restroom, you have to leave the restaurant and walk across the street to a state facility.
On my way back, I ran into singer Eric Gilliom. Something of a surprise, since he lives on Maui.
“I’m over here all the time,” he said. “My uncle owns this place.” Really? Someone’s real uncle?
Gilliom introduced me to an engaging gentleman named Bruce Johnson. Johnson’s mother and Eric’s grandmother were sisters, so technically they’re first cousins once removed. “But I’ve always called him uncle,” said Eric.
It turns out that Johnson owns a major wholesaling firm called Fresh Island Fish, and the restaurant is actually a corner of his Oahu headquarters. He toured us through the quiet, empty, giant refrigerated rooms in the back. “You should see this in operation,” he said. “We do 30,000 pounds of fish a day.”
Johnson didn’t name Uncle’s after himself. He first came to the Islands at age 13, part of a touring Pop Warner football team. He stayed with a Hawaiian family in a pink Waikīkī bungalow, and left after a few weeks in tears, vowing to return. That he did at age 17, determined to learn the fishing business.
He says he owes a debt to all the “uncles,” Hawaiian, Portuguese, Japanese, who showed him the ropes.
Those uncles were no-nonsense, no-frills guys. Uncle’s the restaurant also dispenses with frills, like, for instance, service.
Earlier in the evening, while my friend and I were waiting for a third friend to join us (and she was much delayed), we decided nothing would blunt the edge of our impatience like drinks and oysters.
Drinks you get from a cocktail waitress. Food, you order at the counter. The counterman took our money, reached into a refrigerator and handed us a half-dozen oysters on the half shell, a lemon wedge and a plastic container of cocktail sauce—all shrink-wrapped to a foam tray, like the kind on which supermarkets sell meat.
I’d never encountered a $12 appetizer on a meat tray before. But we had to admit the oysters were fresh, plump and great with just a squeeze of lemon.
Our friend called, said she was off work, but going home to shower first, so we ordered yet more appetizers.
This time we were handed one of those flying saucer-shaped pagers. When it lit up and buzzed, we picked up our food at the counter.
Here are some things John Heckathorn had to say in past months. Visit our Dining page to read more reviews!
• Hy’s Steakhouse
Waikiki Park Heights Hotel, 2440 Kuhio Ave., 922-5555
“Did time stop? I walked into Hy’s for the first time in a couple of decades, and it was exactly the same, the ornate carved wood, the old-style library, the dead-on, competent bartender and, finally, our waiter, Ernie Juliusburger, who’d been there 30 years,” says Heckathorn. He suggests the rib-eye steak, kiawe-grilled, which gives it a charbroiled crunch to the edges. The steaks also come with veggies and “that wonderful steakhouse staple: a baked potato with butter, sour cream, chives and bacon bits.” Reviewed in our March 2008 issue.
• Tenkaippin Ramen
617 Kapahulu Ave., 732-1211
Tenkaippin Ramen offers four kinds of broth. After trying all four, Heckathorn suggests ordering the assari broth, roughly translated as “light.” “This is essentially a chicken broth with a deeply flavored Yamasa shoyu, topped with plenty of char sui, green onion, bamboo shoots,” he says. The miso broth, with its “heavy dose of bean sprouts, and its sour edge,” was his least favorite. Reviewed in our July 2008 issue.
After the oysters, the tiny Manila steamed clams were a disappointment, not all that many of them drowning in a white plastic bowl of pallid garlic-and-white-wine broth. Give me Murphy’s steamed clams any Friday: more, better and cheaper. Uncle’s were $14.95.
Much better was Uncle’s Signature Poke Stack: a layer of white rice, a thick layer of ahi poke, a layer of guacamole and a layer of finely chopped ahi tartare, topped with tobiko, white sesame seeds and strips of nori.
This comes with some so-so chips. They’re only a distraction. Forget them. The key is to get rice, fish and guacamole all in one bite. This was a fine and generous appetizer—my only quibble being that both the poke and the tartare seemed significantly underseasoned. However, the big cubes of ahi in the poke were fresh and beautiful, an almost translucent red.
We were getting good at waiting. We had another drink from the somewhat limited bar and admired the décor, which Food & Wine magazine, with typical New York condescension, called faux-tiki, though there’s not a tiki in sight.
Uncle’s is all about fishing. Our favorite touch: The inevitable flat-screen TVs showed not ESPN, but old fishing videos. When our friend finally arrived, we’d just spotted a skinny ’70s-looking Hari Kojima cooking on Let’s Go Fishing when Bruce Carter was still the host.
Our friend in place, we ordered entrées. May I say that we were looking at Uncle’s all wrong—as a restaurant. Actually it’s such a casual food place you may feel dreadfully overdressed in a collared shirt.
Being me, I ordered the fanciest entrée, opakapaka topped with lobster and mushrooms. The cornstarchy sauce with the limp sautéed mushrooms only served to disguise the fish, and the lobster, rather than integrated into the dish, was simply sprinkled in small cold chunks on top.
My friend had better luck with the ahi belly. It was coated in a beige sauce, which didn’t add much. But you didn’t need to add much to these three thick slabs of the richest, fattiest part of the fish. “Good, good,” he mumbled between bites.
The best dish—and here’s a lesson—was the fish and chips, lightly battered, big pieces of monchong. Monchong’s a deep-sea pomfret, a by-catch of longline ahi fishing. It was a shock to bite through a deep-fried crust into something so moist, fresh and flaky. “The fish is good,” said our much delayed friend.
“That’s what we’ve been saying all night,” I said. Uncle’s is perhaps inexpensive compared to a more conventional restaurant, but it’s not entirely a bargain. I signed a check for $174, though I realized later that I’d tipped as if I hadn’t had to get up and get all the food myself. The cocktail waitress had a good night.
Uncle Bo’s Pupu Bar and Grill
559 Kapahulu Ave. // 735-8310 // Monday through Sunday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. // $4 paid parking across the street, major credit cards // www.unclebosrestaurant.com
Now that I’d broken the Uncles barrier, I took a friend to Uncle Bo’s. People had been accusing me of neglecting this increasingly popular spot. “It’s so hip,” they’d say. “It’s better than Side Street.”
It’s not, but it’s interesting nonetheless. Co-owner Bo Pathammavong was a chef at two unprepossessing Waikīkī eateries—Ocean House and Lewers Street Fish Co. That’s where he legally shortened his first name to Bo. “Easier for people to remember,” he says.
At Lewers Street, Pathammavong created a dish called Uncle Bo’s Seafood Trap. “The name sort of stuck.” Besides, he says, he’s really an uncle, with “plenty” nieces and nephews.
Uncle Bo’s it is, then. Perhaps you’ll enjoy the irony that it’s in the old Auntie Pasto’s location on Kapahulu, two rooms. The front is the hipper of the two—if banquettes, big screen TVs and lengths of chain suspended from the ceiling meet your definition of hip. The back room is cinderblock dreary, but quieter.
I admired Uncle Bo’s ambition. The menu offers 25 appetizers, seven soups and salads, 28 entrées and a half-dozen pizzas. At a loss to choose, the two of us put ourselves in the hands of the waitress. The most popular of the pūpū, please, four or five, we’ll tell you when to stop.
The friend I’d brought along is a calamari enthusiast. But she found that Uncle Bo’s heavily breaded version sat on top of—and immediately soaked up—a puddle of slightly too sweet Thai chili sauce. “This should be a dipping sauce, not on the plate,” she said. “The calamari’s getting soggy.” She left half, a bad sign.
Nor did she like the second of the dishes, Uncle Bo’s dynamite shrimp. “Dynamite” sauce is a local sushi bar staple; it’s really just mayo mixed with Sriracha (better known as “rooster sauce”). You mix up seafood and sauce, maybe throw on some bread crumbs and broil. Uncle Bo’s adds a layer of shredded Parmesan.
This didn’t look good, turned out in a lump over greens. By the time it arrived, the melted Parmesan was cold and congealed. Nevertheless, I found it addictive, the combination of flavors and textures, the kicky spice, the snap of pretty good shrimp. Go figure.
Neither the Cajun ahi nor the ribs were anything to write home about. The ribs came in fatty slabs of two or three, curiously dull, except when you hit the sprinkles of uncooked garlic or the undercooked chunks of Maui onion.
But let us praise the clams. These are wokked, not steamed. Uncle Bo’s recipe is secret, so what follows is my best guess. There’s a splash of white wine, garlic, plus oyster sauce, nam pla (fish sauce), a touch of chili (Sriracha again?).
Also into the wok go some excellent tomatoes and choi sum. The whole thing adds up to a delicious, layered flavor. I’d go back just for the clams.
Uncle Bo’s aims to be a modern pūpū place, sort of like dining at the bar at Roy’s or Side Street. It’s less expensive than most, appetizers running from $8 to a high of $11 for the clams, which may help its popularity. The food doesn’t quite make it into the Big Leagues, but those clams were a home run.
After we paid our check, Uncle Bo himself dropped by our table. “It’s nice to see new faces,” he said. “I hear you ordered all our most popular dishes.” Then he gifted us with a shot of espresso-flavored vodka. My friend complained it tasted like fire (it was straight vodka, for heaven’s sake). I found it remarkably smooth.
Uncle Bobo’s Smoked BBQ
51-480 Kamehameha Highway, Kaaawa // 237-1000 // Tuesday through Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. // www.unclebobos.com
“It’ll be like the C&K song,” I told my wife. “Sunday paaarty in the country.”
I was coaxing her into driving with me to Kaaawa—in order to find Uncle Bobo’s Smoked BBQ. My friend Sherie Char had assured me Uncle Bobo’s was the best unknown restaurant on Oahu, a favorite of the Lost cast, since it’s apparently near the fictional island on which they find themselves marooned.
After an hour on the road, I would have driven right past Uncle Bobo’s, had I not known it was between the 7-Eleven and the Kaaawa Post Office. Uncle Bobo’s is not big, though it’s slightly larger than the post office, with which it shares a building.
Uncle Bobo’s has two tables outside, three inside, and was jammed when we arrived for lunch. In the kitchen, three people—a small Japanese woman, a thin surfer dude and a bigger dude with a bandanna wrapped around his head—were literally running, desperately getting out orders.
“In a minute,” said the bigger dude, who I later learned was owner Robert Joyce. “We don’t usually do this much business on Sunday.”
Uncle Bobo’s looks like a fast-food place. Many of its patrons order at the counter with that expectation. Actually, it’s a restaurant, with food cooked to order and served on ceramic plates with real stainless-steelware.
With that in mind, we waited, settling ourselves at a little table with a sticky red-and-white tablecloth. In due time, our patience was rewarded.
We’d ordered a plate of ribs, which turned out to be little edible works of art—smoked, slow-cooked, then grilled, not the least fatty, the meat sliding off the bone with the slightest caress of your teeth.
Best of all, the ribs were dry-rubbed with spices, not sticky and messy with sauce. Of course, there was a sauce on the side—a standard tomato-based sweet-sour with a serious kick.
Both our plates came with redneck rice, one of the scores of Southern “dirty rice” recipes, perhaps not as jammed-packed with flavor as some. The coleslaw and the mac salad were conventional, but I went crazy for the beans cooked up in a rich, onion-y, chili-powder-laced sauce.
The beans went well with our second plate, the “combo,” a heaping, $18.95 threesome of barbecued meats: dry-rubbed, wood-smoked beef brisket, pulled pork shoulder zingy with the barbecue sauce, and smoked chicken. The chicken was the least successful, nowhere near as moist as the menu promised. But the brisket and pulled pork? Ah, backyard barbecue.
Literally. As we walked around the back to retrieve our car, there was Robert Joyce, turning ribs on a charcoal grill out behind the restaurant. “I do everything right out here,” he said, reaching over to pat the large, stainless-steel box half covered with a tarp. “This here is my smoker.”
Finally, it occurred to me to ask: “Are you Uncle Bobo?” Yes, he said, his little niece couldn’t say Robert. “She calls me Uncle Bobo,” said Joyce. “Guess I’m stuck with it now.”
John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.