Expanding Tastes: Roy Yamaguchi is Cooking for the Kailua Community at Goen Dining + Bar

It would be perfectly poetic to say that the local chef’s newest restaurant, Goen, which opened last fall, conjures the past just as Kailua’s developers are erasing it.
mushroom fries
mushroom fries come in a basket.


Goen itself is on the site of the former Liberty House/Macy’s building, and it’s one of Yamaguchi’s smaller restaurants, which he says is intentional, to reflect the neighborhood.


The name Goen refers to the Japanese 5-yen coin and is also a homonym for friendship, good fortune and good luck, all the things that Yamaguchi says he wanted this restaurant to bring and foster in Kailua. He hoped Goen might be like “those Japanese villages where everybody knows everybody and it feels special.”


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pork belly
pork belly


Yamaguchi’s restaurants in the past few years have all evoked nostalgia: Eating House 1849, the year in reference to the opening of one of Hawai‘i’s first restaurants, and Humble Market Kitchin, “reminiscent of Roy Yamaguchi’s family roots, which started on the plantations of Maui, capturing the sweet and savory flavors he recalls from his childhood,” according to its website.


But the surface story never captures the truth completely. For alongside lumpia and pork hash at Eating House 1849, there’s also goat cheese polenta and on-trend avocado toast, and Humble Market Kitchin’s menu features black truffle-crusted fish and rack of lamb, befitting the Wailea resort it’s in, but not the restaurant’s name.


SEE ALSO: First Look: Goen Dining + Bar in Kailua

halo halo
halo halo (in the glass), styled to show all the ingredients.


So it is with Goen, which is less overtly sentimental in its branding than the other two concepts, that Yamaguchi delivers more charm, through a compact menu and an open air space where friends passing by will easily spot you and stop for a chat. Goen masters a perfectly crisped skin on the pork belly ($12), which comes with sweet tomatoes marinated in vinegar and fish sauce, a dish that calls to mind the lechon special at Elena’s in Waipahu. I tried to create an Asian-inflected moules frites by ordering the fry basket ($10) and mussels ($11), which didn’t quite work because the mushroom fries just stole the show. A batter to rival that of Popeyes fried chicken encased thick wedges of mushroom, meaty and practically juicy. It’s not that the mussels were bad, though I wanted the lemongrass coconut milk broth to be lighter and more, well, brothy, but man, those mushroom fries.


Goen’s chefs are great on acid—of the vinegar variety (hey, it’s a family restaurant!)—from the pickled chiles with the mussels to the smoky and sharp shishito relish that sliced through the grilled filet mignon ($29). It made me wonder if pickled mushrooms would brighten the fettuccine with dashi cream ($19)—ikura and fried kale, like an Alfredo pasta by way of Japan—though the dish is pretty good as is.


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Some takes on familiar dishes, like the Goen noodles ($18), a version of pho, don’t surpass the original inspiration, but the notable exception is the halo halo ($8). What goes in changes often—when I went, liliko‘i shave ice, haupia cream, mochi balls, azuki beans, ube cheesecake and other bits and bobs all crowded into a glass, like a clown car, an improbable number of ingredients providing surprise and delight.


Goen in Kailua juxtaposes the struggle of a town that may be becoming too popular, attracting too much international attention, with a chef who is concerned about his relevancy as Mainland publications tout younger Hawai‘i chefs. Yamaguchi says his wife tells him, “You’re an old man. You better do something that’s relevant otherwise people will forget about you.” For a moment, I wondered why Yamaguchi, with a legacy written into Hawai‘i’s culinary history, worried about being relevant, why he didn’t rest instead of opening more restaurants. But then I realized, to stay relevant to a community—whether that’s family or a neighborhood or a business or any other group we form an identity around—is the purpose of living. To not be forgotten is the best fortune


Open 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. daily. 573 Kailua Road, Suite 109, Kailua, (808) 263-4636, royyamaguchi.com.


Read more stories by Martha Cheng