First Look: Feast Pop-Up at Café Anasia in Mō‘ili‘ili
From buttery crab to hamburger steak, a Hawai‘i chef serves classy comfort food while preparing to open his own place.
Hamburger steak and ginger chicken.
Photos: Robbie Dingeman
June 2019 Update: Cafe Anasia is now closed but chef Jon Matsubara is working on a new restaurant. We’ll keep you updated.
The Feast pop-up in Mō‘ili‘ili that opened in December feels illicit in that indulgently good way: professional-chef-level food at wallet-friendly prices in a place you need to search out.
Even the banner outside, tacked to a garbage dumpster, adds to the slight speakeasy vibe, announcing the lunch spot by chef Jon Matsubara at a relative’s place—Café Anasia, a sports bar with its own solid reputation. Tucked among auto repair shops, contractors’ offices and a karaoke bar, the location is temporary as Matsubara and his team work to open a restaurant of his own—his first—in the coming months, if not sooner.
Even the banner outside, tacked to a garbage dumpster, adds to the slight speakeasy vibe.
Its interior is, understandably, that of a typical sports bar. But the menu straddles Matsubara’s Island roots and his high-end experience: a mix of comfort food, haute inspiration and playful one-offs. One salad comes with a generous scoop of crab poached in warm butter alongside fresh kale, green beans, tomatoes, cucumber, mint and cilantro served with a lemongrass dressing ($15) that makes it smell as bright and herby as it tastes.
On two recent visits, the plates and bowls included ginger chicken, fried chicken, hamburger steak, salt beef watercress soup as well as specials of aged Black Angus sirloin steak with garlic butter and fried rice ($18) and shaken beef steak salad ($16). Most of the regular dishes can be ordered full size for $14 to $15 or mini for $9 to $10.
Many diners here have likely eaten Matsubara’s award-winning food. Most recently he served as the executive chef who opened the O‘ahu Merriman’s restaurant. Previously, he was chef de cuisine at Japengo, executive chef at Stage Restaurant, at the Royal Hawaiian’s Azure and more. His memorable dishes have included: Bresse chicken coq au vin; quail egg, foie gras, Big Island beef and Hāmākua mushroom risotto loco moco; and oysters served under a glass dome that held kīawe smoke released tableside with a swirl of magic. Matsubara was in law school when he realized his passion for cooking and started washing dishes at Alan Wong’s and Roy’s. He moved to New York City to hone his skills, graduating from the French Culinary Institute and working in acclaimed kitchens that included Tabla, Jean-Georges and Bouley before returning home to Hawai‘i.
the fried chicken sandwich is cooked tender inside with a crispy exterior, a spicy kick to the sauce and slaw.
At the pop-up, his wife, J’mi, who’s an attorney, and his mom, Arlene, both take counter-service orders and box up food to go. For months, they’ve been searching for the right location, in Kaka‘ako and downtown, knowing that it’s difficult to get and keep staff and that the location will make or break a restaurant in these competitive times. “I’m not in a rush to move into the wrong location,” Matsubara says. “I see how the dining scene is changing now.”
We went for a couple of the mini portions to try more of his food. That bright green ginger chicken seasoning brings the familiar bright punch you expect, but atop thick slices of chicken breast served warm rather than the chilled chunks of bone-in chicken you’d expect at Chinese restaurants. The dish arrives on fresh bouncy chow funn noodles, delivered daily from Chinatown, accompanied by a side of house-made sambal.
Even at the pop-up, Matsubara sometimes splurges, adding foie gras to the burgers on occasion and recently running a special of oyster shooters with spicy ponzu and grated daikon ($4) that nailed that briny balance and brought a nod of approval from my oyster-ambivalent lunch partner.
The ginger chicken arrives on fresh bouncy chow funn noodles, delivered daily from Chinatown, accompanied by a side of house-made sambal.
Looking for simple favorites done well? Order the hamburger steak with grilled onions, “good gravy” and rice; or the fried chicken sandwich, cooked tender inside with a crispy exterior, a spicy kick to the sauce and slaw. Or just go right to the Scooby Snacks portion of the menu and order the garlic and rosemary fries.
Matsubara says he opened the pop-up Dec. 5 thinking he’d cook the greatest hits of his restaurant favorites. But moving in, “we walked around and asked the neighbor businesses and customers what they wanted. A lot of these dishes are stuff that I’ve prepared at home for my friends and family,” he says.
Recent desserts ($4–$6) include: a churro malassada, with a hit of chipotle as well as chocolate cream to play against the cinnamon; a lavender-lemon curd; and “Marshmallow Crack,” made with devil’s food cake, Valrhona chocolate ganache, marshmallow cream and graham cracker.
One salad comes with a generous scoop of crab poached in warm butter alongside fresh kale, green beans, tomatoes, cucumber, mint and cilantro served with a lemongrass dressing that makes it smell as bright and herby as it tastes.
If all goes well, Matsubara plans to open a small restaurant in the downtown area, cooking fast-casual takeout food for the weekday lunch crowd. At night, he would experiment with a tasting menu, themed private dinners, catering and more. “That’s kind of like the fun stuff; it’s never a dull moment,” he says. Having his own commercial kitchen would allow him the flexibility to cater and conjure from a financially solid base: “It allows me to have more freedom but still have a sustainable business model,” he says.
No date yet has been set up for this venture, meaning no one knows when the pop-up will disappear. One more note: parking can be tight, so it’s a good idea to check the menu on Instagram @Feast808, order and have a friend help with pickup if you need to double park.
Feast at Café Anasia, 2227 S. Beretania St. Weekdays, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., (808) 840-0488, Instagram: @Feast808
READ MORE STORIES BY ROBBIE DINGEMAN