Kakaako's newest pop-up venue: Taste
Now Playing: Taste, a pop-up venue, isn’t a restaurant itself, but a host to new concepts.
It’s hard to know what will appear in Kakaako next. Restaurants, cafés, gastropubs, cookspaces and burgermobiles have sprung up seemingly overnight amid night markets, art galleries and parklets (tiny, temporary parks). So Taste, in the middle of ever-evolving Kakaako, is very much a restaurant of its time and especially its place.
Four Kakaako entrepreneurs started this pop-up venue, which seats about 12. You can triple that number if you include the fold-up tables and chairs on the sidewalk and the seating in the back alley, which once looked like a part of Gotham City, but has been spruced up with bright colors, Christmas lights and stenciled messages: “Don’t grow up; it’s a trap,” and “Laugh until your stomach hurts.”
The fresh paint in this alley is more permanent than the menu at Taste, for, in many ways, Taste works more like a neighborhood movie theater than a restaurant. The attractions change regularly, and the restaurant itself isn’t as important as what’s playing on a given night.
Newbie cooks and established chefs occupy the same kitchen on different days: One lunch may feature an EMT who’s never cooked commercially before, but, Boom Musubi! suddenly decided to sell mochiko chicken musubi; another day, it may be Quinten Frye of Salt laying down lines of brisket and carrot habanero salsa on homemade corn tortillas.
There have been box-office hits (LeAnne Wong of Top Chef and Unique Eats cooking up pork kimchi gyoza and Katsu King Sammies) and flops (breakfast, apparently the most important meal of the day, which no one eats).
It used to be Aikane Café, a nondescript plate-lunch eatery; now it’s a hub for chefs, a meeting place for Kakaako movers and shakers. The partners involved are big community organizers, and perhaps because of the communal tables, informal nature, and novelty and uniqueness of the place, it has become a very social space. Every time I go, someone I have never met before will ask me questions: Have you been here before? What are you eating? Are the Brussels sprouts good? What’s a Gooch?
The showmen (and women) of Taste
There are four partners in Taste—Mark Noguchi and Amanda Corby, and husband-and-wife team Poni and Brandon Askew of Eat the Street, the monthly food-truck rally. Noguchi, though, is usually the face of Taste.
His friends—and he has many; you may be one of them—call him “Gooch.” His personality is as memorable as his nickname; his head shot for the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival depicted him shirtless, muddy, ebullient, instantly recognizable in a program featuring starched chef whites.
Before Taste, Noguchi was the chef at Heeia Pier General Store and Deli, garnering national press including Travel and Leisure and Food Network. When HONOLULU first featured Heeia Pier, we wrote: “‘Some people are already calling it Gooch’s place,’ [Noguchi] says, with a faraway look in his eye. In an era of short-lived eateries, it might even be Gooch’s place for another generation: His lease runs for 35 years.” But last year, Noguchi and He‘eia Pier business partner Russ Inouye parted ways: Neither will say much about the split on record, just that they had different ideas of what “serving the community” meant.
“Heeia Pier changed my life and then it came to a screeching halt,” Noguchi says. “It was almost as bad as my divorce.”
After the Pier, Noguchi and his girlfriend Corby started Pili Hawaii, a catering company whose Hawaiian name means “to be intertwined, connected.” While Noguchi was depressed about his breakup with Heeia Pier, Corby was forming ideas about the space vacated by Aikane Café. She and Poni Askew dreamt up Taste as a culinary playground. They installed Noguchi as the resident chef, the kick in the pants he needed to move on. He set up the kitchen, but other gigs, including a Cooking Channel stint, pulled him away. Now that he’s back in town, he’s on this quarter’s roster, whipping up bites such as sweet and tart miso-glazed Brussels sprouts, smoked adobo stew and pork bruschetta topped with crispy pork ears.
Since Taste opened last October, 19 vendors have come through its kitchen serving dishes in the $8 to $12 range. On the next page, find synopses of several of Taste’s previous engagements, current features and a preview of coming attractions.
Kaneohe hee salad with taro stems and smoked meat, by Mark Noguchi of Pili Hawaii and Taste.
photo: courtesy taste
Hamburger from Quinten Frye’s Cocina.
Photo: Rae Huo
Previous Engagements at Taste
Taste was a benchmark in the evolution of Zaratez Mexicatessen. Once an underground food business that made prearranged sidewalk burrito drops like drug deals, it graduated to a food truck, then a farmers-market vendor. During its run at Taste, Zaratez’s Taqueria Tuesdays became the most popular weekday event. Next stop? A fixed location on King Street that’s set to open this month. “Taste made me faster, more consistent … and it was a good chance to run my menu in a brick-and-mortar kitchen,” says Paul Zarate.
Petit Suisse Crepes
It turned out that Kakaako did not want to eat crepes for lunch. Petit Suisse Crepes flopped. But the story may have a happy ending yet. Since leaving Taste, it has rebranded to Holy Crepe! and relocated to a permanent cart on Kapahulu, where it gets much more traffic.
An EMT with no experience in commercial kitchens, Danny Lee set out to make a better musubi. Think of them as Spam musubis a la mode: Spam and rice topped with mochiko chicken and teriyaki soba noodles or grilled salmon and crumbled Tostitos. In the beginning, it took Lee 40 minutes to complete orders. By the end, less than 15. “We got to learn how the food industry works, what we need to do to make better food faster,” says Lee. By the time you read this, Boom Musubi expects to have its truck parked in the burgeoning Kapahulu food pod.
Current Features at Taste
Salt chef and co-owner Quinten Frye digs into his Tex-Mex roots and serves up a refined take on braised brisket barbacoa tacos, chicken mole tortas (sandwiches) on housemade bread, and entomatadas, like enchiladas in a tomato-based savory sauce. Chefs, colleagues and food bloggers turned out on Cocina’s opening day, lending the hum of excitement that accompanies a new restaurant debut or movie premiere.
Miso and Ale
A cheeky pop-up that occupies spaces from Kailua to Kaimukī, Miso and Ale commits to a weekly schedule at Taste, offering “quickies” on your lunch hour, such as a chicken adobo meatball sandwich, Kowloon nuggets and fries, and candied pecan bacon bread pudding. Miso and Ale draws inspiration from any and everywhere: flavors from the south are tucked into a curried cornmeal catfish bao, proving Miso and Ale’s ability to think outside the bao.
From left to right: Nights at Taste; Onda Pasta's pasta.
Onda Pasta draws a crowd that reminisces about country dinners in Italy while lingering over bottles of wine (Taste is BYOB). It offers freshly made pastas with sauces such as a long-simmered beef ragu, local mushrooms, and version of amatriciana with bacon and tomato. Don’t forget dessert: light-as-air chocolate mousse.
Ono to go
If you want to try Ono to Go’s grilled plate lunches, you’re going to have to get there early. Some days, Ono to Go starts the lunch service with 40 pre-orders for its grilled short ribs, brown sugar chicken and Chinese-style opakapaka.
Coming Attractions at Taste
Rainbow Drive-In 2.0
What happens when a local institution meets an experimental concept? Rainbow Drive-In 2.0, a one-night event with riffs on Rainbow’s most popular dishes. The mix plate—chicken, fish and beef—gets deconstructed, the slush float elevated with gelato and sorbet. They haven’t nailed down a date for this yet; check tastetable.com for updates on Taste’s schedule.
Like the other young business owners in Kakaako, Corby dreams big. For the next quarter, it’s chef collaborations and cooking classes in addition to the rotating restaurants. But pie in the sky? Taste would have a commercial kitchen space that food vendors could rent, a café in the front, a brewery in the back. It’d have a culinary garden and students working side by side with chefs.
Ultimately, however, the future of Taste, like many other businesses in Kamehameha Schools’ Kakaako properties, is uncertain. With redevelopment, Taste could move into a new space, or it could just close up shop, as temporary as the pop-ups that pass through it.