Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Marie! The Baguettes! Hurry Up!

There is nothing better than sitting a little cafe by the street watching the people walk by, and enjoying perfect French bread and French coffee.   I mean truly perfect French bread that you can smell baking in the back, served to you still steaming hot and fresh.  You break the bread and can hear that satisfying crunch as the crust crumbles a little onto your plate. The steam from the pillowy, cotton dough in the middle mixes with the robust earthiness of the French coffee.   Where else can you get this but right on the streets of Saigon.   Wait... did I say Saigon?   I suppose you could get it in Paris too, but I think Saigon is closer to us than Paris. 

Vietnam is, among other things, extremely French.  With the French, having occupied thier country for such a long time, it is no wonder that they've very heavily influenced the Vietnamese culture.   But it isn't one of those instances where a culture influences another and they've blended so much that it's difficult to see where one begins and the other ends.   It's more like a chocolate/vanilla swirl.   The French aspects remain distinctly French, and the native Vietnamese aspects distinctly Vietnamese.  They co-exist side by side in everything from the languge to the food.   They are mixed together yes, but you can still distinctly discern the chocolate from the vanilla.

Hawaii gets its European influence from the British and the Portuguese.   Unlike places further south, like Tahiti, the French didn't really have much of a foothold in our history.   But as the Vietnamese came over, they brought with them their delicate balance of European and Southeast Asian flavors, and got us totally hooked.    This is perhaps most evident in our favorite Vietnamese sandwiches, known as Banh Mi.

When it comes to Vietnamese sandwiches in Hawaii, Ba-Le pretty much has the monopoly.  They're all over town, and probably the first place that comes to mind when people think of Banh Mi.  However, as great as Ba-Le (which BTW means Paris in Vietnamese) can be, the problem with a chain that large is one of consistency.    I have walked into Ba-Le shops where the bread is so stale, I have to use my back molars to crush through the crust.   Then I couldn't bite off a mouthful, but would have to tear it off.  Even after much difficult chewing, it's difficult to swallow because it's so dry.   This is not to say that all Ba-Le are like that, I have had some really good sandwiches at Ba-Le, but unfortunately you have to know which ones are the good ones and which aren't.   Alternatively, you can find a small mom and pop shop that you know is consistently good.   My favorite place for Banh Mi, would have to be Saigon's on Waialae (right next door to Toys-n-Joys).

Ham & Steamed Pork Sandwich at Saigon's

Ever heard the saying that a sandwich is all about the bread?   Good bread makes or breaks a sandwich.  It's more important than the filling.   Good bread will make up for mediocre filling, but good filling will not make up for mediocre bread.   It's sort of a baker's mantra.   Well, to me the best bread, is found at Saigon's.   Ask them to double toast it, and invariably, the crust is flaky and crunchy, but not too hard.   The inside is soft and has a nice chewiness, a sponginess to it.   The bread itself is completely French.   The addition of a nice, rich shmear of pate or mayo, even more French.   But the other ingredients, pickled carrot, daikon, and cucumber with a little Chinese parsley, is completely Vietnamese.   My favorite sandwich includes another dichotomy of ham (totally French), and Vietnamese sausage or gio (totally Vietnamese).  The gio is something like fish cake or possibly bologna in texture.   But it's flavor is a wonderful pork and fish sauce mixture, that is sublimely savory.  Just like chocolate/vanilla swirl, the Eastern flavors and Western flavors are still very distinct, but taste perfectly in harmony with one another.

Lemongrass Chicken Sandwich at Saigon's

Want to go with a spicier, herbier alternative?   The lemongrass chicken sandwich has the same heady lemongrass flavor as Bun Bo Hue.  The spiciness is just enough to give it a kick.  But it is that wonderful aroma that the lemongrass gives it, which is so distinctly Southeast Asian.   The sauce from the chicken also makes this sandwich moister, kind of like dipping in au jus.

Beef Stew at Saigon's

When it comes to dinner time though, there is a better way to enjoy Saigon's fantastic bread.   That is having the bread accompany their wonderful beef stew.   Now this beef stew is not like our local beef stew.   For one thing, it is a very thin stew, almost a soup.  For another, the ingredients are classically French, some carrot and onions.   But the beef is unbelievably tender, and combined with the melt-in-your-mouth beef tendon, this is almost the equivalent of the ngau lam mein over at Mini Garden.  Finally the stew has all of those incredibly aromatic herbs that the Vietnamese use.   But what makes this so different, is that unlike how we eat our thick, tomatoey beef stew over rice, this beef stew is meant to have the bread dipped in it, the French way.   So in one mouthful, you have the fantastic texture of crispy, crunchy crust and soft cushiony bread, mixed with that incredibly complex symphony of herbs and beefiness so characteristic of Vietnamese cuisine.   The combination of flavors and textures is just mind numbing.   It's almost a sensory overload.

So now that we've got the best, flaky, crispy, crumbly bread, we need that heady French coffee to accompany it.   The funny part is that most Vietnamese restaurants in town these days, get their French coffee by way of yet another French town, New Orleans.   Specifically, most Vietnamese restaurants here serve coffee from the famed Cafe du Monde, in the French Quarter.  But the way they serve it is distinctly Vietnamese.   With that personal coffee press, where you get to watch the slow thick drops of coffee fall one by one into the waiting pool of condensed milk below.   It's not a morning cup of joe you gulp down.  This coffee is meant to be anticipated, as you watch it brew drip by drip, smelling the aroma the whole time.  And when it's finally done, and you swirl the dark brew with the creamy condensed milk together and pour it over ice, there is nothing better to accompany the great French bread.

Just like the little cafes you'll find in Paris, Saigon, or New Orleans, Saigon's in Kaimuki is just that wonderful quaint little streetside family owned shop.  It is where East and West swirl in perfect harmony, one drop and one bite at a time.

The Culinary Boon

The Chinese have been in Hawaii for 220 years, since they came to work on the sugar plantations in 1789.   The Japanese followed suit in 1885, enjoying 124 years of prosperity here.   Given these terms, the Vietnamese are relative newcomers to the islands.  They mostly came to escape the terrible civil war that ravaged their country.    Given our country's involvement in the war, it's taken just about my entire lifetime, for bitter and hostile feelings on both sides to ebb, and for people to look at the Vietnamese people and their culture without prejudice.    As usual, one of the keys to breaking down barriers, and giving people a fresh start, is to taste what they're having for dinner.

Though only being here for a relatively short time, one look at Chinatown these days, will tell you that they have been extremely prolific once coming to our shores.   Lucky for us, since we get to experience a cuisine that is aromatic, intensely flavorful, and fresh.   For me, Vietnamese food is paradoxically at once incredibly familiar, and yet strangely exotic at the same time.  

Rare Steak & Beef Ball Pho at Pho One

Talk about Vietnamese food, and people will automatically assume that you're going to be talking about pho.   By the way, it's pronounced "fuh", so it actually sounds like you're starting to say a certain 4-letter word and getting stuck, and NOT like you're beating down your "foe", despite how it's spelled.   However, I really don't think I will be addressing pho here at any time.   The reason for me, is that unfortunately, no restaurant can compare with the pho my Aunty makes at home.   For one thing, Aunty buys fresh noodles from the noodle factories in Chinatown, never using dried or frozen noodles, makes a world of difference in terms of texture (just like Jimbo's udon).   For the other, her pho is like the ultimate beef broth, simmering beef and bone for hours until the bone breaks down and all that yummy marrow infuses the soup, making it a little more akin (but way more intense) to ox tail soup.   No restaurant pho can possibly match it in terms of richness or beefiness.   My Po Po's kau yuk, my mom's spaghetti, my aunty's pho, and my own gumbo all have that same quality, something home made that takes hours to make that no restaurant can conceivably replicate or they would go out of business.

So if we're not talking about pho, what the heck are we talking about?    Well, if you go to a Vietnamese restaurant and actually decide to turn the page on the menu, you'll see they all offer a huge variety of other dishes.   Whenever I go to a restaurant, rather than having pho, I would prefer to have bun.   Pronounced "boon" like an economic boon, bun is the equivalent of Vietnamese vermicelli or somen.   It's served dry, or in broth.    You know what spring rolls are.   But what about summer rolls?   Summer rolls, are stuffed with bun and the rice paper wrapper is served cold and soft, rather than deep fried and cruncy, accompanied by yummy peanut butter like dipping sauce.   Probably the best summer rolls around, are at my favorite Vietnamese restaurant, Pho One (on the corner of Kaheka and Kapiolani).   What makes their summer rolls the best?   For one, they're wrapped really tightly.   Poorly wrapped summer rolls just fall apart when you eat them.   For another, when you order them, you get both pork and shrimp inside, whereas you usually must choose one or the other.

Summer Rolls at Pho One

It's nice to start in with a good summer roll, but my absolute favorite dish there, is another bowl of bun, called Bun Rieu.   I'm not sure what it is with the way Vietnamese is romanized, but it should be pronounced "Boon Zieu".   In any case, this dish is incredibly exotic and complex.   It starts out like a broth of fresh stewed tomatoes, but you hardly taste the tomatoes.   It's got pigs feet (which done at Pho One is so tender it's almost as soft as ox tail).   It's got little squares of coagulated pig's blood, (I kid you not!), which taste like a sort of smooth, iron tasting, jello.   It's got shrimps and Vietnamese pork sausage, called gio (pronounced "zaw"), which has a similar texture to fish cake but made with pork.   It's even topped with shredded, raw on choy (when have you ever been served on choy raw and not stir fried?).   But the piece de resistance is this omelette thing, made with crab meat.   The intense crab flavor from this thing just permeates the whole bowl  gives it a supremely rich crab roe taste.  The combinations of these flavors, plus the lemongrass and mint, is just intense and complex.  Colors upon colors, flavors upon flavors just layering upon one another.  It's like a symphony, with multiple vocal melodies and complex harmonies.

Bun Rieu at Pho One

My big problem, is that I love eating Bun Rieu so much, I hardly ever try anything else on the menu.   You know how it is when you have your favorite dish.    So I had to wait for my sister to come home, and order something else, before I could break away from it.   What did she order?   A spicier, herbier, broth from the central region of Vietnam, called Bun Bo Hue (pronounced "boon baw hwei").   The herbiness in this broth was so perfumey, I could feel the tingliness in the back of my head.  It's not the kind of spicy that burns your mouth, not at all in fact, but the kind that as you eat the whole bowl, you just start to sweat.   I liked it a lot, but it still doesn't compare with my Bun Rieu in terms of complexity.  

Bun Bo Hue at Pho One

The other nice thing about Pho One, is its decor.   Unlike most Vietnamese restaurants, it's incredibly well lit, clean, and modern looking.  The bright glass and shiny stone tables give it an element of class that you don't find elsewhere.   Coupled with a central location right outside Ala Moana, I love taking clients to eat at Pho One.   My clients get to experience a slightly more exotic cuisine, and we can talk shop comfortably.

So the Vietnamese did not grow up with us here.   They did not toil together on the sugar cane or pineapple fields like we did.   But they did have to endure turmoil and emotional upheaval to find a home here as well.  Lucky for us, they became part of our ohana and we can share and learn and grow together.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Mark of the Fish

There are so many good Japanese restaurants in Hawaii, it's really hard to pick a favorite.   Just like how people ask me what my favorite Chinese restaurant is, it's really dependant upon what type of Japanese food we're talking about, such as specific dishes you're looking for.   But if I were to have to pick my favorite old school, local Japanese, then there is one that stands out in my mind.   That would have to be Suehiro on King Street.  Unfortunately, just like McCully Chop Suey, Suehiro now only exists in our memories.

Suehiro has always been my favorite since I was a little kid.   I remember how that big blue "paper" fan in front would call you in from the street.   I remember going upstairs to the the second floor, where instead of tables and chairs, they had tatami mats and tables where you could tuck your legs underneath.   I know these are supposed to be more formal Japanese seating, but for a little kid, it's so fun to be free of sitting there in a chair and having something different.  It was a restauraunt that I grew up with.  When I when to college on the mainland, and came home afterwards bringing some of my mainland friends with me, Suehiro was on the short list of places to take them.  I got to show them real old school oyako donburi, and unagi, and miso butterfish, and tempura, and nishime, and sukiyaki.   We ordered a virtual feast of all things Japanese that night, and stuffed ourselves silly.   But my favorite thing at Suehiro, the thing that stands out most in my memory, is their short rib bento.   Their short ribs were sweet, beefy, and fall off the bone tender.   I can count on 1 hand the number of places I have ever had short ribs that tender, and I wouldn't even need all my fingers.   That was the place to get the most authentic Japanese bentos. 

So you can imagine my utter disappointment when they closed up shop and sold the restaurant to Gyotaku, that other Japanese restaurant from Pearl City.   In fact, I was so disappointed, that I literally boycotted Gyotaku when they first opened.   Who were these usurpers who think they could be as good as my old school favorite??   Who were these people from Pearl City that were invading my turf?   I wouldn't stand for it!   It wasn't until my parents literally dragged me in to Gyotaku one night, that I finally gave them a chance.   And you know what?   They just weren't the same.   They were a much more... modern and refined style of Japanese, compared to the good old school homestyle cooking that was Suehiro.  Everything was prettier, the way the Japanese like to dress up their dishes.  Their menu seemed, less familiar, more F.O.B..   It took a really really long time after that, for me to begin to appreciate Gyotaku for what it was.   Really good modern Japanese food.

Dragonfly Roll at Gyotaku Restaurant

Gyotaku's sushi menu is actually pretty extensive.   No they don't have the old shoyu tuna, with red and green hana ebi rolls like Suehiro used to have.   But like Ninja Sushi, they've got a lot of innovative new maki rolls of their own creation.   I have 2 favorite rolls there.   The first is their Godzilla roll, which is like a super huge shrimp tempura roll, topped with spicy tuna, and avocado.  It's a really big mouthful, combining to very distinct but familiar flavors.  The other is their Dragonfly roll, which is much more subtle.  It's got green onion tempura (that's right, tempura green onion, not shrimp) and avocado, with some spicy salmon and bonito on top.   The fact that they've tempura'd something as delicate as green onions, gives this roll a much more sublime green taste, than you normally get out of a bite of sushi.  

Pokedon at Gyotaku Restaurant

The thing that Gyotaku really does the best though, is their poke.    Here is where the Japanese once again demonstrate their dogged perfectionism.   Poke is a Hawaiian dish.   Called Hawaii's own soul food, it is the dish that dates back to the oldest Hawaiians.  I remember flying to Maui, and reading in the in-flight magazine the history of poke, including some very old sepia toned photographs of little Hawaiian kids biting straight into their fresh catch.   This is a dish, that there are hundreds of different recepies for.  Just about every family has their own.    And I hate to say it, but somehow, the best poke I've ever had is at this Japanese restaurant.  How can this be?   Well, first consider what bad poke tastes like.   When done wrong, the fish is not very fresh and starts to taste fishy (the Chinese have a word for this called "sang").   When done wrong, the fish is not cut properly, and you've got this nasty white gristle that actually gets caught between your teeth.   With the Japanese love of sashimi, you've got both the highest quality, freshest fish available, and you've got master chefs that know how to cut the fish so that each bite is smooth and just melts in your mouth.   So here the Japanese have taken this beloved Hawaiian dish, perfected it, even adding things you don't normally see like fresh cucumber, and put it on top of a bowl of soft, warm, white rice.   It would be infuriating if it wasn't so amazingly delicious.  Go at lunch time, and you will get only the best ahi poke around.  Go at dinner, and they add all of those other sashimi favorites, like tako, salmon, and hamachi to the mix as well.   Add a little shrimp tempura to that, and well....Gyotaku just won me over by brute force.

Pokedon and Tempura Combo at Gyotaku Restaurant

The other thing worth mentioning about going to Gyotaku, is that their walls are completely adorned with their namesake gyotakus.   If you don't know, gyotaku is the Japanese art of fish printing.   Originally conceived of as a way to document the size of their catch ("I caught a 500lb. marlin.... really!"), gyotaku evolved into a really beautiful art form.   They literally take the fish, cover it with ink, and press rice paper upon it to get the printing of the fish.   This became really significant to me last year.  Remember when we had that huge island wide power outage that lasted over a day?   Well, my parents have a koi pond with pretty big koi that they raised from small fries.   Unfortunately during the power outage, their pump and filter died, and without it, well... all 15 of their koi died too.  The next morning, my mom was just completely heartbroken, staring at all of her dead koi.   So, inpired by the restaurant, I came up with the idea of surprising her by trying to make a gyotaku of her largest fishes.  After a bit of research on the Internets, a little help from my Uncle, and we gave her a big New Years surprise that literally brought her to tears.   They're no where near as beautiful as the gyotaku hanging on the walls at the restaurant, but their sentimental value more makes up for their artistic refinement.

My Own Gyotaku

Life goes on.   My mom has replaced her precious koi with a new up and coming school.   My favorite old school Japanese restaurant has been replaced by my favorite modern Japanese restaurant.  That's just the way life is.   You've got to cherish and celebrate the treasured old memories, but at the same time explore and embrace the fresh new experiences.   Otherwise, you wind up missing out on one or the other.

Friday, September 25, 2009

SushiFest - Part II: Round and Round We Go

I don't really think I have a favorite food.    I really like a lot of different foods.   But if you were to ask my wife, she would tell you that we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time going to eat sushi.   She's right, I do love my sushi.   I love the combination of different flavors that you can get out of a single mouthful.    I love the dedication and perfection it takes to make really good sushi.  It would seem so simple.  Really all there is, is fish and rice.   But it takes true skill to get the texture and consistency of the rice just right.   It takes a master to know how to cut the fish just perfectly, and you need to have extremely high quality, fresh fish.   So I don't get to eat the premium stuff very often, and we often settle for the basic utility sushi.   But sometimes, you can get some pretty decent stuff for everyday food.

Sushi comes in 3 basic forms.   You've got maki, or rolled sushi, which is all the good stuff rolled in sushi rice and wrapped with nori.   You've got nigiri sushi, which is the small rice ball, with the piece of sashimi on the top.   And you've got gunkan, or battleship sushi, so named because it looks like a litle boat.   That's the one where the little sushi rice ball is wrapped in a nori, and the filling is placed on top.   For maki sushi, I really think that Ninja Sushi is the best, they've got the most innovate rolls with brilliant flavor combinations.   For nigiri, you really have to go to the high end sushi restaurants to get the good stuff.   But for good gunkan sushi in Hawaii, that is the realm of the conveyor belt.

There are a number of conveyer belt sushi restaurants here.   Catch of the Day, was probably the most fun one.   Instead of a conveyor belt, they had one location with super long train that went around in circles that you could pick the sushi off from, and another location that is a giant river with little boats carrying your sushi around.   They have since closed up, and G-Sushi has taken over the location with the little boats at Market City.   Unfortunately, while the boats are cute, their quality isn't quite as good as the other places.   Their rice just isn't as good, it's got a little too much vinegar I think, making it a little too tart and a little too soft and loose.   On the other hand, they are probably the cheapest, easiest to find parking, and easiest to get a seat at, so we do frequent the place for those reasons.   The other conveyor belt places usually have a long waiting line.   The longest lines seem to be at Kuru Kuru Sushi, right across from Pearlridge.   Admittedly, Kuru Kuru's quality is great.  They probably have the freshest, best tasting sashimi outside of the expensive high end restaurants.   But if you want really good gunkan sushi, the best place is probably Genki Sushi.

Genki Sushi is so popular here, that you almost inevitably will have at least a 20-30 minute wait before getting to sit down in front of their conveyor belt.  Cleverly marketed, my wife really loves their little corporate logo.   Genki is a Japanese word that means happy, healthy, in good spirits, and just all alround well being, which makes their cute little frowny face logo such an oxymoron.   Genki Sushi being so popular, it seems to be kind of pointless to blog about it (I might as well be blogging about how great Chicken McNuggets are), but I would like to point out a few of my favorites.

Tuna Mayo Gunkan at Genki Sushi
First up, Tuna Mayo.  Okay, it seems really ordinary.  I mean, we're just talking about tuna salad.  Canned tuna and mayonaise right?   But again, here is where that Japanese perfectionism comes in.  This is just about the best tuna salad, well... anywhere.   It's remarkably smooth and tasty.  Something familiar to start with.

Scallop Mayo Gunkan at Genki Sushi
Next up, replace the tuna with scallops and tobiko. Who doesn't love fresh scallops?

Ocean Salad Gunkan at Genki Sushi
Now, just to add some color to our diet, let's have some ocean salad.   As if the nori weren't seaweed enough, we gotta add some green seaweed to the mix.

Garlic Ahi Nigiri at Genki Sushi
Here is one of the nigiri sushi that Genki does really well.   The ahi is just seared, so the inside is still sashimi.  But what makes this is their nice garlic mayo on top.  It just blends so well with the seared fish.

Green Bean Tempura Nigiri at Genki Sushi
This is something new, that they just added.   Green bean tempura.   It just works so well, with a little bit of mayo and sauce they use for unagi.

Crab Mayo Gunkan at Genki Sushi
Probably my very favorite thing at Genki, is the Crab Mayo.   That is real crab there.   Not imitation crab.   And the flavor of the crab really comes out in this.   Where as with Seafood Salad, or other places that try to make it, you've got imitation crab, and all you really taste is mayo.  In this, what you're really tasting is crab.

Spicy Tuna Gunkan at Genki Sushi
Okay, if there is a single thing that Genki does the absolute best, better than anywhere else, it's their spicy tuna.   I've had spicy tuna all over the place, everywhere between here and California, and I gotta tell you, you just can't beat the one at Genki.   The reason?   I think it's the proportion of sesame oil they use compared to other places.   The sesame oil just gives theirs a supremely smooth texture.   It also adds just a hint of that nutty flavor to the spiciness.  Add to that some fresh ahi sashimi and tobiko and you've got a truly winning combination.

The 2 gunkan sushi that I left out of this picture that are really uniquely Hawaii, are the ahi poke gunkan and the pipikaula mayo gunkan.   Ahi Poke has been called Hawaii's soul food.   Since it is also raw fish and limu seaweed, it just makes sense to put it on top of a ball of sushi rice.   The unusual one is pipikaula, which is Hawaiian beef jerky.   When I first tasted it, I thought the combination of pipikaula and mayo on sushi rice would be weird, but it turned out to be one of my favorites.   Unfortunately, when I last went to Genki, they told me that it was discontinued.   Boo!   What I really loved about these 2 particular dishes, was how they so perfectly blend Hawaiian food with Japanese food.   It was as if in 2 little mouthfuls, they were able to capture the perfect racial harmony that is so unique to these islands. 

One word of advice, if you're going to eat at Genki, or any conveyor belt sushi place for that matter, don't bother picking up anything off of the conveyor belt.  Order everything.   It would seem to defeat the purpose of going to a conveyor belt place, but trust me, after the sushi has circled around a few times, it doesn't taste as fresh.  Sushi is all about freshness.   The moment the chef makes it, it should go into your mouth.  The rice will be the right temperature and texture.  The nori will still be crispy.  The fish will be freshest.   That is the way sushi should be experienced and appreciated.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

SushiFest - Part I: Take Me Home Tonight

If there is a single food item that Japan has widely contributed to world cuisine, it's sushi.  In fact, sushi is almost synonymous with Japanese cuisine. It takes years to become a master sushi chef.   I still remember when sushi was first gaining popularity on the mainland, and people kept going on about the raw fish.   Which was really really confusing to me, because sushi isn't necessarily raw fish.  Raw fish is sashimi, not sushi.    Although there are some forms of sushi that incorporate raw fish in it, by definition sushi is all about the vinegar rice. 

Sushi rice is that beautiful sticky plump, calrose rice cooked with a little vinegar, sugar, sake, and whatever else that varies from family to family.  It was originally conceived to preserve food, so that travellers could take it on the long walking journeys.  My greatest memory of this rice comes from my mom's best friend, Mrs. K.   Every New Year's Day, Mrs. K. would invite us over to celebrate at her house.  New Years is very big to the Japanese.  We would go over to her house and watch the Red and White song festival, and she would cook us a virtual Japanese feast.   Her nishime and namasu were, and to this day are, the best I have ever tasted.  But she was an absolute master of sushi rice.   It wasn't overpoweringly sour, just a hint of sweetness, but the rice flavor would come through, and the texture was so soft and warm and just sticky enough to hold together.  This was the really really old homestyle Japanese cooking, from an actual Japanese grandma!  

Back when I was little, sushi in Hawaii had nothing to do with raw fish.   In fact there were only 2 types of sushi, period.   There was cone sushi (known in Japan as inari sushi), which is the brown tofu pocket with sushi rice and bits of carrot stuffed into it (it has nothing to do those cone shaped handrolls you get today).  And there was maki sushi, which was one particular type of roll.   It had some shoyu tuna (can type, not fresh), some tamago (egg), some kampyo (that pickled brown gourd), sometimes some kamaboko (the red and white fishcake), and always a sprinkling of the red and white hana ebi (shrimp powder).   This was really the ONLY type of sushi we had around, and it was just about everywhere.  Anytime anyone would have a party, there would inevitably be a tray of this stuff.    It's not fair that California has a whole roll named after them.   If there were ever to be a definitive Hawaii roll, this would be it.  Ironically, while it was so completely pervasive in the past, I can hardly find this type of sushi anymore.   Of course, I've seen variations.   Everyone makes variations, some leave out this or that, some add things like cucumber or watercress.   But I can hardly find that exact roll anymore, especially with the red and green hana ebi powder, which was so distinctive of our type of sushi.   Don't worry, I'm still hunting for people that make it the old way.

Well, the past is past, and Hawaii has been practically inundated with every conceivable type of sushi there is now.   It comes in all qualities, from your basic take out, to some better sushi restaurants, to the really high end expensive stuff.  Since the high end stuff I usually only get for special occasions, let's talk about some basic take out sushi for now.   We've got tons of take out places around town.   For the most part, this is what I would consider "utility" sushi.   It's sushi in form, but not in quality.  The rice is prety plain and unflavorful sometimes, and when it gets cold, it can get hard.   The fish may or may not be that fresh, and certainly not that tasty.   It's the equivalent of running into McDonalds and getting your basic hamburger, instead of a steak house burger.  Cheap every day food.   I know that Kozo Sushi, is probably the most prominent of these places, but I try to look for something a little more unique.  The fish at Sushi Company (on McCully) is actually much fresher, but it is still no where near the quality you would get sitting down at a sushi bar in front of a true sushi chef.     When it comes to take out sushi, the one that I personally like the best, is Ninja Sushi.

O.L.T.D. Platter at Ninja Sushi

Ninja Sushi's fish, is probably the freshest you get out of a take-out sushi place.   Their rice is reasonably fresh as well.   Probably the best thing about them is all the different type of maki rolls they've got.   No they still don't have the classic old school Hawaii maki sushi.  But they've got a pretty good variety of the newer stuff; california roll, dragon roll, philadelphia roll, rainbow roll, etc.  They've also got some pretty neat variations of their own creation; the lion roll, the tiger roll, the superman roll, the osaka roll, etc.  Probably the best way to taste all of them is to get a platter and take it home.   My favorite of these, is the O.L.T.D. platter.  This one seems to have most of their more unique rolls, along with some fresh salmon and ahi nigiri. There are so many different flavors on this platter, basic rolls (like california or shrimp tempura), topped with unagi  or sashimi, and again topped with spicy or sweet sauces, and garnishes on top of that.   The combination of all of these flavors almost overwhelms your taste buds and is what sets these unique rolls apart.

Hawaii has come a long way from those old days with our one type of maki sushi.   We've been introduced to so many new varieties and flavors.  Yet, somehow I miss going to someone's party and seeing a tray of simple maki sushi.

The Ultimate Udon

If there is one word that I would use to describe the Japanese character, it would be "perfectionist".   That's really what they're all about.   The Japanese are meticulous about everything, from their cleanliness, to their manners, to their work ethic.   They pay attention to every little detail.   Sometimes, I wish the Chinese were as obsessive/compulsive about cleanliness as the Japanese are.  Looking at how dirty Chinatown is (and all the other Chinatowns around the country), just makes me sad.   There are some things the Japanese just do really really right.

Generally, the Japanese aren't originators.   Their strength is to take things that other people have come up with and refine it to the point of perfection.   Just look at the automotive world and the electronics world.   So it should be no surprise that this applies to the food world as well.   And perhaps one of the most iconic Japanese foods is their noodles.  There are so many styles of noodles around the world.   While (thanks to Marco Polo) the Italians have spaghetti, linguine, fettuccine, and vermicelli, the Japanese have ramen, somen, udon, and soba.   Of these, the one that I usually like least is udon.   

Udon is the thicker, rounder, chewier Japanese noodle.   Because of it's thickness and consistency, it generally does not cluster together the way that fine noodles do.   It's much easier to isolate an individual noodle than with thinner noodles.   The byproduct of this, is that it does not trap as much of the surrounding sauce or liquid than thinner noodles do.  Therefore, the texture of the noodle must stand out on its own much more.   The reason that I usually don't like udon noodles, is that they're generally too tough or chewy.   The thickness alone makes them firmer, since you've got more noodle to bite through.   This is especially so of dried udon noodles that need to be reconstituted.

I didn't really start to appreciate the udon until I was travelling to Guam on business one year.   It was an extruciatingly long flight, almost 18 hours total.   The only stopover I had was in Narita Airport, just outside of Tokyo.   Tired, cramped, and jet lagged, I hobbled around the airport looking for something to eat, and what did I find, but a udon noodle shop.   Figuring I was in the country of it's inception, I thought I might as well give a bowl a chance.   Because I was tired and hungry, the warmth of the soup really perked me up.  And the noodles, were a much better texture than I was expecting.   Because they were thicker, they were also a little more substantial to a weary traveler.    Having found udon that I actually liked, I decided to try to hunt for it at home.   After much searching, I finally found what may be the perfect noodle, at Jimbo Restaurant, on S. King just before McCully (next to where King's Bakery and later Machino Chaya used to be).

Hot Udon and Okayko Donburi Combo at Jimbo Restaurant

Jimbo is a perfect example of the Japanese perfectionism.   They focus on basically one thing, their udon noodle.  It is entirely handmade by themselves, and because the noodles are fresh and never reconstituted, the texture is absolutely perfect.   The udon is softer than any other I've had, but still has enough chewiness to satisfy your appetite.   But to me the best thing is their slight variation, "hoso udon" or skinny udon.   Here are the same classic udon noodles, but just slightly skinnier, so it alleviates some of the trappings of the thick noodle.  

Zaru Udon and Tempura Combo at Jimbo Restaurant

Udon is classically served hot.   The pairing of the udon in broth with another dish like an okayo donburi makes for a fantastic meal.   But Jimbo also balances it out by serving them cold (zaru udon) as well.   Usually, the cold serving is done with soba noodles, not udon, but somehow the with Jimbo's hoso udon it works really well.   The hoso udon is more slippery than soba traditionally is, so it has a wonderful mouth feel slurping them up.

Zaru Udon close up at Jimbo Restaurant

When looking for the perfect noodle, Jimbo's udon just may top that list in the islands.   That really says something, considering I generally like udon noodles the least.   That just goes to show what an obsession with perfectionism can do. 

Monday, September 21, 2009

Ode to the Okazu-ya

If the Chinese came to Hawaii and prospered, the Japanese came over and all but took over.   I mean seriously, Hawaii my be part of the United States politically, but culturally, I've always thought we were a subsidiary of Japan.   We take off our shoes when we enter our houses.   We eat with chopsticks much more than forks.  We run around saying things like "ah so desu ka!".   So it's no wonder that we tend to eat a lot of Japanese food as well.   We eat all kinds of Japanese food, from ramen to sushi, from bentos to izakaya.  And often times we take it and make it our own.   Traditional onigiri or musubi is a Japanese rice ball, but add a little spam, and you've got something so unmistakably Hawaii, that it's become almost synonymous with our cuisine.  Mac salad comes with every plate lunch in town, but the original Japanese form uses very little mayo, more miso, and has a much smoother richer consistency almost like mashed potatoes (the salad at Hanaki is a prime example of this style).

When you think of Japanese food that's very local Japanese, perhaps the oldest, most endearing form is the okazu-ya (or the Japanese delicatessen).  Yes, when you're in New York, the deli is a Jewish domain, filled with lox and bagels, knishes, and matzo balls.  But when you're in Hawaii, and we mention a delicatessen, the image immediately appears of the little old Japanese lady, with her white hair tied back with a palaka bandana, scooping out some rice for your bento.   Those little old ladies have been working behind the counter of those restaurants for almost all their lives, and when you see them, you instantly know that it's a mark of quality and expertise. 

There were so many old style okazu-ya's dotted all over town.   The first (and most famous) one that pops into mind will always be Wong's Okazu-ya in Ala Moana.   I always loved this place when I was a little kid, but somehow I remember having more noodles there than okazu-ya style food.   Even though it's gone, many of the old okazu-ya's still survive.   Whenever we're on the Windward side, I'm always checking to see if Megumi restaurant is open.  I know lots of people there like Masa & Joyce, but I always think of their food as more Hawaiian, and Megumi's as more Japanese.   Gulick Delicatessen moved from Guilick Ave. to King St. close by McCully, but believe me they still have the best furikake musubi's in town (they're very generous with the furikake, making the rice almost completely hidden).  Furuya's is good, but kinda pricier.   Even good ol Sekiya's has an okazuya section.    But if you were to ask me which is my absolute favorite okazu-ya, the answer would easily be St. Louis Delicatessen (right across form Chaminade University, next to St. Louis Drive Inn).  

Assortment from St. Louis Delicatessen

They have all the best stuff you can expect from an okazu-ya; maki sushi and cone sushi, musubis, Japanese style fried chicken and shoyu chicken, various types of tempura, nishime, shoyu hot dogs and teri hamburgers, potato hash and various croquettes, and all kinds of other little goodies.   Their tempura is the older style of tempura, not the modern flaky panko batter tempura, but kind that is more like andagi batter tempura.  This style, much more common in the 50's, is rarely seen these days.

Chow Fun at St. Louis Delicatessen

The real surprise though, is their incredible chow fun.   I mean, seriously, look at them. They look like plain white noodles, with a few shreds of carrot and green beans.   It looks like it would be completely bland. There's not even the hint of a shoyu color or oil.   But these noodles are amazingly flavorful.   It's not just salt.  They've got some Japanese seasonings that I can't even begin to break down.   But they're simply ono, and the star of any meal there.

Assortment from St. Louis Delicatessen

I'm not even sure if they have okazu-ya's in Japan ("okazu" is a side dish to accompany rice in Japanese, and "ya" is a store), or eateries specializing in these dishes.  But even if they do, like the spam musubi, through time they've really been adopted into our own culture.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Local Food Maui Style

So I would fly all the way over to Kauai for a bowl of Hamura's Saimin.   I can't wait to get back over to Hilo for some ox tail stew at Ken's House of Pancakes. But what about Maui?  What's good on Maui?   That's a funny question to ask, isn't it?   Isn't Maui supposed to be "no ka oi"?   Isn't Maui gonna have the same local food as the other islands?  Well, for a good while, my wife didn't think so.    

My wife used to work for a company that would send her over to Maui for work at the High Performance Computing Center, roughly about once a month.    She would fly over, go to work, go to the company apartment for the night, go back to work, repeat for a few days and fly back.   She didn't really get to explore the island, or have any real holo holo time there.   The only time she had to look around, was during lunch.  It just so happened one day she wanted a bento, so she asked her co-workers where to get a good bento and they didn't even know what a bento was!  Okay, so her co-workers were haoles from the mainland and didn't know where to find a good bento, but she herself drove around Kihei every lunch hour, and simply could not find any good local food.  So she was convinced, that Maui had become so haole that there were just no more local places to eat there.

Later on, I too had to go over to Maui to work.   But, luckily for me, while she was stuck down in Kihei, I was working in Kahului and Wailuku.    Even more luckily for me, I happened to be working for some of the most hardcore native Hawaiians you will ever find.  Not the uber radical Hawaiian sovereignty type people, but people who really cared about Hawaii, about the culture, and the aina.   People who would when I would get there in the morning, after taking the 5AM flight, would be chanting a sunrise chant in Hawaiian to greet the day.   That's true Hawaiian.   So I asked them all about the good places to eat on Maui, so that whenever I could drag my wife back to try experiencing Maui for fun not just for work, I would know where to take her.  They of course did not steer me wrong.

The first place they sent me, was a real Wailuku town favorite, Sam Sato's.   Sam Sato's is the kind of place where you find almost two dozen local people waiting outside at any given time, waiting for a table.  Luckily I could also just take stuff to go and head back to work.  They are famous for 2 things.  Firstly, is their "dry mein".  What the heck is dry mein?  I'll give you a hint, it's supposed to rhyme with saimin.   It's basically their take on gon lo mein with saimin noodles instead of Chinese noodles.   It's NOT the kind of fried saimin you get at carnivals and stuff.   It's saimin, served with the usual saimin toppings, drizzed with a little oil and seasonings, and served with a bowl of broth on the side for dipping in.   It's an interesting variation, but not everyone likes their saimin so dry.   The other thing they're famous for?   Manju.   Either filled with the traditional azuki bean, or their sweetened lima beans, they've got a great flaky texture.   If you're visiting Maui, and trying to figure out what kind of uniquely Maui omiyake to bring back (and don't want Krispy Kremes), then you can't go wrong with a box of Sam Sato's manju.

The other place that my friends sent me to, is perhaps the best local food place on Maui, and probably the one formost on everyone's lips.   The place?   Da Kitchen!   Da Kitchen is another one of those places where you continuously find a line of local people waiting to get in the door.  Even Zimmern visited the place at one point to eat spam.   They even have a small Kihei location, that my wife could've found, but she still would've been disappointed.   The food at the Kihei location isn't nearly as good as the Kahului restaurant.   The Kihei one is a lame, fast food, operation with a very limited menu, whereas the Kahului location is sit down, and in addition to their regular menu always has a variety of specials.   The dish that is probably their most unique is their fish tempura.   That's right, fish, not shrimp, tempura.   I'll admit, it was pretty good.   But what I really liked at Da Kitchen was their special combo 4.  

Special Combo 4 at Da Kitchen

The special combo 4 is a mammoth sized plate.   Atop the bed of rice that seems to cover the entire plate, are 2 pieces of spam, 2 pieces of teri chicken, a mound of kalua pork and a hamburger steak with onions.   This thing would've rivaled even something off of Masu's menu.  The chicken was okay, and spam is always spam, but what was really great was the hamburger steak and kalua pig.  The hamburger steak was thick and meaty, and not at all dry.  But the sauted onions just made it perfect.   If there was one thing Masu's did badly, it was their hamburger steak, which was always way too breaded.  This plate was so big, that I had to take it home, which unfortunately being on Maui, meant that I had to carry my leftovers on the plane, but that's okay.

The best thing about this plate though, was it made me feel right at home.  That this was still my Hawaii, just another facet to explore.  Having found real local food on Maui, not to mention the real local people, I feel perfectly comfortable, going back, for work or for play, and taking my wife along, not just to prove her wrong, but to let her enjoy Maui for a change.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Massively Missin'

The Aloha Bowl at Hungry Lion may be huge, but I have on occasion been able to finish it.    But if you want to talk about massive portions of really really good local food, there is only one name that should spring to mind.    Masu's Massive Plate Lunch.   Masu's was the quintessential place to grind super huge portions.   It stood on the corner of Liliha and Kuakini, with that big plate lunch sign above their parking lot that just beckoned you in as you were driving up Liliha.   Typically, it would take both me and my wife (then girlfriend) to finish just one plate.   But it was the like a shining beacon for firefighters, policemen, construction workers, the really big blahlah types who needed all of that sustenance to do their jobs.   I would watch these guys come in and pound a whole plate and still have room for desert. That was the type of honest, blue collar, local people that they tried to serve, and they did it very well.

Masu's was, if nothing else, pure Hawaiian.    You could tell you were in Hawaii when you walked into that place.   Walking in was always fun, because the line of mokes and titas would ususally go out the door into the parking lot.   If you were lucky enough to come on a day when it really wasn't too crowded, you could really enjoy the Hawaiian feel of the place.   It wasn't air conditioned, but the fans overhead were just cool enough to blow that warm Hawaiian air around.   The walls were just covered with pictures of local celebrities.   Everyone from Loyal Garner to Danny Kamekona was there.   When you finally sat down to eat, the music you would be listening to wouldn't be the really old stuff like Kui Lee, nor would it be the newer stuff like Kealii Reichel.   But it would be that sweet spot right in between, with the Beamers and C&K.   It was the Hawaii of yesteryear.   It was the Hawaii when our parents were real young and we were just small kids.   Just walking in made you feel that way.

When it came to what to order at Masu's, it was always the special of the day, inevitably named after some local luminary, like the "Perry & Price Mixed Plate", that would sell out long before noon.    You always had to grab the monthly menus, to plan to come when they would have the really great specials that included things like a 6oz steak, baby lobster tails, fried chicken, shrimp tempura, spam, hot dogs, all on one plate.    But what I always liked the best from them was their Aloha Weekend Special, that they would have every Friday.  If I remember it right, it consisted of:
  • Must've been 3 scoops of rice (if not 4).
  • Mac salad, which admittedly wasn't the best.  The macaroni was always too soft.
  • A cup of kalua pig, which really was the best.  It was smokey, flavorful, and very moist as it would soak in the juices in the cup.
  • A huge lau lau.   One of the largest lau lau I've ever seen.   And they always did it right.   It wasn't just pork belly and taro leaves, but had that small chunk of butterfish inside to give it flavor.
  • Baked spam.  We're not talking a thin 1/4" slice.  We're talking about a full inch thick brick, which was nicely glazed and browned on the sides so everything was caramelized and yummy.
  • 2 shoyu hot dogs.
  • and 3 pieces of charcol broiled teri-chicken.
It was huge.   It was fantastically yummy.   It was also only like $7.   You couldn't beat that.  When it came to Hawaiian food, Masu's was always on my very short list.

Sadly, Masu's has also faded into the same yesteryear of Hawaii history.  In fact, the whole building that they were in was sold to Finance Factors.   The family that owned the building also used to own and operate a barber shop across the parking lot.    What's really cool, is that the barber, Clara, used to cut my wife's Goong Goong's hair.   In fact, she used to cut my wife's dad's hair, and her brother's hair too.    So when our first son was born, and was ready for his very first haircut, who else but Clara could do the job.   After cutting 4 generations of my wife's family's hair, I think she deserves a break.  However I will say that Clara, and Masu's are definitely missed.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

All Around the Banyan Tree

The Chinese that came to Hawaii as sugar plantation workers prospered greatly.    Before long, many had fulfilled the terms of their contract, but they had fallen in love with Hawaii.  Hawaii was beautiful, just like a Chinese san sui (or mountain and water painting).  They made many friends with the Hawaiians, they even found similarities in cuisine (Cantonese use taro in their cooking just like the Hawaiians did).   So instead of packing up and heading home to China, they stayed and made a life for themselves here.   It didn't take very long for them to leave the sugar plantations and open very successful businesses of their own.   My own grandparents were among them, founding good ol' Goo Laundry (a laundry, how stereotypically Chinese). 

One of the most successful Chinese merchants, was Chun Ah Fong.   If you know anything about Hawaiian history, you'll know he was one of the most influential people in the Hawaiian Kingdom.   He was Hawaii's first Chinese millionaire.   He was very close to King David Kalakaua, even marrying his hanai sister.  He built many estates all over the island.    On, one of his estates up in Nuuanu he planted a famous Chinese banyan tree (one of a pair that he named yin and yang).   Later, this estate was purchased from him by another Chinese merchant, Chun Hoon, and the site became the famous Chun Hoon Supermarket (one of the biggest supermarkets in Hawaii).   In the early 80's, a clever restaurantuer named, Roy Shimonishi, decided to build a restaurant on the site, AROUND the famous banyan tree.   It was quite unusual, to have the trunk of this huge tree right in the middle of the restaurant, and it became one of his trademarks.   The restaurant?  Why, the Hungry Lion of course.

Since then, they've built a plaster molding around the tree trunk, something about bugs from the tree getting into the restaurant.  But the tree is still standing, and protruding from the top of the restaurant.  As time marched on, their walls got adorned with paintings of some very famous hungry lions, namely Mufasa, Simba, Nala, and others.   But their food remains the same benchmark of local food it always was, with the same portions large enough to feed a hungry lion. 

The Aloha Bowl at Hungry Lion

The Hungry Lion is one of those places I go when I need to have my fix of really really local food (like on my way to or home from the airport after a long trip).  My favorite thing there, is the Aloha Bowl.   This thing is just plain massive.   Imagine if you will, a saimin bowl, not a small rice bowl or a soup bowl or anything like that, but a full on saimin bowl, maybe 1/3 filled with rice.   There's no measly 2 scoops here.    And on this massive bed of rice, a perfect mixed plate of curry, chicken katsu, roast pork, and a teri-burger.   All of these things are done to really local tastes.   The teri burger for example, is local style teriyaki sauce.   It's not exactly the Japanese style thinner sweeter sauce, nor is it that shoyu type thing that mainlanders think is teriyaki sauce.  This is the real local style teri sauce.  The same thing goes for the curry.   As for the roast pork, it's a nice soft piece with a good mix of fat and lean.   The really great thing is towards the end when the curry, the teri from the burger, and the brown gravy from the roast pork swirl together.   Okay, that doesn't sound appetizing at all .   But imagine towards the end of a banana split, when the chocolate syrup, the strawberry syrup, and the pineapple syrup are all swirling together with the melted chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla ice cream.    It would seem like an overwhelming hodge podge of flavors, but you know how good that goopy mess tastes.   That's kind of the same effect that the mixing of gravies has.   Of course, the bowl is so huge, that I rarely can finish the whole thing.   But that's okay, more for later.

Hungry Lion has a ton of local favorites, so I'll probably be revisiting them here at some later point.   Suffice it to say that the restaurant, like the huge tree that it's built around, has withstood the test of time and become a Hawaii icon.

The Little Garden of Beef

As the descendant of Cantonese sugar planatation workers, I tend to favor the flavors that I grew up with, that my Po Po cooked for me.   I'm also very protective of these flavors, because I always worry that they could easily be lost to time and history.   However that doesn't mean that I don't like other regions or other flavors.  Indeed, if you were looking to find the best most definitive Chinese food in the world, I would probably recommend that you wander out from the rice paddies of Guangdong, and towards the little peninsula and island just outside called Hong Kong.  Hong Kong takes Cantonese food, indeed all Chinese food, and kicks it up a notch.   The reason for this?   Hong Kong has long been the central hub of activity, China's interface with the world.   It's a jam packed city filled with hungry people who have no time or space to eat at home.   So naturally, they've taken the best of Chinese food, and refined it to it's most polished and sophisticated state.  The excess is trimmed.    The flavors have are made much more intense, and they have a much more metropolitan and worldly air about them.  

Being a British posession for such a long time, Hong Kong has always been much more open and accessible than the rest of China.   So it is no wonder that the Hong Kongese have also made their way to the islands, much later than the original Cantonese transplants, but for quite a long time now.  As such, many of our Chinese restuarants also have a more Hong Kong influenced cuisine.    Some are more modern and glamourous, others reflect tastes that were established by an older generation.  If you were to ask me which restaurant would be my favorite among these, it would easily be Mini Garden.

Mini Garden, or Ming Yuen (as it's called in Chinese), is definitely not a new restaurant.    It was established a lifetime ago on Smith Street in Chinatown.  I was having lunch with an old friend there one day, and she reminised about how her father would bring home Won Ton Mein, late at night when she was a little girl.   But the Mini Garden of today is not nearly the same as it was 30 years ago.    The original Mini Garden, was a typical dingy dirty Chinatown establishment with old tables, worn down floors, and a weathered exterior.  However, they've semi-recently remodeled, to a more modern Chinese look.   Rounded faux wood paneling, and shiny fancy glass everywhere.   While it may look new and shiny, the food was defintely not the same.   I went there several times to discover that the food overcooked and tough, and at times undercooked and potentially stomach upsetting.   It wasn't until later that I realized why.    Mini Garden had sold that location (along with their name), to new owners who did not take nearly the same care as the original owners.    And the Mini Garden Express over at the 99 ranch food court is not nearly as good (it is fast food after all).   But fear not, I found the true Mini Garden, which moved to a shiny new location on Beretania Street just before McCully.

Beef Brisket/Tendon Noodle at Mini Garden

The new location Mini Garden, is still much more chic than the old school classic I remember.   Shiny nouveau porcelain plates, a white leather couch, and a big plasma tv will do that for you.    But the food is just as good.  If there is one thing that Mini Garden has always done the best, it's their noodles.   Their noodles, are the thinner firmer Hong Kong style of noodles, which because of their thinness have a wonderful feel in your mouth.  My favorite dish there would have to be their ngau lam/ngau gun tong mein (or beef brisket/beef tendon noodles soup).  They make perhaps some of the best beef brisket on the island.   It is so incredibly soft you cannot believe beef can get this soft.   Because of the softness, the soup soaks into it and permeates it.  At the same time, the richness of the beef melts throughout the broth.   But the real kicker is the tendon.   Admittedly, tendon is not for everyone.   But then that may be because most people have never had good tendon.  When done wrong, it's hard, kinda crunchy, and has a very unpleasant mouth feel.  When done right tough, as Mini Garden consistently does, it is soft to the point where it tastes almost like a beefy gelatin.  Doesn't sound appetizing?  Trust me, taste it and you will know what I like about it so much.   The beefiness, broth, and noodles just harmonize perfectly in this dish.  

The other thing that Mini Garden has going for it, is a second, entirely vegetarian menu.   This is not just a few vegetable dishes, but a really fantastic faux meat substitute.   They have dishes like sweet sour fish, barbecue spare ribs, and beef broccoli, which are entirely made out of gluten, soy, and mysterous vegetables.   Again, that doesn't sound very appetizing.  It sounds like hippie, tree hugger, granola birkenstock food.   But trust me it's not.  It's done the way that Buddhist monks have done it for hundreds of years.   When you're a vegetarian THAT long, you find a way to make your way to taste good.  If you close your eyes and eat them, especially the fish, the texture is almost exactly that of fish.  What's missing, is the essential fattiness that real meat has.  But then, if you're looking for a healtier diet, that may work for you.    In my life, I've had classmates, a sister, and most recently a niece who have embrassed vegetarianism for various reasons.  So it is nice to have a place to take them that is vegetarianism taken to a higher level, and really done right.   When my niece was recently visiting this summer, I took her there as a special treat, and I think she quite enjoyed it.

The food at Mini Garden is the kind of food that my Hong Kongese friends grew up with.   It's not quite the same as what my Po Po made, but is probably similar to what their Po Po's did.  It's still Cantonese food, but you can taste the subtle distinction.   It's even there in the language.  The accent is slightly different, the way that British English is different from American.  Case in point, when I ordered my "ngau lam" (beef brisket), the proprietor repeated it to me as "au nam".  Not so different that we couldn't understand each other, but different.   Hong Kong is like the big city to the farmers that my ancestors where.   I imagine it's the way that upstate New Yorkers feel about Manhattanites.  It's the story of the country mouse and the city mouse.   While I love the excitement and glitz that is the big city, I'll always be a country mouse at heart.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

1 Ton of Flavor

While lamenting the loss of places like McCully Chop Suey, we need to celebrate all of the great Old Hawaii-Style Chinese restaurants we still do have.  Restaurants which serve the classic old school Cantonese dishes the Chinese workers brought with them when they came to work on the sugar plantations.  Among these classic dishes is a local favorite, won ton mein.

When I was little, won ton mein seemed so boring, so ordinary.   I remember sitting in Chinese school, and one of the little girls was excitedly telling her friend how she was looking forward to having won tons for dinner.  And I remember thinking to myself... what's so great about having won tons?   And of course, I was being a snotty idiot.  I failed to appreciate, just what magical little treasures won tons can be, and just how much care and effort goes into making them.   Whenever you eat them, you must remember that they are always made by hand, one by one.   The people that make them for you sit for long stretches doing nothing but shaping and molding the little dumplings, one at a time, by hand.   When done right, with care and attention, each one tastes like a little bit of Heaven.   More precisely, "won" means clouds and "ton" means to swallow, so each one is like swallowing a little cloud.    BTW, they should be pronounced like they weigh "1 ton", NOT like you just "won" someone's "ton"sils.

When I got married, my wife and I took our honeymoon on an Alaskan cruise.   While on board ship, I came across won ton soup as a menu option in one of the restaurants.   Out of curiosity, I decided to try a bowl.   What I was served, was a small rice bowl sized bowl of plain chicken broth with nothing else but 2 little dumplings in it.    Could this be right??   Is this really how they serve them on the mainland???  Apparently yes, on the mainland, won ton soup is like a starter course, the bowl of soup you get before your meal.  The plain chicken broth was nothing to speak of, and the won tons were almost all "pi" (the wrapper), with just a tiny hard chunk of meat in the middle.   Needless to say, I walked away extremely unsatisfied.

Lucky, my wife makes the absolute best won tons in the world.   It is perhaps the best dish she makes, and she makes them absolutely perfectly.   Her filling is always generously overstuffed, with pork, large pieces of ha mai (the small dried shrimp), chopped up waterchestnuts and shin choi (salted picked vegetables).   Okay, I don't really know what she puts in her won tons (and even if I did, I wouldn't tell you her secrets).   But I do know that each one of them is meaty and filling.   The pi is never tough, but floppy and slurpable and seems to trap the broth so you get this gush of flavor when eating them.  They are just perfect!

Making won tons, however, is a very time consuming process.   Since she's busy with other things, like trying to take care of all of us in this house, she only makes them on special occasions.  So if she's not going to make them, what restaurant would we go to to get won ton mein that is up to her standards?   Why, right on Waialae, at Hung Won Chinese Restaurant!   They make an absolutely fantastic, old Cantonese style, wor won ton mein (wor being the deluxe version of the dish).   Their won tons are almost (but not quite) as good as my wife's.  Their noodles, are not those thin Hong Kong style noodles, but the heartier, starchier, thicker Cantonese style noodles (the kind the farmers needed to eat to stay full while working the fields).   Their deluxe wor won ton mein is filled with all kinds of vegetables, both Chinese (like won bok and bak choi) and Western (like carrots and broccoli).   Everything blends together to make a hearty, balanced, substantial meal (unlike that dinky bowl on the cruise ship).

Wor Won Ton Mein at Hung Won Chinese Restaurant

If you're not in the mood for won ton mein, Hung Won also makes a fantastic siu yuk (or Roast Pork).  Everyone always says that good siu yuk is all about the skin.   But theirs is so much more than that.   Bad siu yuk is really tough and fatty.  The skin on it would be hard to chew and get stuck in your teeth.   Good siu yuk has, like good kau yuk, has all of its layers work together in harmony.  The skin is crunchy, the meat is tender, and the small amount of fat between the layers would just melt in your mouth moisten everything else.   With really good siu yuk, you don't just want to eat the skin, but eat all the layers in combination to have them work with each other.  And good siu yuk has this fragrant porkiness that lets you know you're eating pork and not some other meat.   Hung Won doesn't always do it right.  If it's old or cold, then it doesn't taste that great.   But when they are on the ball, theirs is among the best.

Roast Pork Rice at Hung Won Chinese Restaurant

Whether having wor won ton mein or siu yuk fan, Hung Won, has that really old school Chinese taste that reminds me of home.   Best of all, the owner always greets us happily and has watched my son grow from a tiny baby to a little boy.   Someday when he's much older, maybe he will reminice about Hung Won and how their won ton mein reminds him of his mom's cooking.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

What is Chinese?

Being Chinese, and being a "foodie", people inevitably ask me, what the "best" Chinese restaurant on island is.   This would seem like a reasonable question, but really it is inherently flawed.   To put it in prespective, could you really go to the mainland and ask them what their favorite American restaurant is?   America is a big country, and American cuisine is extremely diverse.   Is a 50's diner the same thing as a great American steakhouse?    Is Texas barbecue the same thing as a New York deli?   Is a Southern restaurant where everything is fried the same thing as a California one where everything is tofu and sprouts?   No.   And of those pairings, is any of them any more "American" than the other?   Definitely not.   The same can be said of Chinese food.   China is an even bigger place than the U.S., so naturally Chinese cuisine is as diverse as American.    Cantonese food is not the same as Szechuan. 

I, like most overseas Chinese from Cantonese stock.   So naturally I would favor Cantonese food.  But even within one style of food, there are variations.    There is a very heated debate between Texas, Kansas City, Memphis, and North Carolina as to which region has the best barbecue.   None of them are the same, but everyone has their favorite.   The Chinese who left Guangzhou (Canton), over 200 years ago, to come work on Hawaii's sugar cane plantations, brought with them the Cantonese food, language, and culture they remembered from their own particular villages.   After staying here for over 200 years, their culture evolved separately from Chinese in China, or any other part of the world for that matter.  So I can definitively say that the Chinese culture that I am part of, is the Hawaii Chinese culture.

Chinese also immigrated to the mainland U.S..   They moved to California in great waves and helped build the TransContinental Railroad.    They moved to New York and built the largest Chinatown in the nation.  They moved to Australia, and Singapore, and Canada, and many many other places.   Almost all of these people were Cantonese people.  Which is why the Cantonese language is so pervasive outside of China.   Yet most people in China and Taiwan, with the exception of Guangzhou and Hong Kong, speak Mandarin.  So really if you want to speak to any Chinese in China, you need to speak Mandarin.  But if you want to speak to any Chinese from a Chinese community outside of China, you need to speak Cantonese.

It's really funny.  In my Uncle's office, there are 2 girls.  One is from Shanghai, the other is from Hong Kong.   One speaks Mandarin, the other Cantonese, so neither can talk to each other.   The common language between them is English.   But does that make either one of them any less Chinese?   Definitely not.  Even within Cantonese, there are variations.   Whenever I talk to people from Hong Kong, they say that my Cantonese sounds funny.   Like I've got some kind of farmer's accent.   Well, considering that all of the Chinese who moved to Hawaii to work on the sugar plantations were farmers, I guess that would make sense.   To me, their Cantonese sounds like.... well, it sounds like what we Americans think of when we hear the British speak English.  

The differences in language between Chinese are the same as the differences with food.   Even though it was also all Cantonese people that moved to the mainland U.S., their culture evolved quite separately from our own.   I had no clue what "moo goo gai pan"or "kung pao chicken" or "moo shu pork" was until I moved to the mainland.  Similarly, when I was in a restaurant in California, and I tried to order a mein bang or cake noodle, the waiter had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.   For those of you who don't know, mein bang, is noodles that have been fried and cut into 3'x3' squares, and then covered with the traditional sauces and ingredients.   Because it's prepared like this, you can pick up a whole square and bite it, and as the gravy soaks into it, you have this wonderful contrast between the noodles that are still crispy and the noodles that are now soft and slippery.  And by the way, chow "mein" is pronounced like you're being "mean" to someone, not like it's a lion's "mane".  

So, it is really difficult to answer the question, what is your favorite Chinese restaurant.   I have many different favorites depending on the regional style and type of food.    However, if you were to ask me which was my favorite Old Hawaii-Style Chinese restaurant, the one that most reminded me of my Po Po's cooking, that would be a fairly easy call.   That would be McCully Chop Sui, on the corner of S. King and McCully.   My wife, and her family, would swear by Golden Duck (by the corner of S. King and Piikoi),  but to me McCully Chop Suey was always the best.    My favorite dishes would always be the ones my Po Po would cook for me when I was little.   The top of this list would be the yuk bang or pork hash (yuk is pronounced to rhyme with "hook").   I mentioned earlier how Po Po would cook this for my Goong Goong almost every night, and it was my favorite when I was little.   Out of all the places in town, and there are many, theirs was the one that tasted most like my Po Po's.  The other big one was their kau yuk or steamed pork belly.   Most other places would make theirs with that unnatural red coloring, and the skin on top would be rubbery or fat between the layers too prominent and fatty.  Their was brown like my Po Po's, and everything, all of those umptuous layers would just melt in your mouth.  I also loved their oyster roll (essentially an oyster stuffed with the same pork hash), although my Po Po would steam hers while McCully would deep fry theirs.   I would always go order one of these two along with some crispy gau gee mein, some fu yung dan (egg fu yung), and some beef broccoli, whenever I wanted to feel like I was in Po Po's living room again.   Heck, they even had the same curtains hanging in their window that Po Po had!  

Sadly, like so many other tastes of old Hawaii, they too are closed now.  There's an art gallery where they were now.   But they were such a Hawaii landmark, that the new owners decided to leave up the iconic neon sign.   Now, instead of a beacon of warm grandmother's cooking inside, it's a reminder of those treasured memories past.   There are other fantastic Chinese restaurants on island.   There are even other great Old Hawaii-Style Chinese restaurants.  And as the Chinese community in Hawaii continues to live and grow and evolve, the cuisine will inevitably change and grow along with it.   But, I will always remember McCully Chop Suey, and the way they made it, and the way my Po Po made it.

Everyone goes through an identity crisis growing up.   Children of mixed cultures feel it moreso.   I always felt disoriented when I met friends from China who spoke Mandarin instead of Cantonese?   When I met friends from Hong Kong, who liked Hong Kong-style restaurants better than Hawaii-style Chinese restaurants, and spoke a more "elegant" Cantonese than I do, I always felt a little backwater.  It took a long time to figure out who I was and be proud of it.   Am I Chinese?  Am I American?   Am I Hawaiian?  Ultimately, I'm a little of all of that.  I'm proud to be a Chinese from Hawaii, with our own subculture, language and food.   Eating at places like McCully Chop Suey helped me define and take pride in that identity.   That's who I am.   That's where I come from.   But ultimately.... I'm just me.