Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Best Part of the Ox

We all tend to love the foods that we grew up eating, and one of my Po Po's specialties was her ox tails. She would cook ox tails for us roughly twice a month, and I they quickly became one of my favorites. She wouldn't make anything fancy like ox tail stew or ox tail soup. She would just make these great simmered ox tails, with some small adornments like shiitake mushrooms and baht gock (star anise) that would bring out the natural flavor of the ox tails. They would truly be fall off the bone tender, and the liquid they simmered in would turn into this slightly sticky, oh so beefy, sauce that I would lick off of my fingers. I remember when my Goong Goong grew older, he would have just about the same thing for dinner every night: 1 ox tail, 1 boiled chicken foot (which we would dip in shoyu), a small piece of yuk bang (pork hash), a bowl of fish head soup, some won bok (napa cabbage), and a bowl of rice.

To people on the mainland, the tail part of a bull might be considered a strange thing to eat, but it's a Hawaii favorite. I understand they're also popular in Jamaica. I even saw Zimmern eat them during his tapas crawl in Spain. When it's done right (meaning it takes several hours to stew), ox tails are extraordinarily tender, truly falling off the bone. They have their own rich beefy flavor, which is partly due to their fattiness. When they're done wrong, there is a thick layer of fat around the bigger pieces that tastes... well, fatty in a bad way. The meat isn't tender, and it has a almost a gristly, fiberousness to it. And worst of all the fat kind of congeals on things when it gets cold. So ox tails take a lot of time and patience to cook right. They're also a little bit unruly to eat, because you've got this bone in the middle with spokes (you know how a spine segement looks) that prevents you from cutting or biting into it gracefully. So when I was little I liked the smaller pieces which I could hold like tiny drumsticks, which didn't have the layer of fat around it that you had to trim off, and I could basically fit the whole end in my mouth and suck off all the meat.

Ox tails soup is a Hawaii favorite. A couple of years after my Po Po passed away, I was still missing her and her ox tails, so I decided to go on a quest for the best ox tail soup. It wasn't exactly what she made, but as a classic Hawaii dish I would have ample selection to try. I spent all summer tasting ox tail soup from different places around town. There were 2 that clearly better than the others. One was no surprise at all, it was the place that everyone considered the best ox tail soup in the islands.... Kapiolani Coffee Shop, located within the Kamehameha Bowling Alley. You may think that a bowling alley would be a funny place to find one of the premier dishes in all of Hawaii, but everyone who really knows their ox tail would know this place. Theirs was a more simple dish, with scant other (visible) ingredients besides the ox tail, some small shreds of bak choi, a shiitake mushroom, a generous helping of chinese parsley (cilantro), and some rice on the side. What made theirs the best was that their meat was perhaps the most tender of ANY place I found around the island, and their broth was the richest most complex broth of any around. When you're talking about ox tail soup, what else matters except for the ox tail and the broth right? I also liked the way their minced ginger was so super fine, it would just dissolve when you dumped a spoonful or two of it in. Sadly, Kapiolani Coffee Shop is now closed. My friend, Jim, was visiting from San Fran one year, and I wanted to take him to the bowling alley and we had discovered it closed to be replaced by a Walgreens. Our lament was truly great. Luckily we found that they moved to a small location by the old Gem's on Dillingham, but that location has now also since closed. I'm told that Asahi Grill on Ward Avenue, is by the same family and still serves their ox tail soup recipie, but it's just not the same as eating it in the bowling alley.

Oxtail Soup at Zippy's

The second place that really caught my fancy, was kind of a surprise. It was the sit down section at Zippy's (shown above). Really? Zippy's?? It seems kind of... anti-climactic, when you're spending all summer hunting down the little known, hidden, hole-in-the-walls with the best ox tail soup, to suddenly find something so good at a huge chain like Zippy's. But we're talking about their sit down portion (which not all Zippys have), and there is definitely a reason why Zippy's is such an island institution. Anyway, compared to Kapiolani Coffee Shop, their meat wasn't quite as tender, but it was almost more... "meaty", if you know what I mean. But what made theirs so good, was the opposite approach at the bowling alley. Theirs was filled with vegetables, mushrooms, peanuts, etc. And the overall combination of these ingredients gives theirs a rich, complex harmony. Even their peanuts (and I don't normally like peanuts in my ox tail soup), don't taste like they added dry roasted peanuts, but more like those Chinese boiled peanuts. In any case, at least Zippy's is still there to enjoy, and hopefully will be for a long time to come.
With all of my questing for the best ox tail soup around that summer, it wasn't until a few years later that I truly found what I thought was the best ox tail in the islands. I was on a business trip to Hilo, and I decided to have dinner at Ken's House of Pancakes. Their ox tail stew was just fantastic! It was so tender, and so rich, and it seemed to just coat my whole mouth with flavor. The meat was just the very definition of succulent. It was probably the closest thing I could find to what my Po Po used to cook. Sorry, I can't afford the airfare to fly over there and take a picture for you, but trust me, if you're ever in the area you MUST try it.
After all these years, I've got my own recipes for ox tail stews. They're not the same as my Po Po's, and I don't think that I could ever re-create her magic. But I'm hoping that my kids and grandkids will think as highly of my ox tails as I did hers.


  1. Addendum:

    After reading this blog, my friend told me that we had to go try the ox tail soup at Neiman Marcus. My reaction was exactly the one you'd expect. Neiman Marcus?!?!? What the Hell do they know about making ox tail soup?? So he took me there for lunch, and actually I guess they do know something about making it.

    Ox tail soup is the Thursday special at the Mermaid Bar. Apparently, people know, because it tends to sell out quickly. They took their ox tail soup and made it fresher and prettier. For one thing, they trim the fat off their ox tails to make it more appealing looking. But at the same time, what that does is makes the meat, meatier but not as tender. It also makes the broth "cleaner" but not as rich. To me ox tail soup is all about how tender the ox tails are, so that didn't quite impress. On the other hand, the bak choy, being fresher and less cooked, makes it greener and crispier. But the best part was the mushrooms. They were super plump and juicy, which really brought out the flavor.

    All in all, it's really strange to be eating ox tail soup there. It's the kind of place you would want to take a business meeting, or a date. But somehow, it's just not the same without the crash of the bowling pins behind you. As my friend said, "ox tail soup and Lotus Elises go hand in hand right?" Uh... no, sorry man.

  2. Justin,

    As I suggested in my eMail, you also need to try the Oxtail Soup at Pho Bistro 2 on the corner of Fern street and Kalakaua avenue (near the Kaheka Don Quijote).


    I tried the one at Asahi Grill (Honolulu's Kapiolani Coffee Shop hub), but I think Pho Bistro 2 has them beat. Portions are also bigger (the bowl is HUGE) and price cheaper by a dollar. Like your Po Po, PB2 also puts Shiitake mushrooms in their Oxtail Soup, which KCS doesn't. They also put in generous amounts of sliced Bok Choy. Goes REALLY well with the meaty, fall-of-the-bones Oxtails.

    Check 'em out.

    The Tasty Island