Thursday, October 29, 2009

Thar She Blows, Matey!

When I first announced that I was going to start writing a food and culture blog, an old friend of mine excitedly insisted that I write something about Fresh Catch in Kaimuki.   Now, this is of significance, because while we went to high school together, his dad and my dad worked together at the State.  If you know anything about State workers, they're notorious for (among other things) knowing exactly where to find the best hole in the walls are around town to eat.   All jokes about 3-hour lunches aside, my dad did always take me to the tastiest little places that he found out about with his co-workers.  However, this time, I beat my friend to the punch, because I had actually known about Fresh Catch since they opened.

I was driving home on the freeway one day, when I noticed a big orange octopus on the top of a blue roof on one of the buildings on the side of the freeway.   The octopus intrigued me, as did the name "Fresh Catch", because honestly, I thought it looked a little tacky.  I immediately thought of those stereotypical seafood restaurants run by a one eyed, pipe smoking, peg legged sea captain you find on the mainland.   You know, like that guy on the Simpsons.   It didn't seem at all like the kind of place that local islanders, who actually do spend a great deal of their lifetime on the water, would have come up with.   But as with many first impressions this would be totally wrong.

After trying to triangulate it's position from where I was on the freeway, I eventually found the building.   It was the old Pizza Hut on Waialae across from City Mill.   Now, I really do like Pizza Hut.  If I'm jonesin' for super oily, super fatty, cheesy, crunchy junk food, that's where I'm going.   So the fact that the Pizza Hut in my neighborhood was closed, was already something of a blow.   But these guys didn't even bother to build a new exterior.   It looked exactly like the pizza hut, except that their distinctive famous red roof was painted blue.  The body wasn't even cold man!   So what was this place?  Some sort of combination seafood / recycling center??  

Now, I grew up when recycling was first coming into the public consciousness.   It was a time, when we first found out that there was a hole in the ozone layer (when everyone actually found out for the first time what the ozone layer was).  Several of my friends in high school were very, very active in the recycling club at our school.   I remember how they would spend afternoons collecting all the styrofoam containers in school and squirting lemon on them, as they weren't biodegradable.  I somehow think that my buddies would've found the garden outside of Fresh Catch, glistening with crushed beer bottle "pebbles" used as mulch, quite aluring.   Admittedly the sun reflecting all of the colors of the class, with that sparkling green tinge, really is kind of eye catching, if not weird.    But I really didn't see how the recycling center fit in, with the seafood restaurant.   It wasn't til much later that I found out that the owners of the two establishments were brothers, and that recycling there will actually get you a discount at the restaurant (not a bad deal!).

So I was a little skeptical walking in.   But the moment I stepped through the doors, all skepticism washed completely off me.  It was like stepping into a time portal.   To those little deli stores of old Hawaii.   Even their tables were the long picnic tables you would have big family luaus at.   The little aisles in the back were filled brands of snacks, crack seed, and chips you rarely see these days.    But what competely sold me was the food.

Smoked Marlin Sandwich at Fresh Catch
As a seafood restaurant, the first thing that I tried were their fish sandwiches.   They have a really tasty, if not large, crab sandwich, which, being made with real crab, has a strong flaky crab taste.   Their smoked marlin sandwich is also pretty good, as the smokiness of the marlin carries the sandwich.  

Lau Lau Plate at Fresh Catch
Being a Hawaiian place, the first thing my wife tried was their lau lau plate.   Their leaves were nice and flavorful.   The Hawaiian salt really shined through the lau lau.

Ahi Limu Poke at Fresh Catch
But the quintessential thing that any Hawaiian seafood place / fish market, needs to do well is their poke.   If poi is the heart of Hawaiian food, poke is it's soul.  To me, no place on island can compare with the masterful cuts of sashimi grade poke that you get on top of a Poke-don from Gyotaku.  But while that may be the king of poke, poke is all about variety.  At Fresh Catch they've got many many different types.   The standard that I always use to judge poke is ahi limu poke.   To me, the freshest, firmest, reddest, ahi is always found at Costco with their excellent fish supplier.   The ahi limu at Foodland is the most balanced, with a nice fish, great crisp limu, and a delicate sesame oil to hold it all together.    But the Ahi Limu at Fresh Catch is definitely among the most flavorful.   The limu may not be so crisp as to stand out on its own, but it adds brilliant flavoring to the poke.   The differentiator though, is the kukui nut flavor that's grated over the fish.   It just brings out a whole new dimension.  

Smoked Tako Poke at Fresh Catch
While their ahi limu poke is pretty decent, the best poke at Fresh Catch, is their smoked tako poke.   This poke is simply unbelievable.   The tako is nice and crunchy, not too rubbery.   The sauce that you see on it, is the kind that you get mixed in with your spicy tuna sushi.   Theirs is not excessively spicy, just spicy enough to bring alive the creamy sesame oil flavor to it.   But what truly makes this poke brilliant is the smokiness of the tako.   That smoked flavor alone is enough to broke da mouth.  But the combination of the smokiness, the spiciness, the creaminess, all layered upon the crunchy tako, is just plain dreamy.   I don't hesitate in saying it's the best tako I've ever had.  It opens a whole new wonderful realm for octopus.  I would never have dreamed that the tacky orange octopus on their roof would taste this good.  

Beef Stew at Fresh Catch
Ironically though, the best thing at Fresh Catch, isn't seafood at all.   They've got a ton of different meats, all marinated and ready for you to take home and fire up the grill or go tailgating with.   But the very best thing they do, is a classic Hawaiian beef stew.   When I tasted this beef stew, it pretty much defined old Hawaiian style beef stew for me.  Naturally, the beef is unbelievably soft.   The carrots, celery, and potato are all infused with the stew flavor.  But what really gets you is the stew itself.  You will notice that it is not overly red or orange, so it doesn't have too tart or intense a tomato flavor.   It doesn't have to strong a star anise, pepper, or spice to it.   It isn't disgustingly oily like some beef stews.   It is the perfect balance of beefiness, with all of the other flavors that comprise the stew.   It's really hard to describe what makes it so great.   The best thing I can do is to say that the flavor is that of the really old classic Hawaiian style.   It is a flavor that is really hard to find these days, like an old song long forgotten long long ago.   In my mind, it is simply the best beef stew on island, with very few others that can even come close.

What I also found at Fresh Catch, the thing that really made me love the place, was the aloha of the people that run the place.   When I was eating there one day, I had the unfortunate luck to find a small cockaroach in my food.   Now, I don't say this to disparage the place.   Because really you can find a bug in your food in even the best places.  Everyone encounters it every once in a while.   It's just a part of life, and no matter how meticulously clean your restaurant is, there's no way to avoid it completely.   So I brought it to their attention, just to let them know, but I was perfectly happy to keep eating my plate.   At some restaurants in Chinatown I know, even if you give them back your plate, they will just take out the offending portion, and maybe re-heat, and return it to you.  Heck, even my Po Po would occasionally catch a small cockaroach on one of her plates, and just wipe it clean and keep using it.  But at Fresh Catch, not only did she ask me if I wanted a brand new plate, she competely refunded my meal.   On top of that she gave me free serving of any poke I wanted (which could be easily more expensive than my plate).  I had taken the poke (and my money), but declined getting a new plate, as I didn't see having a small cockaroach as completely wasting my food.  But as I was enjoying my poke, she came out to me, just took my plate away anyway, and gave me an entirely new meal free.   Now THAT is customer service!  That is true aloha!   It was a completely genuine gesture.  At that moment, it wasn't at all about running a business or counting your dividends, but making sure your customer, your guest, is happy.  It's what the aloha spirit is all about.

So it's become kind of a ritual for us now.   We keep all of our cans and plastic bottles to recycle.  Whenever we have a big enough full bag, we take it down there to recycle it, and use the money to have lunch at Fresh Catch (with the accompanying discount).   It may still look a little tacky and stereotypical outside, but inside it's got all the flavors, atmosphere, and aloha spirit of old Hawaii.


  1. uh....are you KIDDING!?!?!? GROSS!! While i don't expect Chinatown restaurants to care all that much, any restaurant that ISN'T in chinatown BETTER GIVE YOU A NEW PLATE AND A REFUND!! that's SO UNSANITARY!! You don't know what that cockroach ran through until it died. of course it could've been in different parts of your food!!!! it's a liability to them!!!

    Also, I'm sure she must've seen how gross you were being, and couldn't stand it any more. so she HAD to change your plate. YUCK. Now, if I had a cockroach running on my dinner table, I wouldn't mind killing it, wiping it away, and keep going. but, that's cause it's not IN MY FOOD!

  2. No. You would expect them to give you a new plate. OR give you a refund. OR give you a free desert or something. You don't expect someone to do all 3.

    Believe me, Audra finds bugs (cockroaches, caterpillers, etc.) in her food all the time, in restaurants all over town. No one ever gives her this much compensation.

  3. perhaps she should be finding different places to eat. yuck.

    i think the restaurant people were trying to do anything to get you to NOT EAT THE COCKROACH PLATE. gross.