Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Big Fish Story

Being surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, it's no wonder that fishing and seafood is a big part of our culture.   Even if you aren't a big angler, you probably enjoy a good fresh catch.  For many decades, one of the most popular shows on TV was "Let's Go Fishing".    Not only did good ol Hari Kojima catch the fish, but he also taught you the best ways to prepare it as well.   To this day, I can still hear the catchy "Let's Go Fishing" tune in my head, and I can fondly remember Hari standing behind his guest chefs with his hands folded behind his back, blinking almost unnaturally frequently.  As Hari (and the show) got older, Ben Wong took over the reigns, and it was renamed "LGF" and later "Hawaii Goes Fishing", but the show was never the same.  It's long lived popularity though, was a testament to how much we love fish in Hawaii.

There are a few exceptions of course.  My Po Po, for example, just couldn't stand the smell of fish.  To her, fish was just too sang (a Chinese word that means overly "fishy" smellling, something fresh fish should never be).  She would have to cook it practically every night for my Goong Goong, but she never ate it herself.   Once when she was was a little girl, she caught a nasty cold.   Naturally, her father (my Tai Goong), went and spent a good amount of money and made her some fish jook.  She told him that she couldn't eat it, and he called her ungrateful.  So she tried to eat it, and wound up throwing it all up anyway.  So my Po Po pretty much avoided fish all her life.  But she is one of the few exceptions to the rule around here.

Everyone in Hawaii has to have at least one good fishing story right?   So, here's mine.  I love seafood, but I never learned how to fish while I was growing up.  So one day, when she was home on vacation, my sister-in-law decided to take us deep sea fishing.  Not knowing much about fishing myself, I imagined us gently rocking in the middle of some calm deep blue waters, lazily lounging with our hats over our eyes waiting for a fish to bite.   Yeah, that's not what happened at all.   Deep sea fishing basically involves high speed trolling with almost roller coaster like up and down motion.   From the moment I left the pier, I was throwing up into a bucket, and spent pretty much the duration of the trip flat on my back, moaning for it to end.   My wife on the other hand, found her sea legs after a little while and was up and about on deck waiting to snag a fish.  In fact, she successfully reeled in 2 1/2 fish!   Now this is where you scratch your head and ask, "how do you catch a half a fish??"  Shouldn't fish necessarily be caught in whole number increments?  Well, as she was pulling the fish in, a big shark came up and bit off the lower half of the fish, leaving her to reel in the upper half of the fish.  I've got friends who love fishing (one in particular has even caught a 500 lb. marlin).  But none of them can make the claim that they've caught 2 1/2 fish.   So although it's really my wife's catch, I was along for the adventure, and am happy to bask in her fishing glory.

For those of us, who love fish, but really can't stomach trying to catch one ourselves (literally), where do we go to get the best fish on island?    Well, Tamashiro Market is of course the de facto place for any kind of seafood here.   Even Hari Kojima himself, was originally a fish cutter with Tamashiro.  For a while, Tamashiro would even cook them up for you, offering some fresh fish lunch plates.   Unfortunately, the window of opportunity to buy one was very short, and I've never gotten to taste them myself.   I have mentioned how well the fish is prepared at Kaka'ako Kitchen, but as those dishes are salmon and catfish, they don't really reflect what's in our local waters.   The ahi katsu at Sugoi is just plain awesome, but being covered in brown gravy makes you kind of lose sight of the fish itself.   The biggest filets of the freshest ahi and freshest mahi mahi on island can be found at Ray's Cafe.   My only complaint with Ray's is that, although the fish quality and fresheness is just supreme and you can taste the flavors of the fish itself, it's not quite seasoned enough with any other flavors.  For the freshest, best prepared fish in town, that is also seasoned well to bring out the fish flavor, you need to look for a specialist.  Basically the shop that serves fish and little else.   The one that immediately comes to mind is Nico's at Pier 38.

Nico's has all the visible indicators of a great fish place.   For one thing, it's located right on Pier 38, overlooking the water.   The close proximity to the water gives it not only wonderful ambiance, but the feeling of authenticity when it comes to fish.   Adding to that authenticity is the fact that they share a building with Pop Fishing & Marine, a major commercial fishing outfitter.  It gives you the distinct impression that the major fishermen, get their supplies from Pop, head out to sea to catch the fish, and bring it right back to Nico's to be served.  Finally, the lunchtime crowd around Nico's is always so packed, that they have to give you those little vibrating pagers to let you know when your food is ready.  All of which leads to high expectations about the food.

Furikake Crusted Seared Ahi from Nico's at Pier 38
The food at Nico's is just superb.  For one thing, they are one of the few plate lunch places, like Kaka'ako Kitchen, where I actually prefer getting the green salad rather than a mac salad.  It is partly due to their zesty lemon miso dressing, but it's primarily because you get a nice serving of Waimanalo greens, and not some dinky iceberg lettuce.   But the star attraction of course is the fish.   The classic furikake crusted, seared ahi is definitely my favorite dish there.  The fish is as local, fresh, and high quality as Ray's, and it is as well prepared as Kaka'ako Kitchen's.   I really can't give it any higher praise than that.  The ahi is just perfectly seared, not overcooked like in some places which makes it dry and tough, and almost like canned tuna.  This is still moist and tender, with a very generous coating of furikake.   Add to that a wonderfully creamy, garlic aioli, that really compliments the flavor of the fish.  My only complaint would be that the portions you get don't compare at all to Ray's (notice how you only get 1 scoop of rice and not 2).   But it's worth it for one of the most perfect fish lunches on island.

Nothing compares to the satisfaction of hauling in your own fish, but if you're in a pinch for lunch and are craving fish, Nico's is the place to go.   Just tasting the fish there, gives you the feeling of being out on the water, a perfect escape in the middle of a long work day.

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