Sunday, January 17, 2010


While we do have a significant number of Mexican restaurants, other Hispanic cuisines aren't so readily represented here in the islands.   In particular, I really have no inkling what South American cuisine is like.   I have naturally always assumed that the cuisine would be very similar to Mexican food, but this is a huge fallacy. French food and Italian food have next to nothing in common.   Chinese food and Japanese food are just as dissimilar.   In fact, I really hate the term "Asian".  At least when we were called "Oriental", there was some exotic, mystical appeal to it.   But, when I'm on the mainland and they call me "Asian American", I always feel like, "Chinese and Japanese are so different, what you cannot even tell us apart??".  I would much rather be called, "local Chinese", or more simply "Pake" will do.   It really annoys the hell out of me.   So by the same token, thinking that all the Latin American cultures are the same does them the same discourtesy.  Unfortunately, since they have very little representation here in the islands, we don't really get the opportunity to explore and get acquainted with their various cultures.

While there are few South American restaurants, we cannot say that they have had no influence in our culture.   In fact, it was gauchos and Mexican vaqueros, who came over to train our local paniolos when cattle was first introduced to the islands.   Because of this, the paniolo methods and tools are very still more similar to the gauchos than to the cowboys of Texas.  Because of their excellent training, the original paniolos (like Ikua Purdy) would consistently out-rope the Texas boys in competition (something they don't like to talk about). 

Fittingly enough, when the Ward 16 complex first finished construction, we had a restaurant called Gaucho Grill.  Like Compadres, it was actually part of a small California chain.  Unfortunately, also like Compadres, most of that chain has closed including the one at Ward.   But for a while we had the opportunity to enjoy Argentina style asado in our own backyard.   Of course, being part of a California based chain, I always questioned the authenticity of the Argentine flavor.  But then again, being steak, it isn't exactly a complex dish.  I'm pretty sure the steak itself was not imported from Argentina, so that leaves only the seasonings to convey the true Argentine flavor.  When I visited Gaucho Grill, the skirt steak that I had was as tender and juicy as expected.   But I was a litlte disappointed in flavors weren't all that distinguishable from any other Western style steak place.   For the most part, steak stands on its own, and unless you're doing teppanyaki, the beef flavor doesn't change all that much.   Of course Argentina is famous for its vast quantities of flayed carcasses being grilled over open flame, so the skirt steak was probably representative, if not entirely accurately, of their cuisine.   When I think of gaucho cuisine though, I just can't help but think of Goofy describing gaucho lifestyle in his 1942 short, El Gaucho Goofy, a segment from the Disney classic Saludos Amigos.   With bread and meat protruding from each side of his hand, and naught but a knife in the other to eat with (1-2-bite-cut-chew), Goofy simultaneously conveyed both humor as well as the mouthwatering nature of the food.  To me, that will always be what Argentine cuisine is all about.

The only other major South American cuisine that we had in the islands, was in the form of a Brazilian barbecue, otherwise known as a churrascaria.   If you've never been to a churrascaria, it is basically a buffet, where a never ending line of waiters come to you with huge rapier like skewers loaded with meat.  They slide you off a piece or cut you off a portion to enjoy until the next waiter comes along with the next type of meat.  It's a huge meatfest, with different cuts of steaks, chicken, sausages, pork, and lamb, enough meat to gorge any voracious carnivore.  You're left feeling really heavy, stuffed full of meat, meat, and more meat.   In Hawaii, this meatopia could be found in McCully Shopping Center, at a place called Tudo de Bon.

Tudo de Bon was brightly lit and clean, but not really adorned with Brazilian decor.   Instead, they focused letting the food convey the authenticity.  Going to the bar for the side dishes, the most unusual (and very Brazilian) thing they had was a ground up powder called farofa, that you would sprinkle on your rice or dip your meat into.   To me the farofa didn't really add much flavor, so much as a powdery, mealy texture which to be perfecty honest I didn't really care for.   But it was the most authentically , and uniquely Brazilian thing that they offered.   The rest of the bar included various pastas and salads, which may or may not have been really Brazilian, but certainly weren't as memorable.   Of course the most memorable thing at Tudo de Bon was the meat.   There was tons of it.   Like the skirt steak at Gaucho Grill, I really didn't taste seasonings that really differentiated it from any other grilled meat, but it was all very succulent and tasty.   I tried to find similarities to Mexican food, but there really weren't any in any of the spices.   I tried to find similarities to our local Portuguese food, knowing how big an influence the Portuguese had in Brazil, but the closest thing they had were sausages that were similiar but not really the same as our own Portuguese sausage.  They really just grilled it to bring out the natural flavors of the meat itself.   While they had so many different types of steak, it was really the chicken drumettes, the sausages, and when they had it the bacon wrapped turkey that I liked the best.  After eating sirloin (picanha) tri tip, ribeye, filet mignon, and even lamb, all the red meats kind of blur together.   But it was a great experience just to have them bring everything by on those huge skewers.   The only problem was that they were really slow.   Whenever we went, it seemed like they only had one waiter (who actually bore a striking resembalance to Sylvester Stallone) going back and forth with different skewers.  I think it was this lack of proficiency in running an efficient restaurant that lead to their closing.  Sadly, they took with them our only window into Brazilian cuisine.

Latin America has never been really high on my travel list, so I don't know that I'll ever taste the truly authentic cuisines of this region.   But, the absense of Gaucho Grill and Tudo de Bon did leave me curious for more. If only my Brazilian friend, Simone, knew how to cook, I'd be all set.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

It's a Wrap!

Burritos have always been traditionally Mexican, but since the 80's, people have been trying to wrap all kinds of things in a big flour tortilla. People wrap up cold cuts and cheese to make a pseudo-sandwich.   People wrap up salads.   These days McDonald's and KFC even offer snack wraps that have hamburgers or fried chicken in them.   Ever since the trendy low-carb diet craze, people have been substituting tortillas for buns and trying capitolize on the wrap craze.   But only certain places do it well.

Gutbuster Burrito (with Carnitas) from BC Burrito
The traditional predecessor to a wrap is of course the burrito.   So named for the way the farmers would bundle their wares on their "little donkeys", or from the backs of which they would sell food from (like lunchwagons from the 1800s), burritos in Mexico are considerably smaller than the mammoth purses in the U.S.. There is some debate about what distinguishes a burrito from a soft taco, but the general consensus is that a burrito is a little larger, may feature more ingredients, but most characteristically the way that it is wrapped.  Tightly tucked in on both ends and rolled like a sleeping bag, burritos are much less messy than a loosely folded or cigar rolled soft taco.  It is this tight wrapping technique that distinguishes the best burritos or wraps.

Gutbuster Burrito (with Carnitas) from BC Burrito
There are quite a few Mexican places on the island, each with their own burrito offerings.   However, while places like Maui Tacos, go for the wet approach of making a huge, plate-sized, overstuffed burritos, swimming in Mexican red sauce, this approach, which really requires a knife and fork, is not extremely condusive to the portability that has made wraps so popular.  For me, the best wrapped burrito on the island can be found at a little place called BC Burrito on Waialae by Koko Head.  For one thing, the tortillas they use are more fun and colorful than most places, with flavors like spinach (for a pretty green burrito), jalapeno & cheese, and tomato & chipotle.   Not only do they add flavor, but the texture is a little softer, more doughy, more elastic, and a little more sticky than the traditional flour or corn tortillas.   The result is a very tightly bundled wrap that retains strong cohesiveness and does not fall apart while you're eating it.   For an addtional level of structural integrity, they wrap your burrito in  aluminum foil, which you can peel off, one circle at a time, exposing only what you're going to eat while the rest of the foil continues to hold everything together.  This tight cohesion not only enhances portability, but compresses the ingredients together into a much more unified food item, rather than just a hodge podge of separate flavors.

Gutbuster Burrito (with Carnitas) from BC Burrito
BC Burrito uses their excellent wrapping technique to envelope just an entire Tex Mex meal into a single handheld monstrosity.  While their Super burrito is more than large enough to feed any really hungry sane individual, I opted to try their enormous Gutbuster burrito.  This gargantuan thing is as long as my forearm, and thick as the thickest part of a wine bottle or softball bat.  It is also extremely packed with rice, meat (their carnitas have a wonderful smokey taste), cheese, sour cream and guacamole, and salsa (of which my favorite is a very tasty chipotle & corn mixture).  It is so tightly packed with stuff, that just holding it you can feel the incredible weight of all that food.  It's a bit much, even for me, and I left the place feeling as overstuffed as the burrito itself, but immensely satisfied and happy.

Potato Burrito from BC Burrito
The most original and tasty thing at BC Burrito however is departure from the traditional Tex Mex form.   It is their signature potato burrito, filled with seasoned potatoes, grilled onions, cheddar cheese, salsa,  and a nice creamy ranch.  Their potatoes are prefectly seasoned, diced and fried, and surprisingly full of flavor.  As my wife would say, they're full of potatoey goodness.  It really says something that my wife, who really despises Mexican food in general, likes their potato burrito.  They've replaced the Mexican flavor with something a little more universal.   But if you want to add that Mexican flavor back in, they've got a big bar with several dozen different exotic types of hot sauces.   Of course, the only hot sauce that truly has the authentic Mexican blend of flavors and spices, is Cholula (which they have in large quantities).  Add a little Cholula to anything and it tastes authentically Mexican, right?

The potato burrito is a great example of how wraps have evolved beyond the traditional Mexican burrito.  On the mainland, even Chinese food gets wrapped burrito style in something called moo shu pork, which is pork, julienne black mushrooms, maybe some bamboo shoot slivers, some egg, and hoisin sauce all rolled into a crepe.   In Hawaii, with all of our Chinese population being decended from Cantonese farmers, this dish is almost unheard of.  I, myself, had clue what this dish was the first time I went to the mainland, where it is a common "Chinese" menu item.  Luckily, I had experienced this dish once by the time Disney named their little dragon, Mooshu, so I could catch the reference in Mulan.  But I'm not sure that everyone here in Hawaii (or in China for that matter) did.  Regardless, it just goes to show how just about anything gets wrapped up these days.

Turkey Bacon Wrap from Salad Creations
Since the advent of the low carb diet, wraps have become very popular, especially salad wraps.  Now, I have never understood the point of low carb diets.  Supposedly, you can eat something as fatty as a hamburger (smothered in gravy even), but throw it on a bed of shredded cabbage instead of white rice or a bun, and suddenly it becomes healthy for you, and you can even lose weight by eating it?   Yeah right.  But I will say that salad wraps are tasty enough.   These days if we're craving a salad wrap, we head over to Salad Creations in Koko Marina.   They chop their salad, so the mixture of small chopped up pieces fits better in the wrap than other places where big leaves of lettuce in your wrap can get unruly and cause the whole thing to fall apart.   The other nice thing is that they add just enough dressing to bind the salad together within the wrap, adding a little more of that necessary cohesion.

My very favorite place to get different types of wraps on the island though, is sadly gone and way before it's time.  It was a little place in Manoa Marketplace called Pili Wraps Cafe.  They used to use tortillas that were very similar to the ones served at BC Burrito, resulting in the same tightly packed, cohesive goodness.   However, instead of filling those wraps with just Mexican flavors, Pili Wraps put all kinds of things in their wraps.   They used to make a chicken caeser salad wrap that would put Salad Creations to shame.  It had the full caesar flavor and crunch of a real salad, but tightly bound in handheld form.  They also made a terrific spicy Thai peanut sauce chicken wrap and an Indonesian chicken wrap that really captured the flavors of Southeast Asia.   But my favorite was always their Cajun chicken wrap.   Instead of the Mexican rice you would find in most burritos, this wrap had real Cajun dirty rice.   The chicken was perfectly tender grilled white meat chicken.  Everything was then smothered in a wonderful creamy, spicy Cajun sauce that actually had the right blend of spices.  Sinking your teeth into this warm soft wrap was a great combination of textures from the ever so slightly chewy doughy tortilla, to the tender meaty chicken, to the soft beads of rice.  It was warm and filling and utterly delicious.   I was very sad to see Pili Wraps close before they got the chance to establish a following and make some lasting memories.   BC Burrito may wrap the perfect burrito, but Pili Wraps used to dominate the non-Mexican wraps.

Wraps are still changing and evolving, but when people wrap them as expertly as BC Burrito or Pili Wraps, they should be more than just a passing food fad.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Yo Quiero

I have a confession to make.   It is in fact, a deep, dark, dirty, shameful secret whose revelation will probably elicit scorn and shun.  It is a scandalous, obscene base desire that haunts me every time it manifests its mortifying grip on my being.  My credibility as a contributing adult, much less a serious food afficionado, walks a precarious line with this licentious information.  But the truth is, I love Taco Bell (or should I say, "Yo Quiero").

Taco Supremes & Burrito Surpreme from Taco Bell
I know, I know.  Taco Bell hardly even qualifies as real food, much less authentic Mexican cuisine, as pointed out in my favorite webcomic, "It's Walky!".    But just like it's eponymous star, Walky, I harbor a ravenous desire for its tasty food like substances, and wind up ordering half the menu every time I walk in.   The thing is, that growing up, Taco Bell really was my first and only exposure to Tex-Mex cuisine.   I never even knew that tacos were originally soft tortillas, not hard ones, until they introduced soft tacos to their menu.   While I despised (and still do) refried beans, the combination of ground beef, sour cream, cheese, lettuce, tomato and olive, was such an alluring mixture (which for a long time represented their entire menu in served in different forms and ratios).  I think it was the sour cream that really made the difference.  The other ingredients can easily be found atop any burger, but the "Mexican" seasonings playing against the sour cream was just unique and addictive as crack.   Despite having been exposed to more authentic Mexican cuisine, I still fondly and uncontrollably covet their guilty, pleasure inducing consumables.

I have, in the course of my life, been exposed to more authentic Mexican tacos and burritos.   In L.A., where I went to grad school, and in New York, where my sister did, taco trucks are as bountiful as our lunchwagons.  Like our lunchwagons, taco trucks are the cheapest, most authentic forms of the indigenous food available.   There is nothing like walking down the street at 1 AM, wearing leather jacket and gloves, with your breath visible in front of your face, and ordering a steaming tortilla, covered with savory carnitas and fresh salsa from the side of a truck.  It's warm and delicious, and as authentic an experience as you can hope for.

If you're not up for eating something from the back of a truck at 1 AM, there are small hole in the wall places you can go to, but they are somehow equally as seedy.  When visiting my pal, Jim, in San Francisco, he took me to a little place in the Mission District, on Mission and 19th, called Taqueria Cancun.   The Mission District is a bastion of the Hispanic community in San Francisco, but is also home to some of San Francisco's more "colorful" elements.   When visiting Taqueria Cancun, you must be prepared to walk past some unsound, unkept, vagrants who will swear and offer lewd comments to your mother.  Seriously. (Mom and I just ignored him.)  But that just adds to the authentic experience right?   Once inside, it feels like a colorful, safe haven, with the spicy aromas of the foods steaming up the glass partitions.   Of course it isn't truly authentic, unless you've got calves' brains (sesos) and cow tongue (lengua) as beef options, and some exotic Mexican fruit drinks (agua fresca) to accompany them.  If you're adventurous enough to actually wander through the Mission District, Taqueria Cancun is the real deal when it comes to Mission style burritos.

Back home in Hawaii, you'd be a little hard pressed to find a real taqueria that offers the authentic beef tongue or brains.  Since we don't have nearly the Hispanic population that California does, we might as well kick it island style instead.   For that, you can head over to the Queen Kaahumanu Shopping Center on the island of Maui (or right over to Kailua Village in Kailua), for some Maui Tacos.   The great thing about Maui Tacos, is that they know that they can't deliver the truly authentic Mexican tacos and burritos, so they don't even bother to try.   Instead they blend Mexican cuisine with some island flavors to give it our own unique spin.  For example, instead of truly authentic mouth watering carnitas, they offer mango bbq pork and they marinade many of their meats in pineapple juice.   The result is a much fruitier, sweeter, more tropical version of Mexican food, that really has a local flavor.

Mild End of the Salsa Bar at Maui Tacos
Probably the best thing about Maui Tacos is visisting their salsa bar.   They have a nice variety of about 6 different salsas, ranging from mild to hot (well not THAT hot, but hot enough), each with their own unique flavor.   One the mild end, their sweetness (or the tartness) of the tomatoes is really dominant (depending on how sweet or tart the original tomatoes were).   Sweet or tart, the freshness of the tomatoes is what really shines through.  They've also got a nice salsa verde (green salsa) in which you can taste the fresh tartness of the jalapenos.  

Hot End of the Salsa Bar at Maui Tacos
On the hotter end, their chipotle salsa is brightly sweetened by the infusion of mango.   Unfortunately, the sweetness kills all the nice smokiness (but not the heat) that chipotle normally brings.  It's a very different flavor than what you're expecting of chipotle.   Chipotle is also the hottest that they get, much less wandering into habanero territory.   But their best, most original salsa is their pineapple passion salsa.  It is instantly recognizable being bright yellow instead of green or red.  The pineapple gives such a refreshing, sweet taste, that it really brightens up whatever you pour it on.   For dipping and eating straight, none of their salsas can compare to the perfect blend of spice and fresheness of the singluar salsa that Torito's offers.  But Maui Tacos makes up for it in variety and originality, and it really compliments their food when pouring over thier tacos or burritos.

Chimichanga (with Mango BBQ Pork) from Maui Tacos
As the chimichanga is my favorite Mexican dish in general, I tried that first.    Rather than the very crunchy thicker tortilla you find at Torito's, the chimichanga at Maui Tacos has a lighter crispier shell.   All of the ingredients inside reflect the whole freshness that Maui Tacos has in general.   A nice change from those wretched refried beans at most Mexican restaurants, you can get whole black beans.  But they still aren't cooked long enough to have the nice uber creamy texture that cajun red beans and rice does.  The steak really has a flavorful char broiled taste to it.   But I did have to pour some of their salsa over it to liven it up.  In general, however, their chimichanga just isn't as good as the melty, savory, yumminess that is the one at Torito's.  Their approach, emphasizing the freshness of each individual ingredient, is solid but it doesn't compare to the flavorful blended harmony that Toritos' has.

Lahaina Burrito from Maui Tacos
Rather than a chimichanga or taco, the thing I liked best at Maui Tacos was their Lahaina burrito.   To me the best thing about the Lahaina is that it is stuffed with Mexican rice rather than beans.   Since I don't like beans to begin with, this is a huge bonus to me.  But also, the rice works really well with the tender savory mango bbq pork.  Additionally, the burrito being served "wet" (covered with Mexican red sauce) gives it the right flavor and moistness, that you don't need to add any more salsa.   This burrito is also seriously stuffed and a nice size for a good lunch.

The Signature Maui Taco from Maui Tacos
Maui Tacos is just about the opposite end of the spectrum from Taco Bell.   While one is a greasy pseudo-food item that feeds your junk food addiction, the other emphasizes freshenss of each individual ingredient.  Neither of them are authentically Mexican, as Taqueria Cancun, but the originality and tropical fruity flavors at Maui Tacos makes them stand out.   The only problem is that every time I go there, I keep thinking of those super annoying Bu La'ia radio commercials they used to run.  Somehow his slovenly, crass, unrefined demeanor is so contradictory to the fresh, tropical flavors that Maui Tacos offers.

I don't know that I'll ever get to walk down the street in Mexico city, and encounter a bubbling cauldron filled with assorted animal parts to be savored over a warm just handmade tortilla under a sprinkling of freshly chopped and mixed salsa.  Then again, at home, I'm comfortable knowing I'm not going to be spending the rest of the night riding the procelain express either.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Viva La Raza!

I spent my college years in the sprawling heat of Los Angeles, a city with a very strong Mexican influence.  I used to really enjoy going down Olivera St., listening to the mariachi bands and eating Mexican food.  But for all of the time that I spent in L.A., I still don't really feel that I know what authentic Mexican food really is.  Yes, I've eaten my fair share of Mexican food, but I've always felt like it was Tex-Mex.  Mexican food, as interpreted by or watered down for gringos.   Watching Anthony Bourdain only served to amplify this apprehension, because he has been so vehement about his love for "real" Mexican food and his dislike of "fake" Mexican food, like Chilis.   Have I only ever been exposed to the fake stuff?  Have I never tasted the true Mexican flavors?  Even I know that hard shell tacos, and anything slathered in sour cream or nacho cheese certainly isn't real Mexican food.   I want to know what Mexican food tastes like, if it were made by a grandmother in Puebla.  What I really need is a Mexican friend who would take me home for a family meal, to get the true flavors (of course the same goes for Filipino food and Indian food).   Until then, I'm stuck eating whatever the restaurants deem fit to serve, regardless of how authentic it is.

Hawaii does not have nearly the same level of Mexican influence that L.A. does.  Whereas on the mainland, it is really beneficial to have all the signs and instruction booklets in English and Spanish, in Hawaii it is much more practical to have them in English and Japanese.  However, my friend Marie at the Latin Business Association, would kick me if I said we had no Hispanic population whatsoever.   We certainly have a number of Mexican restaurants, but without a large Hispanic population, there really isn't anyone who would notice if they got it wrong.  Nevertheless, they certainly are popular enough. 

My favorite Mexican restaurant used to be Compadres in Ward Center.   They were always a little more upscale than any other Mexican restaurant, and were part of a California based chain (both things which always made me wonder if this wasn't more oriented towards gringos).  But their food was always fresh and tasty to me.  I particularly liked their taco fiesta platter for two, which gave you a nice warm stack of tortillas, some beef, some chicken, some pork, some cheese, some guacamole, some sour cream, some jalapenos, and a few different types of salsa, and let you build whatever combinations you wanted.  I think the variety of little dishes just appealed to me, as did the ability to assemble whatever I wanted.  But, was this really how families in Oaxaca eat?  Since our Compadres abruptly closed (as did most of the chain), I will never really have the chance to compare.   I've also needed to find a new place of my Mexican fix.    I know that Jose's on Koko Head has been around for a long time, but somehow they've never clicked for me.  Residents on the Aiea side certainly swear by Banditos, but it's a little far to go just for a burrito.  But I found a small little watering hole, right in Market City Shopping Center, called Torito's Mexican Food, that not only serves what I perceive to be authentic Mexican, but definitely some of the best Mexican food I've ever tasted.

Tortilla Chips & Salsa at Torito's
To begin with, instead of bread and butter, like any good Mexican restaurant they give you tortilla chips and salsa.   But this is not your ordinary bag of Tostitos and a bowl of Pace Picante.  The chips at Torito's have an extraordinary texture.  They're perfectly crisp, but do not any hint of oiliness to them.  They don't have all of the bumpiness and salt of a tostitos, and are overall thinner and lighter.  They have an amazing crunch for something so thin in fact.  They are so totally addictive, your hand just seems to pass them to your mouth on automatic.  But it is the salsa that, to me, is out of this world.  They only have one type, not a long bar like some other places, but with salsa this good, all you need is one.  Whereas Pace has the consistency of ketchup with some chunks of vegetables in it, the salsa at Torito's has the texture of finely minced fresh crisp tomatoes.  It's similar to the texture of the green onion and ginger that you get with good cold ginger chicken.  It's not so much a sauce as it is a relish.   Like good lomi lomi salmon, it is served nicely chilled, which conterbalances its spiciness.   To me, it is also the perfect blend of spiciness that doesn't overpower the fresh taste of the other vegetables in it. I have had a lot of different salsa, but the one at Torito's is my favorite.  Of course, if it isn't spicy enough for you, you can ask them for some of their special "hot" salsa.   It's a green salsa made with jalapeno peppers and habanero peppers (infamous for being on the very hot end of the Scoville scale).  It is so hot, it will be burning your tummy for the next 2 days.

Taquitos at Torito's
Once you've gotten past the chips and salsa, Torito's makes a mean taquito.  When I was little, the taquito was always my favorite Mexican dish.   I think it was because I didn't, and still don't, like the texture of refried beans.  While most places put refried beans in just about every dish, a taquito is just a cigar shaped roll of meat.   With just meat and nothing else, except a little guacamole or sour cream to dip in, and a shape that is just perfect for little hands to hold and little mouths to wrap around, it's no wonder I loved them as a kid.  The taquitos at Torito's are fantastic because, at a lot of places the taquitos are crispy on the ends but the middles get soggy with oil or soaking in guacamole.  At Torito's the taquitos are crunchy from end to end, but the meat is still juicy inside.  What more can you ask for?

Chimichanga at Torito's
As I grew older and learned to tolerate a little bit of refried beans, my favorite Mexican dish became the chimichanga.   I know, with the amount of sour cream and jack cheese on both my taquitos and my chimichanga, I'm really only wading into gringo fare.  I'm sure that no real Mexican grandmother from Veracruz would ever deep fry their burrito.  But they just taste so good, especially the one at Torito's.  I especially like my filled with carnitas or roasted pork.   In fact, Mexican carnitas aren't too dissimilar from kalua pig, except for a difference in seasoning.  Diving into layers of juicy pork, cheese, rice, guacamole, sour cream, and other goodies, my mind shuts down and I just never want to stop trancelike shovelling it into my face.  

Tacos Al Pastor at Torito's
As good as the standard Tex-Mex fare tastes, watching Bourdain made me really want to experience more authentic south of the border cuisine.  One of the most enticing things he ate was a specialty of Mexico City called tacos al pastor.   He said that they were so good, they became the preferred meal option for the entire crew for the entire trip (which really says something).  So imagine my surprise when I saw it on the menu at Torito's.   Just looking at them, you know you're geting something different from the usual ground beef, refried beans, sour cream, lettuce, jack cheese, tomatoes and olives that pretty much defines Tex Mex food.  This was a fresh, soft, tortilla that actually had a lot of corn flavor.  Atop was some tender, juicy sliced pork, topped with a superbly fresh salsa.   However, as delicious as it was, it was a little disappointing too.   My understanding was that tacos al pastor was a Mexican version of the meat that you get on a gyro or shwarma in Greek cuisine.  But the meat in the tacos al pastor was more similar to thinnly sliced pork chops, than it was like the super soft, super savory shavings of beef and lamb that you find in a gyro.   This was one dish that, albeit tasty, left me wanting something more.

Chicken Mole at Torito's
If there was one dish though, that I thought was truly authentic Mexican grandmother food, it would have be mole.  Mole is a spicy, chocolate based sauce that I first found out about reading a webcomic called Wapsi Square, whose lead character Monica is part Mexican.  The fact that I had never even heard of it before, lead me to the believe that this was something truly authentically Mexican.  For one thing, you hardly ever see it on the menu at a regular Tex Mex place.   For another, it is a spicy savory blend of chocolate and chilis.  For most of the country (or the world for that matter), we have a hard time thinking of chocolate as anything other than a sweet confection.   Therefore the idea of chocolate covered chicken seems kind of repugnant.  But originally, raw chocolate (which isn't sweet until you add sugar to it) was used by the Aztecs in the same way that chilis and other spices were.  So a savory spicy melange made with chocolate would be very uniquely and authentically Mexican.  When I first got to taste it at Torito's, I was really floored.  Although chocolate may seem familiar, and Mexican spices may seem familiar, the mole had a flavor that I had truly never experienced before.  It was at once firey and earthy.  The fragrance of the chocolate danced around all of these different heady, picante spices.  The chicken, while moist and tender, really was nothing more than a vehicle for this savory concoction (to call it a gravy or sauce seems almost degrading).  I had finally tasted something, I could thoroughly imagine a Mexican grandmother cooking for me.

Enchilada Plate at Torito's
Torito's has a number of other goodies that I have yet to try which are also classically Mexican.   They've got a fish ala veracruz.  I have always wondered what authentic Mexican seafood dishes taste like, and I'm not referring to the fish tacos you get at Taco Del Mar.  Veracruz is famous for being Mexico's seafood capitol.   Torito's has tamales, which are sort of a Mexican version of joong, and equally as beloved by its constituents.  I have never been a big fan of the masa (or corn meal) and corn husks that they use instead of rice and lotus leaf as in joong.  But then that may be because I've simply never tasted the authentic homemade thing.    They've also got huevos con chorizo (or a Mexican style eggs and sausage).   It's also something I've never tried authentically, although I understand that good chorizo is not too different from good Portuguese sausage.

Salsa at Torito's
I don't know that I'll truly ever be able to distingush the truly authentic Mexican cuisine from the gringofied Tex Mex that is so pervasive around the country.  While Torito's has their fair share of deep fried, sour cream, and jack cheese dishes, they also have things like tacos al pastor and mole, which may be as close as you can get in Hawaii.   I don't know that they're truly authentic, but I do know that they taste really, really good.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Local Chinese Evolution

When Anthony Bourdain came to Hawaii, one of the most authentically local things that was served to him, was a Chinese style onaga (local red snapper) stuffed with lup cheong (Chinese sausage).  When I saw Lanai & Kaleo serve it to him, I was really excited because it's one of my favorite fish preparations and it is totally local.   You really wouldn't really find this preparation in any other Chinese community in the world (especially not in China).  But it reflects evolution of Chinese cuisine local to the Chinese in Hawaii.

Honey Walnut Shrimp at Golden Duck Restaurant
Mayonnaise is not, after all, a typically Chinese condoment.   But you will typically find it at dim sum accompanying the deep fried shrimp dumplings.   It is also the key to one of the most beloved Chinese dishes in Hawaii, honey walnut shrimp.   The sweetness of the honey glaze and the creaminess of the mayonnaise works so well with the salty shrimp flavor.  Of course what brings that dish alive are the little candied walnuts with their sweet, roasted crunch.  It doesn't seem very Chinese at all, yet when you taste it, it still tastes very Chinese.  The lup cheong and oyster sauce mayonnaise preparation that Bourdain tried, and which I made for New Year's Dinner, has a similar impact.  But unlike the honey walnut shrimp, it's difficult to find in the restaurants.  So here is my interpretation of the classic dish, so that you can try this at home kids.

So here's what you need:

 Ingredients for My Lup Cheong & Oyster Sauce Mayonnaise Stuffed Salmon
  • A fish.  In my case I used a big side of salmon, because I think this peparation works best with strong buttery flavor of salmon.
  • About half a bag of lup cheong (Chinese sausage)
  • Some doong gu (black shiitake mushrooms)
  • About half an onion
  • Some Mayonnaise
  • Some hau yau (oyster sauce)

    So here's what you do:

    Whenever working with doong gu or shiitake, the first thing you have to do is soak it to rehydrate them.   I used about a big handful of dried mushrooms.  You just have to eyeball how much will fit in your fish.

    Slice your onion in half, and then slice up the half pretty thinnly.   I would recommend about a 1-2 mm thickness.  The reason for the thinness is because unlike sauteeing the onions, baking in them in the fish won't really cook them too much.  It'll be just enough to take the sharpness of the onion sting out and convey the onion flavor to the rest of the stuffing, but they will still retain most of the their crunch.  So a thin slice will better.  I sliced up a whole onion, but I realized afterwards that only about half would fit in my fish.

    Slice up your lup cheong. Unlike the big chunks I used in my lup cheong stuffing, I would again recommend using a thinner (slanted) slice.  Like the onions, the thinner slices will both fit better in the fish and cook better in the relatively short cooking time.  Also like the onions, as the lup cheong cooks the lup cheong flavor should be infused into the whole dish.

    In a bowl mix up some mayonnaise and some oyster sauce.   Notice the amounts I'm giving you?   That's because this is where your personal interpretation and artistry should come in.  I threw in about 3 spoons of mayo and a couple big dollops of oyster sauce.   Keep tasting and mixing until you find the right balance for yourself.  Remember oyster sauce can be very salty, but the creaminess of the mayo also cuts it.  You've just got to figure out the right ratio.

    Now you want to make a few incisions into the side of the fish.  You do NOT want to cut all the way through, but only about half way through the fish.  The cuts should be down the spine of the fish and outwards from the spine.   The reason for this, is partly so the fish will absorb more flavor, but mainly so the fish can stretch more (ie. it will be easier to fold the filet in half).

    Flip the fish over and lay it in the pan.  The cut part will be on the outside of the fish, and the cut part will be on the inside (as you pick up the fish it will make more sense to you by how much easier it will be to fold thanks to those cuts).  Layer in the lup cheong, the onions, and the mushrooms (be sure to drain off the water from the mushrooms first). 

    Now you can start slathering on that oyster sauce mayonnaise.   Don't be afraid to use your hands to make sure everything fits in the fish and is evenly distributed (just be sure to wash them first).  

    Finally flip fold the top half over and wrap it around your stuffing (again don't be afraid to get your hands dirty).   If you've got any of that oyster sauce mayonnaise leftover, you can brush it along the top of the fish to give it a nice glazing.

    Pop your fish into the oven, and bake it for about 20 minutes at 350 degrees.  Sounds pretty short doesn't it?   But many fishes, especially salmon, taste better when they're more on the rare side.  That's why sashimi and seared preparations are so popular.  If you overcook a salmon, it will get very dry and tougher.  It's better to err on the rare side than the overcooked side.  Additionally, if you have any leftovers, this gives the fish a little more room for reheating.

    It's pretty simple isn't it?   The total time is only about 30 minutes (most of which is simply the baking time).  Cooking doesn't necessarily have to be a long and arduous process.  Often the tastiest dishes can be simple and fun to prepare. 

    Dreaming up simple and fun dishes is essential to keep my son interested in creating something in the kitchen.  I remember how my Po Po used to make pie crust dough for my sister and I to play with, rather than playdough.   Remembering the fun of having that soft squishy, cold dough in my hands, I figured my son would really enjoy rolling up his sardines in Pillsbury crescent dough to make his sardines en croute.   My Po Po while letting us play, was secretly training us to have some skill in the kitchen.

    When I called my son over from the TV to wash the rice for his other dish, my wife commented that when I said to "wash the rice", she said I sounded a lot like Mr. Miyagi.   That somehow, if he does something simple as wash the rice, I was secretly training him in kung fu or giving him some magical powers that would just appear one day.   Little does she know how right she really is, as dedication, passion, and perserverance are the heart of true kung fu.

    Saturday, January 2, 2010

    Hauoli Makahiki Hou

    For many years, New Years dinner in my family was simply a repeat of Thanksgiving and Christmas.  We tried to find ways to make it a little more distinguishable, but somehow didn't succeed too well.  That isn't to say that it wasn't good, but with a big feast just one week prior, it was a little less special.   I always wanted to have a goose instead of turkey for Christmas, as seen in all the old English stories, but while whole turkeys go on sale from Thanksgiving, finding a whole goose on island is nearly impossible and quite costly if you do.   I remember when my mom would make a turkey for Christmas and a big crown roast for New Year's.   Her crown roasts, were so succulent, and festive looking with the shiny foil atop each bone.   But unfortunately, when less lucritive times hit after the 80's were done, mom's superstition kicked in saying that the crown roasts didn't bring in enough good luck for us and stopped making them.  

    So we continued to try to find a way to distinguish New Year's from Christmas, when my dad saw a special on an Italian American holiday tradition called, "The Feast of the Seven Fishes", where every dish at the meal is a seafood dish.   As soon as he mentioned it, it was classic "eureka" moment for my family.  For one thing, pretty much every member of my family is a big seafood fan, one of the few foods we all really agree upon.  For another, it coincided with the Japanese tradition of sashimi that is so prevalent in the islands.  It's also highly symbolic to the Chinese, as the word for "fish", yuu, is a homonym for the word for "abundance" (also yuu).  So having a feast where each of us contributed one fish dish, seemed highly appropriate, and a fantastic way of welcoming in the new year that we've adhered to ever since.

    My Mom's Lobster, Scallop and Shrimp Platter
    As the matriarch of my family, my mom's dish is usually the centerpiece of our meal, even if it isn't a turkey or a crown roast.  What she came up with this year was spectacularly mouth watering, in both appearance, aroma, and taste.   Her preparation was actually quite simple, with some basic broiled lobster and seared scallops and shrimp.   The cooking time, technique, and seasoning were all quite minimal, as she wanted the natural flavors of these highly prized seafood items to speak for themselves.   However, everything was in her gorgeous presentation, which just screamed festive and abundance.  Unfortunately, the lobster I had, had a horribly mushy texture almost like mashed potatoes.  As my mom's preparation is typically flawless, I can only assume that she got a bad lobster from Costco.  It was a little inauspicious for me, but as we had so much food, it really didn't matter.  Conversely, her scallops and shrimp were both totally sweet and crisp. 

    My Mom's Oyster Sauce Asparagus & Mushrooms
    My mom also felt that we needed to have some vegetation on the table.  While not strictly a seafood dish, she did stir fry it with Chinese oyster sauce (hau yau).  So it still retained some of that concentrated oyster flavor in the dish.

    My Aunty's Chinese Style Braised Uhu
    My aunty also went with a classical approach to seafood.  In her case, probably the quintessential classic Chinese preparation for a whole fish, steamed with shoyu, green onions, and ginger.   Just for fun she added some shiitake mushrooms to the mix as well, and instead of steaming, she kind of braised the fish, but it essentially tasted the same.  The fish she picked was, a local Hawaiian uhu, or parrot fish (so named because of its beak-like mouth).   This fish when done right, like my aunty did, has an especially smooth texture.  Chinese refer to this ideal texture as waat (or "slippery"), and it is considered by the Chinese to be the most desired texture a fish can have.  My aunty's was just perfect in this regard.  Of course on an uhu, the best bite, the most waat part, are the cheeks and forehead.

    My Lup Cheong & Oyster Sauce Mayonnaise Stuffed Salmon
    My own contribution to this fish extraganza was a more modern, local Chinese, classic, a baked salmon stuffed with lup cheong and oyster sauce mayonnaise.  This is the dish that when Anthony Bourdain tried it, he said he didn't even want to guess at its geneology, he only knew that it was good.   Of course, its mixed up cultural heritage is so representative of what we're all about in the islands.  My aunty had almost made a salmon as well, but luckily found out what I was doing and switched at the last minute.  But what I especially liked was the contrast between my aunty's classical approach and my modern one.   It was like you could taste the evolution of Chinese flavors in Hawaii, right on our table.  

    My Wife's Shake-n-Bake Catfish
    My wife decided to go with another classic flavor for her fish, but one from the heart of Dixie.   She made a Shake-n-Bake catfish.   While Shake-n-Bake is usually done with chicken or pork, catfish is perhaps the favorite fish of the South, and the Southern style seasonings in Shake-n-Bake went perfectly with the catfish.   The only problem was, after she baked it, it was nearly an hour before we got to eat (waiting for Mom and Aunty to finish their last minute preparations).  So her normally crunchy Shake-n-Bake got soggy on the bottom.   Unfortunately, since all fish dishes are very quick, and should be done right before serving, the timing on this meal was just terribly difficult.  But while it lost its crunch, it lost none of its flavor, which was like eating Southern comfort.

    My Uncle's Fishcake Stuffed Shiitake Mushrooms
    Instead of making a dessert, like he usually does, my uncle opted to contribute a fish dish of his own  In his case, he stuffed big black shiitake mushrooms with fish cake.   I remember my Po Po making this dish ages ago, and it was like a reminder of times gone past for me.   The texture difference between the fish cake and the mushroom was interesting, as they didn't totally blend nor did they totally contrast.  

    My Dad's Barbie's Special Tuna Salad
    As this whole Feast of the Seven Fishes was his idea, even my dad likes to contribute something to this meal.  Of course, his cooking ability is really limited to mixing and plating, kind of akin to what my 4-year old son can do.  So he usually just arranges something pretty with canned fish and crackers.  But this time he went all out, and looked up something from the Internet called Barbie's Tuna Salad, which he said had really excellent user reviews.   However, he left out the ingredient which made the tuna salad really unique, the curry powder, as he was afraid that my son wouldn't be able to eat it.   To me, this really took out the heart of what made Barbie's so unique and interesting to begin with.  Without it, I think I preferred the tuna macaroni salad my son made last week more.  Thankfully, he added some of that curry powder back in to spice up the leftovers, and the difference was like night and day.

    My Son's Ikura & Konbu Basmati Rice
    In keeping up with his training in the culinary arts, I again had my son wash and cook rice.   This time, however, it wasn't as a sous chef for my dish, but to help him mix one of his own.   My son adores ikura (salmon roe).   Whenever we have sushi, the one thing he always wants to have is the ikura.  At first, the connotation that all my little boy wanted to eat was caviar was a little disturbing.  But apparently this isn't so uncommon, as we attended one of my friend's weddings, as they introduced the young ring bearer we found out that his favorite food is ikura as well.  As much as he adores ikura, my wife loves konbu (the sweet salty sea kelp).  It's probably from all the little toothpick samples we used to enjoy as kids from Shirokiya.   So this New Year's, I decided that they should both have a treat, and pick up some trays of ikura and konbu from Daiei (Don Quixote).  Then I let my son complete his dish by mixing it all together.   The basmati rice we used was far less sticky than the white calrose you would normally use, but then this made it easier for him to mix well.  Additionally, the fragrance of the basmati rice seemed to give more complexity to the relatively simple dish.   Simple but a real treat for my family.

    My Son's Sardines En Croute
    While I was dreaming up things for my son to cook, I came up with something else that I thought it would be fun for him to make.  Thinking back on the Italian roots of this meal, it dawned on me that sardines (which my wife also loves), would be something easy and tasty.  But how to serve it?  He could place it on crackers, but that would be a little too simplistic, even for him.  Then I thought of "pigs-in-a-blanket", and it dawned on me that instead of vienna sausages, we could wrap the sardines in Pillbury cresent rolls.   Just to add a little more Italian kick, and a little color, we decided to roll in some sun dried tomatoes as well.  The result was like a miniature sardines en croute.   My son actually had more fun rolling up his sardines, than mixing his rice, and the resulting little morsels were just delightful.

    The only thing that seemed to be omitted from our fantastic seafood meal was sashimi or at least some local style poke, but with all that variety it really wasn't missed.  What we really did miss was my sister, who had already gone back to the mainland.  As much as we love and miss her, she's gotta have her own adventures without us cramping her style.

    New Year's Dinner 2009
    It is always really interesting to see the range of interpretations my family comes up with, even when focusing on a single ingredient like fish.  It is a factor of both our great kapakahi heritage and the spectrum of our own personal styles.   The other great thing is that we came up with a total of 9 dishes, and 9 (gau) is another homonym in Chinese for abundance and longevity.  Although it's based on the feast of the 7 fishes, having 9 dishes was even more auspicious for us, and hopefully will be reflective of the upcoming year.

    Friday, January 1, 2010

    SushiFest - Part V: The Supreme Sashimi

    New Year's is upon us, and we have finally arrived in the what for my generation has always been, "The Future!"   It is the year 2010.   When we all live in the sky in apartments that are so far above the ground you never see it.  When we all drive flying cars, which run on garbage in our Mr. Fusion.  When we frequently take vacations on the moon at Luna Park.  Wait.  What do you mean we don't have any of those things yet?   Are you saying television lied to me??  Dang it!  Then again, my flip top cell phone looks remarkably like Captain Kirk's communicator (and when my wife has her bluetooth earpiece in I'm constantly reminded of Uhura), the automatic sliding doors at Ala Moana cound certainly pass for the ones on the Enterprise, and my tablet PC looks bears a striking resembalance to the padd that Yeoman Rand carried.   So we're getting there, we're getting there.

    Meanwhile, I guess we'll just celebrate New Year's the old fashioned way.   In Hawaii of course, that means a literal ton of fireworks.   Having so many Chinese families in Hawaii, you just have to have a 20,000 string of  firecrackers to scare off the bad spirits, with little bits of red paper all over your driveway to welcome in the blessings of the new year.  I was always particularly fond of those little ground blooms, that spin and look like red, yellow or green ladybugs. These days, fountains have gotten so complex, that they look like a little fireworks show in your driveway.   But I have never had any lack of a fireworks show.  Where I live, somehow every other family in the valley has gotten their hands on illegal aerials.  I really don't know where they get them from.  All I know is that, despite the illegality of it, you simply cannot stop the firmly entrenched tradition of it.  This is something I'm glad about, because from my parents' house, you can see practically the entire valley.  Every New Year's, we're treated to the most spectacular aerial fireworks show around, all at around eye level for us, just about 180 degrees all around us.  It's absolutely amazing.   Of course the smoke is also amazing.  It's as thick as San Francisco fog, and the thundering booms mirror that of a warzone.  But I wouldn't have it any other way.

    However, while the rest of the country is singing Auld Lang Syne, and are focused on the crystal ball dropping in Time's Square, New Year's in Hawaii has always been more of a Japanese holiday than an American one.   In fact, aside of Obon, it is probably the biggest Japanese holiday of them all.  Rather than religiously watching Dick Clark's countdown, the Red and White song competition (also called Kohau Uta Gassen) has always been a yearly tradition in my family.   While most anime fans are familiar with J-Pop music, it is the Red and White competition that fostered my love of enka style music.  My favorite was always Saburo Kitajima (famous for playing the Chief of the Megumi Fire Brigade on Abarenbo Shogun).  His crooning is as unique and unmistakable as Sinatra, and to me it just isn't New Year's without hearing it.

    Practically every other door is adorned with a kadomatsu (or a bamboo & pine arrangement).  Like the firecrackers to the Chinese, the kadomatsu to the Japanese is a way of warding off evil spirits and welcoming in the blessings of the new year.   Besides the traditional decoration at our doorstep, many businesses and homes are scrubbed spotless, and all debts paid, to start the New Year clean.   Thankfully, being Chinese, like getting an extension on your income taxes, we get a reprieve from all that cleaning until Chinese New Year, about a month later.   But perhaps nothing is more iconic of New Year, than a stack of mochi with an orange on top.

    Mochi Variety from Kansai Yamato
    Mochi is essential to the Japanese for New Year's.  Just like gao for Chinese New Year, the stickiness of the mochi is meant to symbolically bind the family together for the New Year.  Back in high school, I actually got to try pounding the mochi myself (in tandem with a partner of course).   Swinging that giant hammer over your head is worthy of Looney Tunes, but it's much heavier than it looks.   I would just as soon leave it up to the experts.   In Hawaii, that usually means picking up a pack of Hawaii Candy from Longs.   But we also have a true mochi specialist, right in the Makai Market food court at Ala Moana, called Kansai Yamato.  Just like Mana Bu's who makes nothing but musubi, Kansai Yamato makes nothing but mochi.  This fanatical dedication to making one, and only one product, naturally yields nothing less than absolute mastery and perfection in their craft.   The mochi at Kansai Yamato, is simply the perfect texture.  Soft and sticky, and nothing like the hard, chewy, dried up nonsense you can pick up at some places.  Their variety pack even has flavors that you wouldn't even find in Japan.   Besides the traditional an dango (the white with azuki bean filling) and kinako an (the shoyu brown one), you can get brilliant local flavors and colors like cruncy peanut butter, mango, melona, and guava.   Each one is distinctly local tasting and different from each other, but all of them are just mouth watering.

    Besides mochi, the other crucial thing you must have at New Year's is of course sashimi.  Fresh fish is so important to the New Year's celebration that a quarter of the island seems to pack itself into tiny little Tamashiro Market on New Year's Eve.  Not only is everyone frantic to get a piece of fish, they're willing to pay several hundred dollars a pound for the really premium quality fish.   I wouldn't be surprised if Tamashiro makes half its dividends on New Year's alone.   Of course, once you get it home, you really must know how to cut the fish properly too.   This is a precision task that takes years to master, so if you're not up to the task, I would recommend finding a sushi chef that really knows his stuff.   My very favorite sushi place, would have to be Yanagi Sushi, at the downtown end of Kapiolani.

    Family Roll at Yanagi Sushi
    If you my wife, she will tell you that sushi may be my all time favorite food.   I'm completely addicted to it.  In my quest for the perfect sushi, I've found innovative makimono rolls, battleship shaped gunkan passing by on the conveyor belt, perfect bowls of poke, ingenius temaki hand rolls with supremely crunchy nori, and the master sushi chefs that serve you with an obsession for the perfect bite.   But when it all comes down to it, Yanagi Sushi is the one place that I would consider my absolute favorite sushi restaurant.  On my birthday, it usually tops my short list of places I want to go.  I'm definitely not alone in this regard, either.  When you walk in to this unassuming little restaurant, the walls are lined with the most photographs of patrons I've ever seen adorn a restaurant, many of them big celebrities.  

    Sashimi Deluxe at Yanagi Sushi
    While Yanagi makes some fantastic sushi rolls, it is actually not the sushi (which by definition requires the sweet vinegar rice), but the sashimi that is my favorite thing there.    Their Sashimi Deluxe platter may be one of my favorite meals in the whole world.  Every item is super fresh, premium quality, and masterfully cut to bring out its own magnificent natural flavor.  The oyster is plump and briney, with a full intense oyster flavor.  Every piece of ikura (salmon roe) is bursting crisp little sphere, none of which are dry or shrivelled.  The ika (squid) is crisp and clean, and doesn't have that slimey pastey film that bad quality ika has.   The ebi (shrimp) is blanched so fast that it has an ever so slight crispness, while retaining all of it's raw natural sweetness.  I especially love the piece of shiso, which has such an intoxicating perfumey fragrance, that perfectly complements the flavor of the fish.  I would rather have shiso than wasabi any day.  But what makes this platter so perfect, is how well they do the core triumvirate of sashimi, the ahi, hamachi, and salmon.   All 3 of these incredibly buttery.  The natural fat and fish oils in each piece of fish makes it so rich and flavorful.  Eaten with a nice hot bowl of steaming, slighly sticky, plump, calrose rice, the fish flavor just melts like butter on hot bread.  The ahi, salmon, and hamachi each has its own distinct flavor, and I adore each one.   Despite how elite and prestigious the sushi at Sushi Sasabune is, I think that the flavor of the fish at Yanagi even surpasses it.  The shrimp is sweeter and the flavor of the hamachi is much stronger.  Besides that the atmosphere is a lot more relaxed and unpretentious, and the price is much more affordable, so the overall experience is just far more enjoyable.

    Even though my family isn't Japanese, in Hawaii each of our cultures has become so integrated with our super-culture, that we just couldn't welcome in the new year without all the Japanese elements.  It is tradition that I look forward to enjoying year after year for decades to come.