by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
May 31, 2007
I have a special fondness for Hawaii, not just because it’s a vacation paradise with beautiful beaches, mountains, valleys and sunsets, but also because it was my home before New York. I lived in Honolulu for several years as a young kid and then again during high school. A sentimental sap, I try to relive my childhood each time I return. This means that my judgment is somewhat tainted by nostalgia, and often the foods that I remembered to be onolicious — Hawaiian for delicious — don’t seem to withstand the challenge of my current taste buds. Nonetheless, this last visit was fully rewarding, as I was able to spend Mother’s Day with my mom, and satiate many old cravings as well as find new ones.
As we embark on summer, I highly recommend Honolulu for vacation, as it offers an ideal mix of natural and urban settings. After arriving there, I found my stress level had dropped to zero, and I pondered how I could possibly prefer the hectic challenges of New York living to the perfect blues of the ocean and relaxing sounds of rustling palms in Hawaii. But alas, I do love the excitement New York City offers and therefore, I am perfectly content to return to Hawaii for occasional relief. It’s something wonderful to look forward to.
Below is a list of recommendations, including my top three favorite meals from this trip. I’m also including links to how one might access similar foods here in New York.
Portuguese Sausage With Scrambled Eggs and Rice
There’s no better place to start than breakfast. Despite the name, Portuguese sausage is a Portuguese-influenced Hawaiian specialty, and for me it was a childhood staple. You can find it on any breakfast menu on the island, including local joints like Like Like Drive-Inn (don’t forget to try the loco moco, saimin and fried rice at Like Like), Zippy’s and Sam Choy’s. The traditional accompaniment is scrambled eggs and rice. Though it sounds blasphemous, we always drizzle soy sauce on the rice.
(kabocha pumpkin encrusted w/ arare balls)
Hakkei is a relatively new home-style Japanese restaurant that was recommended by a chef friend. The original Hakkei is a hot spring resort in Okayama, Japan. Part of the draw of Japanese hot springs is the cuisine served at the inn where you stay. The food is comforting, intricate and varied. In this regard, the Hakkei in Honolulu is extremely authentic. Serving mostly Japanese patrons, it’s a small restaurant that seats around thirty, including some counter seats. The lunch special, served from 11am to 2pm, changes daily. Hakkei is known for its oden (hot pot including pieces of fish cake, tofu, and vegetables simmered in broth), as well as its kamado rice — rice cooked in traditional ceramic kamado that produces a crispy bottom layer, okage — but you have to order the kamado rice in advance (when you call the restaurant to make a reservation). Hakkei offers true comfort, not just in the food but the atmosphere as well. There’s jazz playing in the background and no one is rushing you to do anything but enjoy the food. The Nanking manju was exquisite — steamed kabocha pumpkin encrusted with arare balls (tempura-like crispy balls). If I lived in Hawaii, I’d hang out at Hakkei all the time. It’s a great place to linger for hours over drinks paired with delicous food. The service is extremely friendly, too.
New York: Omen is my favorite place for Japanese comfort food.
113 Thompson St
(Prince & Spring St)
New York, NY 10012
1417 S King St
Honolulu, HI 96814
It’s no secret that I’m a fan of the Sasabune that opened in New York less than a year ago, but the Sasabune in Hawaii blows it away. This one has been around for ten years so it’s definitely an established restaurant with its own rules. I am still dying to try the original Sasabune in L.A., which opened twenty-seven years ago. At Honolulu’s Sasabune, besides the “trust me” slogan, which is the common philosophy of all three restaurants, there is a large sign above the sushi bar that reads, “We reserve the right to not serve anyone for any reason.” Yikes! Chef Seiji Kumagawa is a little standoffish but his sushi is amazing. “Trust me” refers to the restaurant only serving omakase — chef’s choice — style. You definitely get some of the same choices at Sasabune New York, but there are two items from Hawaii I must point out. The first is the blue crab stuffed in grilled calamari. The blue crab roll, chef Kenji Takahashi’s specialty at Sasabune New York, ends the meal, and what a great way to finish. The blue crab filling in Honolulu is similar to the blue crab in Kenji’s blue crab roll, but stuffing it in calamari takes it to another dimension. Finally, the signature dish at Sasabune in Hawaii is the negitoro — scallions with fatty tuna. Negitoro most commonly comes in the form of a roll because the cost of toro is high, so this was originally the poor man’s way to enjoy some good fish. The negitoro in this case is nigiri zushi (hand pressed sushi). The decadent pieces of toro melt in your mouth. It is AMAZING! It’s a good thing that they give you two pieces, not one. The negitoro at Sasabune is worth living for and I can’t stop dreaming about it.
401 E 73rd St
(1st & 2nd Ave)
New York, NY 10021
Here are three other meals not on my top list but worth mentioning:
Another great option for breakfast is okazuya, or delis that serve mixed plates of food with varied (Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, etc.) influences. There are over thirty different types of dishes behind the glass encased stainless steel counter for customers to choose from. The food, including spam musubi, corned beef potato hash, tempura, lo mien, cone sushi (inari sushi in a cone shape), and macaroni salad, is generally not that healthy, but it’s very tasty. The best part is you get to mix and match and order as much as you want! The original Gulick Delicatessen in Kalihi has been around for more than twenty-five years. Three months ago, they opened one on South King Street in central Honolulu. Gulick has the reputation for being the top okazuya in Hawaii, but I have to say it fell short of my expectations. The flavors didn’t live up to the grossly oversized portions. Again, perhaps tainted by my nostalgia for an okazuya that closed years ago, Gulick didn’t live up to my dreams, but it’s still worth a trip if you want to try an okazuya.
New York: We don’t have anything remotely like an okazuya here in New York. However, one thing that does totally remind me of Hawaii is the pork BBQ meal at Ihawan. Probably because Hawaiian food has a lot of Filipino influence. The pork barbecue meal includes rice and two bamboo skewers of sliced, grilled meat that has been marinated in a sugar-and-soy-based marinade. This can serve as a meal in itself, and for $4.50 it’s a true bargain.
40-06 70th St
@ Roosevelt Ave
Woodside, NY 11377
I was introduced to Kua’Aina in Tokyo. The Japanese are good at importing franchises of the best of foods from around the world, so I knew it had to be good. The original Kua’aina is in Haleiwa on the North Shore, but there’s a Honolulu branch at Ward Centre. The burgers come in 1/3 lb and 1/2 lb sizes. An avocado fanatic, I chose the burger with my favorite creamy green fruit and added Cheddar cheese. All Kua’aina burgers come with the option of a thick-cut of grilled onion. Say yes!!! The juicy flavors of the burger, the perfectly roasted sweetness of the onion and whatever else you add are going to titillate your taste buds! The only thing I was disappointed with was the Kaiser roll, which I found to be floppy and soggy once it absorbed the meat juices. But my mouth is still watering for another Kua’aina burger.
On a side note, W&M Bar-B-Q Burger came highly recommended as the best burger in Honolulu. Sadly, it was closed on the day I tried to go. For the time being, it seems that I can only try to imagine how good it is through Ono Kine Grindz’s post.
(passion fruit beignets)
Chef Mavro is one of the top-rated fine dining restaurants in Honolulu. Like other restaurants of this caliber, including Alan Wong’s, Roy’s, and Hoku’s, Chef Mavro serves Hawaiian style fusion cuisine. In other words, taking into consideration local ingredients and produce, the chefs prepare modern and innovative menus. Chef Mavro has a three-tier tasting menu: three, four, or six courses. Carefully pre-selected wine pairings for each menu are available as well. Seasonally, the entire staff will work together to research and select menu items and pairings. It was this collaborative energy of the staff that impressed me most. They all worked together and knew what was going on at every table, rather than each table having a specific server who diners can’t ever flag down. For this reason, the service and also the atmosphere were really great, but the cuisine didn’t wow me — everything was good, but nothing jumped out as mind-blowing. While the pricing was in sync with the top restaurants in New York, the food was not. Nonetheless, I was glad I tried it. I had the four-course menu with spiced bigeye ahi to start, then fish chicharrón infused with anise seeds, fricassee of baby fennel. The main course of Snake River Farm Kobe-style beef included two types of beef: roasted bavette and braised short rib. The tender braised short rib melted in my mouth and made its counterpart, roasted bavette, seem coarse in comparison. The dessert, lilikoi (passion fruit) malasadas — Portuguese-influenced Hawaiian doughnuts or beignets) with guava coulis and pineapple-coconut ice cream was quite a delight and a perfect way to end my Hawaii vacation.
New York: The most similar Hawaiian celebrity chef outpost we have in the City is Roy’s.
There’s no other Hawaiian omiyage — Japanese for souvenir — as beautifully packaged as the confections from Clara. It’s like the Hawaiian version of Yoku Moku — one of the most famous Japanese confectioners. Treats range from chocolate covered macadamias, kona coffee and macadamia cookies to dried mango and papaya. They can be found at Nieman Marcus in Honolulu. Beauty comes with a price though. These treats are not cheap!
New York: The Tea Box, in Takashimaya’s basement floor, carries Yoku Moku and other beautifully packaged goodies, including Amai Tea & Bake House treats.
In recent years, I’ve developed the habit of bringing my own meals on plane rides. So wherever I travel, I am always looking out for what will make ideal snacks (yes, multiple courses) for the trip back to New York. On this trip, I found my snacks at Shirokiya, a Japanese department store. Shirokiya was the original name of the department store chain now known as Tokyu in Japan. The one in Honolulu is located at the Ala Moana Shopping Center, right next to Macy’s. Growing up, Shirokiya was a staple hangout. Sometimes we’d eat the pastries and cakes of Saint-Germain and Dee Lite Bakery or look for cool stationery or cute Sanrio goods, but mainly we’d just hang out at the second floor food court. Although food courts are traditionally located in the basements of Japanese department stores, the one at Shirokiya in Honolulu still abounds with countless vendors offering all the Japanese goodies you can imagine. The quality is not as refined as what you’ll find in Japan, but the variety is worth commending. From tempura, rice balls, yakisoba to bentos and sushi, they’ve got it all. There are also sweets counters whose delicacies range from Hawaiian-style mochi to the seasonal Japanese delicacies of Minamoto Kitchoan. Whether for a plane ride or just to cure the munchies, I highly recommend Shirokiya. It’s fun to pick and choose from a diverse selection of Japanese goodies.
New York: Bentos, or Japanese lunch boxes, are sold at Sunrise Mart throughout the day. For high-end Japanese seasonal sweets, there’s Minamoto Kitchoan.
29 3rd Ave
@ Stuyvesant St
New York, NY 10003
494 Broome St
(Wooster & W Broadway St)
New York, NY 10013