Thursday, August 14, 2008

Hawaii Journal Day 4: Hawaiian Pork and Chinese Pork

Day 4: Wednesday

Lunch: Ono Hawaiian Foods

Ono Hawaiian Foods is perhaps the most venerable Hawaiian Food restaurant in the Islands. For as long as I can remember, Ono ("good" in Hawaiian) has been dishing out traditional Hawaiian food. It is probably one of the most recommended and highly praised lunch stops for visiting foodies and locals alike. I hadn't been to Ono in probably ten years (on my last visit the food had been uneven) and was interested to see if they were still on top of their game.

Ono is a small cafe open only from 11:00am to 7:00pm. It features a long wait and a booming take out business. What separates Ono from a plate lunch stand is that it emphasizes Hawaiian cuisine: pork and poi and lomi salmon and none of that mayo strewn macaroni salad.

Kalua pig is really the centerpiece of the Ono experience, and it did not disappoint. The key is that it is not just salty, but deeply smoky. This is the luau pig that was traditionally cooked in the underground oven known as an imu, buried under hot rocks and banana leaves; it should be smoky. The Ono combination plate includes the kalua pig as well as lau lau, though I thought the lau lau was a bit bland and not as good as the version I had on Day 2 at Keneke's. It also included Lomi salmon, a sort of salmon pico de gallo and pipikaula, a delectable aged, spiced beef.

For the starch, you can choose rice or poi, which comes fresh or day old. I go for the day old poi. Poi is, of course, the long ridiculed taro root paste that was the predominant starch in the Native Hawaiian diet before rice was introduced by Europeans and Asians. The fresh poi is fairly bland, but after a day of continued fermentation, it picks up a tangy quality that perfectly offsets the saltiness and smokyness of the pig. A bite of pig, a schmear of poi, a chomp of raw Maui onion and a dip into the spicy salsa known locally as chili water makes the meal.

For the first time at Ono, I also ordered the chicken long rice, a Hawaiian okazuya (deli) staple consisting of cellophane noodles in chicken broth. It was fabulous. The broth had the amazing ultra-chicken taste of something that had been meticulously tended as it simmered for hours on the stove; something a good Jewish grandmother would make.

So, yes, Ono is still ono, and that makes me happy.

Ono Hawaiian Foods
726 Kapahulu Ave.
Honolulu, HI
(808) 737-2275

Dinner: Chinatown

Two years ago, I delved into Honolulu's Chinatown with both feet by taking Anthony Chang's food tour. Chang is a food obsessed lawyer (hmm, sounds familiar) who gives walking tours of Chinatown food shops and restaurants. Chang is well versed in both the cuisine and history of Chinatown, and he provides food information with all manner of background color. At the time, I reviewed the tour and some of the stops here.

I have been surprised to find that the Chinese roast meats in Honolulu's Chinatown, tiny in comparison to the massive LA Chinese communities, was better than any I'd had in Los Angeles or the San Gabriel Valley. On reflection, I think it comes down to the fact that the Hawaiian health regulations are a bit more lax, allowing, or at least tolerating the storage of roasted meats at room temperature in shop windows. This allows crispy skins to stay crispy and viscous, liquidy fat to stay viscous and liquidy. Sure, you probably are that much more likely to pick up a food borne illness, but any food lover will tell you that is well worth it.

The intersection of Maunakea and King is the culinary center of Chinatown. Wing Loy Market (1036 Maunakea) is best for pork. Both char siu and roasted pork are very good. The roast pig has a nice cracklin' skin and bursts with flavor. The char siu is red, glistening with fat and has an almost candy-like sweetness.

My favorite Chinatown meat shop is directly across the street from Wing Loy. Nam Fong Market (1020 Maunakea) does Chinese roast duck like none other. The duck is crisp skinned, slightly smoky and spiked with anise. With each bite, the concentrated duck juice pours out into your mouth. It is so good, that when we finished and were left with a puddle of rich, duck jus, my partner and I looked at each other in that way that long-term couples who understand each other's every thought sometimes look at each other. Would we violate every rule of etiquette, nutrition and who knows what else and drink that plain, rich jus. We would. We did. It was worth it.

Unfortunately, the proprietor of the wonderful Shung Chong Yuein bakery, purveyor of all manner of sweet and savory Chinese pastries, retired and the shop is closed. Instead, for sweets, we headed to Lee's Bakery and Kitchen (126 N. King) for their famous custard pie. The custard pie is almost like a flan on a pie crust. The texture is well balanced between the creamy and eggy and it is not overwhelmingly sweet, but just enough to give the right touch to the custard.

Tomorrow: North Shore Eats in Haleiwa Town

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