THE GOCHISO GOURMET: Goin’ to the Hukilau

While the Bay Area clan was visiting during the Thanksgiving holiday, we accompanied them on requisite trips to several local restaurants and the main shopping trip to Ala Moana Center… four-plus hours at Ala Moana. And this was already on top of several hours spent previously by the family on Black Friday (gift shopping should NEVER start at 6 a.m. even if the merchandise is free) at Ala Moana. Of course, after a full day of shopping, what’s a family to do? Eat of course. However the University of Hawai‘i also is playing a crucial game that starts at 5:30 p.m. What now? Go to a sports bar of course! Food and TV! But what sports bar do we patronize?

“Oh, we’re goin’

To the hukilau

A huki, huki, huki, huki, hukilau

Ev’rybody, loves a hukilau

Where the lau lau is the kau kau at the hukilau.”

Hukilau San Francisco

What do you get when you combine an expat from Kapa‘a, Kaua‘i; an expat from Ewa Beach, Oahu; and an expat from Hilo, Hawai‘i and drop them all in the Bay Area? You end up with three former local boys ono (craving) Hawaiian food and hospitality. Add a little extra cash and maybe a little too much free time (and perhaps one drink too many), and you might end up with a restaurant venture where none of the principals had ever ventured before: The Hukilau!

The (ad)venture first started at the top of Masonic Avenue where it bridges above Geary Boulevard at a former bar. Years ago, while I was attending the Unversity of California at San Francisco, I would always drive by that corner bar whose name I can’t even recall. All I remember was the bright green and red neon lights. Well, fast forward many years and you now have the Hukilau Grill.

Their menu includes many favorites that Hawai‘i locals still enjoy on a regular basis, like Spam. Spam? Yuck! Well, before you knock it, hear me out. Straight out of the can, I agree, it is gross: a slimy, pinkish meat-like product with about one week’s supply of sodium. However, culinary tastes are sometimes born out of necessity. During WWII many food items were rationed. This was especially severe in the 50th (well, it wasn’t the 50th at the time), where geographic isolation intensified rationing. Locals were looking for alternate protein sources and, lo and behold, the military provided protein in canned forms: Spam, Vienna sausage and corned beef. The saltiness of these canned proteins helped stretch a meal — a little protein with lots of vegetables or lots of rice — that much farther.

The Spam on Hukilau’s menu, however, isn’t born from necessity as much as taste. Take their Spam musubi, a quarter-inch slice of pan-crisped Spam — maybe dipped in a thick teriyaki sauce — placed on hot rice and wrapped with nori. The thing legends are made of! Even Tony Bourdain polished off a whole Spam musubi on his “No Reservations” episode in Hawai‘i (of course, his Spam was placed on a fried rice musubi).

Hukilau also features that glorious plate lunch specialty created in Hilo, Hawai‘i many years ago: the Loco Moco. The original version is a panfried hamburger patty placed on steaming white rice in a bowl then topped with a fried egg — usually sunny side up — then smothered in thick brown gravy. In tribute to the 60th anniversary of the Loco Moco, Hukilau serves several renditions of it — some on fried rice, some with chili and cheese instead of brown gravy, and others with chicken katsu, fried fish or veggie patty instead of hamburger. Any way it’s served, it’s all good!

Hukilau also has been hosting the Sam Choy Poke Festival for the past eight years. For the uninitiated, poke (po-kay, NOT po-kee) is Hawai‘i’s version of a fish tartare with larger cuts of fish — usually about three-quarters to one-inch cubed — spiced with rock salt and a variety of other flavorings. Limu (seaweed), sesame seed oil, white and green onions, inamona (kukui nut), shoyu and chili pepper are a few of the various flavoring agents added to the mixture. Fish include ahi (yellowfin tuna), kajiki or au (blue marlin) or salmon and also include tako (octopus) or various cooked and raw shellfish. In fact, poke, a cold beer and a 40-inch flat screen are the three major food groups during the football season.

“We’ll throw our nets out into the sea

And all the ama ama come-a swimming to me

Oh, we’re going to the hukilau

A huki, huki, huki, hukilau”

Hukilau Honolulu

In addition to a second location in San Jose, a third venue is based in the motherland of all the Hukilaus, right in central downtown Honolulu in the Executive Centre’s basement. When it first opened about two and a half years ago, I wondered how a Hawaiian-themed restaurant (while great for Hawai‘i expats living in the Bay Area) would fare in the motherland. After all, denizens of the 50th don’t get homesick for Hawai‘i, they’re already living here. The theme for Hukilau Honolulu strays a little from Hukilau’s stateside locations. While you’ll still find surfboards and Hawai‘i memorabilia on the walls, the theme is more that of a sports bar, with showings of University of Hawai‘i games on the many TVs. The menu is also more regional Hawai‘i cuisine instead of kitschy homesick Hawaiian food.

We sampled two excellent renditions of local favorites, the musubi and nigiri sushi. The first was musubi but with curried chicken and candied pecans added to the mixture so that the final result was like a curry-spiced onigiri. The second was a reversed nigiri sushi with a nicely browned slice of Portuguese sausage as the toping (bottom) with kimchee fried rice instead of the usual vinegared rice. Both were delicious! Executive Chef Jason Takemura (originally executive chef at Chai’s Island Bistro) also made a great moi (Hawaiian threadfin fish) with fresh ginger sitting on a bed of shiitake tempura. The oil and fish juices permeated the tempura perfectly. The grilled rib-eye steak with truffle porcini cream also was perfectly cooked medium rare and very tender. We also sampled one of their many renditions of French fries, choosing the truffle and asiago fries (they also offer plain, garlic or chili cheese). We washed everything down with Stella Artois on tap, though owner Kurt Osaki also offered a bottle of 2008 Domaine Depeuble Beaujolais — a very food friendly light red wine. It also didn’t hurt that the University of Hawai‘i upset Navy 24-17.

So the next time you’re visiting the 50th, plan a side trip to Hukilau Honolulu. Or, if vacation isn’t in the imminent plans, visit Hukilau San Francisco or Hukilau San Jose for Hawaiian hospitality and food.

Hukilau Honolulu

1088 Bishop St., LL13

Honolulu, HI 96813

(808) 523-3460

Hukilau San Francisco

5 Masonic Ave.

San Francisco, CA 94118

(415) 921-6242

Hukilau San Jose

230 Jackson St.

San Jose, CA 95112

(408) 279-4888

www.dahukilau.com

“What a beautiful day for fishing

In the old Hawaiian way

All the hukilau nets are swishing

Down in old Laie Bay

Oh, we’re going to the hukilau

A huki, huki, huki, huki

huki, huki, huki, huki

huki, huki, huki, hukilau.”

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa and University of California at San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kaneohe, Hawai‘i and can be reached at gochisogourmet@yahoo.com.

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