Shrimp paste gives soup a blast of flavor
Bun bo Hue is a flavor bomb — a spicy, fishy, salty, porky, beefy noodle soup with (if made for Vietnamese tastes) the added heft of pork knuckles and blood cake.
It’s not pho; it’s beyond pho.
Fermented shrimp paste — ham ha in Chinese, mam ruoc in Vietnamese — is the big flavor difference — giving it a heavy salty, fish flavor rather than the lighter beef-star-anise flavor of pho.
The red of the broth comes from annatto seeds, from the achiote tree — what we called the lipstick plant growing up.
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The soup is from Central Vietnam — the old capital city of Hue — hence the name.
Every restaurant has a different recipe. There’s no best. But my favorite is at Kim Anh (about $10). It’s where my Vietnamese friends like to eat, and most of the patrons are Vietnamese. It’s served with banana blossoms, bean sprouts, shredded ong choy, Thai basil and other herbs, chilis and lime.
The Pig and the Lady makes a popular version. But theirs doesn’t have the pig knuckles or blood cake.
— Craig Gima
174 N. King St., Chinatown; 599-3881
Nico’s smoked fish strikes just right balance
Lucky for me my path to work takes me past Pier 38, home of Nico’s the restaurant, but more importantly Nico’s the fish market. This is where I get smoked seafood — mahimahi, salmon, aku, opah, mussels, tako — choices that vary by the day. Sometimes salmon belly or opah cheeks will be part of the display, you never know.
Smoked fish can be dry, salty, over-seasoned. Not here. These morsels are moist, tender, with seasonings that balance saltiness, sweetness, smoke and sometimes a little chili spice.
Samples are always available, so if you’ve never had smoked salmon belly you don’t have to take my word for it (awesome). Prices start at $9.95 per pound for mussels but most of the choices are $13.95.
— Betty Shimabukuro
Pier 38, 1129 N. Nimitz Highway; 540-1377; nicospier38.com
Aloha Kitchen’s pancake reaches epic proportions
We’re accustomed to seeing pancakes and flapjacks in familiar stackable form, accompanied by a big bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s, maple syrup, jam, jelly or marmalade. Obviously, a tradition not to be messed with. Yet, there is joy in seeing just how far experimentation can push one particular dish to exalted heights.
The pancake has reached epic proportions at Aloha Kitchen in Waikiki, bulked up in size but not heavy, at the restaurant owned by Japanese Olympic trainer Toshiyuki Yamamoto.
The souffle pancakes ($15-$17) are equivalent to eating cake for breakfast. Outside, the texture is as light as chiffon cake. Inside, it has a silky, custardy meringue texture that is easy to devour. The fruit-topped pancake is pretty as a picture. You can also get them topped with bananas and chocolate syrup, coconut cream and macadamia nuts, or to be truly decadent, start your day with an apple-and-vanilla-ice cream version that is one of my favorites any time of day.
Considering the size and probable calories involved, I assume this dish is meant to be shared, though I’d have no problem eating the whole thing myself.
— Nadine Kam
432 Ena Road; 943-6105
Crunchy on the outside, tender on the inside
Fried kimchee. You don’t see it every day, or at least I haven’t. So when I came across it on the menu at a bar called Osoyami, I just had to get it.
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but this time, it woke up my taste buds. If you’ve had fried pickles, fried kimchee has that same contrast of crunchiness outside and tenderness inside, but with that Korean sour-spicy-sweetness that balances out any heaviness.
At $5, each order comes with a garlic Sriracha ranch dip that takes it up so many levels. It goes well with a beer or a cocktail. If you’re with friends, order more than one because it’ll be gone fast.
— Joe Guinto
1820 Algaroba St.; 200-0514
Kokohead ahi dip loaded with sweetness, spice
Kokohead Foods Ltd.’s Smoked Ahi is irresistible, with its blend of flavors and textures, including ahi, smoke, oil and lemon juice.
Secret weapons of umami and spice include molasses, onion, anchovies and tamarind in this brand, a product by the owners of 12th Ave Grill.
You can get the spread on bruschetta at the restaurant, but no need to dress up to indulge; it’s available at Tamura’s, R. Field/Foodland and other local groceries, and it’s great on lavosh, at about $7 for 8 ounces.
— Elizabeth Kieszkowski
Grilled banana bread is pure decadence
Offerings don’t get more farm-to-table than when the table is at the farm.
From the tomato-eggplant-pesto-topped Farm Pizza to the Grilled Veggie Salad with lilikoi balsamic dressing, the Farm Cafe menu is packed with delicious options that star Kahuku Farms’ produce.
But for those with a sweet tooth, the star of the menu is the Grilled Banana Bread topped with vanilla haupia and caramel ($5.50). Add a scoop of lilikoi ice cream for $1.50 and you have a dish of decadent contrasts — warm and frosty, tart and sweet.
It’s easy to miss Kahuku Farms while cruising through Kahuku, fixated on the shrimp trucks across the street. We may still debate Romy’s versus Giovanni’s versus Fumi’s when we want shrimp scampi, but I know where we’re going for dessert. The cafe is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, closed Tuesdays.
— Donica Kaneshiro
56-800 Kamehameha Highway; 293-8159; kahukufarms.com
Salads showcase the many faces of kalo
I love the food of chef Mark "Gooch" Noguchi. He cooks with a restraint that allows the inherent flavors of ingredients to shine, and the seasoning to punctuate and balance those flavors.
At Mission Social Hall & Cafe, run by his Pili Group, the kalo (taro) salad is my go-to choice. I love that the kitchen uses whatever variety of kalo farmers bring by, meaning the salad you get one week may be a bit different from the one you get the next, just as it would be if Mom or Auntie cooked it at home.
A version I had in late summer was a combo of ulu (breadfruit) and kalo, which educated me on the sweetness of ulu. Noguchi’s seasoning of sesame oil, garlic and a concoction called the Assmaster 2000 — his hack on inamona using macadamia nuts instead of kukui nuts, created on the mainland where there was no kukui — stands up well to the kalo’s starchiness. It’s hearty, healthy and ono. Available when kalo is in supply, for $3 (small) and $6 (large).
— Joleen Oshiro
Mission Houses Museum, 553 S. King St.; 447-3913
Liver treats kindle a serious case of puppy love
Bringing home two new puppies in the space of five months tends to curtail dining out. On the other hand, it’s a crash course in feeding our furry friends.
Hawaii-made Dog Diva dog treats have become indispensable to our puppy-training efforts. They are made by Wendy Mah of Sirius Puppy Training in flavors of liver, peanut butter, nacho cheese and barbecue. In puppy class with other dogs running around, all of whom are way more fun than any human, inferior snacks can fail to get my pups’ attention. Dog Diva treats never fail.
Of course, I had to taste them so they’d qualify for ‘Ilima coverage. I can’t claim to be as excited about them as the dogs, but they are perfectly palatable, if a bit lacking in flavor enhancers we humans love, like sugar and salt.
Made from all human-grade ingredients, they are available at Don Quijote, Petco and Keith’s Cookies in Kalihi for about $5.50 for 20 sticks.
— Stephanie Kendrick
Carnitas tacos reminiscent of best in taqueria dining
One of the first things I learned when my wife got pregnant with our first child late last year was to not question her cravings — regardless of how strange they might be.
Lucky for me, one of her most regular requests was tacos from Alejandro’s Mexican Food in Kalihi Valley. And not just any taco, but the carnitas taco.
The slow-cooked pork is based on owner Alejandro Alvarado’s family recipe and was perfected on the streets of Waikiki, where he also runs a late-night taco stand on the corner of Kuhio Avenue and Nohonani Street from 1 to 4 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Unlike Mexican restaurants on Oahu that somehow manage to get away with faking the funk, the carnitas at Alejandro’s conjures up fond memories of post-midnight taqueria expeditions during my college years at the University of Southern California. Packed with flavor, the pork at Alejandro’s is finished on a flat-top grill to provide just the right amount of crispiness and topped with freshly chopped onion and cilantro.
Add a twist of lime and a hit of homemade salsa made from another Alvarado family recipe and you’re all set, for $2.50 per taco. I can’t wait for my daughter to be old enough for me to introduce her to this goodness!
— Jason Genegabus
2831 Kalihi St., Kalihi; 777-0038; multilatinfoods.com
True buttercream perfect crown on Cake Work’s caramel cupcake
I hail from the camp that thinks a cake really isn’t a cake unless there’s buttercream. Fondant, while loved by cake decorators the world around for its smooth sculpting abilities, shouldn’t be anywhere near a cake.
And when I say buttercream, I don’t mean the lazy concoction of powdered sugar and butter with a little vanilla and cream. Or the "buttercreams" made without real butter (a travesty).
A real buttercream – be it French, Italian or Swiss – isn’t impossible to make at home, but it can be a bit of a production with its hot sugar syrup carefully beaten into egg yolks or whites, and the slow incorporation of soft lumps of butter until it reaches creamy perfection. So I get excited when I find it done well at a bakery.
That’s where Cake Works’ Salted Caramel Decadence cupcake comes in. Constructed of a dense semisweet chocolate cake with a dollop of rich chocolate ganache piped into the center, it’s topped with a salted caramel buttercream that is just the right amount of salt and caramel without being overly sweet. Tiny chocolate gold curls crown the treat.
The buttercream is what really brings it all together. And I want to eat tubs of it. Instead, I settle for the miniature cupcake ($1.65). If you’re feeling indulgent, go for the regular-size cupcake ($3).
Tip: You’ll find the same rich buttercream sandwiched in the bakery’s Hawaiian salt caramel macarons.
— E. Clarke Reilly
2820 S. King St.; 946-4333; cakeworkshi.com