Maybe you haven’t noticed, but the loco moco has become an object of obsession over the past decade — to the Japanese.
The height, breadth and girth of the dish, the audacity of layers of messy ingredients, the decadent pool of brown gravy topped with a fried-egg-yolk eye staring back at you, has runaway appeal to imaginations generally tamped down by generations of decorum and finesse. In Japan there is poetry in cuisine, which is very different from the American pursuit summed up here as “mo’ biggah, mo’ bettah.”
740 Kapahulu Ave. (at Kamuela Avenue)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
Cost: $10 per person
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Meanwhile, Japan’s pursuit of simple elegance is evidenced by tidy mounds of sushi, compact domes of bean paste-filled mochi and the delicacy of mousse-filled cakes in miniature.
But, once they’ve seen and sampled the vaunted loco moco, what’s left? While there’s no expiration date for enjoyment of the basic hamburger patty loco moco, there is fatigue in the “same old,” so it doesn’t take long for a hunger for the next big thing to set in.
Chefs have been happy to offer up their enhanced versions of this local staple to keep the fascination alive for residents and travelers alike. These would include a short rib version at Moena Cafe in Koko Marina Shopping Center; a sous vide filet mignon, Hamakua mushroom and foie gras loco moco at Japengo in the Hyatt Regency Waikiki; a smoked meat breakfast loco moco at Holoholo Bar & Grill; and prime rib loco moco at Yogurstory. One other prominent restaurant is working on an Italian adaptation. Details to come.
For most of these places, one loco moco on the menu suffices, but a new cafe puts the spotlight on eight variations of the loco moco daily. Chef Keola Kanamu came up with 30 iterations for Aloha Terrace but left it up to the cafe’s owners to choose those that made it onto the daily menu. The others will appear from time to time as specials.
Kanamu said every dish is a reflection of the things he likes to eat: “I make every dish as if I’m going to eat it myself. Otherwise, why bother serving it?”
The Aloha Loco Moco is the local classic. Elsewhere on the menu, you will find prime rib, plastic fork-tender braised short ribs, curry stew, beef stew and more to replace the original ground beef patty.
It’s enough to make those with weaker stomachs groan, but don’t knock it until you try it. With his classical culinary education, Kanamu starts all his dishes from scratch, and there’s delicacy to his brown gravy that’s not all salt and cornstarch, or powder-based as may be the case at fast-food outlets. I’m also not generally a fan of runny local-style beef stew and curry, but Kanamu’s full-bodied stews are an exception. Tender beef, potatoes, carrots and onions all maintain their fresh-from-the-market integrity rather than being reduced to mush as is often the case elsewhere.
The price structure is easy to remember. For now, every plate is $10, drink included, with choice of white rice or kim chee fried rice, plus a choice of spaghetti pasta salad or tossed greens. The fried rice is stellar, with the saturated flavors of kochujang, kim chee, Sriracha, garlic, onion and a bit of sesame oil and bacon bits.
THE NEW restaurant is on Kapahulu Avenue across from American Savings Bank and Bank of Hawaii, near the Hunter Street/Kamuela Avenue intersection. It’s in the former Thai Herb Kitchen space, which has gone from a bright green to stark white exterior. Inside, there’s more clean white punctuated with Heather Brown’s stylized Hawaii, surf and nature-oriented artwork on the walls.
If you’re not in the mood for loco moco, half of the protein choices are available in plate-lunch form, sans egg and brown gravy. Other plate-lunch options are misoyaki chicken, mochiko chicken and mochiko beef.
Some dishes are nostalgic odes to area restaurants no longer around, said Kanamu, who grew up in Kapahulu and still makes his home there. The misoyaki chicken and short ribs, for instance, are inspired by Good to Grill. The miso glaze of the misoyaki chicken doesn’t have as much of an impact on chicken as on fish, but I appreciated the light hand. The mochiko beef, a sort of chicken-fried steak infused with teriyaki flavor, is a nod to long-gone KK Plate Lunch. It comes with wasabi sauce for extra kick, but if you prefer a different flavor, Sriracha sauce and other condiments are available.
Kanamu said some have complained about the size of the plate lunches before realizing the compact container still packs in the requisite two scoops of rice, just in compressed form. If you eat until it’s all gone, you might end up overstuffed, but the flavors make it nearly impossible to stop. Whenever I’ve eaten here for lunch, I’ve been able to skip dinner.
The restaurant is still in its infancy, with bare-bones staffing, but chances are the menu will grow, and I can’t wait to see what the other 22 loco mocos are about.
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yard House serving Nashville-inspired spicy fried chicken
From Tennessee to Hawaii, one of Yard House’s newest summer launches, Nashville Hot Chicken ($17.65), is bound to be a hit.
The variation on Southern fried chicken was inspired by executive chef Carlito Jocson’s recent visit to the city, where it is every bit the local institution that the loco moco and laulau are in Honolulu.
According to area lore, Thorton Prince was served fried chicken doused with extra pepper as punishment after a late night out on the town, but he enjoyed it so much that he and his brothers perfected the recipe and opened Prince’s Hot Chicken in the mid-1930s. It’s still going strong today.
I can see why. For one thing, who doesn’t love fried chicken? This is a twist on the fried chicken and waffle idea, the waffles swapped here for a trio of small sweet potato pancakes.
I also love spicy food, and this combines chipotle and pepper with a crisped exterior, and sour honey hot sauce to help cut some of the heat. It’s also served with ranch dressing and pickles, and topped with crisp sage.
Wash it down with a quintet of new cocktails, including Blood & Smoke, a blood orange and ancho chili-spiced margarita. See the full list at honolulupulse.com/takeabite.
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