SEATTLE >> Kamala Saxton hasn’t lived in Hawaii since her family moved away when she was in elementary school. But when she uses the word “local,” she’s talking about the people, places and — especially — foods of the islands.
“Nothing is ever going to compare to my roots in Hawaii.”
Saxton and partner Roz Edison are the owners of a rapidly growing restaurant group, Marination, physically located in Seattle but spiritually planted in Hawaii, with such spirit guides as Portuguese sausage, malasadas, poke and the flavors of coconut and lilikoi. Oh, and Spam.
“With local folks I feel like culinary training begins the day they’re born,” Saxton said during an interview at her newest restaurant, Super Six, in Columbia City, just south of Seattle proper. This probably figures into her connection to our local comfort foods.
Seattle has 20-plus restaurants that bill themselves as Hawaiian or whose menus lean toward isle-style plate lunches. The Marination restaurants are distinguished by their reach — four sit-down restaurants, a food truck and a catering operation — and food that’s a clear cut above, delivered with a sense of humor.
The Super Six building was once an auto body shop, and its decor reflects that lineage in its furnishings and the sketches from old auto repair manuals on the walls. It was named for a 1940s-era Hudson Motor Co. coach.
Saxton’s grandmother worked at the Fort Shafter auto shop as a member of the Women’s Army Corps, and the mechanics left an impression. “I always thought those guys were the coolest guys,” she said. “I was obsessed with that shop.”
On the Super Six menu: French toast made with malasadas (or just malasadas filled with haupia cream or Nutella), a lovely lilikoi cream pie, pork belly musubi, ahi poke with macadamia nuts and kim chee sauce, served with brown rice crackers (poke rhymes with “okay,” the menu advises).
A Marination favorite is an audacious plate of Aloha Fries, what you might get if loco moco and poutine had a baby: fries topped with kalua pork, kim chee mayonnaise and a fried egg.
Saxton grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., and moved to Seattle after college because “I wanted to be close to local folks.” And she found many in the area.
In 2009 she and Edison launched a food truck, a refurbished UPS vehicle they dubbed Marination Mobile. The menu was a culinary mash-up of Saxton’s Korean-Hawaiian background: spicy pork, kalbi, kalua pork, miso-ginger chicken and something called Sexy Tofu — “to make the vegetarians feel special.”
“Spam sliders were the one thing that threw people,” Saxton said. An employee coined the phrase “Don’t be Spam-prehensive” to coax tastings of the sweet-roll sandwiches layered with Spam, coleslaw and chili sauce.
At the time only five trucks were on the road in Seattle. Saxton counts herself lucky for getting in at the beginning of what would become a 200-truck industry. Even the Spam eventually took off.
She talks about luck a lot, but it’s clear that guts and brains were also involved.
It its first year Marination, on the strength of its spicy pork tacos, won a national food cart challenge run by ABC’s “Good Morning America Weekend.” Business took off, leading to the opening of a Marination restaurant just 18 months after the food truck first hit the road. Two more Marination spinoffs followed, then a catering line and Super Six, a separate but similar concept open from breakfast through late night, with a full bar. Saxton and Edison are also partners in a new downtown bar, Good Bar.
“The truck was always part of a larger business plan,” Saxton said. A truck limits what you can prepare, the hours you can be open — and it’s relentless. “We worked every single day and night and weekend.” It can only be your life “if you never ever want to take a day off or have a family or have any kids.”
It’s been a whirlwind few months, so the partners might stand pat for a while. Saxton said she’s looking toward expanding a retail line of bottled sauces that includes Marination’s secret Nunya sauce.
Nunya? Because whenever someone asks what’s in it, the response is, “That’s nunya business.”
1 tablespoon granulated gelatin
1/4 cup cold water
4 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup lilikoi (passion fruit) puree, diluted if needed (see note)
2 teaspoons lemon zest
4 egg whites
1/2 cup sugar
1 (9-inch) pre-baked pie shell
2 cups whipped cream
Sprinkle gelatin over cold water and let “bloom” 10 minutes.
Prepare a double boiler: Fill a pot with 2 inches of water and bring to boil. In a metal bowl that will fit over the pot, whisk yolks, sugar, salt and passion fruit puree. Place bowl over boiling water, whisking mixture until thick. Remove from heat, add bloomed gelatin and lemon zest; set aside.
To make meringue: Whip egg whites with electric mixer at medium-high speed, until starting to froth. Slowly add sugar, continuing to mix until stiff peaks form, 5-6 minutes.
Fold 1/3 of meringue into yolk mixture, then add remaining meringue until all is mixed together. Pour into pie shell and refrigerate overnight.
Serve topped with whipped cream. Serves 8.
Nutritional analysis unavailable.
Variation: Use the filling to make a parfait in a tall glass (see photo).
Note: If you’re lucky enough to have fresh lilikoi, make puree by crushing pulp in a blender and straining the seeds. Frozen puree is sold at ChefZone and at R. Field Wine Co. shops inside some Foodland markets. Some commercial purees need to be diluted; follow the manufacturer’s instructions.