Barfly: Redfish Poke Bar presents crack seed flavors that rekindle small-kid memories
I may not be able to make it to Kaimuki for crack seed as often as I’d like these days, but I’ll happily reminisce with those memories over a cocktail at Redfish Poke Bar in Kakaako.
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I may have grown up in Kailua, but I’ve also spent quite a bit of time in Kaimuki during my 40-something years on this rock, and one of my favorite places to visit has always been the Crack Seed Store at the corner of Waialae and Koko Head avenues.
Along with bentos from St. Louis Drive In and burgers from W&M Bar-B-Q down the hill, the Crack Seed Store was a regular go-to for a bag of Chinese-style treats or a Coke-flavored Icee with li hing mui inside, all purchased from Kon Ping Young and his wife, who ran the shop for more than four decades.
Mrs. Young retired a few years ago, and New Year’s Eve marked the final day of work for her husband, who finally decided to sell off the business and spend more time with their family. And while the Youngs have said aloha to the neighborhood, the Crack Seed Store isn’t going anywhere — new owners have taken over.
Will the Coke Icee still taste the same after the changeover? I hope so. But I’ve also found a grown-up version of its nostalgic flavor profile, along with other crack seed-inspired cocktails, at the recently opened Redfish Poke Bar by Foodland inside Salt at Our Kaka‘ako.
THERE ARE many reasons to love Redfish. Obviously, the poke menu here is at the top of the list, with more than two dozen varieties of fresh seafood (plus meat and veggies, too!) served by the pound or in a customizable bowl. It’s the perfect mashup of a traditional poke counter and the trendy, photo-ready poke bowl craze that’s popular with the Instagram crowd.
But as a sign on the wall here says, “Poke in the front, party in the back!” Don’t ignore the hallways on either side of the poke counter at the main entrance, for they lead to the promised land that is Redfish’s bar and dining room.
There, Chef de Cuisine Reid Matsumura presides over a tantalizing lineup of small- and medium-sized plates that aren’t much of a stretch from the award-winning fare he previously served as part of the kitchen crew at the now-closed Home Bar & Grill just outside Waikiki.
If nothing else, be sure to order the okonomiyaki fries ($8) and kiawe-guava smoked meat ($13). The former is a great shareable item, while the latter should be sharable — but you’ll probably want to eat the entire plate yourself. Matsumura’s Super-Secret Double Probation Li-Hing Lilikoi Dipping Mix is vital, too, for the best experience. The guava wood Matsumura uses adds just the right amount of smokiness to the meat, while the seasoning gives it that sweet-and-salty tang that goes so well with a cold one.
Other winners on the menu here include the kalua pork fried rice ($14), pulehu short ribs ($16) and lechon kawali ($14). Although none of these dishes is groundbreaking, all are executed well and taste fantastic with the craft cocktails created by Foodland’s Oahu-born corporate mixologist, Matt Rosskopf.
YOU DIDN’T think I forgot about the drinks, did you? Rosskopf has hit it out of the park with a cocktail lineup that will evoke crack-seed flashbacks for anyone who grew up around the stuff. And it’s not just the booze — two nonalcoholic offerings at Redfish are more than satisfying enough for those on the wagon.
Remember the Coke Icee with li hing mui? When I took a sip of the nonalcoholic Li Hing Sher-Li ($6), I was transported back to the 1990s, driving my dad’s Volkswagen Vanagon and slurping up a semi-melted Icee while on my way to the beach, thanks to the white li-hing syrup that’s mixed here with strawberry syrup and Coke. Redfish’s shiso ume lemonade ($6) is another worthy offering for those who don’t imbibe.
My favorite crack seed-inspired cocktail from Rosskopf has to be the Rock Salt Plum ($14), made using the same white li-hing syrup that’s in the Sher-Li. Rosskopf adds Giffard rhubarb liqueur, tamarind elixir and ume to Brovo rosé vermouth and Hangar 1mandarin vokda to create what, to me, tastes like li hing mui in a glass. It’s sweet, salty and refreshing, all in a single sip.
Both the Lemon Peel Pisco Sour ($14) and Cane Fire ($14) showcase how the drinks at Redfish remain faithful to their classic cocktail roots, while also elevating them into the “craft” category with Rosskopf’s added touches. That li-hing syrup makes yet another appearance in the Pisco Sour, but it’s not in the forefront as much here, thanks to the Caravedo Quebranta pisco that does all the heavy lifting. I like how it tastes like the classic right until the last moment, when a hit of li hing bursts through, along with a citrus note from fresh lemon juice. The Cane Fire is Redfish’s take on a mai tai, which is elevated by smoking the glass first with guava smoke.
The jury is still out for me when it comes to the Momotaro ($14), which incorporates a Tomoe Ame rice candy syrup to go with Tito’s Handmade vodka and St. Germain elderflower liqueur as its base spirits. The sample I tried at a media preview wasn’t as much of a sugar bomb as the versions I ordered on subsequent visits, which was a good thing. It seems like this one can skew way too sweet if the bartender making it has a heavy hand.
I’m also happy to report Redfish appears to serve nothing but local beers on tap; Paradise Ciders hard cider and Ola Brew Co. hard seltzer are also available. A variety of wines and a couple of sake offerings round out the beverage program.
WILL REDFISH be your new Kakaako go-to for cocktails? Perhaps, but it doesn’t have to be. Some folks will only come here for the poke counter. Many will come to Salt for a meal without giving any thought to having a drink. And then there will be those who want to bar hop, thanks to the quality drinking options that already exist in the area.
Me? I’ll be back sooner than later for another reminder of what life was like when times were easier and I had few responsibilities. I may not be able to make it to Kaimuki for crack seed as often as I’d like anymore, but I’ll happily reminisce with those memories over a cocktail in Kakaako.