2420 Koa Avenue
Tel: (808) 922-2473
I admit, curiosity got to me when I saw the distinctive logo hanging from the banner outside this front entrance. For our readers familiar with Vancouver, yes, this is the same chain that operates the two outlets in the Canadian city, both on Robson Street, going by the name of Ezogiku Noodle Cafe.
Some more background… The Tokyo honten (main branch) of Ezogiku is a tiny ten-person counter joint, located in the college-saturated station area of Takadanobaba, and competes with many ramen-ya and inexpensive eateries for the tight student wallet. Offering a Sapporo-style miso ramen, Ezogiku has been around for over thirty-years and claims to be one of the first to bring true Sapporo miso ramen to the Kanto region. Forgive me, but my first and only bowl there was way back in 1997, but I can faintly recall that it was pretty decent, a mid-thickness crinkly noodle and a miso soup that was on the heavier side on the fat meter.
Waiola Bakery & Shave Ice
525 Kapahulu Ave
One of the several pre-trip, researched spots on my food adventures in Hawaii was Waiola. It was also noted by someone I know who has a residence in Honolulu that it was along the same road as some others I’d asked him about, so as far as location went, it was perfect.
In a pretty run down looking building, complete with some garish plastic banners and graffiti, Waiola is mainly about the shave ice desserts. Nothing more refreshing on a hot summer Hawaiian day. A few other customers came in while we were there, along with a delivery guy who brought in huge cubes of solid ice.
Stepping inside does nothing to improve the sense of it having a dated and in need of a refresh design. But this is part of the appeal of the place, knowing that despite its popularity and well known name, they haven’t plugged the money into expensive furnishings or makeovers. At the same time, they’re not avert to plastering the joint with pages from various media publications that have reviewed or profiled the place.
With anywhere from thirty to forty toppings and flavors, Waiola can probably meet any craving you have for a tasty shave ice. With its distinct soft, fine shavings, I tell you they are addictive. And you get none of that dreaded “brain freeze” from say a more liquidly-ice concoction. We tried a trio of flavors. Pictured above, the adzuki (Japanese sweet bean) and mochi (Japanese rice cake balls) combination. Easily the version among the three we ordered with the most interesting textures with each bite, and the sweetness was not too strong.
In comparison, this pineapple-flavored very basic shave ice was cleaner in taste profile and probably more refreshing as there was less to have to chew. The fine shavings once again proved to be excellent – and I enjoyed this one more than the one I had at Island Freeze days earlier, thus confirming that Waiola is one of the best shave ice joints on the island.
Lastly, another Japanese-influenced flavoring in the matcha with mochi provided yet another twist. Almost like a blended coffee-like drink as the flavoring was “heavier” than just the pineapple syrup of the other dish above.
So as you can see, this was just a sample of a few varieties of shave ice to be had at Waiola. I’m sure there are many more interesting combinations to choose from, and perhaps if you make a visit, you can try them out for yourself. If there are any readers who have any recommendations, please do leave them in our comment box for this post!
3308 Kanaina Ave
Tel: (808) 737-0177
With two of my friends who I managed to rustle out of bed after a busy previous day of driving around the island’s north shore, we took this walking tour up busy Kapahulu Avenue in our quest to find a few local eateries that I had previously researched and been told of by someone I know who has lived on the island.
But it was by pure luck that we also came across the Rainbow Drive-In, as it was not originally on my hit list. The lineup at the counter as we passed it while traveling northbound made us think we needed to come back for a visit and a brief inquiry about this place to a man in line resulted in him telling us enthusiastically how “amazing the food is here and that we had to try it out”!
After we completed our intended stops up the road, we did just that.
By then, about an hour and a half had passed and the massive lineup had subsided – in hindsight it was probably the lunch hour rush that we’d seen before. But all of the available tables nearby were still all taken and a few people were in line ahead of us and awaiting their orders at the window on the other side. A popular place is a popular place regardless of time of day.
Prices across the menu board were very reasonable. Mixed plates (barbecue, fried chicken, pork cutlets, hamburg steak, sausages, etc.) with sides of rice and salad came in generally at under $7. Hamburgers, hotdogs and sandwiches were also well represented and nothing was over $4. A few local tastes such as Mahi Mahi, Loco Moco and what they called a “bento”, were also available.
I found the naming of some dishes that were using Japanese descriptors such as the Shoyu (Soy Sauce) Chicken interesting, until I found out the long time proprietors of the business were Japanese-American.
Given that I’d already had a big bowl of shave ice, and a trio of Malasadas, and an ice coffee within the last ninety minutes, even I had to admit I was quite full already. But I had to make good on the promise to that man in the line that I would come back and at least try something on the menu. Pictured above is the Rainbow Special burger ($3.30). A cute little package, with the beef patties charbroiled, and sandwiched between a nice soft bun. Quite tasty too for what it was, a low priced basic burger. Throw in the aura surrounding this popular eatery and the generally good mood I was in on vacation, and it probably elevated my impression of the food.
If I hadn’t eaten as much as I had by that point, I probably would have gone for a mixed plate as well. There’s always next time, as I am sure I will be back in Hawaii again.
Vit’s Hawaiian Steak House
2058 Kuhio Ave
I’ve learned that I sometimes don’t make the best decisions when I am wandering around with no real intentions on my own in a new city. After a long lazy day spent at the beach, I decided to go for a walk after sunset and stumbled upon Vit’s Hawaiian Steak House, deciding that I should get something to eat for dinner before my other travel mates arrived at the airport later that same evening.
Adjacent to a hotel on the far west end of the Kuhio Avenue before it merges into Kalakaua Avenue, Vit’s has both a decent sized bar and dining area. A few of the tables and booths were taken by larger groups, and if not for the solo drinkers at the bar, I would have felt more out of place dining alone. As I was within ear shot of the bar, I overheard a few conversations that suggested to me they were regulars and knew the female bartender quite well.
Recognizing the surf and turf focus on the rather standard menu, I decided to take my chances and ordered the top listed entree, the signature Ono Steak, being Vit’s was proclaiming itself to be a steakhouse after all. As the above picture depicts, what came out on the plate looked like an oddly shaped/cut slab of beef, that was so-so tender.
Supposedly marinated in an Asian base of soy, ginger, etc. overnight, the flavour was just not as strong as I hoped it would be, and I almost regretted declining the offer of A-1 Sauce (which I despise and which seems so “American” to me). The accompanying slices of carrots were cooked but still too raw for my tastes, and the mound of mashed potato with gravy ended up being the best part of what was on my plate.
If not for the two tall pints of Kona Longboard Island Lager I had, I think I could have easily walked out of there disappointed and with an empty stomach.
Guess that makes it a double “ono” (oh no!) for me when it comes to meals with the Hawaiian word for “delicious” in the title.
933 Kapahulu Avenue
The story of this local Hawaiian icon weaves through a touching tale of immigration from far away lands in the late-19th century, family ties, hard work, and the origins of how this popular Portuguese confection came to the Islands. I always love hearing the background of ethnic foods/restaurants transplanted to other countries.
Leonard’s bake shop required a larger sized, modern facility in the late 1950′s, and has been in their current location on Kapahulu Avenue ever since. It clearly has that era’s old school feel to it, from the moment you see the overhanging rafter with a pair of benches to sit on to enjoy your purchases inside, if you’re lucky. The parking lot can get busy as well, and I even witnessed a fender bender between two cars that were jostling to use one spot.
The L-shaped counter where you place your order with the staff is filled with various baked goods, but I think most people are here for the Malasadas. These deep fried, doughy balls of goodness coated in sugar are obviously not for the health conscious among us.
In general, Malasadas don’t have that distinct hole in the middle like doughnuts do, but some do have fillings (at Leonard’s they had custard, chocolate and coconut). As pictured in one of the signs on the counter, this month’s special was Lilikoi (a tart-tasting grapefruit/passion fruit native to many parts of Latin America, areas in the Pacific and even Africa).
As they are freshly made in the back, once you give your order, they come out boxed and ready to go. I’d recommend you get a few of each type, those dusted with white sugar, cinnamon sugar, and some with the fillings, to get a taste of each type available.
I think this is a growing trend, mainly to increase revenues from other sources when a food brand establishes itself, and Leonard’s also had peripheral goods for sale, including t-shirts. There was one design my friend liked, but unfortunately they were out of his size.
Without a space to enjoy our bounty, our group walked down the street back towards Waikiki, and found the air conditioned comforts of a seating area within a Safeway store. The aroma emerging from the open boxes flooded the space and we got the attention of several neighbors, who no doubt knew what we had.
The light but slightly crispy exterior and the fluffy inside was still quite warm when I bit into my first plain Malasada. The texture was not as dense as I thought, which made for eating more than one in a single sitting quite easy. I found the custard-filled variety equally as pleasing, and the slight coolness of the filling provided a contrast to the warmth of the dough. Oh, and the Lilikoi one we sampled, was pretty good too. I think combined with my tasting of Lilikoi mustard at Puka Dog, I’ve become quite the fan of this exotic fruit.
1910 Ala Moana Blvd # 5
Tel: (808) 947-1000
I debated even bothering with this particular post since it was such a disappointment in terms of both the food and service, but in the interests of not only writing about those places I’ve enjoyed and the incredibly bizarre episode in just getting seated, I thought I should mix in the bad when it does happen…
Out of shear desperation and fatigue after searching with inaccurate information for a seafood restaurant apparently in the same general area, our group stumbled upon the bright lights of Todai. Having resigned to the fact we would not find what we were looking for, we approached the entrance of this restaurant. Todai, whenever I hear this word, I immediately associate it with Tokyo University, as that’s its popular shorthand name. We even joked, heck, maybe the cafeteria at that storied institution was so good, they’d gone the franchise route.
With about an hour before closing, several diners were making their way to the cash register at the main entrance. I ducked in and nabbed one of the servers and asked for a table for four. She said to wait outside for a five minutes, which I obliged, given the apparent rush at the counter of departing customers.
Five minutes soon passed and became ten. I had enough and stepped back inside and stood face-to-face with the same server I had initially interacted with. She looked right at me and asked how she could help me. Clearly this blonde haired, Swedish-accented English speaking girl (you can catch a glimpse of her in the above picture) did not recognize me at all. So I reiterated that we had spoken just a few minutes before and she’d asked us to wait.
No apology given, she grabbed some menus and led us to some tables and offered us the choice. As one of them had yet to be cleared from previous diners, we took the obvious clean one. As we settled into scanning the menus, some others came to clear the other table away, at which point Ms. Genius came back and asked if we wanted the other table now, despite us not having given any indication that we wanted that particular table. A shake of the head, more so in my disbelief and she was gone never to be seen near our table again, much to our relief.
I’ve heard of poor service due to labor shortages, but this was ridiculous.
Todai is all about the buffet. An extensive one yes, featuring various seafood and cooked items, as well as desserts. The place is massive with each food section located in different parts of the restaurant. Some are staffed by people creating the items (e.g. sushi) but you have no direct interaction with them, and most are self-service (e.g. take as much of whatever you like).
The nigiri, if you can call it that, was absolutely tiny. I am not sure if the image above gives the full indication of just how small each piece was. I’ve read more than a few reviews on other sites and comment boards that people enjoy the sushi here, and all I can say is that they have no clue what they are talking about.
The main exception to this rule was the snow crab legs. Here, a lady behind the glass barrier would give you one set of legs (3 pieces). Not wanting to keep going back and forth from my table a good 40 feet away, I asked her to give me more. Reluctantly she did, but I knew not to press my luck by doing it again. Instead, other members of our group went up there to her and got as many as she was willing to dish out, for the benefit of our table.
Again, not top quality by any means as there was more dead air space in the shell than actual meat, but I’d say it was the only half decent food item in the whole place, and I ended up eating only these.
I can’t begin to describe the wretched mess of cooked items. Dried out, overcooked shrimp, mushy grilled veggies, and bland tasting noodle concoctions were some of the big lowlights.
A place like Todai just reinforced the stereotype of quantity-over-quality preferring Americans. So it did not surprise me to learn that this chain originated in California, but was shocked to learn that it had made its way into more food conscious locales such as Hong Kong, Beijing and Seoul. For about USD30 per person, I can away thinking I got majorly ripped off.
International Market Place
2330 Kalakaua Avenue
Tel: (808) 971-2080
Open Daily 10:00am-10:30pm
Smack dab in the middle of the tourist and hotel district of Waikiki, is an outdoor shopping centre called the International Market Place that has its own little food court area.
It is a reprieve price-wise, from all of the other eateries and restaurants that market to out-of-towners milling around on the nearby streets. This eating area is no different in setup from any standard food court you find in a North American mall – only that the food tenants are all mom-and-pop and represent a wide variety of cultures. Surprisingly, no commercialized McDonald’s or Starbucks inside. Just rattling a few off from memory, I recall seeing food offerings that were Chinese, Korean, Greek, Mexican, Filipino, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Hawaiian, and a few others.
As reported earlier, I was already in the area and wanted something cool and refreshing as the summer heat was still bearing down hard and I needed to rehydrate some more after my quick meal at Ono. The photo above was taken after the sun went down, facing the main entrance of the International Market Place.
Now I’d heard of Hawaiian-style Shave Ice before coming to the islands (and got some recommendations from my Honolulu-based friends of some of the best ones to try during my stay – look for future posts), and I headed straight to the Island Freeze. I wanted to get a quick introduction to the various types and flavours that are part of this ice cold treat.
Here is a bare bones shave ice, undecorated by any other ingredients aside from some liquid flavourings. Island Freeze allows you to choose up to three flavours to add, and I went with strawberry, lychee and pineapple. As you can see, it came served in this flower-shaped, light plastic cup container, with a spoon and straw to help you eat it.
Now I realize its just ice, but the texture of it was different from say a 7-11 Slurpee or if you were to slash off fine layers of ice with a sharp blade. Its neither too flaky so the flavourings aren’t absorbed, or too soft such as in a Slurpee where the liquid dominates. I think its a combination of the way its shaved and the temperature of the ice that keeps it just so. The trio of tastes made eating this interesting, as you could just shuffle the cup around to another section and scoop up a new flavour sensation.
All in all, a very refreshing treat!
Ono Cheese Steak
2310 Kuhio Ave
Tel: (808) 923 8080
Taking in something from far away and making it one of their own seemingly is done many times over when it comes to food on the Hawaiian Islands. I suppose it makes sense given how remotely situated the lands are geographically from just about every other society on the planet. And of course, the reach of mainland America (e.g. military) and the influx of so many immigrants the world over that have infiltrated so many aspects of Hawaiian life, especially the food scene are also to “blame”. Finding cheese steak sandwiches in Honolulu was just another example of this phenomenon.
After doing a completely touristy activity by travelin out of Waikiki to do the hike at Diamond Head and checking out some beaches further west on Oahu island, the return bus dropped me off on busy Kuhio Avenue right in front of this establishment. Having not eaten yet that day (it was already the afternoon) and discovering that “ono” means “delicious” in the Hawaiian language and not the surname of an ethnic Japanese resident proprietor, I figured it was worth checking out.
Immediately at the entrance, there was a large board hanging overhead that listed the variations available. About a dozen choices were listed, split between those based on steak or chicken as the main protein. The standard toppings such as sauteed onions, garlic, cheese, etc. and my personal favorite mushrooms were all on hand. Heck, you could even choose to drop the meat and swap in spinach and have a vegetarian version. But from my recollection, nothing particularly Hawaiian in nature or a local taste twist. I believe there were three sizes as well, of which I elected to get the smallest one (7″), knowing I was going to venture across the street to get some dessert (more on that in a future post).
Apologies for the section missing from this image of my small mushroom cheese steak, but I had a difficult time snapping a shot without one of the employees who was working directly in front of me noticing. So I waited a while until another customer came in and she was distracted, but by then I had to take a bite. The bread had been lightly toasted, and the ingredients clearly fresh and hot as it was made-to-order. I could have used more cheese in the mix and perhaps more seasoning of the meat itself. [I understand that Ono's does have some that are pre-made and available for sale in other locations such as convenience outlets next to gasoline stands.]
I’m not sure though if it was the really hot weather or the fact that I was more dehydrated than hungry but I didn’t come away thinking that this was a fantastic representation of a philly cheese steak. Not that I’ve had the real deal in the City of Brotherly Love, but I’ve had pretty good ones in other places in continental North America.
And compared to the earlier reviewed and tasted Puka Dog, this meat in a bun was a far-back second place finisher, and had none of the unique, local taste combinations.
Waikiki Town Center
2301 Kuhio Avenue #2
Honolulu, HI 96815
Tel: (808) 924-7887
Hours: Monday – Sunday, 10AM to 10PM
Refreshing twists to orthodox food or dishes is a delicate balancing act when it comes to yours truly…
For some things, I am a devout traditionalist and really appreciate those who respect the “old way” and cringe at words like fusion, or “east meets west”. At other times, I am much more lenient with a chef’s creative inspirations and open minded to trying something “different” from the classic interpretation.
I can’t say I have a hard and fast rule to describe where this fine line exists, but it could be that it rests with just how “common” a food item may be. The more “everyday man” food it is, the greater the probability that I will accept a variation that is above and beyond the standard image I hold of it in my mind. Dear readers, would you say you hold a similar or contradictory mentality when it comes to “new ways of doing food”?
It was by just sheer chance that I came across Puka Dog while strolling along Kuhio Avenue. Previous to me stepping in front of the doors, I had never heard anything about this place and thus was unaware that it had a cult following and had received some press from the likes of the Travel Channel (as the manager of the store keenly mentioned to me when he asked what brought me to his counter).
I responding that the lettering on the glass window facing the street suggested to me it was something unique and thus curiosity got to me. The influence of Japadog in Vancouver probably got me thinking this way - another way of presenting and flavouring simple hot dogs? That’s something I just had to try.
The ordering process is your basic conveyor line approach. Walk inside and the cashier takes your order. Step one, choose either the Polish sausage or Veggie dog - the latter being a much thinner wiener from what I saw (and apparently harder to get cooked right in their grill). Next, select the heat level of the “garlic lemon secret sauce”: Mild Original, Spicy Jalepeno, Hot Chili Pepper, or Hot Hot Habanero.
Then the flavouring choices diverts into two paths: Tropical Relishes or Traditional (ketchup, mustard, regular relish). Not sure why you’d want to go with the latter, as that doesn’t really make the whole experience happen, but some in line I heard did. The Hawaii-influenced relishes include Mango, Pineapple, Papaya, Coconut, Banana, and Star Fruit. I elected to try the Mango relish and added a side that came in a small cup of the Hawaiian Lilikoi mustard, as recommended to me, and it indeed was a good match when pasted in with the small ice cream cup wooden spoon.
Watching the construction of the dogs is interesting. As seen from the above image, the buns first of all, are not your regular hot dog type. The soft texture reminded me of the delicious Filipino bread rolls better known as Pan De Sal. Each long single bun is wrapped in paper and literally pierced on one side down the middle (with “puka” meaning hole in Hawaiian) by placing it on this rack of hot steel tubes that look like mini missiles that heat and toast the core. The sausages are placed in a grilling deck that shoots them out once they are fully cooked in a nearby resting tray. The key here that really surprised me was just how evenly crispy the sausage was, even at both ends. Taking that first bite, it was like a cap tearing off the tip of the dog – great for crispy food lovers.
Once the bun is ready, some squirts of the garlic lemon sauce (from plastic bottles) and the relish (from the multiple relish taps that line the counter much like beer taps in a bar) is deposited in the bottom of the bun. Next, the wiener is inserted with some tongs, and then more of the sauces are added in from the top. With multiple orders, I could see how painstaking a process this is, in making sure you are putting in the right type of garlic lemon sauce and relish into each dog. Nothing worse than expecting a mild tone and finding an erroneous inclusion of hot Habanero sauce! Eating it feels very much like consuming a donair or Shawarma as you work your way down the bun trying to keep all the insides from dripping out of the paper envelope.
As much as I enjoy your standard fare hotdog with ketchup, mustard and relish, this Puka Dog was so unique not only in its flavoring combinations but the texture and cut of the bun and the all-around crispy wiener, that makes me proclaim that perhaps its my new favourite type of hot dog. I only wish they had an outlet on the west coast of Canada. If you are ever on Oahu, or Kauai (their first branch), I recommend you give it a try as the hype is well deserved! Oh, and don’t forget the fresh squeezed lemonade.