Izakayas: Nonde Nonde Nonde!

Nonde, in Japanese, means to drink. According to my F.O.B friends and others who have lived in Japan, there is no one that drinks the way Japanese businessmen do. These guys love to drink so much so that it’s customary for a salariman (Japanese for businessman) to keep a card with his address on it, on him at all times. That way, in the event he gets too hammered to make it home, all one has to do (like the cab driver for example), is stick their hand into the guy’s coat and get a hold of that card. Either that, or they stumble back to their offices to sleep under their desks until the start of another work day.

It’s no wonder how the Japanese have developed an amazingly ingenious dining concept: izakayas.

Izakayas are Japanese pubs. But it’s not just about drinking. You need food, otherwise, it’s not an izakaya.

The formula’s simple.
Decent drink + good food + the warmth of friendship. An izakaya puts food in the center of the table for all to share, as eating is social.

Honolulu has been fortunate enough that we’ve imported the izakaya concept straight from Japan.

I love the concept so much that a large portion of this blog will be dedicated to exploring the many different ones HNL has to offer.

Today, it’s all about Aun, my very first izakaya experience. Located in McCully Shopping Center, it’s a hidden little gem tucked away behind the staircase on the ground level.

It was a month before my 22nd birthday and The Korean wanted to take me to this new place she had tried. Sheltered and not as town-savvy, I looked to The Korean for places to go in those early days. I couldn’t stomach natto (sticky fermented soybeans), to save my life, forget even knowing what an izakaya was. Now, I annihilate natto like I’ve been deprived of food for days and order Ichiko bottles (Japanese shochu) without feeling like an alcoholic. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do! Anyway, if you can’t finish the bottle, you simply write your name on it and ask the bartender to keep it on the shelf and save it for next time.

Flanked by Ichiko bottles, my friend Solana holds back from the food long enough for me to snap a pic. Some favorites included in here are the fried baby octopus and cucumber served with a miso paste.

Just a note of pre-caution: Izakayas aren’t generally known to be places for cheap eats. With expensive ingredients, like certain seafood, being popular menu items, it’s rare to find a cheap izakaya. If you do it right, expect a bill for two to be at least $100.

Totally worth it, though, if surrounded by good company.

What to expect in future posts: Izakaya Gaku, Izakaya Naru and its quirky Natto Ice Cream, and Kohnotori.

The Story of a Ramen Connoisseur

It started over a year ago on a gloomy November day as we slurped up the last of our noodles at Yotteko-Ya in McCully Shopping Center.

Trent: “Yotteko-Ya possibly has the best quality ramen noodles-wise that I’ve tried so far.”
Me: “Noodle quality, seriously? Noodles are noodles.”
Trent:”No way, cuz Goma Tei’s noodles SUCK.”
Me: “Easy there noodle expert.”
Trent: “You know it. I’m gonna conquer all the ramen shops and become a ramen connoisseur.”

And so began our conquest, which is on hold for now due to my friend’s new goal to “get fit”, making the beloved starch-heavy noodles sitting in hypertension broth a frivolous deviation.

If only I had known I was going to start an expert food blog a year later, I would be able to spoil you with succulent pictures of all the hearty ramen I’ve tried, the egg noodles sitting in all of its glori-ously rich broths. You’d be able to almost feel the steam from the bowl on your faces, and feel the fatty chashu meat melt in your mouths.

For now I can only provide you with individual restaurants’links to Yelp, which does my job for you. Tenkaippen on Kapahulu, Goma Tei at Ala Moana (never mind what my friend says about their noodles, their Spicy Tan Tan hits the spot), Goma Ichi on Ke’eaumoku, the ramen stand at Shirokiya, and Yotteko-Ya.

All worth a try, but so far the one I hold nearest and dearest to my heart and taste buds is Yotteko-Ya. Perhaps because it was where it all began, or maybe because the Kyoto-style ramen, specifically the Tonkotsu Paitan, is just plain awesome.

My Date with the Wine Sommelier

All things considered, I thought I might actually like him. He was tall, cultured, polished, intelligent, and driven. But for some reason, our connection lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. Pourquoi? If I knew the answer to that…

He was a foodie, just like me, which made the process of picking a place to eat less of a frustrating event and more of a fun way to pass the time. He decided on Salt, a trendy and relatively new restaurant in Kaimuki.

The meal began with complimentary glasses of champagne (I wish I knew what kind) sent over to our table by Salt’s general manager. A great way to start the evening, it only got better with each dish that was placed on our table.

Foie Gras "PBJ" with cashew butter, fresh blueberries, and the traditional buttery-ness of duck liver

The pork stuffed calamari: not your average calamari

As we chatted over appetizers, he filled me in of a former life where he was an investment banker at Citibank’s Tokyo office. “I didn’t like the person I became. I was a real douche-bag.”

Then just as chance would have it, when he was at the top of his game, the sector closed, leaving him and hundreds of others like him, cunning, young, and making ridiculous amounts of money…jobless.

Our bottle of wine came. “I got my sommelier license in my time off,” he told me.

I watched in amusement (and I admit, a little bit of embarrassment), as he made sure the cork was still damp (“If it’s dry that means there’s a hole in it, meaning the wine wasn’t preserved well. Not being stored properly will make the wine vinegary.”) I averted my eyes to keep from laughing as he went through the whole production of swirling the wine and fully encasing his nose into the glass and breathing it in as if it were the last bit of oxygen left on the planet. He took a tiny sip and swished it around his “palette”, a word which I always felt like was a pretentious way to say “tongue.”

He nodded his approval to our server, where upon the server proceeded to pour half the bottle between the two of us.

Let me re-phrase what I said earlier. Our connection wasn’t lacking a certain je ne sais quoi. He was too je ne sais quoi. And as I write this now, I think I might know quoi.

"This is my favorite brand of wine," he said.

I sipped my wine. To me, wine has two flavors. It tastes like alcohol, or it doesn’t. Nonetheless, I do want to be able to know a good bottle of wine when I see one. So I actually soaked in everything he said, delving into different “notes” of wine, throwing around words you hear wine people use, like “bouquet”.

“I never understood what people meant when they said you had to ‘open up the bouquet,'” I told him. A tiny note of mocking sarcasm hovered in the air, sharply contrasting my otherwise polite-tone. I hoped he didn’t hear it.

He didn’t. Or maybe he chose to ignore it. I noticed the middle-aged couple sitting literally a foot-and-a-half away from us giving him the side-eye. I wondered if they, too, witnessed the wine sampling spectacle.

Still, he was a very interesting person to talk to and learn from.

“You’re like a human Google,” I said after he explained why tequila drinkers were such aggressive drunks. His explanation sounded like it came straight from a page out of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Just one of his many explanations given in that same manner.

“Tell me how to make bread pudding.” The waiter had just brought over our dessert.
He launched into what probably was a legitimate step-by-step explanation, I’m sure.

Salt's bread pudding wasn't as heavy as the traditional recipe. Sweet and light, the custard-like sauce allowed you to control the density and richness of each bite you put into your mouth.

But after seeing that, I figured I’d just leave the bread pudding making to the pros and tuned him out as I enjoyed my dessert.

All things considered, the evening was nice, the conversation flowed well, and the food and wine were excellent.

Sometimes one just needs to trust their je ne sais quoi gut feeling and leave it at that.

There’s No Place Like Home…Bar & Grill

“Almost there, it’s gonna be 4 of us tonight,” I text my good friend Chris as the taxi driver slowly makes his way down Kapiolani Ave.

“Gamsahabnida.” After handing our driver a generous tip, my friends and I walk through a back entrance into the well-lit room of Home Bar & Grill. I flag Chris down to say a quick “Hi” as he busily runs around, carrying plates of food and trays filled with beers and shot glasses.

He gives us a big smile and gestures to the only available booth left, where a “Reserved” sign is perched on the matte-black table. Along with 4 chilled Kettle One shots and Coca-Cola chasers to accompany them.

Let the festivities commence.

I see my friends’ eyes widen in sheer amazement and a small dose of healthy fear (the sight of shots arriving at a table before we do is a symbolic indication of how dangerous the night could get), and I smile and shake my head. That is so Chris, I think.

As the owner of the appropriately named Home Bar, Chris is the perfect host, welcoming each customer as if they were a friend coming over to his house to hang out. That being said, the bar’s atmosphere is a mirror-image of its owner: light-hearted and friendly. With numerous flat-screen TV’s that are always tuned into ESPN lining the walls, and dart boards, one would look at the interior decor of Home Bar and think it to be a popular hangout spot for obnoxious college students. But…

On our way to the table, I give a wide smile and energetic wave to the general manager and staff from Stage restaurant. My best friend, The Korean, spots her cousin across the floor, enjoying after work drinks with his engineering co-workers, and runs off to say hello. In the corner I see a few from the Hawaii News Now morning crew decompressing with raucous laughter and beers. Definitely not your average college scene.

Atmosphere and generous hospitality aside, the talk of the town when it comes to Home Bar &a Grill quickly elevates to feverish enthusiasm when the conversation shifts to the food menu.

Fresh raw ahi sprinkled with chazuke soup balls and green onions sits in a small pond of a wasabi and cilantro sauce. The negitoro is just one out of many menu selections patrons of Home Bar & Grill rave about.

My personal favorite, the Kim-Chee steak. You can hear the steak sizzling in its juices on the hot plate anytime a server brings it to the table from the kitchen.

We take the first shot and the burning sensation of the vodka coursing its way to my stomach reminds me that I had lunch 6 hours ago. To my relief, the sound of sizzling steak reaches my ears like a well-rehearsed orchestra as I see Chris make his way to our table with my favorite dish, the Kim-Chee Rib-Eye steak. Its symphony of bright colors tantalize me as my memory recalls in vapid anticipation the pianissimo of sour/spicy kim-chee abruptly brought to an end by the thunderous forte of steak juices and egg yolk bursting on my tongue.

“Chris, what else should we order? What else is good?”
I hear The Korean, but I don’t really process what she’s saying. I’m too busy poking my wooden chopsticks into the sunny-side up egg. The yolk oozes over the steak like bright yellow lava. This is all I need.

But to answer her question, Home Bar’s menu appeals to everyone because of its unique twist on familiar local dishes and the usual bar food. Tater tot nachos, Parmesan fries, kim chee fried rice, dynamite garlic chicken…the list is torturous as you browse the menu because you wish you had the stomach capacity to eat everything.

“Can we get another round of shots please?” My friend’s request cut through my kim chee steak dreamlike state like an alarm.

It’s Friday and I have delicious food in my stomach. None of us have work tomorrow morning. And I had just gotten word earlier that day that I scored an internship in the spring with KGMB News. What is there to be alarmed about?

As we toast the night, I do a quick panoramic scan through the tangle of raised arms and see the wide grins of my best friends. Feeling a warmth no amount of alcohol could ever make you feel, I let out a small laugh.

Then with a chilly splash, I dove into the turbulent waters of an adrenaline-packed Friday night under the Honolulu city lights.

Battle of the Breakfasts: Round 1

“Wait…did you just say BREAKFAST?”
It was a rhetorical question, but nonetheless the incredulous response I got when I called my girlfriend around noon asking if she wanted to grab, yes, breakfast. In the split second that followed her question, I was hit with a series of flashbacks from the night before as if my mind were an iPhone’s photo stream. Thanks to a birthday celebration and my #1 frenemy, Kettle One, all of the pictures were rambunctious and alarmingly more and more unfocused as I neared the end of the film. Grimacing on the phone I haughtily replied, “So what, is that a no?” She laughed.

An hour later I’m sitting with said friend plus one more (“Breakfast? Now? It’s almost 1!”), on a sticky wooden bench in Waikiki. The Sunday morning, er, afternoon sun beamed down on us as I groggily recounted the events of the previous night for them. We were waiting for a table at the highly popular Eggs N’ Things…projected wait time: 20 minutes of being hung-over in the hot sun. However much that calculates to.

Eggs N' Things blueberry waffle

Ribeye steak with grilled onions and mushrooms. Seen here with brown rice and two over-easy eggs.

The battle of the breakfasts is my quest to experience all things breakfast deemed worthy by word of mouth to see who gets the trophy.  So far, there are three contenders, which are the three most-talked about places in my circle of friends: Cinnamon’s, Eggs N’ Things, and Boots and Kimo’s. Round 1: Eggs N’ Things v. Cinnamon’s.

Cinnamon's Hawaiian Omelette, complete with kalua pig and lau lau leaves

Cinnamon's infamous red velvet pancakes are doused in a decadent cream cheese frosting syrup

Wait time for a table at Eggs N’ Things: 20 minutes
Wait time for a table at Cinnamon’s: 0

Scrumptious-ness scale (0 being morbidly disgusting-10 being food-gasmic)
Eggs N’ Things: 5
Cinnamon’s: 8

My $12 rib-eye steak plate at Eggs N’ Things was juicy…but if you put their steak and eggs in a styrofoam container and told me it was from the Blazin’ Steaks on University Ave., I probably would’ve believed you. That’s about a $3 difference of not-worth-dealing-with-Waikiki. The $10 blueberry waffle was as thin as a frozen Eggo waffle.

Cinnamons’ Hawaiian Omelette was like a really ‘ono Hawaiian plate lunch packed into…an omelette! Red velvet pancakes were sinfully pleasing for the first ten bites, then got sickeningly sweet.

Winner by unanimous decision: Cinnamon’s. Brownie points for their unique menu and blend of local ingredients. Only downside, they close at 2 p.m.

Although Cinnamon’s beat out Eggs N’ Things in the battle of the breakfasts, both defeated me in the battle of human v. food. I K.O.’d after both meals once I got home.

Boots and Kimo’s, you’re next.

Mexican in Hawai’i?

After coming home from a semester in Vegas where there was a Mexican restaurant within 3 miles everywhere one went, I found myself craving a fat burrito one day and wondered, where do I find legitimate Mexican food in Hawaii? While Oahu is a mecca of Asian eateries, it wasn’t until I came home from the mainland that I realized how lacking we are in the Mexican department. Take my buddy Trent as an example of how deprived Hawai’i kids are of authentic Mexican cooking.

Me: “I’m craving Mexican, where can we eat?”
Trent: “You want Taco Bell?”

After perusing Yelp, we found a small restaurant at the bottom of Wilhemina Rise in Kaimuki. Located on Waialae Avenue, Azteca is a small family style restaurant with charming Mexican decor, serving cuisine from Northern, Southern, and Central Mexico. Entrees include beef, chicken, egg and combo platters, side dishes, and desserts.

20111203-144428.jpg

Complimentary appetizer: tortilla chips with homemade salsa

20111203-144437.jpg

Chicken burrito served with beans, guacamole, and rice

20111203-144446.jpg

Enchilada mole with rice and beans

 

The homemade salsa was flavorful with a little bit of heat without being too spicy. My enchilada mole with rice and beans (and a heapful of sour cream) reminded me of what I had grown so accustomed to expecting while living on the mainland.

All in all, true to my local roots, I’m satisfied with Taco Bell on most days. But on the rare occasion that I want “real” Mexican grinds, I now know there’s a place for that too, and where to find it.

Other Mexican places on my list: Zaratez Mexicatessen, El Burrito, and BC Burrito.

For your entertainment, Trent’s Facebook status upon checking us in: “First mexican restaurant I’ve ever been to besides Taco Bell.” He’s 23 years old.