Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Nico's at Pier 38

Lovely Lobbyist Jeannine

It was one of the recommendations made by Nadine Kam, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin's food critic, and brought up by Jeanine this morning on the phone. "Let's do lunch at Nico's." Cool. The only problem is that I didn't know where Pier 38 was.

Nico's at Pier 38. Sounds fancy, right? Sounds like a nice, table service kind of restaurant maybe along the waterfront. Well, it's along the waterfront but it ain't fancy and they ain't got table service. Nico's is strictly a plate lunch joint.

But it's a very good plate lunch joint.

Fried Ahi Belly with lomi tomato salsa

It's on the water and not too easy to find for the uninitiated. It's located on Pier 38 which is in a very industrial part of Honolulu - a part that I had never been to before, and next door to the Honolulu Fish Auction. Like a number of cities around the world, Honolulu is home to a real, bona fide fish auction. Every morning, fishermen come in with the previous nights' catch and a bidding frenzy ensures to buy the best of the best and since it's next door, Nico's ends up with some great quality fish.

We get there at noon on a weekday. The weather is sunny and beautiful. Since the pier was rehabilitated not too many years ago, it looks great. There's potted bushes lining the covered outdoor dining area fronting the warehouse space next to a fishing supply shop. Plastic tables fill the area and the place is jamming. Most of the tables are full, save one and we grab it. The crowd is decidedly mixed - not just fishermen and dock workers, but there's plenty of people in business attire and others hungrily waiting in line or devouring their plates. One thing is for sure: these people look happy.

Fish and Chips - beer battered and served with fries, malt vinegar & ginger garlic cilantro dip.

Nico's has the usual popular choices, like: Chicken Katsu, Hamburger Steak, Beef Stew and Loco Moco to satisfy the local palates, but I'm here to sample what they consider exciting and that's the fresh catch menu. As I get to the register, I ask the girl "if you had to choose between the ahi belly and the special, which would you choose?"

It's a tough and unfair question because today's special, an aku grilled and served with a tomato-based sauce, sounds delicious - but so too does the ahi belly. After a brief and agonizing moment, she suggests the ahi belly. Thank God, and slap on an order of fries and a Dr. Pepper with that too, please.

Grilled Aku Special

Ahi Belly. What a good thing. Fatty and delectable meat from the underside of the yellowfin tuna. It's rich and, well, what more could you want? Lightly coated and then deep fried, it's served with a light and acidly refreshing lomi tomato salsa that combines traditional aspects of Hawaiian cooking with something new. The fish is crispy and cooked perfectly. It's sweet and moist inside. The flavors are explosive. It's beautiful.

Served with steamed white rice and macaroni salad, it only needs a little shoyu for the rice and a little Tabasco for the salad. I can't get enough. It's absolutely delicious. A hit. A home run. I want to order another round but the generous portion means that I'm done. I can barely finish the plate.

Furikake Crusted Ahi with Ginger Garlic Cilantro Sauce

But it's so good and unlike many plate lunch joints, the portions are ample without being gratuitous. One of the problems in Hawaii is the growing rate of obesity and part of that stems from the extremely large portions being served at plate lunch joints across the islands. That unless your styro box weighs five pounds, you're not getting enough. Nico's servings are generous but not over the top.

And that's a good thing because you're left wanting more, like tomorrow.

Nico's at Pier 38
1133 North Nimitz Highway
Honoulu, HI 96817

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