Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Hollering "Uncle" at Uncle Bo's

Baby Back Ribs

Back home in Baltimore, my "go to" place and general evening hang out is Woodberry Kitchen. I know the owner. In Honolulu, The Bob's "go to" place and hang out is Uncle Bo's Pupu Bar & Grill. He knows the owner and continually raves about it.

Doc Rhee, V, Christine and DJ Un-G are heading home tonight so the plan is to meet at Uncle Bo's and enjoy a farewell dinner. I've heard so much about this place and how good it is that I'm interested in checking it out for myself - and maybe because this is The Bob's "go to" place that I'm projecting too many of my own expectations on the place.

And when your expectations are so high, how can any place live up to them? Maybe that's just a recipe for disaster.

Spicy Tuna Wraps

As with many things in Hawaii, meeting times are kinda here nor there. The plan is to meet at 6:30pm at the restaurant. Some got there early, others (like me) got there later, like around 7pm. The restaurant was busy but not packed to the gills like I've heard it can get.

Those that got there early, ordered early. The rest of us got there and, well, did a lot of waiting.

In short, our waitress was atrocious. Absolutely, unbelievably horrible. If it wasn't a general ignorance about the food and the ingredients, it was the inattentive/poor service that took a long time to ask for our drink orders and God Knows When we might actually be able to order something to eat. The girl would disappear for extended periods of time. Maybe she was serving others, maybe she was blowing one of the kitchen staff, maybe she was having drinks at the bar - whatever she was doing, it certainly wasn't attending to her tables.

Opakapaka Chiang Mai

Granted our table of eight expanded and contracted during the time we were there. Early attendees ate then left. The rest of us arrived and waited. I can understand some level of concern about who is who, but it requires the server to actually come to the table to see who has departed and who has arrived for anything to happen.

Then, when we finally were granted the opportunity to order drinks, we were required to hand over our credit card to "open a tab."

Sorry, but I'm here to eat at a restaurant, not drink at the fucking bar.

I can understand being asked for a credit card to open a tab when I'm standing at the bar, but when I'm sitting at tables with friends for table service??? That's some audacious bullshit in my book - and a guarantee that this will be the last time I subject myself to this kind of "service."

Opakapaka Chiang Mai

So, the owners have a hip and happening spot that's mindful of their guests' credit cards, will they be as mindful of the food they serve?

I'm interested to know more about the appetizers, specifically the fried oysters - are they fresh or frozen? Fresh, the waitress assures me. Where are they from? She doesn't know. She looks like a deer in headlights. She stalls. She hems and haws. How about asking the kitchen, I suggest.

Is it me or am I asking too much in expecting the server to know the origin of their food? Or at least to go and ask the kitchen of their own volition? Instead, I get the feeling that perhaps she thinks I'll just drop the question altogether alleviating her need to actually work.

Wok Fried Sweet Chili Calamari

By this point, some other appetizers have hit the other parts of our table. Items like the Thai-Style Steamer Clams and Ahi Poke. Sree warns me that some of the food here tends to the sweeter side of things and to watch out for that. I taste the clams and they're decidedly sweet. Sweetness can indeed be cloying in savory dishes, but this isn't just cloying, it's pretty darn sweet. Almost in your face sweet.

I ask the waitress for a recommendation. A fish recommendation since that's what I'm in the mood for. I don't know why I'm doing this because my faith in our server has already been lost. Maybe I'm just a masochist. She recommends the Baked Opah Mauna Kea and I ask her if it's sweet. She doesn't quite understand. I re-phrase the question, asking if the sauce with the fish is as sweet as the clams. She acknowledges that it is. Drop that selection.

House Mixed Greens

Falling back on something less risky, I ask her about the Roasted Garlic Ribeye Steak. Where is the beef from? Is it commercial? She doesn't know. Again, we play fifty questions before she goes off to ask the kitchen. Christ, maybe I am expecting too much. She returns sometime later with an answer: it's from Washington. Gee, glad we got that question answered. I give up trying to ask more and just order the steak.

Fresh Made Ahi Poke

The fish in the ahi poke is actually quite nice. Good quality tuna seasoned nicely. The problem is that it's more vegetable salad than ahi poke. There's more of everything except the fish. When you get it, it looks pretty sizable and you think you got a deal for ten bucks. Then you realize that it's mostly vegetables and hardly any fish and suddenly that great deal looks pretty lame.

Fried Oysters

From there, it was more of the same. The baby back ribs were just lame. Boiled ribs, slightly charred but the seasoning just doesn't do anything for the ribs. They fall short. I'm glad it wasn't my order. House Mixed Greens? Boring. I'll pass. The Opakapaka? Also too sweet. Pass.

The highlights were sweet calamari. They were actually good with a nice balance of sweet to spice. And the tuna wraps were interesting. Not too memorable, but in this dinner of memorably bad, that's a good thing.

Finally, my food arrives. Now, I had ordered the Fried Oysters from the Pupu menu and I fully expected them to arrive before the steak. Unhappily, they both arrived at the same time. WTF?

Garlic RibEye Steak

I took a moment to ponder why our waitress decided to order/fire both courses at the same time. It's just stupid and makes no sense. I thought for a moment about sending one back or asking her about it, then decided against it because it would only raise my ire - and I'm trying to enjoy an evening out with friends.

The oysters were fried nicely but were extremely watery - not the briney-ness you'd expect but watery. Maybe this is just punishment for ordering oysters in the summer months. But can't say they were bad though. Dip it in the cocktail sauce and it helps.

The steak, on the other hand, was a disappointment. Not because it was bad (it tasted decent enough) or that it was improperly cooked (it came out a nice medium), but the roasted garlic overpowered everything else, clashed with the flavor of the steak and seemed contrived and overly gratuitous. It was like someone thought they were being cute and clever by dropping a crapload of roasted garlic over a cooked steak and charging more for it. The garlic was burnt, bitter and paired horribly with the steak.

It would have been so much more successful if the kitchen stayed with simple: salt and pepper to season and simple grilling. Please, stop trying to be clever and go with simple.

Uncle Bo's
559 Kapahulu Avenue
Honolulu, HI 96815

Chocolate Haupia Pie

The Chocolate Haupia Pie at Liliha Bakery

Today, Christine had a hankering for the Chocolate Haupia Pie from Ted's Bakery. The only problem is that Sunset Beach is far away. But never fear, a quick phone call to Ted's revealed that we could find there pie at area outlets like Long's Drugs, Safeway and Foodland. As I enjoyed a coffee and hung out with Charles Nelson at his Downtown Coffee on Fort Street Mall, Christine and DJ Un-G ran off to Long's to find her pie.

No luck.

No problem, we'll just head over to my old neighborhood Safeway. Again, no luck. Frick. Now we were stuck. Sunset Beach was still too far away so after a bit of thinking and consternation, we decided to check out and see if the famous Liliha Bakery had what we were looking for.

Liliha Bakery. It warms the heart. But it's weird because whenever I think of bakeries (or pancakes, for that matter) Liliha Bakery doesn't normally come to mind as quick as other places, but the food is always good and comfortable.

Leftover Pie.

While the rest of Honolulu lines up for coco puffs, rolls and other assorted goodies, the three of us take a seat at the long coffeeshop counter. Happily, Liliha Bakery offers their own version of the Chocolate Haupia Pie and they offer a pie of the day by the slice at the counter. The problem? Today is not the day for the Chocolate Haupia Pie by the slice.

As we chat with our waitress we're able to order a whole pie that she'll cut up in slices for us. The whole pie is nine dollars. It seems like a lot, but there's five slices per pie and the by the slice price is $2.50. That's $7.50 for three slices or nine dollars for the whole thing - not bad.

This pie is good. Pretty darn good. It's fluffy as all hell though, and that's a bit unnerving, but it is good. However, if you're looking for the Ted's Bakery version, this one is vastly different. Liliha's version has just a thin layer of chocolate sauce (I'm betting it's Hershey's) under a thick layer of a haupia cream of sorts, topped with whipped topping. It's delightful but quite different than the equal layers of chocolate pudding and haupia that Ted's makes.

In spite of the difference, this pie is good enough for small second slices and lots of coffee. In fact, it's great with coffee. Not to mention the really good looking food that's being made by the short order cook. It's been years since I ate at Liliha Bakery but the pancakes and french toast deserve further investigation.

Liliha Bakery
515 N Kuakini St
Honolulu, HI 96817

Spro Honolulu

Old dreams die hard.

Ever since I arrived last week I've been having a bit of a crisis. Ever since I left Honolulu at the end of 1995 I've regretted it and always looked forward to moving back. It's only been these past few days that this desire has been challenged.

I don't know what I would do if I lived here again.

Since I don't work easily with others, going to work at some company seems out of the question. And going back into the movie business is certainly not my first choice in life, so I'm faced with the question of: "what would I do here?"

The obvious thing is to go into business and open a coffee shop here in Honoulu. God knows this city needs good coffee and He knows that I'm capable of doing it. But, is that really what I want to do? Is it really my calling?

For the past twelve years or so (ever since the old days of Havana Cabana), I've always thought the building on Nu'uanu Street would make for a killer club or restaurant or some kind of venture. With it's old styling and cool design, it could be the new hip and happening spot. Women would flock to my side. Men would follow my commands. I could become a minor deity.

In 2004, that old, abandoned building collapsed. All that history and all of my dreams of deification fell with that building. My hopes and dreams were dashed.

Fast forward to 2008 and today where I've happened across that old building and they've build a new one in it's image. It's a gorgeous throwback to old world Honolulu and looks sexy as all hell. Suddenly, my dreams of women and deification came back from the dead. I must take over that property.

So I called the landlord to inquire about the cost. $2.55 per square foot. That's $30.60 in East Coast terms. Good Lord, becoming a deity doesn't come cheap! Inside there's space for an espresso bar, a roaster and lab space for my mad-scientist experiments.

Ah, who knows? Maybe sometime soon you'll find an invitation in the mail for the grand opening of Spro Honolulu...

Pho 97

Spring Rolls

I didn't really learn to understand pho until about ten years ago with Doc Rhee in this very place. The guy is a pho phanatic. Me? I had no idea. To me, pho was some weird noodle aberration from Vietnam, not the proper Japanese ramen that I preferred. I think the first time I went along with it because Rhee spoke so passionately about it and I had nothing else to do that fateful morning.

Back then, I was the guy passed out snoring and half-naked on the lanai futon after late nights of partying for several weeks at a time between film gigs. In those days, we'd shoot a movie for a few months, make out like bandits and then travel for a couple of months. At some point in time, I would find myself in Honolulu crashing out on the futon at the house that The Bob, Rhee and Sree shared while they were still in their medical residency.

Iced Vietnamese Coffee

This time, we're back at Pho97 with Rhee, V., DJ Un-G and Christine and the pho is as good as it ever was. Over the years, I've come to realize that pho is something unto itself. It can be deep, mysterious and complex while maintaining a strong beefy character. For me, give me pho that's chock full of the good stuff: tendons, ligaments, tripe, meatballs and whatever odd bits and ends of the cow you have lying around. If it's tender and chewy, I want it.

The secret is in broth. It needs to be rich. Deep. Soul-satisfying with a cloying hint of spiciness, but not so much as to overpower the plate of additives. A squeeze of lime to punch the acidity. Some jalapeno peppers and chili peppers to give it punch and fire. Some bitter leaves (ngo gai) and sprouts to add complexity, with basil to round it all out.

When it comes to pho, I like a bit of a ritual. I want the raw beef served on the side so that I can season it up to my liking. A little black pepper, some soy sauce, a sprinkling of Sriracha chili paste and lime juice. I let this marinade on the side while I eat the pho and then enjoy it after with a small order of steamed white rice.

Special Pho with everything and raw meat on the side.

But I like to start off with a few spoonfuls of just the plain broth to see what it's made of. This is the ultimate test. The broth must carry the pho. Too weak and the whole thing falls flat - nothing can save it. Sad to say that I've been to more than one pho joint serving weak broth and it was just disaster.

After a few sips of the broth, I like to add the lime juice. Just squeeze it in, mix it up and taste. Does the lime brighten the soup? Does it make it come alive? It should. Then I'll chop up the leafy greens and add them in with the sprouts. Mix them up, let them mingle and taste again. The flavor should build in complexity, like an orchestra pushing a crescendo. The flavor should be whole by now.

Adding chili paste and the jalapenos are mainly to produce spark and fire. I don't like adding too much, just a little to make it pop, not sizzle. I like to eat and taste my pho, not try to consume it without it burning my mouth and tastebuds further.

As always, Pho97 doesn't disappoint. It's traditional Vietnamese pho. None of this high-tech, new wave re-interpretive kind of Asian fusion stuff you see going on else. Just simple ingredients properly prepared the same way in 1998 as it is now in 2008.

In other words, it's my kind of pho joint.

Pho 97
1120 Maunakea St # 176
Honolulu, HI 96817