Thursday, August 21, 2008

going to town

S. Smiles

Meeting up and going out with your ex-girlfriend is always an interesting experience. Some people have mastered the ability of remaining friends with their exes, others are unable to remain friends, I'm somewhere in the middle.

For whatever reason I've remained on good terms with my ex S. for the past sixteen years. Until this trip, the last time I saw her was on the day we broke up in 1992. How odd that we've remained friends. Through those years, she's lived all over: Atlanta, Chicago and now back to Honolulu. She dated guys, got married and then divorced when her husband cheated on her. Over the years, we would talk from time to time, eight months here, two years there and then a few calls somewhere in-between.

I still have her Ocean Blue CD she lent me to listen to in 1991. Don't tell her I still have it.

We went out last Friday and had nice (if a bit strange) time of it. We've both been busy this week and didn't have the chance to get together again until tonight. That's when she tells me she has to be home early, like around 9:30pm cause her "boyfriend" is coming over. Boyfriend? You could have told me that earlier.

It's 8pm.

Truth be told, boyfriend or not, I really don't care. If a girl has a boyfriend or someone they're seeing, that's not my problem. Maybe that sounds cold and unfeeling, but this is the real world and I've learned that none of that matters if they've agreed to go out with you. That's his problem. 'Cause I've spent far too long worrying about "respecting" that when there was nothing to consider.

If I really cared about getting her home early, I would have chosen a quick and simple place, like McDonald's or Zippy's. But I'm interested in checking out a place I'd been hearing about. A place that's concerned about the locality of their ingredients. A placed called town.

Located on Waialae Avenue in Kaimuki, town is a respite from the normal local food in Hawaii. It's a respite from the Hawaiian fusion that's so popular at the fine dining places. town is supposedly a restaurant concerning itself with locally produced ingredients prepared in simple fashion. In other words, it's my kind of restaurant.

When I pick her up, S. is wearing just a plain, dark blue t-shirt, baby blue shorts and slippahs. The simple, casual wear surprises me and catches me off-guard. I live on the mainland where girls wear lots of clothes when you go out. Her outfit is typical local girl and feels immediately comfortable - even though I'm slightly off-balance because the sheer casualness and comfortable-ness throws me off slightly.

Like most any joint in Hawaii, town doesn't blink an eye at our casual attire. It's a neighborhood restaurant with warm lighting and a psuedo-industrial, tropical feel to it. When we arrive, it's busy. Actually, I had checked Open Table earlier and discovered that they were pretty full but decided to chance it anyway. A table was opening but S. decided that we should sit at the bar - the view is better anyway.

Sumida Watercress, chicken sausage, carrot, daikon and chicken pate crostini.

Our bartender was this attractive Nepalese girl who had recently moved to Hawaii from New York City. Today was her first day and she wanted us to question her as much as possible about the menu. We didn't disappoint. After starting with a round of Italian Chianti, it was time to get into the menu.

Simple. That's the best way to describe town's menu. It's not extensive but it covers a lot of ground. After some discussion and suggestions, we start off with a salad of Watercress from Sumida Farm, chicken sausage and chicken pate crostini. The pate is tasty on the toasted bread and the chicken sausage is seared to a brown crisp. Me likey.

Even though it's been over a decade and a half since we've gone out to eat together, we fall into a comfortable rhythm and share plates. It's a better way to have a variety of tastes without the heavy commitment of single plates.

Our hostess comes up and chats for a bit and somehow our thread about her being my ex-wife who took more than half my fortune in the divorce and six kids (but only five are mine), but we're still friends begins. It would be a thread that would continue throughout the night.

house made mozzarella, eggplant caponata and basil.

After a few moments, the chef steps out to check on things. How is the salad, he wants to know. Good, but there's something strangely familiar about him. Wait a minute, I know that guy. Turns out Dave was the steersman for Imua Canoe Club in the late 90s when I used to come out and paddle with Imua. Small world. S. notes that some things never change.

Next up is the house made mozzarella with eggplant caponata. The caponata is good and a nice accompaniment to the mozzarella, which is mellow and hints of saltiness. Making homemade mozzarella can be quite difficult so I was really interested to taste their house made mozz.

Kulana Ribeye, Roquefort butter, french fries

Of all the steaks from a cow, the ribeye is one of my favorites. It's fatty and marbled and full of flavor. Give me the ribeye any day. Since there's two of us, our bartender suggests ordering the bone-in ribeye for two, but that's a bit too much for us to eat and we opt for the regular cut to share. S. asks for it medium rare, please - hmmm, maybe a reunion with this girl wouldn't be so bad afterall.

The steak arrives and it's brilliant. Carmelized and crusty, it looks delicious. One taste and I'm loving it. How refreshing it is to eat at a restaurant where the kitchen isn't afraid to liberally season the meat. The meat comes to life because of the salt. The flavor is delicious and robust. It is how steak was meant to be. Rub the butter in and grab some fries and it's bistro heaven.

Gnocchi, Hamakua Mushrooms, soft herbs, Pecorino Cheese.

In addition to the Ex Who Stole My Money thread, we touch on a world of topics, including the laden question of: if we were to get back together, would you want me to live on the mainland? The night's dialogue is flirty, light and full of implications.

Truth be told, I would be open to exploring a relationship with S. again. It's been a long time and we've grown into different people than who we were back in 1992. And while part of this is comfortable and familiar, there's still a lot to learn and explore together.

Finally, the gnocchi arrives and it's the best gnocchi that S. has eaten. It's good stuff, cooked just right. The mushrooms and cheese meld together into a tasty, smooth coating that makes the gnocchi irresistible.

Crepe Cake

I'm not sure what time it is, but it's way past 9:30pm. Probably closer to eleven and there's still no rush to leave. The crepe cake layered with whipped cream arrives and it's delectable. A pile of crepes layered with whipped cream - what is there not to love? It's light, fluffy and just right. A heavy dessert would only weigh us down.

The meal was delicious and worthy of all the accolades. As we bid the staff good night, we make our way around town and back to her place to drop her off. I'm leaving Honolulu in the morning but as I walk her to her door I have to ask if there was any truth to all the stuff we've touched on. Was it all just flirtatious fun or was there an underlying message to address?

Back in 1992, she had wanted a serious relationship but I wasn't ready for that. I wanted to go out and have fun. I didn't want to get serious with anyone. I was too young to handle that. But I couldn't lead her on, so I told her the truth and that was the end. Maybe things are still the same because she replied that she could never see me settling down with one person. No matter how much possibilities might lie between us, the fact that she believed that I could never be with just one woman meant that we were doomed.

Personally speaking, it pissed me off. I'm not the same person I was in 1992. But I didn't have the time left to change her mind. I think there's part of her that's bitter that we broke up back then and it's manifesting itself now. Who knows? Maybe they'll be time to change her mind the next time we eat at town.

3435 Waialae Avenue
Kaimuki, HI 96816

Hank's Haute Dogs

On Coral Street

I had been hearing a lot about Hank's Haute Dogs and tried going there yesterday afternoon, arriving only half an hour after closing. I figured that would be it, but as I was driving down Nimitz, I realized that I still had half an hour before closing and I could make it. I wasn't hungry. I just wanted to see what it was all about.

Hank's is a pretty non-descript place on Coral Street in the Kaka'ako industrial area of Honolulu. Actually, "industrial" is kind of a misnomer now. It's been under revitalization plans for the past fifteen years or so, and pretty soon it will be more urban residential and commercial than industrial.

As I walked it, it was pretty quiet. Just a guy working the register and a few cooks milling about, putting stuff away and getting ready to go home. The guy at the register was pretty friendly, welcomed me to Hank's and told me about what had already been 86'd. I told him that I really didn't want to think too much about what to order but give me whatever dog he thought best exemplified Hank's - and an order of fries. And a P-Cool Ginger Soda, whatever that meant.

His choice was his favorite: the chorizo sausage with fried onions, brown mustard and cilantro.

French Fries and Chorizo Sausage

As I waited around, we got to chatting. Hailing from Chicago, I noted that this place reminded me of Hot Doug's, of which Mike (his name) told me that his father and Doug were good friends and that they bought their sausages from some of the same suppliers as Doug. Turns out that Mike's dad is Henry Adaniya, the restauranteur who made his name opening Trio in Chicago. Evidently, Adaniya's family comes from Hawaii and it was his chance for a homecoming. He sold off his partnership in Trio and headed back to Hawaii to build a new future.

For someone who's been away from Hawaii for over twelve years, Adaniya's story resounded personally.

The chorizo came and it was time to get down to business. Meaty, spicy and tasty. Good stuff this chorizo. Balanced nicely with the onions and cilantro and not to mention the soft bun and this one's a winner. Plus, since it's so close to closing time, dogs are half off. That's a plus.

The fries were those really thin fries that are kinda popular today. They're not my favorite way of making fries. I like them thicker and meatier, but these were nicely done - though they could have used a little more salt.

Then there was the P-Cool Ginger Soda. I went with it because it sounded weird and it was, but only slightly. It had that ginger zing with a light sweetness and overall quite pleasant. Don't know if I'd order it all the time but it was different and sometimes different is preferred.

Chorizo Sausage - a close up

We chatted on about how business is doing, what's the restaurant scene in Honolulu like, how hard it is to find good kitchen help and the price of commercial retail space in the city (astronomical). They're working on plans to open more Hank's around Honolulu and hopefully to also takeover a space that has personal family meaning to them. Hopefully they'll get it.

Hank's Haute Dogs
324 Coral Street
Honolulu, HI 96813

Big City Diner Hana Hou

Cousins Kekoa and Sheleigh

I'm back once again at the Big City Diner. This time it's to meet up with my hanai niece Kristine, her sister Stephanie and their children.

Children??? Good Lord, I must be getting old.

When I first met Kristine, she was seven years old and one of the dancers in the halau I belonged. In time, I would rise to teach the keiki girls class and would grow close to Kristine and her family and eventually trained her for hula competitions. That was such a long time ago. Now, they've grown up, gotten married and have kids of their own who are ready for hula classes. Wow.

Kristine picks at her Teriyaki Cheeseburger without the cheese.

Once upon a time, Big City Diner started in a small location in Kaimuki serving good quality food and excellent Kim Chee Fried Rice. In fact, I'm convinced they built their empire (now with five locations on O'ahu) solely on their Kim Chee Fried Rice.

I remember the first time I went there sometime around 1999 and after the first season of The Sopranos. The Bob and I had just finished a five episode morning marathon of Tony Soprano when we decided to eat at Big City Diner. In addition to my amazement of the Kim Chee Fried Rice Loco Moco, I was in a different state of mind because of The Sopranos when I spotted some guy across the restaurant who looked like he was staring at me.

My first reaction was to stand up, put on a Jersey accent and yell at the guy "What the fuck are you looking at?" Good thing my sensible side immediately took over, reminding me that: this is not The Sopranos and no, that guy is not staring at you. Thank goodness sensible minds prevailed, I forgot to pack heat that day.

Stephanie and her daughter Syriah.

But that's neither here nor there. Since those days, Big City Diner has done pretty well for themselves, spreading their love of Kim Chee and meatloaf all over the island. It's where Kristine wanted to meet.

And a good choice too because it's kid friendly and a bit easier to find something for children to eat than Mariposa at Nieman-Marcus.

For the kids, it's hot dogs and french fries all the way around. For mom, it's a teriyaki cheeseburger with out the cheese and without the mayo. Kristine is oddly picky about her food - no cheeses. I could never fathom it. No cheese? Seems like a horrible way to live, if you ask me.

Calamari Tempura Strips - panko breaded with Spicy Garlic-Wasabi Aioli & Lemon

For me, it's another round of the Calamari Tempura Strips with the ever-present-in-Hawaii aioli of some sort or another. I've come to love these calamari strips. They done just right with a proper crisp and just the right amount of resistance in the meat. Lovely. I just wish I had something other than fancy named mayonnaise to dip it in.

In addition, I ordered the pulehu steak. After many years of living in Hawaii, I still don't get what "pulehu" means. I think it means grilled because that's the only option left. It's a simple New York stip sirloin grilled and slathered with onions. Scrape off the onions, add a bit more salt and pepper and you've got something to work with - if commercial frozen beef is something to really work with.

But it's not all bad. There's rice to go along with the steak and, in my book, that's something worthwhile. Living on the mainland means you have to live without rice. Luckily, it's plentiful in Hawaii. Make it fried and with Kim Chee and you can keep it coming.

Pulehu Steak with grilled onions, mushrooms and Kim Chee Fried Rice

The rest of the afternoon passed by pleasantly. It's good to catch up again since I hadn't seen Kristine in four years and I'm absolutely terrible at "keeping in touch." She's got two boys. Stephanie has two girls. They've grown up and I've gotten older.

At least I can make Kim Chee Fried Rice at home now...

Big City Diner Pearlridge
98-211 Pali Momi Street
Aiea, Hawaii 96701

Special K, Eggs and Black & Blue Ahi

Special K, Croissant and a Hard Boiled Egg, with Orange Juice

Once again, I'm alone again. All my friends have returned to the mainland and I'm holed up at the Acqua Coconut Hotel in Waikiki for another night. This morning I've decided to return to my usual retinue of lighter fare by availing myself of the free continental breakfast. Just some light stuff to start the day - especially since I can't decide if I still feel full from my dinner last night at Alan Wong's.

This trip has been like a journey down memory lane. It was nearly twenty years ago (August 24th 1988 to be exact) that The Bob and I moved to Hawaii to attend Hawaii Loa College in Kane'ohe. That first week I checked into the Outrigger Reef Towers on Lewers Street while I hunted for a place to live. Many years later that was renovated and converted into the Wyndham Vacation Resort Condos where we stayed during the first part of this trip.

Now, I'm in the old Waikiki Coconut hotel whose old restaurant Seibu Bistro was the first place I ever tried Black and Blue Ahi that changed my perspective on eating fish forever. In one bite, I was hooked. Ahi was it. Fish was the real deal. But I couldn't remember the restaurant for years after. Until today.

It's strange how some things come full-circle in life.