When I first heard of plate lunch—basically consisting of an Asian-influenced entrée, scoop of white rice, and scoop of macaroni salad—I thought, "That is what I want to eat every day." Okay, maybe not the mac salad as much (not that I'm against it; it's just not something I ever crave), but the Asian entrée? Yup. And the rice? Yes. A thousand times yes. Rice is my favorite starch. You know that moment when you open the lid of a rice cooker full of just-cooked rice and it releases a fresh poof of rice steam? I love that part—I take a giant whiff. And then relish my nutrient-barren rice.
The key to our plate lunch success was Stephanie Miwa. Stephanie is our friend Shannon's mom. Shannon wasn't actually in Hawaii—she's one of Kathy's roommates back in New York City and longtime friends from Honolulu—but Stephanie is so sweet that she didn't mind hanging out with us in her daughter's absence and being our tour guide for a few hours while driving us around the city.
Let the gorging begin.
Our first stop, Monarch Seafoods, ended up being my favorite of the day. I wanted to try everything on the menu—ahi sashimi salad, spicy firecracker chicken, garlic butter sauteed tiger prawns, pan fried butterfish, and garlic roast pork, just to name a few options—but considering we had hours of eating ahead of us and limited space in our digestive systems, we started with a mixed plate of deep fried poke and mochiko chicken served with scoops of white rice and macaroni salad. Only $8.45 for this heaping pile of food.
Poke is raw fish salad, usually made of Ahi tuna. Monarch Seafoods' deep fried poke consisted of huge Ahi tuna chunks, breaded and deep fried. Not much like a fish salad—just lightly crispy, meaty goodness. Mochiko chicken is made of garlic and soy sauce-flavored chicken strips coated in a glutinous rice flour-based batter and deep fried. The crust around the moist chicken nubbins wasn't all that crispy, but appealingly light and puffy with a hint of chewiness.
And with that, deep fried poke and mochiko chicken were added to my "FAVORITE FOODS" list.
We also tried a slice of homemade banana cream pie ($2.50), their only dessert. And they make that one dessert count: tender crust filled with creamy banana pudding topped with banana slices and a layer of whipped cream. WHAT'S NOT TO LOVE? (I've met people who don't like bananas. I guess...I guess I can accept that.)
Next up was Pongo's Kitchen. Their menu also got the salivary glands flowing, although perhaps not as much as Monarch's. Options included grilled ahi, grilled salmon, grilled shrimp, grilled tofu, fried chicken, sesame chicken, roasted chicken, and penne pasta in tomato pesto with different meat toppings. I quite liked their steps to ordering:
Step number five: CHOOSE A SEASONED BUTTER. Any step that involves choosing a butter is a good step.
We didn't get seasoned butter on our mini grilled short ribs plate lunch with brown rice (brown!—we wanted to mix things up) and macaroni salad ($5.75), but I think there's some creamy garlic sauce on top. While certainly not a bad combination, there was no way the short ribs could beat fried fish and mochiko chicken. And I think I was distracted while eating this because I still had fried fish and mochiko chicken on the brain. Oops. If I could go back, I'd want to try the guava chicken. Drizzled in spicy butter.
The next stop, Ethel's Grill, wasn't a take out lunch place like Monarch or Pongo's, but more like a greasy spoon diner—one whose menu includes sashimi, saimin, chicken katsu, garlic pork chops, teriyaki burgers, and other dishes that I'll never find all under the same roof in New York City. I weep. I like that their "Morning Special" dish is miso soup simmered with vegetables, tofu, and egg, served with rice. That kind of breakfast would make me so much happier than bacon, eggs, and pancakes—a combination that may be satisfying for the first few bites, but by the end turn me into this cat:
...With less fur.
To preserve stomach space, we went the snacky route with a teriyaki burger (only $1.50—whoa). The teriyaki sauce-slathered patty was hot (temperature-wise; there was no spiciness) as hell, and methinks the burger being wrapped in a plastic baggie accelerated the lettuce wilting process and increased the area of sauce slick-age over the bottom half of the soft white bun. I mostly remember the patty being quite mushy and hot (it just didn't want to let go of its heat). Enjoyable, but surely not an optimal teri burger experience.
Looking back, I don't know why I didn't try their tataki sashimi: lightly seared tuna on a bed of bean sprouts, drizzled in sesame oil and garlic-shoyu sauce. SWEET JESUS IWANTTHATNOW.
Next up: Mitsu-Ken, a take-out window which, after reading Ono Kine Grindz's review, I learned is called an okazu-ya based on the local dishes they serve. (I'm going to stop there—a Hawaiian could describe it way better than I could.) Their menu includes a breakfast pack with rice, omelet, and Portuguese sausage for just $2.75. And for $6 you can get a bento with garlic chicken, teri beef, hot dog, omelet, and rice with furikake. Such meal possibilities, as simple as they may sound, make happy rainbow fireworks explode in the part of my mind that controls hunger. And since I don't know how to express the feeling I get when I read these sorts of menus (that is, the menus I had been reading all day) in real words, I'll go the the onomatopoeic route: "Aarrhrhh ahrhr mraraargh maaan arrrehgge [fidget] mraarahh wuuh grurgle blarghr waaaant."
We got an order of their famous garlic chicken, fame that became clear about halfway through my first bite: Mouth, meet this incredibly crispy crust infused with sweet garlic sauce. Instant love. The chicken wasn't especially moist, but it didn't really matter seeing as the crust was the main draw.
Stephanie took us to Mitsuba across the street to try their sweet potato crumble, but they had sold out by then. Sad face. Never underestimate the popularity of sweet potato crumble.
Akyth isn't a place you'd stop by for a bento box—but 50 bento boxes, yes. They've been in the catering business since the 1970s, making all the kinds of Hawaiian-Japanese dishes I wish I had grown up with: sushi, bento, musubi, etc. Stephanie suggested going there because she was familiar with co-owner Kiyomi Morishige, and because they make the mochiko chicken bento Kathy ate while attending Punahou School. For a great profile of Akyth, check out this feature in The Honolulu Adviser.
I'm not sure they'd sell you one mochiko chicken bento if you stopped by, but after we chatted with the the super sweet owners Owen and Kiyomi Morishige, they gave us a box to try. It came with a nori-wrapped patty of rice, a couple of pieces of mochiko chicken, a slice of spam, a mini fork, and somewhere tucked beneath the meat, an andagi (Okinawan doughnut ball). Much more appealing than the Aramark lunches I got in my high school cafeteria. (At some point I think I stopped buying lunch in the cafeteria, instead bringing a snack with me and opting to eat my real lunch at home after school around 3 p.m.)
Kiyomi wouldn't let us leave without a few mode goodies: a maki roll and container of sweet pickled cucumber slices. I was too full to try the sushi, but I ate some of the cucumber and it instantly made me think of the kind of Chinese pickled cucumber I loved as a kid. Mostly sweet, not that tart.
Akyth doesn't do any advertising; they get their business through word-of-mouth. Which seems to have served them well for the past few decades. If you're throwing a party, make sure to get food from Akyth!
After finishing the savory part of our food tour and deeming our stomachs still shy of exploding, we moved on to the next stage: desserts. We stopped by Liliha Bakery, purveyor of "sensational" pound cakes and other pastries, most notably coco puffs.
Coco puffs are one of Kathy's favorite desserts, so I'll just let her describe them: "Cool chocolate pudding, choux pastry and the world's most wonderful chantilly: yolky, creamy and sweet with just the right hand of salt." In a rare exercise of restraint, Kathy and I split one of these pudding-filled nubs. Although I'm not a big fan of choux pastry, I am a big fan of pudding and creamy goo. The pastry is an edible receptacle for both. Mmm.
For dessert #2, we went to Shimazu Store, primarily a shave ice joint, but they also sell popcorn snacks. They have over 60 shave ice flavors, and judging from the categories of "NEW FLAVORS" and "NEWER FLAVORS," it's hard to keep up.
They also sell cute t-shirts featuring your favorite shave ice extras: ice cream, azuki beans, mochi, and condensed milk.
We didn't get any extras in our large shave ice flavored with ginger ale, milk tea, and li hing pickle mango ($3.75). Because when you have a nearly football-sized mound of flavored ice, that's...that's enough. Especially when you're already full.
The ice wasn't as finely shaved as Waiola's, but that's actually why I liked it more. Shimazu's had more texture to it—still super-fine with no crunchy bits, but not so fine it instantly melted upon contact with human skin. One isn't necessarily better than the other—it just depends what your preference is. I guess I like a bit of chew. Out of the three flavors we got, the li hing pickle mango was my favorite. I heard their red velvet creme is especially popular, though.
And we were finally full. For realz. Stephanie drove us to the East West Center so we could check out their lovely little garden and koi-filled pond in the back before driving to Iolani to pick up Kathy's sister Tiffany from school, and bringing the three of us back to Kathy's house.
In summary, Stephanie did a crapload for us, way more than we were expecting, and introduced us to some memorably great eats we wouldn't think of visiting on our own. While may people may be as well informed about food as she is, I doubt many are as sweet and mega-adorable. I'm quite sure I will never be that cool as a mom. I will just not be a mom ever. (Side note: My mom is awesome too! And I don't think I'll be as awesome as her either.)
We spent the late afternoon at Manoa Marketplace, where we used the wifi at The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (not optimal since it's code activated and you have a one-hour limit, which will inevitably run out just as you're about to send an important email) and shopped for dinner ingredients at Safeway. I took a photo of Kay's Crackseed just because...I liked the name Kay's Crackseed.
Kathy's plan was to make use of her family's new and ridiculously beautiful kitchen by cooking steaks for everyone and giving her mom a break, but as we attempted to prep the steaks and sautéed spinach, her mom—in true mom-like form—took over and basically cooked the meal herself. I couldn't even wash spinach correctly—fail. Ah well, can't blame her mom for wanting to make sure everything came out good, which it did.
To finish off, here's a view looking up from Kathy's driveway at twilight. Nice, eh? Yeaaah. Too bad Kathy is seemingly allergic to Hawaii—she had eye crust, snot-laden allergies all week (and during most of her childhood), as did I, but not as bad as hers. Which is saying something since I'm known for being perpetually allergy-ridden.
515 Kalihi Street, Honolulu, HI 96819 (map)
414 Mokauea Street, Honolulu, HI 96819 (map)
232 Kalihi Street, Honolulu, HI 96819 (map)
1223 North School Street, Honolulu, HI 96817 (map)
979 Robello Lane, Honolulu, HI 96817 (map)
330 N School St, Honolulu, HI 96817 (map)
2851 E Manoa Rd, Honolulu, Hawaii 96822 (map)