While sitting in the airport lounge waiting for our flight to Honolulu, my thoughts predictably wandered to thoughts of food and what I planned on eating during our week long vacation on the island of Oahu. I read through, for the second time, the recommendations of a friend whose palate I trusted. In the midst of ramen and plate lunches, a pop-up was mentioned--the first and only pop-up in Hawaii.
Coming from LA, where pop-ups have become so ubiquitous it seems some would do anything to distinguish themselves from being just another pop-up, I viewed the word "pop-up" with wariness. However, a quick Google search revealed that The Pig and the Lady was anything but a mediocre stint by some "homeless" chef. Positive reviews by various local publications indicated that the pop-up had a Vietnamese slant, something that immediately caught my eye. Further research saw that the pop-up was a collaboration between Martha Cheng, a local food writer, and Andrew Le, former sous chef at Chef Mavro, one of the few establishments of fine-dining worth noting in Honolulu. I was intrigued and in the few minutes before my plane took off, I quickly composed an email inquiring how one could come about two spots for one of the already sold-out dinners.
6 hours later, our plane landed on the island, I checked my email, and there it was--an email saying that we could be squeezed in that Friday. I immediately, without a second thought for Mr. Alan Wong, canceled my dinner plans for Friday and penned in The Pig and the Lady instead.
So that Friday night, armed with my iPhone for directions and my mom riding shotgun, we pulled into a questionable looking parking lot behind a Hank's Haute Dogs--the temporary home to The Pig and the Lady. In a Max Mara shopping bag that only hours before held a newly purchased bikini, we brought along two bottles of Big Wave Golden Ale and Wailua Wheat--our answer to the BYOB problem. As we rounded the corner, the bustle and chatter inside the restaurant became more apparent and concerns about the sketchy parking lot evaporated.
The Pig and the Lady
current location: Hank's Haute Dogs
4 days a week for as long as they feel like it
reservations and info: www.thepigandthelady.com
dining date: 7/8/11
dining date: 7/8/11
We were greeted warmly and then seated along an outdoor bar directly underneath a window looking into the restaurant. I felt like I was in the sidewalk seats of some busy noodle shop in Asia. A bowl of pickled vegetables and homemade shrimp chips were quickly brought to us, and with our first crispy, savory, moisture-sucking, shrimp chip, we knew they weren't kidding around here. Eaten with the pickled daikon, carrots, and spicy garlic shoots in the accompanying bowl, my mom and I had no choice but to pat ourselves on the back for our beer choices.
asian pear, toasted rice puff, banana blossom salad, kaffir lime sauce
The first course arrived after a brief introduction from Andrew. Though perhaps not familiar to the general population, the name "Kajiki" was one that my mom and I immediately recognized. Kajiki, Japanese for swordfish, was a favorite fish of my grandpa's, and it's a name that I can still hear him saying in my head. Having it in a rare preparation, however, was a first for me. With a texture that I can only describe as similar to any lean, white-fleshed sashimi, the delicately flavored fish benefited from the rest of the elements on the plate. The banana blossom salad was intensely savory, the balls of asian pear refreshingly sweet, and the sauce on the plate was without a doubt, kaffir lime. It was my first time having banana blossom, and thinly sliced, it reminded me of the skin of asian pears. Is it just me?
maitake mushroom, pickled lotus root, green tomatoes, jasmine rice croquettes
The second course appeared to be vegetarian, though its flavors were so bold, we didn't miss the meat at all. Seeing jasmine rice croquettes on the menu, I expected some straightforward, plain jasmine rice, rolled into a ball, with a fried outer layer. This was not the case at all. I have no idea what Andrew did, but the rice croquettes seemed more like arancini, strongly seasoned with what we thought was a hint of shrimp paste or fish sauce. (?) The fresh acidity of the green tomatoes with the pickled acidity of the lotus root countered the pool of curry sauce that was just spicy enough for a little bit of heat at the back of my throat. The bits of fresh watercress on top were a revelation for me. I never knew watercress held so much flavor. This was already the second plate with an amazing balance. Anything your mouth could want in a bite was on this plate--sweet, savory, acidic, spicy.
BRAISED PORK BELLY
crispy rice cake, pickled radishes, poached quail eggs
Pork belly--a cut of pig that once held so much delight for me, is unfortunately now one that I avoid at all costs. Too many times I've had fatty, stringy, poor excuses for pork belly. This preparation, however, was damn tasty. My mom and I thought about how delicious it would be in a gua bao--salty, sweet, not too fatty, and just tender enough. Two perfect, little poached quail eggs were perched on little mounds of a chimichurri-like sauce of cilantro, garlic, shallots, ginger, and lime juice. So good. The pickled radishes added the acidity in this dish, which cut the richness of the pork. Again, so well balanced.
PHO TAI CHIN GAN
fresh noodles, brisket, tendon
And then, for me, la pièce de résistance of the night. What a genius way to end the savory portion of a multi-course menu. Warm, comforting, and decidedly "Asian" in it's placement in the menu (most tasting menus would place a soup near it's start, except perhaps a Japanese style omakase with miso soup at the end), the bowl of pho was the perfect culmination of a series of fantastic dishes.
At this point, the familial aspect of this pop-up became apparent. Turns out the guy who was serving us the dishes was in fact, the chef's brother, Alex, helping out. We had noticed a motherly figure in the kitchen, working behind the scenes, helping with plating, etc. My mom and I speculated that this is probably the chef's mother. We were correct. As people began finishing their bowls of pho, Mama Le began making her rounds, checking up on everyone's progress, making sure they finished it to the last drop. How could we not?
This was Mama Le's recipe, a rich, deep broth, full of spices that had a northern Vietnamese influenced, rather than that of a sweeter version from the south. I didn't even think about touching the sriracha or hoisin. Suspended in this broth was just a handful of hand-cut rice noodles of varying widths, made fresh that morning in Honolulu's chinatown. There was also one piece of brisket, one piece of rare steak, one piece of tendon--each perfection in itself. As she inspected my bowl, she told me about how she had let the broth simmer for close to 8 hours. She told me of her dream of opening her own pho shop, a dream that failed to become reality because she placed her priority in raising her children. Now she's serving her pho recipe at her son's pop-up restaurant. Funny how things turn out.
VIETNAMESE ICED COFFEE
By the time the bowls were cleared away, Mama Le's endearing personality already made an impression on us all. The already intimate setting of the small pop-up became even more so. As she brought out the tall glass of iced Vietnamese coffee, I told her again how much I enjoyed her pho. Then, she told me in a knowing voice, "dessert is even better."
COCONUT PANDAN TOAST
lychee, basil seeds, thai basil, vanilla ice cream
This dessert, similar to Kaya toast, may have seemed simple in it's construction, but I can't remember the last time I went at a dessert with such zeal and ended with such satisfaction. The vanilla ice cream was topped with coconut powder and resembled a snowcapped mountain of creamy coolness. The basil seeds were mixed with lilikoi, or passionfruit, which added a touch of tanginess to the rich buttery napoleon of toast and homemade Kaya jam. Whole, fragrant lychees with bits of thai basil were the "cherry on top" of this sweet ending.
If you've been reading so far, I hope it's obvious how much enjoyment my mom and I took away from this little pop-up that seated only about 20 people that night. How rare is it, to find such balance in all the courses of a tasting menu? To end one course with satisfaction and to start the next only to realize it's just as good as the last. How often do we get to sit on a seemingly deserted street, with the island breeze at our backs, enjoying the flavors of a first-rate tasting menu? As the meal came to a close, I noticed that at the bottom of the menu, local ingredients used in the market-driven dishes were listed along with the names of the local farms. This is without doubt, a passionate operation--from Andrew's delicious creations, to Alex's enthusiasm in explaining his brother's dishes. Even the name of the pop-up--The Pig and the Lady--is a reference to Andrew and his mother (because of a tattoo of a pig he has, not because he is a pig ;). We were more than lucky to have had this experience during our stay. The Pig and Lady was only it's second week of business when we made our reservations. It was a unique and truly Hawaiian experience, something that you can't get on a different island, on a different continent.