Sunday, July 24, 2011

Tenkaippin Ramen

After a disappointing bowl of ramen for lunch today in Taipei, I couldn't help but start reminiscing about the ramen my mom and I recently had in Hawaii. An unassuming little hole-in-the-wall shop on Kapahulu Ave. (which seems to be Honolulu's food mecca), Tenkaippin Ramen served me not only the most interesting bowl of ramen I've ever had, but also the most interesting (?) eating experience. Let me elaborate.

But first, a little parking story. With only a small lot behind Tenkaippin to accommodate the entire strip of restaurants and shops, coming by a parking spot during the day seemed liked a game of luck with the most unattractive probabilities. We circled through the one-way lot multiple times, each time with a car backing out just in time for the car behind us to pull in. Then we spotted a Jack in the Box across the street with only a few cars in its lot but numerous signs that said parking was for customers only. We pulled into a spot and considered just parking at Jack in the Box until we noticed a guy wearing dark sunglasses standing on the street corner, observing the lot, making sure no one who wasn't eating potato wedges dared to leave their car there. Hunger-induced paranoia? I think so.

We ended up parking in Tenkaippin's lot anyways after waiting across the street for a spot to open up. When we left the restaurant, the guy wearing sunglasses was gone. He was most likely just waiting for the bus.

Tenkaippin Ramen
617 Kapahulu Ave
Honolulu, HI 96815
tel: 808-732-1211
dining date: 7/9/11

photo 1
Now, the interesting bowl of ramen. Tenkaippin is a Japanese ramen chain with over 200 restaurants but only one location outside of Japan. They're known for their kotteri broth--a thick, slowly-cooked, collagen-rich chicken broth that they boast to be not only hearty, but also healthy. This broth is seriously so thick, I wouldn't be surprised if it contains collagen to plump up anyone's skin and smooth out those wrinkles. No, maybe not, but it's tasty enough that it doesn't need to replace cosmetic surgery to prove itself. The unique broth combined with perfectly QQ/al dente ramen noodles of the straighter nature (not the curly sort) made for the most interesting bowl of ramen I've ever had. To give a comparison, the concentrated chicken flavor, along with the thickness of the broth, reminded us of the broth in shark fin soup.

photo 2
We also tried a bowl of the paitan ramen with a pork and chicken base soup that is similar to the more familiar tonkotsu ramen. This broth was lighter, not nearly as thick, yet still had the flavor that only comes from hours of stewing bones full of marrow. I actually really enjoyed the slightly spicy presence of white pepper in the paitan broth, and this was the bowl I ended up finishing after yielding the kotteri to my mom.

photo 2-2
And so we get to the interesting eating experience. Apparently, the owners of this particular location of Tenkaippin also happens to be the hosts of a new television show called Ultimate Japan, in which they travel to different parts of Japan and share their experiences. This is fine and dandy, but unfortunately, due to the tragic natural and unnatural disasters that recently occurred in Japan, the episode that they were playing that day (on repeat) was of the hosts visiting and providing relief to those who were left homeless. There was no shortage of heartbreaking footages of the devastation and destruction left behind by the earthquakes and tsunamis. An elderly lady told the story of how she managed to climb up a flight of stairs and save herself, only to watch the tsunami waves wash away her husband who was a few steps behind her. Touching, no doubt, but also understandably upsetting to watch. The women sitting across from me starting uncontrollably shedding tears straight into her bowl of ramen. I had a hard time holding back tears myself. The program left all the customers either unable to tear their eyes away from the overhead TV while crying into their ramen, or hell-bent on keeping their heads down so they could at least swallow. Thus, I can only say this way of eating was very...interesting.

photo 1-2

So while it may have been difficult to consume at times, this ramen was definitely one of the best I've ever had. While the broth is, indeed, very unique, it's also addictive and delicious. The thick broth thoroughly coated the palate in a very pleasant manner with each spoonful and I kept going back for more spoonfuls. I'm sure the other soup options are quite good as well. The pork slices, which I previously forgot to mention, were also very nicely done. We kept trying to return to Tenkaippin during our vacation in Honolulu, but our stay was way too short for us to afford the luxury of repeat visits. Next time!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Pig and the Lady

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:
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.

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.

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.


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."

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.


Friday, July 15, 2011

Morimoto Waikiki


Upon landing at the Honolulu airport, we picked up our rental car and made our way to The Edition, a relatively new hotel in Waikiki designed by Ian Schrager and Philippe Stark (the man behind the bizarre decor of The Bazaar in the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills). The hotel had seemed attractive to me for numerous reasons: First, it was newly renovated. Most of the hotels along Waikiki beach could be considered relics, though some have undergone renovations as well. Second, I rather liked the fact that the aesthetic of the hotel was soothing yet contemporary-- there was no gaudy, flowery hawaiian print to be found. Finally, I had chanced upon a rate that seemed too good to turn down. However, there was one large problem I had overlooked. The hotel is situated right at the start of Waikiki, closer to the marina that it is to the beach, and there was just no ocean view to be had. I was aware of it's location but didn't realize that it would be such a drastic difference from being right on the beach. My mom and I weren't in Hawaii to wake up and look at a bunch of boats outside our window. We were aiming to wake up with the blue sea and blue sky right in front of us. I made immediate changes to our plans upon checking in, and we would eventually end up at The Royal Hawaiian where everything is pink and 100% Hawaii.

Since we were only staying one night, there was no way I was passing up the opportunity to try out the Waikiki location of Morimoto's eponymous restaurant which is located right inside The Edition. Needless to say, I've watched my fair share of Iron Chef, and I feel a certain respect for Morimoto--him being the only chef to bridge the Japanese and American versions. The last time I had a taste of his food was during a trip to New York when I was looking at prospective colleges. That was before I starting paying great attention to what I was eating, though I remember not being particularly impressed. I was curious to see how I would find his restaurant this time around.

Sad to report, still not impressed.

It just wasn't particularly innovative, nor was it delicately refined. It seemed stuck in limbo to me--stuck between a bastardized verison of Japanese food and an upscale version with "luxurious" ingredients recklessly strewn about the menu. Not only that, the portion to price ratio was a little difficult to swallow, even for a touristy place like Waikiki.


Morimoto Waikiki
1774 Ala Moana Blvd
Honolulu, HI 96815
tel: 808-943-5900
dining date: 7/6/11

sashimi salad
baby romaine, morimoto caesar dressing, quail egg

Having just gotten off the airplane, I chose to go with something lighter for lunch. I ordered a sashimi salad. Apparently there was some miso incorporated into Morimoto's "caesar dressing" to make it special, but I barely noticed it. There was nothing offensive about the salad, but it did not seem like a strong, coherent dish. I'm not even sure what the tiny quail egg was on the salad for--it was almost smaller than the croutons. As far as I know, it was only large enough to contribute to one or two of the many bites I took to finish this salad. Granted, the seared ahi tuna was very fresh with a furikake-like crust but, we were in Hawaii--it had better be fresh.

assorted sashimi over sushi rice

My mom ordered the chirashi, which was gorgeous to look at. It was actually the background of my desktop for a few days. The colors were so strikingly vibrant, and it seemed that all colors of the rainbow were present. That being said, the fish was really nothing to write home about.

coconut panna cotta
lilikoi noodles

Luckily, dessert was refreshing in flavor and spot-on in texture. The lilikoi noodles were long strands of sweet and sour passionfruit gelée that played off of the richness of the panna cotta. The coconut cookie that accompanied the panna cotta was the best part--it was crispy and tasted like toasted coconut. My only complaint was that the panna cotta looked like it was inverted out of a small aluminum pan. The jagged imprints of the foil could still be seen on the edges as we were taking our spoonfuls. I know it may seems like I'm being picky, but really, if that one little imperfection could be hidden (idk use silicon molds??) this would be one beautiful, refined dessert.

loved the soft green hues of the interior design

At this point, I could go on and talk in detail about our experience at dinner later that day, but I'm beginning to feel like a real negative Nancy. I have nothing but respect for the Morimoto I see on TV, but it just does not match what he's serving at his restaurant. Dinner was wrought with even more disappointments in terms of the food, and I'm not entirely sure I want to relive all the dishes.

hamachi tartar
from left to right: seaweed paste, sour cream, fresh wasabi, maui onion, Morimoto's guacamole, rice puffs, dashi soy

foie gras chawan mushi
duck breast, fresh wasabi, sweet dashi soy

However, I will say this out of all the dishes we had: The hamachi/toro tartar can be fun to eat, simply because of how it is presented. Also, the foie gras chawan mushi was the only dish we found to be really delicious. With the foie gras blended in with the eggy-ness of the chawan mushi, it was without a doubt, unctous in the richess sense of the word. The miniature pieces of duck breast that graced the top of this steamed custard were also delicious, but SO tiny! I mean really, they're not even bite-sized. They're half-bite-sized.

(fun fact: Nobu Waikiki has the same blue serving bowls!)

In all truthfulness, I had set pretty high expectations for Morimoto. Perhaps too high, but who could blame me? It's Morimoto! I used to stay up late every night in the summer time to watch Iron Chef Japan on the Food Network. Sad to say, his restaurants just don't hold the same allure for me. Good thing this was only day one of our tip to Hawaii...many more good things to come ;)