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Eating among the warehouses of Kalihi Kai

July 1, 2010

You know those neighborhoods where you can grab a bite and window shop while strolling and people watching—of the sort you’d find in New York, San Francisco, Portland, and maybe even Waikiki? Well, that’s not Kalihi Kai. This is a neighborhood of warehouses, factories and car repair shops rather than cute boutiques and swanky cafes. The triangle makai of Nimitz Highway, bounded by Waiakamilo and Sand Island Access Road, doesn’t look much like a neighborhood of good eats, which in Honolulu means it’s exactly the kind of neighborhood where you’ll find them. Though there is a McDonald’s bordering each side of the area, you’re more likely to see people driving down Kalihi Street with a maunapua in one hand than a Big Mac. So while there are few people on foot in Kalihi Kai, it’s worth it to find a parking space (good luck) and walk among the
warehouses to explore the eating options: smooth, silky tofu pudding; a sweet and sour spare rib saimin in a bowl as big as the kitchen sink; wasabi masago poke, each piece of fish coated with the delicate crunch of fish eggs; lilikoi sorbet to cool off.
Ethel’s Grill
Ethel’s Grill opens at 5:30am, when the Matson dock workers and truck drivers stop by to grab a hamburger and large miso soup. Until 2pm, construction workers fill up on sumo-size portions, and curious eaters find their way in, lured by newspaper articles and Japanese magazines. Favorites on the menu include the ahi tataki, seared tuna sashimi topped with paper thin slices of garlic marinated in shoyu; Japanese hamburger steak, its richness cut with grated daikon, daikon sprouts and ponzu; and the aforementioned sweet and sour spare rib saimin, a giant bowl with chunks of pork braised in vinegar and
sugar, sharing a broth with a thinner than expected saimin noodle (from nearby Oahu Noodle Factory). Those are the regular menu items, which are hard to stray from, but you can’t ignore the specials, literally, written out and taped onto the crammed wall space, like a fridge covered with a child’s artwork. From the specials, we sampled the shime saba– mackerel marinated overnight in vinegar and sliced thin–and a hearty pork and squash stew. “This is juicy, emotional food,” says my dining companion.

Menu items initially appear heavy, especially on a hot Kalihi afternoon, but in actuality, they achieve a refreshing balance—an herby brightness here, a jolt of acid there—that doesn’t leave the palate greased out and fatigued. Most items are under $7 and include a salad, miso soup, rice and iced tea or punch, with chunks of ice broken apart everyday with an ice pick and Tupperware of frozen water. “Not much has changed,” says Minaka Urquidi, who helps her parents, Ryoko and Yoichi Ishii, in the kitchen. She’s referring to the neighborhood, but she could be talking about Ethel’s Grill itself.
(There is no Ethel, by the way, in the restaurant; the Ishiis took over the place in 1978 and according to Urquidi, “they’re too cheap to change the sign.” Ryoko, however, will respond to the name Ethel.)
232 Kalihi St., 847-6467
Mrs. Cheng’s Soybean Products
Right across the street from Ethel’s Grill wafts the scent of soybeans. Entering the tofu factory (a generous term given the small size of the operation), a fridge to the left of the tofu-making machinery houses soymilk, unsweetened and sweetened with maple syrup; nigari tofu, a firm tofu; and a soft, soft tofu that the workers call tofu pudding. It’s faintly sweet and silky smooth, disintegrating in the mouth with the slightest pressure of the tongue.
Like Ethel’s, the tofu factory’s namesake no longer runs the place. In place of Mrs. Cheng is Mao-Chi Tzeng, a former pharmacist from Taiwan, who says his factory operation experience in medicine made for an easy transition to food
manufacturing. “Food and drugs are related,” he says matter-of-factly. “Drugs are more complicated than food.” But not all hopes of a romantic tofu-making history are dashed; he’s been making tofu since he was 12, as learned from an auntie and by studying Japanese tofu makers.

His tofu is made with organic (and by definition of organic, GMO-free) soybeans–not out of a personal principled stance, but simply because those were the beans Mrs. Cheng used when Tzeng took over. No matter that he has now been running the place for 26 years, 19 years longer than Mrs. Cheng ever did; he continues to stick with what works—making handmade tofu that’s in demand by restaurants like Hiroshi’s Eurasian Tapas and Hakone at the Hawaii Prince Hotel.

233 Kalihi St., 841-2571

Alicia’s Market
To stand in Alicia’s Market is to get a sense of local food in Hawaii. The “pupu bar” houses Chinese roast pork and roast duck, hanging as they do in Chinatown storefronts, and the plate lunch menu offers laulau and kalua pig, poi and pasteles. The seafood bar includes sashimi, sea asparagus wasabi ahi poke, abalone poke and teriyaki giant squid. With such a range of eats, the fear is that none will be memorable, but on the contrary, each is well-executed: the roast pork has a crackly, crisp skin and the poke tastes of firm, fresh, sugi-free fish.

Alicia’s Market began as a grocery store in 1949, where people would come to “cash a check, grab a cold beer, pau hana,” says Leonard Kam, founder Alicia Kam’s son. A prepared foods menu evolved out of pupus that would go well with beer (i.e. roast pork, char siu turkey tails, poke) to eventually include plate lunches. Paintings on the outside of the market reflect the eclectic offerings inside—abalone, vegi-crab salad, chocolate sea snails, oysters, opihi, dried aku. Kam recently commissioned the artwork to “set us apart from a regular grocery, [to say] something about Hawaii, something different,” which applies as much to the mural as it does to Alicia’s Market.

267 Mokauea St., 841-1921

Tropilicious
For dessert, a few blocks down Mokauea is Tropilicious. Walk through an inauspicious- looking doorway into the factory, and among the packing boxes, order a flavor (or two) among 10 different ice creams—from chocolate to cinnamon caramel—and 8 sorbets which include the popular flavors of haupialani, lilikoi, and lychee. There’s no counter to walk up to, no cash register to pay at, just workers who stop their work to exchange some ice cream for cash. A few feet away, they pack half-gallons for supermarket and restaurant deliveries while someone retrieves your order from the walk-in freezer.

The haupialani sorbet is as creamy as any ice cream, and the lychee, though it tastes of canned lychee, is still refreshing. The chocolate is studded with chocolate chips and has a hint of orange. At a buck a cup, Tropilicious is just the thing to cool off as you head back onto the hot streets of Kalihi Kai.

206 Mokauea Street, 847-1750

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