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Hawaii is a true melting pot of flavors. Whether fine dining in Honolulu, attending an authentic luau, or eating a traditional plate lunch, there is no mistaking that myriad cultures have influenced the islands’ culinary flavors.
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- I'm Aida Mollenkamp, I'm a chef and writer with a passion for exploration and I'm in search of the best food a city has to offer. Whether it's locals only favorites or a chef's secret special, join me as I go Off-Menu in Honolulu. The eight main islands that make up the archipelago of Hawaii play host to an incredible mix of culture and cuisine from all over the Pacific rim. Oahu is the most populated island and Honolulu is its cultural hub where all the flavors mix. I'm meeting up with my old friend, Mark Na-go-chi one of the architects of Honolulu's food revolution. Having opened several restaurants and an incubator kitchen where some of this city's up and coming chefs have got their start. He's taking me to the ki-loo-key neighborhood where we're starting the day with a bang. One of Honolulu's most iconic features is Diamond Head, a giant, extinct volcano that rises about the south east edge of the city. Koko Head Cafe sits sunggly at the bottom of the crater where chef Leann Wong is known for her over the top breakfasts. - My name is Leann Wong, I am chef and partner of Koko Head Cafe here in Honolulu, Hawaii. What we do here at Koko Head Cafe is we reinvent brunch classics with a Hawaiian twist using all the best ingredients that our local farmers and land has to offer. - I'm so glad we're here because I like Leann's cooking, but haven't been back in Hawaii since Koko Head opened. - It's been a little while, this is awesome. She packs this joint every day. - Good morning. - Good morning, how are you? - E komo mai, welcome. - Good to see you. - Our bruschetta is one of our most popular appetizers. We make a home made Japanese style caramel rusk made with Hawaiian vanilla and sugar, a macadamia nut lay-goo-ah honey yogurt and then it's topped off with a thinly sliced local fruit and a little bit of lime zest. I'm gonna make you guys a delicious super local menu. So get into this, and I'll see you in a few minutes. Enjoy. - Thanks. That's pretty killer. - All the fruits are like, they're ripe. - No all the fruits are perfectly ripe, none of them are over ripe. I really like the combo of everything. - For me, if I really like something, the flavor to me is like round, it's like well rounded. - Yeah, I agree, I agree. - Leann's a really good cook. - Yeah, she can throw down. Okay so we got the toast, time for eggs now. - Eggs haloa, yep - Eggs haloa is our version of eggs Benedict. So we take fresh Hawaiian taro, we steam it, take the ko-wa-na, make biscuits out of it using sour poi and then we take the leaf of the kalo or taro plant, steam it and mix it with coconut milk, serve it with a poached egg and the hollandaise is flavored with sour poi. It's based around the story of haloa, which is the ancient Hawaiian, I guess legend and fairy tale of Haloa, who is the first human being and his relationship with his brother Haloa who was the first collar plant. - [Aida] You take one, I'll take one. - That's what's really important, I think, to Hawaii people, is that the story. Need to understand where these dishes come from. - This is basically Hawaii in a bite, though, I think. That is a proper hollandaise. - Game over, I quit, I quit! - Right? That's amazing. There is so much smokiness. This is so good. It's like sour and smoky. - You nailed it though, right, because it's all about the basics, right? You make a hollandaise, you roast a chicken. - Make a perfectly poached egg like this one here. - Thank you. - [Aida] Oh my God, and this pork is incredible. - You know it's so good it makes me mad. - Our corn flake crusted French toast is one of our most popular dishes here in Koko Head Cafe. We take local big island Punalu'u sweet bread, soak it in a coconut, Hawaiian vanilla custard, roll it in corn flakes and serve it with two strips of candied bacon, local frosted flake gelato and a creamy black pepper maple sauce. - Great. Yes. That's exactly what I want to finish my meal. - Exactly - Thank you. Dig in, because this gelato's going to melt. The first bite was, like, a churro that got dipped in ice cream. My second bite was like a churro that decided to make friends with bacon and then get dipped in ice cream. That is amazing. What else you got on the agenda? - You ready? Let's go cruise around town, let's get some fresh air. And then I wanna hit you up, I wanna take you out to some of my other favorite spots. - Okay, let's do it. Sounds good. We're heading across town to a locals only Saimin noodle shop, a Hawaiian staple. While this might look like simple ramen, it's actually a snapshot of Hawaii's history. The dish is composed of elements taken from ethnicities of early 20th century Hawaii. - My name's Scott Na-ka-dow-a, I'm part of the family that owns and runs Palace Saimin. Palace Saimin was established in 1946, it's off the beaten trail but definitely a hole in the wall worth finding. Saimin is a noodle soup, basically. Its origins are from the plantation times and it's a blend of the different cultures that used to work the plantations and that immigrated to Hawaii. - So Saimin, in a bowl, is everything it's just a hundred percent local, right. It's like this amalgamation of all these different ethnicities, all together in one spot. Saimin is straight clear broth, it's got saimin noodles in it, it's got chopped up negi, green onions, either spam-which as-you and - [Aida] Komo-boco - Yes! - Okay, enjoy guys. - Thanks. There's like freshness from the green onion, there's really good, like, pork base to it. Those noodles are good, they're like, al dente really good cut on them, where you've got texture coming in from them. - Still got texture to it. Noodle has flavor. - Never had the barbecue stick. Do you drop it in, do you just eat it? - Whatever you wanna do, I mean - Just do this, just do this. That's comfort food, right there. So what's next on the agenda? - Well it's a beautiful day, got some more stuff to see, got a ton more food to eat. - Let's do it. Not before, no not 'til you're full. You're still eating, I'm gonna still eat. - Let's just go. - Yeah, let's just take it to go. Ready? Let's do it. Okay. Downtown Honolulu balances historic and contemporary culture with everything from landmark building to lay makers. But what's really worth noting is the hip new restaurant scene. Named one of the top 50 restaurants in the country, The Pig and the Lady is taking the city by storm. Chef Andrew Lay's strong connection to his Vietnamese heritage results in a menu of innovative dishes that have garnered a fanatical following. - I'm Andrew Lay, the chef owner of The Pig and Lady. The way the name came about is meeting at the dining table with mom. We always did everything around dining table. Have our laughs, have arguments have our heart to hearts, and all this kind of stuff. And whenever she was cooking for us, we just ate it up like little piggies. Menu philosophy behind our food is, you know, just try to keep it communal and social, local, simple and fun and creative. - So why are we here? - Well Andrew and I, he's one of my best friends. Both personally and professionally, we came up together models, he's hyper talented. It is some of the most creative food in Hawaii right now. - And it's true Hawaiian style, it's a family operation. - All right. - So this is our French dip, that's our most famous sandwich that we have. We try to replicate that 12 hour roasted biscuit, but we put spices on there and we thought, hey, you know, I like to dip it, so might as well put it with a f-ah au jus. And it's basted with a little bit of Thai basil chimichurri, sauteed onions and bean sprouts, cilantro and herb salad. Enjoy. - This is how we do, that's for you, this is for me, I mean, I grew up in the town of Philip's French dip and I gotta say, that looks like the best thing I could find, a Vietnamese take on a French dip. - Yeah and gwon-me - Oh my goodness, the spices in here, it's so much good, like star anise flavor, that broth has like such richness to it. - Look at the clarity, the technique. - Oh my gosh, that's like my favorite f-ah broth I've ever had. - Yeah that's awesome. - Like the best soup and sandwich combo that anybody can dream of. That bar-me I'm not really sure how he's gonna top that. - [Andrew] Make some room. - Oh! What is happening right now? - Yes! - You know there's two of us, Andrew, one two, are you coming and joining us on this? - No, no this part is yours and then that's his. We have something on our menu called the primal offerings. It has a big piece of protein. The pork shoulder is slow braised in lemon grass, ginger and coconut water and cooked on the bone, so very tender. And it's served with a bunch of different sides and condiments, ash-ee-go-coo oysters, lettuce, house tortillas and it's supposed to be eat with your hands. You get messy. It's usually for, like, about six. - Okay, I normally can, like, get the lay of the land, I am not sure where I'm supposed to start. - So the way I would eat it is you get one of the things to wrap any of the fillers, piece of the meat, any of the sauces, but eat the pork and the oyster in one bite. - I'm gonna pretend I'm eating some greens here. If this is round two, I'm not really sure what to expect for round three. Are we supposed to eat this for the next month? - Bring it on. - Like have a provision? - Bring it on. - I'm not really sure. Oh my goodness, right? - The balance is round, it's a round flavor. - Round, beautiful, that is really good. It's pretty epic. - It is pretty epic. - Well done. You approve? - Eh, yeah it's all right. - Come on! - You're giving us another course! - [Andrew] It was okay guys? - It's amazing. I love that it's familiar, and yet fabulous. - You guys still have room? - Yes. - If you insist. - Okay good, 'cause we have the grand finale coming out for you guys. Something special. - I still don't know how he's gonna top it. - I didn't think that there was enough food on the table. - Hello! - Well good thing more is here. - Just in time for dessert. - Hi. - Only at Pig and a Lady is dessert savory - It's called the works. You get our stewed bone marrow, used it to cook the butt, and we have a coast-ini a-voo-ni butter and then the bone marrow is scooped out and put on to the toast. A little bit of chives and we get black chop-os and shave it on top. Sea salt coming from Hawaii. So now that all the bone marrow is out, we're gonna fill it up with a little bit of smoked mezcal. - Okay, so it's like how the Italians take the grappa to clean out the rest of the espresso shot, apparently Vietnamese put mezcal in here. - In bone marrow, shoot it. - And you just go for it. Okay. - Yeah! - You get like the sweet smoke from the mezcal and then like the earthy smoke from the ro, uh huh I see where you're going. - Okay guys, enjoy. - Thank you. - Thank you Andrew. - [Andrew] Thank you. - This is one of those moments where you're like, is this happening? Is un-ee with truffle, with bone marrow happening? Cheers. If it were legal, I'd have that every day. As in legal for my health. You get the nice, briney-ness of the un-ee and you get the, like, decadence of the truffle and that bone marrow, it's like animal butter. - Animal, animal butter? - Mark? - Yeah? - I asked you for some good eats in Honolulu and you brought it. - Yeah? Can I get wigglies? Ready? - Yeah, I need to walk it off a little bit though. Okay. Okay, that's where I gotta go. Yeah, you know it. Gooch, seriously. - [Mark] You have fun? - [Aida] That day was so good! - Yeah? - Yeah, I need a high five! It was so, I mean, the food in Honolulu I knew was good, but you just showed me a whole other side. - You said you wanted to eat. So we ate. - You brought it.