Every once in a while, something related to this blog just flat out surprises me. Such was the case about a week ago, when I checked my e-mail and found a message from one of the two women who run 'Ohana Hawai'ian BBQ. The e-mail was basically an invitation to come and try their restaurant, but that's only part of the story....
You see, just a few short months ago, 'Ohana was an eatery called Kana Girl's Hawai'ian BBQ. According to several restaurant review sites, I was in the minority of people who didn't like Kana Girl's. In fact, back in the day when my reviews were concise and informative and posted on Urbanspoon (a site I'm still on a lot, and which you should all check out), I had this to say about them:
I hope it's not authentic
September 03, 2010 - Doesn't like it
There was only one occupied table when I went, but I still had to wait several minutes to place my take-out order because the proprietor/cook was chatting with the people at the table. When he did return to the kitchen, he sang along loudly with the songs on the sound system. I understand the "just dropped by a friend's place for some homestyle island fare" vibe they're going for, but it's not my cup of tea when I'm eating at a strip mall. The rice was fine and the macaroni salad was rich but good, but the char siu pork left something to be desired. I've considered returning to try something more traditionally Hawaiian, but there are several other places around Boise I've yet to try, and it will depend on how they stack up.
|Not an old picture, just an old sign...|
A few things didn't bode well on my first visit to 'Ohana. First of all, I had eaten a big lunch and wasn't particularly hungry. Still, they had sent out a Twitter post saying that they would have fresh butterfish and pork Lau Lau that night, and that's one of the Hawaiian dishes I've most wanted to try. Then, matters became further complicated when I called to place a take-out order for said Lau Lau, and was told they didn't have the butterfish after all. For some reason, instead of putting it off until another time, I told them just to give me the plain pork one instead. So at this point I wasn't hungry and I wasn't getting what I had wanted in the first place. I can't blame this on 'Ohana, I'm just really stubborn. For some reason, I decided I also had to try their version of Spam Musubi, a dish I had seen on the Hawaii episode of No Reservations. I was told it would be about fifteen minutes, and I showed up pretty much exactly that amount of time later. Upon my arrival, I was told that the Lau Lau would need a couple more minutes to finish (I took this as a good sign, at least it would be fresh). As I waited, I noticed that the sign outside wasn't the only thing that hadn't changed. The inside looked exactly the same as on my previous visit, with the exception of the condiment cart being on the opposite side of the room.
Still, it wasn't the look of the place that had annoyed me before, and what really mattered was the food. I collected my order and went home to tear into it as quickly as possible so the pork fat in the Lau Lau wouldn't start to congeal (oh stop groaning, pork fat is awesome!), but for some reason I still started with the Spam Musubi. Don't ask me why, because I don't know. It might have been the smell...
If you didn't happen to click the earlier link, Spam Musubi is basically Spam served sushi-style. I was vaguely horrified when I opened the package. No, not because it's Spam. I'm not ashamed to admit that, as a pork enthusiast, I actually enjoy Spam, albeit on rare occasions because it's so bad health-wise. No, the reason for my terror was the sheer size of these things. I don't know what I was expecting, perhaps that the Spam would be cut into smaller pieces, but it was basically just sliced off from one of the standard hunks that come in the cans, grilled or fried with some seasoning, then banded to a pile of seasoned rice with a big strip of nori and topped with shredded carrot, some sesame seeds and a little bit of pickled ginger. In case I'm not getting the scale of these things across to you, let me just say that I was concerned about being able to get my mouth around one without destroying it. I dug out some rice with my fork and tried it, amazed at how sweet it was, but then again standard sushi rice wouldn't work with this dish. I ended up eating them with knife and fork, amazed at how perfectly that sweet rice was balanced by the savory, salty pork. I knew even while I ate that this was a dish I could become addicted to, which is dangerous for all kinds of reasons. Still, at $3.95 for two pieces big enough to constitute a light meal, at least it won't be too dangerous to my wallet.
|Pork Lau Lau with macaroni salad, rice and Hawaiian sea salt|
By now, I was REALLY not hungry. Funny how a couple of hunks of processed meat and a pile of rice can do that. Still, what else could I do at this point? Interestingly, the food itself kind of ended up helping me. The rice was the first thing I tried, and it was hands down the worst rice I've ever gotten from any restaurant, regardless of what style of cuisine they serve. The rice was served in scoops, the outside so dry it was crunchy in places, and the inside less dry but unpleasantly chewy. I moved on to the mac salad, which was the only thing I really liked from my meal at Kana Girl's. I wasn't disappointed in this, even though it's a pretty simple dish (and in theory a rather disgusting one). I don't know what seasonings they use that makes their mac salad different from some of the other ones I've tried, but whatever they're doing works. It's rich, creamy, and has an interesting enough flavor to take your mind off the fact that you're eating a big pile of fat and carbs with a little flair added to it, and once I'd verified that I liked it I allowed myself to stop eating it.
|Pork Lau Lau|
This was proving to be one of the most educational meals of my life. I had already learned that Hawaiian fare might not be the best idea in general if you're not that hungry, but I was about to learn that Lau Lau specifically is one of the worst dishes to eat if you're in that frame of mind. My first impression upon opening that take-out box is that something might be amiss. After all, there were four domes of food in front of me, and the entrée was easily the smallest one. Once I started digging the pork out of the leaf it was wrapped in, it did fluff up a little, but it still seemed a bit overpriced (it's one of the three most expensive things on the menu). Admittedly, I don't know much about Hawaiian cuisine, and maybe I just don't understand the dish. I can tell you that once you start mixing the fat and the meat together it becomes very rich and flavorful, and I'd say it's pretty good but not outstanding by any means. Maybe the butterfish makes it a lot better? Or perhaps it's pricier because the taro leaves cost so much to import? I doubt that second one, there are other places to get Lau Lau in town that are cheaper, and I doubt their portions would be smaller than this. I guess that it's possible the portion was so small because the dish itself is so rich, but that doesn't explain the price. Either way, all of these factors contributed to the conclusion that it wasn't a dish I would order in that form for that price again.
The next day as I was putting my review together in my head, I was pretty much leaning in the direction that while 'Ohana is definitely a step up from its predecessor, it still didn't really grab me. But as the day wore on and I actually started to get an appetite again, I found myself craving that evil Spam "appetizer". A lot. How could I say that I didn't like a place that much when I was seriously considering returning for a second meal in as many days? I came to the conclusion that even though it wouldn't change my feelings on the Lau Lau, I really should have gone in hungry and tried something that I know I like rather than just something that I was curious about, so I could really give them a chance to wow me. So, another take-out order was called in, this time for their Kalua Pig and cabbage. According to their menu, they slow roast their pig for 12-14 hours, and that's right up my alley.
|A very good example of truth in advertising|
This time I showed up ravenous, and there were actually other customers in the restaurant. It amused me that they were also all eating out of take-out containers and using plastic utensils, but the important thing is that everyone seemed to really be enjoying their food. When mine was brought out, I saw that one of the proprietors had drawn a caricature of a pig on the container. Sick, yes, but MY kind of sick. The obligatory mention of the condiment bar along the wall was made, but I'm strongly of the opinion that when you roast pork for half a day, it shouldn't need any sauces. The smell flooded my car before I was even a block away, and it was flooding my head by the time I sat down at the kitchen table.
|Kalua Pig and cabbage, with macaroni salad and rice|
Already things were different. To start, this was a monster portion of food, not like the sub-baseball sized lump of steamed meat I'd received the day before. I tried the rice first to get it out of the way, but to my surprise it was actually good this time. The mac salad tasted about the same, but since I was hungry now I could actually enjoy it. The pork? Oh my friends, the pork...it was exquisite, and the cooked cabbage (despite being something I don't normally like) kept it from coming across too heavy. For the next twenty minutes, I tried bites of pork, bites of pork and cabbage mixed, bites of pork and cabbage mixed with rice, bits of pork and cabbage mixed with mac salad, and finally bits of everything mixed together. All of the combinations resulted in distinctly different but very delicious results. This was the experience that I'd been hoping to have the previous night, and the food was what I should have ordered when I found out they didn't have what I wanted to try. All this and for a more reasonable price!
By the end of the meal, I found myself uncomfortably full again, but very glad I had gone back. Maybe both myself and the restaurant were having a slightly off day on my previous visit. Regardless, it's always nice to find a new place where I can obtain good pork. My final advice to those reading this would be to check this place out when you're absolutely famished. And a little self-control probably helps too. I have to work on that...
Final Grade: B
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