Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
What started in Hawai‘i in 1991 as a “who’s who” of local celebrity chefs, thereby elevating the status of dining in the 50th state, is now a movement that is over 20 years old. It propelled Roy Yamaguchi’s namesake restaurant empire into 28 locations worldwide — and counting.
The basic philosophy made sense: local products prepared with European technique, thus mixing traditional Asian flavors. Soy wasabi beurre blanc. Grilled local fish topped with mango and litchi salsa. Beef braised in soju and ko-cho-jung served over five spice and lemongrass-infused rice. Brilliant idea, great flavors and another selling point for a trip to Hawai‘i. We’re more than just beaches — we also have great food.
However, since creating delectable culinary dishes is as much of an art as painting, music or writing, there’s a point at which even creating a masterpiece gets old. Imagine if Leonardo da Vinci only painted portraits of women with enigmatic smiles. Or if John Coltrane only played 14-minute ballads on the soprano sax of Rogers and Hammerstein classics. Yes, it gets old fast for both the artist and the patron. That’s why the younger generation of chefs in the 50th started their own signature styles that would hardly be recognized as “Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine.”
Andrew Le of The Pig and the Lady uses traditional, fresh Vietnamese herbs mixed with Southern barbecue; Vietnamese pho; and Italian and French classics with a touch of his own unique imagination. In the end the flavors all work. Mark “Gooch” Noguchi of the Pili Group and Mission House embraces the local farm-to-table approach with a twist on local classics like lü‘au stew, wing bean with smoky soy vinaigrette or ‘ulu cakes topped with the classic smoked meat. Then there’s Ed Kenney of town, the Kaimuki Superette and Mud Hen Water providing diners with the ultimate in sustainability by utilizing invasive “pests” like gorilla ogo, feral pig and strawberry guava with the mantra, “If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em.”
And then there’s Pah Ke’s Chinese Restaurant in Käne‘ohe, which is run by brothers Raymond and Barry Siu, along with their spouses and, occasionally, their children. While the brothers run the kitchen, their spouses run the front of the house, although Raymond always makes time to come out and talk story with the “regulars” or to explain new dishes to patrons.
I met Raymond for the first time over 10 years ago when he was cooking only traditional Chinese cuisine. Prior to opening Pah Ke’s, however, he had worked at Roy’s and the Halekulani, where he was exposed to the fledgling Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine movement that was just taking off. After a couple of years of dining at Pah Ke’s, we began to notice specials like filet mignon-wrapped asparagus, and seared diver scallops with a garlic chili glaze and deep-fried spinach leaves. Soon after, a full dessert menu that was more than dan tat and rice cake appeared — desserts you would expect to find in the finest restaurants in Waikïkï, like soymilk custard with fresh local fruit, or lilikoi cake with a fresh berry sauce or even local chocolate flourless cake.
Just about this time, my wife and I were responsible for arranging a wine dinner for about a dozen guests, so I asked Raymond if he was interested in preparing a special menu for about $50 per person. He said he could do it, so about a week before our scheduled dinner, I sent the menu to everyone, although most of the diners didn’t even look at it. Their initial thought was, “A wine dinner at a Chinese restaurant? Really, Ryan?”
But once the courses began coming out of the kitchen, any and all doubts were tossed out the window. Seared scallops with Kahuku corn. Steamed pork hash on crispy skin onaga on a truffled beurre blanc. Lamb chops on taro mash with hoisin sauce. And then the dessert plate emerged. That night, 12 diners became believers for life while enjoying Chinese Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine.
About three years ago, I once again asked Raymond if he would be interested in creating a multicourse meal that we would pair with our own wines. Once again, his answer was an excited “Yes!” All he needed was the budget, a head count and advanced notice of any dietary restrictions. Because Pah Ke’s Chinese Restaurant is in the middle of Käne‘ohe, I only included those from the Windward side, as driving to Käne‘ohe apparently is like flying to a neighbor island for non-Windward residents. Yes, you know who you are. “Käne‘ohe?! That’s like driving to Wai‘anae,” I heard. Come on, folks; with the H-3, Käne‘ohe is only a 45-minute drive from most neighborhoods on O‘ahu.
Raymond did not disappoint the new group of diners with his take on Chinese nachos with roast duck, taro and avocado guacamole and assorted freshly fried chips, or local baby tomatoes with fresh local herbs and goat cheese drizzled with new harvest olive oil, or his Chinese Philly cheesesteak with Brie and tenderloin nestled in traditional steamed bao with candied walnuts. Another group of believers was born.
Last month, Raymond once again rose to the occasion with a new set of diners, including several former Vino restaurant servers. We’ve always wanted to dine with them, but since most of our dining was on weekends when they usually worked, we were never able to arrange a get-together. But with Vino currently undergoing renovations at its new location, it was the perfect opportunity to sit and enjoy dinner with them, instead of being served by them. Here the menu Raymond put together:
with Kahuku Prawns; Taro Mashed Potatoes and
with Waimanalo Greens and Sunny Side Duck Eggs,
complemented the sweet, salty and sour flavors of the vinaigrette, with the heat of the egg wilting the greens just a touch. I’m not sure if the yolk of the duck egg tasted richer than the usual chicken egg yolk because it really is richer or whether it was because the duck egg was a lot bigger than a chicken egg yolk. I do, however, need to find Raymond’s source for duck eggs!
with Szechwan Vegetables with Yin Yang Sauces
(Kau Yuk five-spice gravy and Fresh Mint Sauce)
with Saffron Rice, Lap Cheong, Boneless Chicken
and Grilled Fresh Hawaiian Mon Chong Fillet
Lilikoi cake, mango mousse cake, red velvet cake, chocolate bomb and banana ice cream in a crispy cone served family-style to the group had everyone is gustatory bliss. Although the savory courses were created specially for our meal, most of the desserts are available daily depending on the season of the fruit.
Chef Raymond has created several special meals for yours truly and he can do the same for you. Just remember that you are financially obligated for your reserved head count, even if some diners don’t show up, as he purchases his ingredients specifically for your meal.
He also provides stemware, as Pah Ke’s is a BYOB establishment, although most in our wine group carts around their own glasses.
Raymond also takes the time to explain the rationale behind and procurement of each dish he creates, which makes Pah Ke’s Chinese Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine as exciting as when I first sampled it over 15 years ago.
Pah Ke’s Chinese Restaurant is located at 46-1018 Kamehameha Hwy. in Käne‘ohe. The restaurant is open daily from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. For reservations, call (808) 235-4505; for more information, visit www.pahke.com.
Ryan Tatsumoto is a clinical pharmacist by day. In his off-hours, however, he and his wife enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet.”