Despite what seem like a few geographical disadvantages, Ono Hawaiian Cafe turns the old "location, location, location" adage on its head to prove that fantastic food trumps ideal real estate. After all, a south-end Broadway strip mall is hardly foodie central, and Ono is almost invisible from the busy thoroughfare thanks to another building between the two. However, like his catering company Kanak Attack, chef Mike Mohica's menu has quickly earned a reputation as food worth seeking out.
The driving force behind Mohica's Hawaiian fusion cuisine is "to bring paradise to you." Bruddah Iz on the stereo hovers above the din of a full dining room, framed island scenes hang on the walls, and for the former islanders who gather there—last week, diners were reminiscing about favorite Oahu hangouts and debating the best way to Waimea Bay from Honolulu—the whole effect is heavy with nostalgia.
As for menus, lunch and dinner are two separate affairs, the former is salad- and sandwich-heavy while the latter's small-plate philosophy encourages ordering a bite of everything and passing the plates around. Reflecting the "mixed-plate" of culture among the islands' populations, Mohica borrows heavily from his home state's cuisine, but the palate is decidedly more global and unequivocally different from the direction other area chefs are going. Lemongrass and ginger tangle with Serrano peppers, sriracha lights hummus on fire and hoisin meets beer over a plate of buffalo wings. Mohica has a knack for invigorating simple food with a complexity of flavors. He does that best in his sauces, sweet and sassy seas lapping the shores of much of the food.
Since its opening in December, I've spent several evening meals stuffing myself on Ono's poke and sushi menus. Not until recently did I venture in at noon-time to sate a hankering for musubi and macaroni salad. A lone coconut-crusted lobster tail, speared on a squared-off stalk of lemongrass, wandered over to my table without request; I've very publicly adored the morsel on more than one occasion and Mohica politely indulges me. Within minutes, I was three plates deep, with a brick of Spam musubi ($3) on a second plate and a Da Kanak Attack combo ($15) on a third. An island favorite, the main event of Spam musubi is indeed a slice of the canned mystery meat. Wrapped in nori with sticky rice, it's quintessential Aloha State: part Asian, part American and uniquely Hawaiian. Suffice it to say that later, when I was sharing the remnants of my lunch with a coworker, the musubi was put off limits to all hands but my own.
With Da Kanak Attack, Mohica's mission was accomplished; the platter of familiar island fare brought paradise back to me. Kalua pig, mahi mahi, teriyaki chicken, a pod of mac salad and three mounds of coconut rice ... the only thing missing was a can of Hawaiian Sun pineapple-orange juice. The simple, salty cords of soft kalua pig best any incarnation of pulled pork in this city. The chicken and mahi mahi were each grilled and glazed in one of Mohica's seamless sauces and despite my unavoidable favoritism of the pork, both made a valiant effort for attention. Since my first Kanak Attack plate lunch a few years ago, I've come to terms with Mohica's sweet twist on plain white rice, and I'll be honest, it had to grow on me. Last week, however, I ate at Kanak Attack and Ono, and both times thoroughly enjoyed the coconut-infused rice.
Dessert arrived as a beautiful slice of creamy lemon cheesecake on a ginger snap crust, the whole thing topped with fine layer of airy cream. In addition to augmenting the "unshared" leftovers I took back to the office, the pie perfectly summed up Ono: a little slice of unexpected heaven.
—Rachael Daigle get small kine kanak attack after she grind so much ono grinds.