During my 41 years on God's green earth I've never been to Hawaii. Although I have snorkeled in the blue Caribbean, the closest I've come to visiting the Pacific island chain has been admiring surf photographs in my husband's Surfer's Journal magazines while sipping a tasty Wailua Wheat Ale from Kona Brewing Company and reading the helpful Hawaiian words printed on the inside of their bottle caps. It was with curiosity that I visited Ono Hawaiian Cafe, located on Broadway in the space formerly occupied by Berryhill & Co.
Ono's interior remains mostly as Berryhill left it, with a cafe au lait color scheme, stained concrete floors and black dining room furniture. Several tasteful, Hawaiian-themed touches have been added in the form of photographs, paintings, silk palm trees. A small tiki hut acts as a self-serve station for sherbet-laced fruit punch during the weekly Aloha Friday buffet ($22/person). The menu at Ono offers salads, hot and cold sandwiches, burgers and hot Hawaiian entree plates for lunch. Dinner offerings include pupu (appetizers), sushi, and poke (marinated raw or cooked seafood salads). There are helpful explanations on the menu to guide the uninitiated. Hawaiian, Japanese and Korean flavors dominate. Wine, sake and beer are available.
A skillful balance of flavors and the deft handling of quality ingredients are evident. The flavors were well balanced and each dish seemed to be seasoned and cooked just right.
My husband and I visited for Friday dinner recently and were delighted by both the food and the weekly Aloha Celebration hula dancing entertainment. The hula group included two nani (beautiful) ladies, a young girl and a handsome koa (warrior). As we looked over the menu we sipped Kona Brewing Company's Wailua Wheat Ale ($4), which has an irresistible touch of passion fruit. So many items on the menu looked good, it was tough to choose. I was tempted by the Korean kalbi buffalo wings ($8), basted in ginger, hoisin sauce, cane sugar, and orange zest with a chevre-bleu cheese dipping sauce. I also considered coconut-crusted shrimp with spicy plum sauce ($9), and the Shoyu Poke ($13) made with raw Ahi tuna, ginger, scallions and Maui onions tossed in shoyu, hoisin and sesame oil. I settled on the delicious chicken lettuce wraps ($9). Four butter lettuce cups came filled with a mixture of chopped, grilled teriyaki chicken, carrots, peanuts, bean sprouts, ginger, Serrano chiles and cilantro. A small ramekin of house-made lava sauce, which tasted both sweet and spicy, accompanied the dish. By sweet, it was just sweet enough. Someone in the Ono kitchen knows when to stop.
My husband opted for the Friday buffet and went back for thirds. Among the array of delicacies was chicken long rice, made with rice noodles, chewy shitake mushrooms and red bell pepper tossed with teriyaki chicken in a ginger-sesame sauce. Also a standout was the kalua pig, a smoky Hawaiian version of pulled pork that reminded me of a succulent Southern rendition I enjoyed in Tennessee a few summers ago. The flavorful buffet also included lemony tasting lomi lomi salmon, grilled teriyaki chicken, steamed lau lau beef and pork, a big green salad, fresh fruit and sweet rolls, plus dessert and fruit punch. For dessert I snuck a few bites of made-from-scratch pineapple upside-down cake from my husband's plate. I also discreetly tested two small cups of haupia, a delicious homemade coconut milk pudding that is traditionally thickened with arrowroot. I could've easily gobbled, er, sampled a third.
If this is what authentic Hawaiian cuisine tastes like, count me in.
—Jennifer Hernandez is a mahina (moon) child.