The mother lode of loco moco
Maybe you haven’t noticed, but the loco moco has become an object of adoration over the past decade — to the Japanese.
The height, breadth and girth of the dish, the audacity of layers of messy ingredients, the decadent pool of brown gravy topped with a fried egg yolk eye staring back at you, has runaway appeal to imaginations generally tamped down by generations of decorum and finesse. In Japan, there is poetry in cuisine, which is very different from American pursuit summed up here as "mo' biggah, mo' bettah."
Meanwhile, Japan's pursuit of simple elegance is evidenced by tidy mounds of sushi, compact domes of bean-paste filled mochi, and the delicacy of mousse-filled cakes in miniature.
Their obsession is our gain because there is fatigue in the same old, so it doesn’t take long for hunger for the next big thing to set in.
Chefs have been happy to offer up their enhanced versions of this local staple to keep the fascination alive for residents and travelers alike. These would include a shortrib version at Moena Cafe in Koko Marina Shopping Center; a sous vide filet mignon, Hamakua mushroom and foie gras loco moco at Japengo in the Hyatt Regency Waikiki; a smoked meat breakfast loco moco at Holoholo Bar & Grill; and prime rib loco moco at Yogurstory. (An Italian variation from another prominent restaurant is coming at the end of the month.)
For most of these places, just one loco moco on the menu suffices for their clientele, but a new cafe puts the spotlight on eight variations of the loco moco daily. Chef Keola Kanamu came up with 30 iterations for Aloha Terrace but left it up to the cafe’s owners to choose those that made it onto the daily menu. The others will appear from time to time as specials.
Kanamu said every dish is a reflection of the things he likes to eat, saying, "I make every dish as if I'm going to eat it myself. Otherwise, why bother serving it?"
The Aloha Loco Moco is the local classic. Elsewhere on the menu, you will find prime rib, plastic fork-tender braised shortribs, curry stew, beef stew and more to replace the original ground beef patty.
It’s enough to make those with weaker stomachs groan, but don’t knock it until you try it. With his classical culinary education, Kanamu starts all his dishes from scratch and there’s delicacy to his brown gravy that’s not all salt and cornstarch or powder-based as may be the case at fast-food outlets. I’m also generally not a fan of runny local-style beef stew and curry, but Kanamu’s full-bodied stews are an exception. Tender beef, potatoes, carrots and onions all maintain their fresh-from-the-market integrity, and are not reduced to mush as often the case elsewhere.
The price structure is easy to remember. For now, every plate is $10, soft drink included, with your choice of white rice or kim chee fried rice, and a choice of white spaghetti noodle pasta salad or tossed greens. The kim chee fried rice is steller, with the saturated flavors of gochujang, kim chee, Sriracha, garlic, onion, bacon and a bit of sesame oil.
If you’re not in the mood for the loco moco, half of the protein choices are available sans egg and brown gravy, in plate-lunch form. Other plate-lunch options are misoyaki chicken, mochiko chicken and mochiko beef.
Some of the dishes are nostalgic odes to area restaurants that are no longer here, said Kanamu, who grew up in Kapahulu and still makes his home there. Some of these dishes are the misoyaki chicken and shortribs inspired by Good to Grill, and mochiko beef from long-gone KK Plate Lunch, a sort of chicken fried steak infused with teriyaki flavor. It comes with a wasabi sauce for extra kick, but if you prefer a different flavor, there’s Sriracha and other communal condiments available.
The miso glaze of the misoyaki chicken doesn’t have as much of an impact on chicken as on fish, but I appreciated the light hand.
Kanamu said some have complained about the size of the plate lunches before realizing that the compact takeout container still packs in the requisite two scoops of white or kim chee fried rice, just in compressed form. If you eat until it’s all gone, you may end up over-stuffed, but the flavors make it near impossible to stop eating. Whenever I’ve eaten here for lunch, I’ve been able to skip dinner.
Aloha Terrace is located at 740 Kapahulu Ave. (at Kamuela Avenue), open for now from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. They're aiming to extend hours from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. when fully staffed. Call (808) 737-7505.
Coincidentally, this 2014 BuzzFeed video shows mainlanders' reactions to trying loco moco and other local foods for the first time. My question is, who did the prep? I think they need to come here to try it.
Nadine Kam is Style Editor and staff restaurant critic at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser; her coverage in print on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Contact her via email at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Rebel Mouse.