I thought Brian Clarey’s recent cover story about Pokémon Go would be a good opportunity to introduce our readers to poke, the Hawaiian raw fish staple, in the food section. There’s no relation, sure, but I wanted to exploit your attention to convince you to try this island dish that’s rising in popularity on the mainland.
But last month, there wasn’t any poke in the Triad to speak of, and I’d only tried a salmon version at a frou-frou restaurant in Boston rather than the classic ahi tuna variety. The dream died.
But my fortunes changed last week when ZC Hawaiian BBQ opened in Greensboro’s Golden Gate Shopping Center. Yours did too, you just didn’t realize it.
Here’s why: After showing up at the Triad’s lone Hawaiian restaurant and trying four different things, I realized that the poke isn’t even the best part.
It’s damn good, to be sure, packing a nice kick and finished off with the flavor of the scallions and white onions that the high-grade raw fish nestled in. Poke-Poke, a fast casual joint from Venice Beach with a location in Austin, calls the meal “the surfer’s sashimi,” and while there are probably countless varieties, poke is sort of supposed to be simple — a fresh kind of light salad, maybe seasoned with soy sauce or sesame oil.
That’s how it’s done at Hawaiian BBQ, accompanied by two mounds of white rice and a cup of macaroni salad, and it’s the only thing listed as “market price” — going for about $10 on Monday — which suggests an emphasis on much-needed freshness.
But I actually favored the saimin, and so did my buddy Anthony who came along.
I’d never heard of saimin before, but after looking at ZC’s menu online before showing up, I decided to do some digging. When I saw descriptions arguing that it’s inspired by ramen, and arguably lo mein as well as Filipino pancit, I knew I’d be game.
At under $5, I figured the saimin with chicken katsu — a term for fried cutlet I recognized from Japanese menus — would arrive in a small portion. Not so; instead, the thin-noodle soup with a crave-worthy broth arrived in a large, to-go container with the meat on the side. The breading of the chicken added depth to the broth, and Anthony and I easily took the whole thing down. It’s enough to fill most people up on its own, and can come with other proteins including fried shrimp or BBQ beef instead. Do not miss it.
I also knew I wanted to try the spam musubi given that it rang in at just $2.25. Musubi is another Hawaiian staple — think sushi roll with spam and some teriyaki-style sauce, again available with different meats including Portuguese sausage. Though a little skeptical, associating spam with my grandmother’s basement storage in a somewhat rural part of Ohio, I was more than pleasantly surprised by the pleasurable and flavorful nature of this cheap and long-lasting meat.
I ranked it higher than Anthony’s Kalua pork and cabbage dish, which he aptly described as succulent, tender and possessing subtle flavors before he enhanced the mixture with teriyaki sauce. I liked his entrée just fine, and would order it elsewhere. But with so many delicious things in front of me, I’d probably skip it every time for the saimin and poke.
Or any number of other things on the menu, including the grilled mahi mahi, the aloha steak, the Hawaiian spicy chicken, the shrimp gumbo or tempura, the beef curry or beef teriyaki bowl, the French fries with gravy, kimchee or the Portuguese sausage egg. Hell, now I’m ready to try the spam egg, too.
But I’m really mad at myself that I didn’t do more research first and realize that manapua is the Hawaiian derivative of Chinese barbecue pork-filled bao (steamed dumplings), and that malasada is a Portuguese fried dough treat. The two sides I didn’t recognize drive home the point that Hawaiian food much more interesting then hip and trendy poke, and that there’s a surfeit of reasons to celebrate the addition of the first restaurant around here lifting up Hawaiian cuisine.
Visit ZC Hawaiian BBQ at 2224 Golden Gate Drive (GSO) or at hawaiianbbqnc.com.