Buyers look over fresh catches at Honolulu's fish auction.
A scrum of men wearing insulated vests and jackets gather around a tuna the size of a love seat in a refrigerated warehouse on Honolulu's Pier 38. Most of the men are fish buyers, although one is an auctioneer. I can tell which one because the others orient themselves toward him, the way spines point toward the center of a sea urchin. But I can't tell who's bidding and who's winning. I just know that each fish is dispatched in a matter of seconds–the auctioneer scrawls the hammer price on a scrap of paper and slaps it on the damp scales and the scrum moves on to the next fish.
"These are some beautiful fish," says chef George Mavrothalassitis, whom everyone calls Chef Mavro. (I learn later that even his wife calls him this.) He's leading me around the auction, and we stroll past mahimahi, ono, onaga, shark, and bigeye, yellowfin, skipjack, and albacore tuna laid atop beds of crushed ice. I fall behind to marvel at a silvery opah that's flat and round like a giant dinner plate and has the wonderfully evocative nickname of moonfish.
Chef Mavro employs a broker to buy fish for his signature restaurant–called, yes, Chef Mavro–but he stops by the auction from time to time to see what's being unloaded from the boats tied up outside. "This is no place for newcomers," says Mavro. He once tried to buy his own but the auctioneer quickly gave him a look of sympathy mixed with disdain, then told him he was bidding against himself. (Visitors are welcome at the United Fishing Agency auction, open Monday through Saturday at 5:30 a.m.; call 808-536-2148.)
"Let's get some coffee and breakfast," Mavro finally says. We cross a parking lot to Nico's Pier 38 (808-540-1377, www.nicospier38.com), a no-frills take-out restaurant run with unexpected flair by a young French chef named Nico Chaize.
We both order the catch of the day, ono, pan seared and served with eggs and toast. We eat outside on plastic furniture under a green awning. While watching the sun spread across the harbor, I enjoy what may be the best meal I've ever had from a Styrofoam container–the fish is moist, sweet, and just a touch flaky, with a salty, fresh tang. Fish and coffee isn't how I usually start my day. I wonder why not.
One refrigerated truck after another pulls away from the auction building, some headed to the airport, where choice ahi will be loaded on the next flight to Japan. Over the tops of low buildings I can see the nets of arriving fishing boats, some of them docking for the first time after two weeks at sea.
Fish coming, fish going, fish being prepared with style. Could Hawaii be the center of the seafood universe? Licking my lips after the last bite of ono, I formulate a plan for the next few days: Eat as much of it as possible.
Fresh fish: Hawaii's favorites
Hawaiians eat more fish than their mainland counterparts consume on average–about twice as much per capita. They eat it fried, sautéed, baked, broiled, grilled, and raw. They eat it at home, in restaurants, in convenience stores, on the street. Seafood is everywhere.
Part of the reason is geography. The Hawaiian Islands, born of volcanoes, are relatively young creations isolated far from other landmasses. The first human inhabitants didn't find much in the way of fruits or vegetables–just seaweed, some birds and their eggs, and fish.
Lots of fish. As it turns out, Hawaii is a sort of crossroads for seafood, drawing in varieties from all around the Pacific Rim. Here you find fish that linger in the nearby deep seas, as well as species that prefer the protection of the reefs closer to shore.
Polynesians settled the islands first, followed by many other groups, including the English, Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, and Okinawans. Each came with their own cultural inclinations, but all had one thing in common: They were from lands that bordered the sea and shared a fondness for seafood.
"You can't say there's one common fish culture here," says culinary historian Anthony Chang. "There's native Hawaiian, Japanese, and Chinese."
Where to start? How about Japanese–at the sushi counter at Nobu (808-237-6999, www.noburestaurants.com), the Honolulu outpost of the legendary New York–based restaurant. Dining in this grand place is like sitting in front of a wide-screen display of the bounty of the sea, neatly cut and skillfully prepared. I order the bento box with its geometric assortment of whatever is fresh–slices of ruby red ahi, black cod, and a tasty sashimi salad.
Later, down the block, I stop into Roy's (808-923-7697, www.roysrestaurant.com), part of an upscale chain founded by chef Roy Yamaguchi. Here I order blackened ahi tuna. It's arguably the signature dish of Hawaiian Regional Cuisine, a movement that surfaced in the early 1990s in which about a dozen island chefs (including Mavro and Yamaguchi) vowed to use more local products in their cooking.
The ahi is perfect. The flash searing around the edges gives it a crispy texture that plays off the supple flesh, and the spicy soy-mustard butter highlights the native flavors. The searing doesn't gild the lily, but creates a frame that draws attention to the main attraction.
As a country, we no longer recoil from the notion of eating raw fish:
Take-out sushi is now easier to find in some mainland precincts than a hot dog. People have been eating raw fish for eons, of course. In dishes from the sushi and sashimi of Japan to the ceviche of South and Central America's Pacific edge, applying heat to impeccably fresh fish has long been regarded as optional.
The Hawaiian version of raw fish is poke, which rhymes with hokey and comes from the local word for "small piece." Sushi and sashimi look as if they've been cut by an obsessive-compulsive cabinetmaker, the slices all neat and linear. Not poke. Hawaiians chop up raw fish roughly and season it generously with salt, seaweed, and sometimes nuts. Poke is often further enlivened with sesame oil, soy sauce, or chiles. You can find it at small stores and groceries all over Honolulu–even the Costco has a well-regarded poke counter.
I order my poke in a tiny restaurant called Ono Hawaiian Foods (808-737-2275), a low-key affair with red vinyl seats, worn woodgrain Formica, and color photographs of local celebrities faded to pink. It's popular with those seeking traditional Hawaiian fare, such as poke and poi. (Poi is a purplish and slightly sour porridge made of taro. My advice: Ask for a taste before you order a bowl.) The poke is delicious–not the ruby red of the high-rent ahi at Nobu, but a mix of various whitefish, bursting with flavor.
I spend an afternoon wandering around Chinatown, picking through markets piled with carved jewelry boxes and jade figurines. But I'm constantly drawn back to the fish counters–it's hard to imagine anything more beautiful than the pink and yellow gindai, or the bullet-shaped opakapaka, or the glittery scales of a fish labeled TINFOIL.
"The Chinese are basically a riverine people," says Anthony Chang, who leads a popular culinary walking tour of Chinatown (for details, call 808-227-6008), "and they love soft fish, like mullet, black cod, and catfish." If there's a distinctively Chinese style of preparation, it's marked by a beguiling simplicity, Chang says. "We're talking about steamed, then a sprinkling of ginger, onion, sesame oil, or soy sauce. I've not encountered any sort of innovation in Chinatown, in part because this style has met the approval of most consumers."
It doesn't take long for me to realize that I'm hungry again. Chang had told me of the late, lamented Mandarin Palace ("probably the finest Chinese restaurant ever"), but said many of those who worked in its kitchen had scattered to other establishments around the city. I head off to one of them, Fook Yuen (808-973-0168), a Chinese restaurant on the second floor of a strip mall on an unglamorous edge of Waikiki Beach. I order the hapuupuu (a Hawaiian sea bass) with ginger and green onions, and it arrives moist and velvety, with the ginger accenting rather than speaking for the fish. Found: another slice of perfection.
But all is not perfect in Hawaii. On the islands today, demand for beautiful fish like this is high, and the local seas can't supply enough. Aquaculture is booming: Hawaii is currently home to about 100 aquaculture operations, which raise everything from algae to abalone. It's not a new concept. When Captain James Cook arrived in 1778, the islands already had some 400 fish farms Hawaiians had created from impounded lagoons.
Even with aquaculture, the islands can't meet local demand. And then government regulations ensure the surrounding waters aren't overfished. About three-quarters of the seafood consumed on the islands today–including bluefin tuna from the Indian Ocean and soft-shell crabs from Chesapeake Bay–is imported.
If anyone knows what to do with this salty cornucopia it's Chef Mavro, and on another night I find myself in his namesake restaurant (808-944-4714, www.chefmavro.com), observing him and his kitchen staff prepare seafood with great deference. Mavro is a Frenchman from Marseille who was born into a family of Greek sponge divers. He worked at several Michelin three-star restaurants in France before moving to the Pacific two decades ago. That melding of cultures makes him the quintessential modern Hawaiian.
In his kitchen, Mavro is continually on guard against excessive heat, which he believes to be the enemy of flavor. Slow cooking takes more time, he says, but it's worth it. Hapuupuu is sliced into neat medallions about half the size of a playing card, salted carefully, and wrapped in parchment paper with olive oil, then slid into an oven set at 250 degrees. The hamachi (yellowtail) is poached at a mere 140 degrees to a melt-in-your-mouth consistency–it isn't so much cooked as it is gently persuaded to turn opaque.
I return to the dining room and touch my fork to the hamachi, which yields with little protest. I take a bite. It's softly pungent and silky, a texture Mavro gently offsets with the crunch of cultivated sea asparagus.
The best places to eat are those where haute cuisine and roadside food, the fresh and the cooked, the natural and the cultural worlds all gather together and have a pleasant conversation. And in this one bite, at this one restaurant, on this one island, I may have found the center of the seafood universe.
Where the seafood sings
At seaside surf shacks, on gourmet tables, in ethnic joints, Hawaiian fish can't be beat. Here are the best spots throughout the islands to enjoy it.
By Erin Klenow
Quinn's Almost By the Sea For what may be the best fish sandwich in the islands, pull up a chair on the covered lanai of this casual Kona eatery. The menu features the holy trinity of Hawaiian fish: ahi, mahimahi, and ono, grilled, beer battered, or showcased on a sandwich. (808) 329-3822.
Seaside Restaurant At this Hilo spot run by the Nakagawa family for three generations, try the farmed mullet steamed in ti leaves with lemon and butter or island-caught ono with house-made macadamia nut pesto. (808) 935-8825.
Koloa Fish Market Hugely popular with locals, this take-out deli counter serves plate lunches and a rainbow of poke by the pound—try fresh ahi spicy Korean style or slathered in sweet shoyu, a Hawaiian soy sauce. Enjoy your meal at the park around the corner, or take it to the beach. (808) 742-6199.
Postcards Café Ever savored a seafood rocket—shrimp, fish, and coconut wrapped in thin pastry dough and fried? You'll find it and more at this Hanalei eatery housed in a former plantation cottage. (808) 826-1191, www.postcardscafe.com.
Mala Ocean Tavern At this restaurant on the Lahaina waterfront, Mediterranean and Asian flavors come alive in dishes such as rock shrimp flat bread, ahi bruschetta, and mahimahi ceviche. (808) 667-9394, www.malaoceantavern.com.
Paia Fish Market On the route between Lahaina and Hana, Paia is the best lunch spot. Fish sandwiches get a Cajun kick, ahi sashimi sells out daily, and secret-recipe tartar sauce flavors house-made slaw. (808) 579-8030.
Alan Wong's Restaurant Ginger-crusted onaga with organic Hamakua mushrooms and ahi–avocado salad atop wontons—these are just two of Honolulu chef Alan Wong's renowned pairings of seafood and produce. (808) 949-2526, www.alanwongs.com.
The Grass Skirt Grill Where do surfers fuel up on the North Shore? At this Haleiwa hangout that dishes up plate lunches featuring "whatever the fellas are bringing in" that morning—usually ahi, ono, opah. (808) 637-4852.
Photography by Robbyn Peck
This article was first published in November 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.