Ono Hawaiian Foods: Review | Memosne

Ono Hawaiian Foods: Review

It’s been a long time since I’ve written any food reviews, but my parents just came back from a trip to Honolulu and they’ve reminded me of all my backlogged restaurant entries. I’ve been especially hesitant to post this one, because I think the photos are a bit blurry, but, in some small way, it helps alleviate the home sickness that I’m feeling when I’m away from my mom and my dad. I had to grow up sometime, right? In addition to missing them, they’ve decided to torture me a bit more by sending a huge amount of image heavy whatsapp messages to my sister and I. I mean, we don’t text very often, but when we do it’s always pictures of food. It's like a huge billboard "THIS IS WHAT YOU'RE MISSING OUT ON!!"

Ono Hawaiian Foods is exactly the kind of place that my dad loves to go to. It has all of his illustrious requirements: an out of the way location, “hole in the wall” decor, a “locals only” place (despite the fact it was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s popular tv show), and traditional food.

As you can tell, Ono Hawaiian Foods is definitely a local neighborhood joint. It’s located in a bit of a dilapidated area and has a very small amount of floor space. In fact, more often than not, you’ll see a line of patrons waiting to get inside through Ono’s rickety wooden door.

The interior and its decoration are a bit old, but you can tell that a lot of love goes into the restaurant. Yellowed pictures of neighbors, old restaurant patrons, and celebrities line the walls floor to ceiling, while Restaurant awards are scattered about along with Hawaiian pride bric-a-brac. The seating and tables are old cafeteria type “red models”, with standard plastic covering and brown hollow frame. When seated you’re given a laminated single page, double sided, menu with all of Ono’s offerings.

I defer to my parents for this, since I’m always the one third-wheeling on my parent’s second, third, and fourth honeymoons, so I always let them order what they want. I.E. I really like the salmon poke, but they don’t. That’s what you get when you’re a mooch.

The food at Ono is traditional Hawaiian, and from the two times I’ve been here, is also very heavy. I mean it. The last time my family and I visited Ono, we were there when the restaurant opened for the lunch service, ordered 4-5 dishes, and were still full by dinner (and past it). So we only ordered three dishes for the three of us: Kalua Pig, Pork Lau Lau, and "salt meat watercress."

We also passed on the poi, offered to us fresh and three days old, because we didn't enjoy the consistency. Fresh poi, as explained to us, is sweeter in taste while "aged" poi is tart in flavor. The poi itself looks pretty cool, it's naturally lavender in color, and it's consistency can vary from watery to play dough like. The poi offered at Ono sort of reminds me of the "non-newtonian" fluid that you can create with water and cornstarch. So we tried it once, didn't really like it, and didn't want to waste anymore poi. Now...

On with the food! 

This is the infamous pork lau lau. The pork is wrapped in taro leaves, then ti leaves and then steamed on a stove (in ancient times it was cooked in an underground oven). What comes out is very, very tender, juicy pork and yummy taro leaves. You have to discard the ti-leaves, they aren't edible. The pork and ti/taro leaf flavor is very subtle on its own and the staff of Ono was quick to tell us that we could season it with the condiments distributed on every table.

As you can see, they offer sugar, soy sauce, sea salt, and a sweet vinegar-y sauce. I can see how the Lau Lau's subtle meaty flavor would be monotonous after a couple of bites, so the inclusion of sauces on the table is certainly welcome.

The Kahlua pork I was less thrilled about. There are many rave reviews on Yelp and Urbanspoon, but I found the Kahlua pork to be salty and dry. I've been told Kahlua pork is usually the centerpiece of a luau and is usually the whole roasted pig you dig up from the imu (traditional underground oven). Obviously that smokey, whole pig roasted flavor can be difficult to replicate, but I really just didn't like this. I feel blasphemous for even saying it, but that's the way it is. I've had it twice now and I didn't like it both times. I'm sorry. I'M SORRY.

The meat was dry and the juice left pooling at the bottom of the dish was a bit too oily for my tastes.

Ending on a strong note, the Pork Watercress soup was something I genuinely enjoyed. It was very, very reminiscent of a soup that I've had often in my childhood, a cantonese pork, watercress, plum soup. Unfortunately, the name totally escapes me right now, but I've eaten/drunk that soup a lot. This tastes almost exactly like it, except the watercress isn't cooked all the way through. The pork-y soup base coupled with the crispy, fresh bite of the watercress is delicious and a dish I recommend to everybody. My only wish is that they would offer the soup in a deeper dish...I want more of it! 

It's a great place and one that has already received a lot of attention and hype from dedicated patrons, tv celebrities, and travel channels. The atmosphere is warm and really embodies "family", while the food is simple but home cooked.

I like Ono, but having been once, I'm sated. For me, there are so many other food options on the island that I'd like to explore or go to instead of Ono. It was a great one-time experience for me and I'm sure it'll be a great experience for you too. When my family was seated there, I saw a mix of return patrons and first time tourists. It was really interesting to just people watch! 

Kid Friendly: Yes 
Price: $ of $$$$$
Repeatable: For me, No 

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