NADINE KAM / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-ADVERTISER
Cow Wow Noodle Soup from Fooki.
Fooki is open for takeout only, which is a shame, because so many specialties, such as the beef noodle and MaLa soups, are best enjoyed on the spot. Read more
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In normal times, restaurant popularity is a good thing. In COVID-19 times, the price of popularity is the risk of putting oneself in harm’s way.
It took Fooki nine months to open, but soon after doing so on July 3, increases in coronavirus cases led to a decision to close the dining room for the safety of customers and employees. The restaurant had been open just three weeks, but the rush for a taste of Taiwanese cuisine had led to overcrowding at the doors and demands to seat parties larger than the 10-person maximum mandated by the state.
So for now Fooki is open for takeout only, which is a shame, because so many specialties, such as the beef noodle and MaLa soups, are best enjoyed on the spot. That said, ingredients and soup are packed separately, so that noodles and proteins don’t get overly soggy and overcooked en route to your destination.
Food is not the only reason it’s sad to see this dining room close temporarily. The room itself is charming, and there’s nothing like it in the area.The cafe setup transports you to the streets of Taiwan, with an industrial-meets-1930s vibe of artwork and hanzi neon signage that translates to the very contemporary idea of being “down to eat.”
If you’ve ever tried Egghead Cafe’s pork belly bowl, you’ve had a taste of what its owners bring to this project. They partnered with one of their employees, Ellen Lim, an engineer who found her new calling when she moved here from New York and decided that working at her neighborhood cafe was a good way to make friends.
Along the way, Lim wanted to introduce healthier Taiwanese boba teas to Honolulu. Fooki — with a name that combines “blessing” and “double happiness” — pairs tea drinks with a Taiwanese fusion menu easy for locals to understand.
MUCH BOLDER than the Cantonese cuisine that has dominated Honolulu’s Chinese food scene for more than a century, Taiwan’s cuisine has much in common with the local chop suey palate. Its combination of chiles, garlic, shoyu, peanuts, meat and noodles comprises ingredients we already know and love, just more concentrated. This is the equivalent of local- style, or Chinese food on steroids.
The cuisine started with the simplicity of tropical fruits, vegetables and seafood. Its diversity is traced to the retreat of the Kuomintang political party to Taiwan in 1949 after its defeat by the Communist Party of China. During that time, 2 million soldiers, politicians and business people descended on the island nation, bringing cuisine from every region in China.
Fifty years of Japan colonization also left its mark, and Taiwan’s popular street-style fried pork chop may have resulted from exposure to tonkatsu.
Let’s start there, with a Monster Pork Chop ($14 a la carte, $16.95 plate) that is one of the must-try items. It’s a chop pounded for tenderness and to better absorb the marinade, leading to contrasting textures of tender meat and a crispy fried exterior. An outer dusting of five-spice, other seasonings and crispy fried shallots doubles the marinade flavor.
If you go the plate route you’ll get rice, stir-fried bok choy and a halved tea-infused “sweetheart” soft-cookedegg.
I haven’t tried all the dishes here, but another favorite so far is the MaLa Wonton Noodle Soup ($14), also a popular street dish. The words “ma” and “la” translate to “numbing” and “spicy hot,” reflecting the Sichuan and dried chile peppers that go into a rich broth that clings to custom-made Taiwan- style thin noodles. The heat is tempered by the sourness of vinegar and preserved vegetables, with peanuts and garlic adding more dimension. The wontons have a soft, flavorful center of shrimp and pork, with water chestnuts adding a crisp textural element.
MOST PEOPLE will tell you to start with Taiwan’s most famous dish, the Classic Beef Noodle Soup, with options of a “delicate original” ($14.95) or spicier broth ($15.95). Medium-width custom flour noodles are served with beef shank and egg in this comfort dish.
To amp up the drama, there’s the Cow Wow Noodle Soup ($18.95/$19.50), which starts with a 12-hour simmered beef broth and 20 spices. In addition to beef shank, tendons and a beef rib bring caveman appeal. Because the presentation was created for in-house dining, it’s packed to go with the container’s cover cut away to accommodate the oversized rib.
The Fooki Belly Bowl ($14.50) is another Taiwanese classic destined to become a favorite with its combination of rice and thick-cut braised pork belly. And there’s some amazing alchemy with the Trio-Cup Chicken ($12 a la carte, $14.95 plate), so named because its sauce comprises a cup each of rice wine, sesame oil and soy sauce. Basil adds a wonderful, balancing herbaceous finishing touch.
Fooki’s thirst quenchers are also worth noting because they use no artificial juices or sweeteners. Only fresh ingredients such as mint leaves and strawberry puree go into virgin mojitos ($4.75), honey lemonade ($4.75), and pure leaf and milk teas that use real milk instead of creamer, and housemade brown sugar syrup. The drinks are so good they satisfy any craving for dessert.
Pearl Kai Center, 98-199 Kamehameha Highway
Food: *** 1/2
Ambiance: *** 1/2
Value: *** 1/2
>> Call: 484-9188
>> Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays
>> Prices: $30 to $40 for two
Ratings compare similar restaurants:
**** – excellent
*** – very good
** – average
* – below average
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at email@example.com.
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500 Ala Moana Blvd. #7-500
Honolulu, HI 96813
NADINE KAM / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-ADVERTISER