Monday, July 20, 2009

Because it’s not all about fine dining

June 21 (that's not when I'm writing this, but when the events told herein took place),

Fine dining is all well and good, but it doesn’t give you a complete picture of what a community has to offer when it comes to food. And although, in my limited experience, Honolulu’s fine dining restaurants manage to refract Hawaiian culture through their unique prism, the city’s more down-to-earth restaurants really show the city's culinary character.
In an earlier entry I mentioned the magical pork adobo plate lunch that I had at Pee Wee Drive In.
I took the picture in this entry at Soon’s Kal Bi Drive In, a place hidden behind a supermarket at a strip mall. It was recommended by my old friend Steve Martin (not the commedian and banjo player, a different one), who went there, I believe, when he was in the navy, lo these many years ago (I’m gonna say the 1980s, definitely during the Cold War). He now lives in Bangkok where he is a world expert on antique opium paraphernalia. (Why not?)
Steve was following my Twitter updates and insisted (in a Direct Message, indicating his sense of its importance) that I try the place.
Twitter proved quite useful on my trip, as Hawaiians I’d never met offered recommendations of places to try, mostly @HIwrite, who suggested Yama’s Fish Market for Hawaiian takeout, Choon Chun Chicken or Choi’s Garden for Korean, and in general Hiroshi Eurasion Tapas and Town Kaimuki
@HIwrite said other recommendations I’d received were “tried + true”: Helena's, Rainbow Drive-In (for loco moco) and Diamond Head Market.
@honoluluacademy asked me to visit it's Pavilion Café.
But instead I followed the advice of my friends, and had Soon's Kal Bi kalbi plate lunch.
To reiterate what a plate lunch is, it’s any sort of protein served, often in a segmented TV-dinner-style tray, with two scoops of rice and macaroni salad. But at Soon’s, instead of serving macaroni salad, they served a sort of mixed kimchi, with a bunch of pickled vegetables all combined together and to be eaten with the grilled short ribs and rice. It was all very tasty, although I'm no expert on kalbi, and I realized as I ate it that I couldn’t find similar food in New York (or at least, I hadn't).
The next day I checked out my friend Jonathan Ray’s recommendation for Thai food: Mekong 2, where, on his recommendation, I ordered the Evil Jungle Prince plate lunch. And there, along with the two scoops of rice, was green papaya salad. The style of service that wasn’t the restaurant’s only adjustment to locals’ tastes. The curry itself was similar to a Thai massaman curry, but it definitely had a certain brown-gravy quality that reminded me very much of loco moco, which is basically salisbury steak on rice with brown gravy, topped with a sunny-side-up egg.
I had it at a food court for breakfast.

To view all the blog entries about my trip to O‘ahu, click here.


Paul A. said...

Mmmm, evil jungle prince curry. Do you know where the name comes from, Bret?

Bret Thorn said...

I'm afraid I don't, Paul. As I'm sure you know, “evil” in foods tends to imply spiciness, and Thailand has both jungles and a royal family, so it seems like almost an intuitive name for a Thai curry. I suspect the owners made the name up.
There is a southern Thai curry called kaeng pa, which translates as "Jungle curry" or possibly "wild curry." It's more broth-like than other curries and traditionally includes green peppercorns still on their branches. The Evil Jungle Prince didn't resemble that at all, though.

Paul A. said...

I've seen EJP in a few different restaurants around the country: in Atlanta, Sacramento, Pittsburgh. I think I first tried it at Suriya in San Francisco. I always figured, as you do, that the "evil" refers to the spiciness, and also that the "jungle" refers to the abundance of vegetable and especially leafy ingredients: whole basil leaves, and typically a bed of cabbage.

I wonder where it originated.

Bret Thorn said...

Paul, I asked my Facebook friends just that question, and the brilliant Rachel Laudan (who wrote a book on the food of Hawaii) answered thus: it was a name thought up by the founder of the Hawaii Mekong restaurants. He was a Laotian refugee, father I believe had the Coke franchise there, taught math in Hawaii while founding these restns. Brilliant marketer (see family background). Orchids, white tablecloth etc. This was all before Thai hit the US. I think if you google you'll find the story told several times in Hawaii newspapers.

Steve Martin said...

Bret, when I used to eat Thai food in Honolulu in the 1980s, I am pretty sure EJP was "Evil Jungle PRIEST", not "Prince". Years later while looking for the same dish in Thailand during the 90s, I tried to translate Evil Jungle Priest into Thai. "Jungle Priest" is easy (reusi), but for "evil" I tried every shade of word for "bad" that I could think of.

As you might expect it got me absolutely nowhere!

Bret Thorn said...

Oh right, reusi, the word so special it has its own letter s, different from the other three s's in the Thai alphabet.

Anonymous said...

I'm about 99% sure that pataya Thai restaurant had evil jungle priest chicken, back in the 80's. We used to couple it with flamethrower rice and a lot of water...