Best Soups in East Hawai`i
Nate Gaddis is a former food industry veteran from Hilo.
All too often, “soup de jour” really means, “Yesterday’s special, plus a lot of liquid.”
That’s the sad reality of many (and by that we mean most) of the soups servers dutifully inform their customers about, right after attempting to sell them booze.
In theory, there’s nothing wrong with this. Some of the world’s proudest chefs genuinely love making soup, and are damn good at it. But unless your fate is in the hands of an artisan, chances are the bowl of blended mush (aka “bisque”) about to show up at your table was just an afterthought.
On the other end of the dining spectrum are the sea of canned or frozen products being cranked out of fast food kitchens and chain restaurants. Many are on-par with grocery offerings, only with a 300% or more mark-up (yes, that $5 bowl of chowder could be had for $1.50).
Indeed, truly great soups and stews are hard to find. But they’re worth looking for.
Over the last two weeks, as temperatures dropped and rainy days returned, we hit the pavement searching for some of the best ways to sip away the coming winter weather.
Here are two of our favorites in East Hawai`i. Both come from 100% family-owned establishments, and will brighten your day for less than $12.
Pho Viet: All Hail the Chili Gods
Location is everything.
Unless of course, your product happens to be a flawlessly executed national dish.
There are a rising number of restaurants on the Big Island serving pho, the condiment-laden pride of Vietnam, but the version here is one of the best we’ve had anywhere.
Tucked into a space across from the rear entrance of Garden Exchange in downtown Hilo (on a one-way back street, no less), the owners of “Pho Viet” manage to consistently pack their dining room, relying almost entirely on the strength of their namesake product.
Each stainless-steel bowl of pho comes packed with pleasantly chewy noodles, and adorned with the protein of your choosing. But it’s the rich, well-balanced broth here that will have you coming back to slurp up their offerings time and time again.
Good pho is tremendously time-consuming to make, and while many establishments either under-flavor their soup or knock their customers in the palate with star-anise, the broth at Pho Viet is rich, without being overpowered by any one spice.
Condiments are pleasantly fresh, and are served alongside Pho Viet’s devilishly good chili oil. For the best experience, drop in the herbs and lime, then stir and sip your soup before hitting it with chili. Adding the dark-roasted peppers will completely transform your broth, and it’s best to appreciate it both before and after you bring the heat.
As for the proteins you choose for your pho, we encourage you to abandon your fears of the unknown, and plunge straight into a bowl of the works: rare flank, brisket, meatball and tendons. The tendons are slow-cooked to a velvet consistency, and are a total delight.
Egg rolls are also a favorite here. Feather-crisp and fried to order, they arrive piping hot. Like, really. Wait 60 seconds before eating them. You want to be able to taste the pho, don’t you?
Get Schooled with Oxtail at Hawaiian Style Café
Let’s be honest for a moment. Done poorly, the flavor of oxtail can be a little… funky.
The location of this delicacy on its host mammal probably doesn’t help, no doubt scaring away folks more inclined to munch on chicken nuggets (even though said nuggets contain a LOT more of that body part neighboring the ox’s tail).
In any case, transforming this oddly-shaped mix of meat and cartilage into a tender, tasty meal is a bit of an art, and thankfully one not lost on the owners of Hawaiian Style Café.
Although best known for their shockingly large pancakes, the restaurant’s Hilo location also features a variety of well-made specials that rotate through the menu regularly. Their oxtail preparation is among the most popular.
Simmered for hours, Hawaiian Style’s oxtail soup boasts a deep, beefy broth. Even better is the meat accompanying it, which is melt-off-the… tail? tender.
How they get that broth so rich is a bit of a mystery (bouillon cubes? Who cares), but it’s a great pairing to the slightly bitter kai choy cabbage that comes with the entrée.
A word of warning here: don’t expect to walk into their Hilo or Waimea locations on any day of the week to order this stuff. Oxtail soup is usually only served here on Thursdays.
Best to call ahead if you’re planning on finding this slightly unicorn-like concoction, as it’s also occasionally served “Pho Style” with noodles — still tender, but with that heavy-handed use of star anise we mentioned earlier. We recommend sticking with the original version, but the pho is still worth ordering in a pinch (same tail, different flavor).
Hawaiian Style’s menu is broad to say the least, and the unique specials are ever-evolving, meaning our writers will be forced to eat here frequently to find more off-beat dishes to report on.
Oh, the humanity.
Pho Viet is located at 80 Kilauea Ave, Hilo, HI 96720. Phone (808)-935-1080.
Hawaiian Style Cafe (Hilo) is located at 681 Manono St, Hilo, HI 96720. Phone (808)-969-9265.