A Tale of Two Pork Bellies
Nate Gaddis is a former food industry veteran from Hilo.
As America’s obsession with “fat free” foods came to a close, millions of repressed carnivores began to rediscover the joys of well-marbled steaks, juicy burgers, and even the ultimate forbidden fruit among cardiologists: pork fat.
In the restaurant world, the rejection of lean proteins has turned into a full-blown counter-culture, where fare has trended richer and heavier in recent years. Wagyu (Kobe-style) beef, bone marrow, foie gras, jowls and more now hold an increasingly dominant share of trendy (and less-than-trendy) restaurant menus.
But of all the artery-busting cuts of meat enjoying culinary redemption, nothing has been more warmly embraced, or feverishly consumed, than pork belly.
Otherwise known as “where bacon comes from”, this age-old prized cut of pig has long been the darling of Asian cuisine, where vegetable-loving diners don’t sweat the health-effects of an occasional helping of rich protein.
From curing and smoking, to braising and frying, pork belly is a versatile cut that shines equally well whether it is cooked to a soft and silky texture, or done to a crisp.
We’ve been sampling a lot of the stuff lately at a variety of restaurants across the Big Island, and have actually been surprised by how many chefs have managed to muck up such a simple ingredient by randomly stuffing it into, well… nearly everything.
Often, the best preparations for pork belly are the simple, time-tested ones.
To illustrate that point, we picked two polar opposite establishments, both offering preparations for under $10.
One is run by a highly-publicized celebrity chef, the other is an ethnic hole-within-a-hole in the wall.
Oh, Ippy… Where Art Thou?
If whatever business you’re in starts feeling just a little too profitable, try opening a restaurant. Your life-balance will be restored rather quickly.
Fortunately, despite the epic failure rate of restaurants as a whole, there is still an ample supply of investors willing to bet big money on up-and-coming chefs.
This is a very good thing, since chefs aren’t usually bursting with startup capital. If a cook can make enough of a name for himself, he can still lure enough money in his direction to strike out with a kitchen of his (and his backers) own.
Chef Phillip “Ippy” Aiona has certainly pulled that off, and at a startlingly young age. While still in his early twenties, Aiona won the hearts of people across the country when his cheerful passion for food was put on display via cable TV.
“The Next Food Network Star” didn’t crown Aiona a champion, but his island persona made him a bonafide star nonetheless. What followed was a generous media spotlight, and more recently, two restaurants in the Waikoloa area.
Not long ago, we stopped by the first kitchen to bear his name, located in the Queens Marketplace food court. “Ippy’s Hawaiian BBQ” has been heralded by reviewers as being a proper tribute to local plate lunch culture, as well as allegedly boasting a pretty mean pork belly preparation.
Praised as “terrific” by Honolulu Magazine, the “Pig’s Opu” is described as a sandwich made of crispy soy-braised pork belly and crispy onions.
We ordered one up for about $9 (pretty reasonable, given the locale), and claimed a table near a pair of tourists munching away approvingly on Ippy’s roast chicken.
The sandwich that arrived was hot and looked promising, with dark juices dripping out of what turned out to be a soft, slightly sweet bun (Mamane bakery, perhaps?).
But crispy the pork was not. Not shocking, given all the braising that had been done (it was meltingly tender). But lo and behold, there was barely any actual pork to be had at all… just a few paper-thin slices of the stuff, drenched in overly-sweet sauce, resting over pieces of rapidly deteriorating lettuce. Delicate greens + hot meat does not a crunchy texture make.
To be fair, we didn’t try the other items on the menu (which seemed quite pleasing to our neighbors), and our nearly pork-less sandwich may have been one of those random culinary misfires, but this didn’t appear to be a dish Ippy would want to hang his hat (or signature bandanna) on.
As is increasingly common with popular chefs, the restaurant’s namesake creator didn’t appear to be there that day. Not surprising, given that Aiona keeps a busy schedule, and recently opened a fully-fledged restaurant and gastro-pub nearby.
His newest establishment, named “Three Fat Pigs,” reportedly follows some of the carnivorous trends described earlier. Although we have yet to give it a try, we’ll certainly remedy that soon.
We’ve heard good things.
Island Bake Shoppe: Maku`u Market’s Ethnic Cornucopia
Ah, Maku`u Market, how we love thee.
A multi-colored, multi-scented mashup of all things “Puna,” this positively sprawling flea market boasts everything from young entrepreneurs selling gorgeous organic produce to burnt-out hippies peddling items of questionable origin.
Competing alongside several hundred vendors and numerous food establishments, Island Bake Shoppe manages to maintain a steady line of customers eagerly awaiting a variety of ethnic Filipino comfort foods.
Run by the proprietor’s teenage children, the bakery’s tent at Maku’u houses classics such as pork and peas, lentils with bittermelon, and fried squid.
But it’s the hulking chunks of crispy pork belly (Lechon) being cut and chopped on a wooden cutting board that manages to put many trendier efforts to shame.
This stuff isn’t fancy. It’s old school, and simple as can be. Seasoned with salt and cooked till golden, the pork is pleasantly clean tasting, buttery on the inside but with an addictingly crisp crust.
The bellies are sold by the pound, and cut to order. A cool 16 ounces of the stuff only set us back around $12, and that’s for pure, unadulterated porky goodness. No sauce, no garnish, no nonsense.
Of course, eating straight pork belly for lunch and dinner is a great way to boost your heart surgeon’s bottom line, so we recommend buying the stuff and freezing what you don’t need. To reheat, just pop them into an oven or toaster oven at 400 degrees for 5-10 minutes or till sizzling and crisp.
They go great as-is, but do nicely paired with a mixture of rice vinegar and sweet chili sauce (helps to cut and contrast the buttery fat within). We’ll post a recipe for this later in the comments section. Go easy though, these greasy morsels are the real deal.
Though we definitely prefer their Maku`u Market offerings (they tend to be hot off the press, so to speak) Island Bake Shoppe actually runs a little retail establishment on Mamo Street near the Hilo Farmers Market.
The selection here mirrors some of the items sold at the market (Lechon, Squid, Pan de Sal and other pastries), but the choices aren’t quite as varied.
The hot comfort foods are good, but don’t head here in search of sleek ambience. This is a certified “hole-in-the-wall” establishment; randomly-placed cardboard boxes and all.
Just a heads-up for those with delicate egos: Don’t expect to be treated like a god at places like this. This is a niche family business relying on repeat clientele.
They’re pleasant enough, but if you’re in need of faux banter, head for Starbucks.