Bento Battle: Hilo Lunch Shop vs. Kawamoto Store
Nate Gaddis is a 17-year food industry veteran. He gives his frank assessments in the interests of honesty and improving Hawai’i Island’s culinary scene.
Batman vs. Superman, Mike Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield, Bill O`Reilly vs. teleprompters… everyone has an arch rival.
In the world of island Bento (lunch box) boutiques, two Hilo eateries have been locked in a years-long culinary rivalry, much to the benefit of East Hawai`i residents.
Both “Hilo Lunch Shop” and “Kawamoto Store” are locally owned, and feature a similar business model: Open early in the morning, then let the treats “sell out.”
In the interest of serious journalism, we’ve decided to compare and contrast a select number of their bento favorites.
All Hail Rice
Probably the most basic test of any bento or Okazuya shop is the quality of its rice products. Here, we selected the venerable “cone sushi” as our point of comparison.
Featuring an Aburage (fried tofu) shell and stuffed with seasoned sushi rice, cone sushi is a bento “must.”
Both establishments feature nearly identical versions of this handy staple, with a barely perceptible difference between them.
Similarities aside, we prefer Hilo Lunch Shop’s version. With slightly less mushy rice, and a touch more vinegar for seasoning, this cone sushi manages to just edge out Kawamoto’s offerings.
But be warned, sushi rice is a tricky product. Expect some day-to-day inconsistency.
Traditionally fried twice, then dunked in a sweet/salty/tangy dipping sauce, Korean Chicken is a staple of Hawai`i bento shops, and one of Kawamoto Store’s top-selling products.
The Kilauea Street eatery uses petite drumettes primarily, frying them with a crust that lends a hearty crunch, and drenching them in a potent sweet/tangy dipping sauce.
Hilo Lunch Shop’s version of this favorite features slightly bigger chicken pieces with a lighter exterior crust and a more delicate crisp. The dipping sauce also happens to be less concentrated in flavor than that of its rival.
Whether “lighter” is better is in the palate of the beholder, but we’re partial to the sticky, crunchy fun that Kawamoto’s has to offer.
“Nori Chicken” on the other hand, is typically made with rolled up, marinated chicken thigh meat and strips of dried seaweed, and dredged in a coating of rice flour before being fried.
Here, we prefer Hilo Lunch Shop’s version. The pieces of chicken are slightly larger, and more tender than their rival’s. While still great, Kawamoto’s Nori Chicken can take a bit more effort to chew through.
The Tempura Test
We’ll just put this right out there: when hot from the fryer, Hilo Lunch Shop’s Ono Tempura is one of the best “cheap eats” the town has to offer. It’s also remarkably consistent.
Long strips of fresh Ono (Wahoo, by its English name) are dunked in a hearty Tempura batter that can best be described as “Hilo-style,” meaning much thicker than the traditional Japanese variety.
Served with a funky (but good) Tartar sauce, it’s greasy heaven.
Kawamoto’s version on the other hand, features petite squares of Ono and a lighter, if saltier, batter.
While that lighter batter may not be as ideal for Ono, it manages to work great for Kawamoto Store’s vegetable Tempura. With farm-fresh green beans, sweet potatoes, and eggplant to choose from, Kawamoto’s fried vegetables make for a fun, if oily snack.
Hilo Lunch Shop’s vegetable tempura by contrast has recently taken on somewhat baseball-like appearance. Shredded beans and carrots are dunked in a heavy batter before (we assume) being scooped into a round ball, and fried. The outcome? An slightly undercooked center.
This surprised us a bit, as the product used to be less ball-like. Here’s hoping the old ways return.
Where “Salad” Don’t Mean “Greens”
Few island side dishes are more variable in their preparation than the much-loved “Mac Salad,” and our two bento rivals are no exception.
Our hands-down preference here is Hilo Lunch Shop’s version. With diced potatoes, macaroni, mayonnaise and bits of cucumber, it’s a nicely textured and well-seasoned accompaniment to an island-style bento experience.
Kawamoto Store’s macaroni salad (called simply “salad” by the staff) is, by contrast, one of the more unique you’ll find. It’s made almost entirely of spaghetti noodles, mayonnaise and tuna fish. While the spaghetti and tuna are a novelty, the salad could use some extra ingredients like minced onion, celery or egg to make things less… monotone.
Not that they’ll listen to our suggestions. The salad has been this way for a while.
In fact, both Kawamoto’s and Hilo Lunch Shop share a common bond: besides having been around for ages, neither is especially known for “changing things up.”
Frankly, we love that about them.
Hilo Lunch Shop is located at 421 Kalanikoa St Hilo, HI 96720. Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30 a.m. till 1:00 p.m. Phone: (808)-935-8273.
Kawamoto Store is located at 784 Kilauea Ave. Hilo, HI 96720. Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 6:00 a.m. till 12 noon. Phone: (808)-935-8209.
Prices at both establishments vary per item, and range from 75 cents to 3 dollars.