#FUUD: Izakaya Torae Torae in McCully

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Back when people still read newspapers, there was a rule for food critics: wait a couple of months before reviewing a new restaurant.

The reason? You want to give new chefs and owners a chance to work out the kinks, tweak their menus, and get into a steady flow. It’s really only fair.

Well, thanks to something called the Internet — specifically, food bloggers and sites like Yelp — restaurants get reviewed almost before they even open. And it’s not uncommon for a new spot to get a buzz during its first few weeks of opening, then fizzle.

That didn’t happen with Izakaya Torae Torae.

This izakaya (Japanese tavern) in McCully opened in February to a lot of online chatter — and it’s still super popular nine months later.

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Inside the izakaya. The sushi bar peeks into the open kitchen, where you can watch your food being prepared.

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The wooden walls are adorned with hip art by Chanel Tanaka. Very different.

Hide Yoshimoto, the popular chef from Doraku Sushi, opened this neighborhood izakaya to rave reviews early on. (It helps when you organize a soft opening for all the social media foodies and bloggers.)

The menu here is extensive, likely part of the appeal. You can find just about whatever you want here, from salads to donburi (rice bowl dishes) to sushi to desserts. (The website calls it a “kitchen sink menu.” I like that!) And it’s obvious Yoshimoto brought along his Asian-fusion flair.

I went with a friend recently who’s been there before — that helps! — and here’s what we ate:

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The gyūtan (cow tongue), or tanshio, is one of my favorite izakaya staples. The salted meat has to be super thin and fried to an almost crisp, and this didn’t disappoint.

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Our server recommended the snow crab and cream corn croquette, a richer, softer version of what people would think of when they hear the word, “croquette.” The white cream filling was creamy — just a hint of Alaskan snow crab, really — and flavorful.

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The pupu-style jidori chicken plate was a surprise. You can get this seasoned with yukari (salt) or curry. I had heard the curry seasoning was a bit intense, so we went with the yukari and it was nicely done. Simple — and great with yaki onigiri (which isn’t on the menu, but ask anyway).

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My girlfriend loveloveloves the hamachi carpaccio, which comes with ponzu sauce and a hint of truffle oil. The fish was crisp, the onions added some crunch. Really a perfect dish.

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Another signature dish is the pork belly kakuni, a slow-braised pork belly from Sunterra Farm simmered in a shoyu sauce and balanced with an ontama and daikon. The fall-off-your-fork pork is packed with flavor. I think I moaned after each bite.

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One of my surprise favorites was this Angry Buta roll. Get this: pork belly and kim chee stuffed in this sushi hand roll. You can’t get better than that!

Some thoughts: You want to make reservations. We did — and though we were the first people in the izakaya, the place filled up quickly. And it was a weekday! And if you don’t get a stall out front — there are only a few and it’s not the easiest to back up onto McCully Street — you can park at Central Pacific Bank for a $2 flat fee.

Trust me, the walk across the street will be well worth the effort.

(CORRECTION: Now that the izakaya has its liquor license, it’s still BYOB, but you have to pay a $20 corkage fee.)

Izakaya Torae Torae, 1111 McCully St., Honolulu, O‘ahu. Hours: 6 p.m. to midnight Wednesday through Monday, closed Tuesday; happy hour 10 p.m. to last call. Phone: (808) 949-5959.

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Let’s get this cookbook funded!

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I’m a big fan of cookbooks.

Oh, a big fan.

While I already foster a very disturbing addiction to books — you should see my collection! — I’ve dedicated a portion of the bookshelves (yes, plural) to cookbooks.

New ones, old ones, the kind you buy as fundraisers for school and churches. I think I have every cookbook published by every hongwanji in the state.

10441092_896400808825_7249436248650005850_n copySo when I heard that my social media pal Nicole LaTorre (@ChefLaTorre), private chef and owner of Hawai‘i Sustainable Chef, was raising funds through the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to publish her first-ever cookbook, I got excited. Like, really excited.

LaTorre, who’s self-taught and super passionate, will share more than 50 of her original recipes, from farm-to-table dishes to quickie appetizers to meals great for kids to things like a Malasada Creme Brûlée and Truffled Kalua Pork Grilled Cheese.

Ah, yeah.

“Whether you want an easy recipe or a more challenging project, the goal is to get people excited about creating food at home, with family or friends,” says LaTorre, who grew up in South Jersey. “Food brings people together and I hope people not only enjoy making these dishes, but enjoy making memories with the special people in their lives.”

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The book, which should be out in December, will include some of her resourceful DIY projects like making your own up-cycled produce bags and “mason meals.” And yes, there will be vegan, paleo and gluten-free options for her recipes, too.

Plus, LaTorre will include a list of locations on O‘ahu — more than 25 farms, farmers’ markets and other small businesses — where you can source your ingredients.

It’s a lot of information packed into one cookbook!

“Whether using one local ingredient or six local ingredients, each recipe counts,” she says. “Each local ingredient utilized helps support the local economy and the farmers who work hard to make these food sources available to us. I hope to showcase some new possibilities by emphasizing what we can create, by bringing multiple farmers together all on one plate.”

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So right after I kicked in some cash to fund her project, I asked LaTorre a few questions about her cooking, her cookbook, and what she means by Italian-Hawaiian fusion.

CT: What influenced you to write your own cookbook? I imagine people kept bugging you for recipes! (I get that, too, and I’m not even a chef!)

NLT: It’s always been a goal of mine to publish a book and after a handful of friends asked for recipes I thought it would be a great way to share all my best recipes with others. I realized as a private chef, I can only cook for so many people on any given day. By sharing my recipes with others, they can recreate my recipes any time they want!

CT: What do you enjoy about sharing your recipes?

NLT: Sharing recipes is something that my family has done for many generations. My mom has a recipe box with recipes from my grandmother and my Great-Aunt Mary, who cooked with me as a young girl. Although they are no longer with us, their memories live on through the gifts they left behind.

CT: Where did you grow up and how did that influence your cooking?

I grew up in South Jersey, right outside of Atlantic City. I like to describe my style as Italian Hawaiian fusion because many of my dishes are inspired by a combination of my Italian upbringing and my time spent in Hawaii.

CT: What’s your culinary/food background?

NLT: I’m a self-taught chef. In high school I had a cookie and brownie business. I made $50 a day selling chocolate chip cookies and homemade brownies to my peers every day for 2 1/2 years until the art teacher sent me to in-school suspension. Apparently, it was illegal to sell anything in school and keep the profits. Many teachers supported the “Underground Bake Sale,” but all good things must come to an end.

At the time, I saw a need in the market because students were hungry and the lunch periods were either super early or super late in the day. With no other outlet to purchase snacks of any kind, my business became successful pretty quickly. It was my motivation for going to school. I lost all interest in reading Shakespeare and focusing on topics that didn’t interest me, but felt excited to go to school each day because people loved the baked goods. As soon as I got home from school each day, I’d start baking for the next day’s supply.

There was a lot of gratification in knowing people loved my baked goods and continued to purchase from me day in and day out. I felt really proud.

CT: What happened after high school?

NLT: After high school I worked in restaurants, waitressing and bartending my way through college.
I always observed the plating techniques of the chefs and tried to make my dishes look as visually appealing. I had a boss who used to say, “We eat with our eyes first.”

CT: And then you moved here and started your company in August 2012. Love it?

NLT: For the last two years I’ve cooked for an amazing family every week, cooked for corporate events, other special events and private dinners.

CT: Any last words for my readers, many of whom, hopefully, will buy your cookbook?

NLT: At the end of the day, no one can do it alone. We all need someone. Many of these recipes represent the importance of working together and also define just how much Hawai‘i really brings to the table. A synergy and an appreciation for all those that make these recipes possible, from the farmer, to the fisherman, to the cutting board shaper and the compost company. We all play a part in helping to sustain Hawaii. I hope this book helps create more sustainable chefs.

***

To help Nicole LaTorre publish her first cookbook, click here.

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5 Things I learned about Hawai‘i Beef

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Beef.

It’s (often) what’s for dinner.

But last Friday, when I spent the day on the Big Island courtesy of the Hawai‘i Beef Industry Council, I realized I didn’t know much about the state’s cattle industry.

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As part of a #PastureToPlate tour, a group of us — from ranchers to food safety experts to writers like me (above) — visited two cattle ranches and a slaughter facility. The goal was to familiarize us with cattle ranching in Hawai‘i.

Oh, and did it!

Here’s what I learned:

1. Ranching is an important part of our economy.

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The gift of cattle to Kamehameha I by Capt. George Vancouver in 1793 made a huge impact on Hawai‘i economy. An entire industry was created, with that rich cowboy (paniolo) and ranch culture still around today.

Ranchers are the stewards of more than 1 million acres of land in Hawai‘i, of 25 percent of the state’s total land mass. The Big Island produces the most of the state’s beef — and boast some of the largest cattle ranches in the U.S.

2. It’s not easy to raise, slaughter and sell Hawai‘i beef directly to the local market — but it happens.

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Most cattle is grown here until about six or seven months old, then sold into the commodity market on the Mainland — the price of cattle right now is at an all-time high. Very few ranches produce beef from cows raised, finished, slaughtered and sold directly to local markets.

Why? Well, it’s more cost-effective for ranchers to sell their calves instead of finishing them here. You need lots of great pasture land for that. And after decades of sending off their calves, the infrastructure here has changed. There are only a few slaughterhouses left.

Ponoholo Ranch in Kohala, for exmpale, sells most of its calves to the Mainland after they’re weaned (about seven months old and about 400 pounds). They are sent via “cowtainers” to California or Seattle or by 747 cargo jets to L.A. The cattle are then trucked to pastures or directly to a feed yard.

There are ranches, though, that are committed to producing beef — start-to-finish in the Islands — like Kuahiwi Ranch in Ka‘ū. One hundred precent of its cattle is finished here. And cull cows, older bulls and a couple hundred grass-finished steers and heifers from Ponoholo Ranch get harvested and processed on the Big Island for the local market.

There’s also a program with Hawai‘i Ranchers that brings Hawai‘i-born cattle sent to the Mainland to finish in feed lots back to the Islands. In the program, Hawai‘i-born calves are shipped to feed lots in Oregon, where they are kept separate from cattle from other states. They receive no hormones or antibiotics, and are fed a vegetarian diet that has no animal by-product feeds and, whenever possible, has no genetically modified grains. The cows are processed on the Mainland and the meat is shipped back here.

3. Ranches are beautiful places.

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I was blown away by the sheer beauty and serenity of these ranches, particularly Ponoholo Ranch (above), which sprawls over 11,000 acres from summit to sea. (This ranch was started by Ronald von Holt and Atherton Richards back in 1928. In 1980 the ranch split into two — Kahua Ranch and Ponoholo Ranch — and were jointly operated until 1989.)

The ranch covers three climate zones — from the rainforest at 4,800 feet elevation to the rugged coastline — and has the second largest herd of cattle on the island at around 6,000 heads.

The view was breathtaking, with a herd of cattle in the distance grazing and the Pacific Ocean below. I mean, people pay good money for views like that!

4. Slaughterhouses are nothing to be afraid of.

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I’ll admit, I was a bit nervous — though super curious — about visiting a slaughterhouse.

Lot of gruesome images come to mind. Bloody carcasses, guts everywhere.

Turns out, Hawai‘i Beef Producers in Pa‘auilo is not like that at all.

We weren’t there on a processing day — thankfully — but we did get to tour the facility, which was so clean I could’ve licked the floor. Seriously. (We couldn’t take photos, though, probably because people — like me — would have preconceived notions — read: fears — about the process.)

The De Luz family, which has been ranching for three generations on the 10,000-acre Kukaiau Ranch nearby, runs this slaughterhouse. The beef that’s processed here is top-notch, meeting the uber-high standards of such retailers at Whole Foods Markets. (Read about the company’s animal welfare standards here.)

The slaughterhouse processes about 450 heads a month, all local cattle. And whatever that translates to in terms of beef on tables or industry revenue, it really means keeping these ranchers and processors in business.

5. You can’t beat a beef burger.

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When we were touring the slaughterhouse, Jill Andrade-Mattos, the general manager, told us that Hawai‘i beef may not be the tenderest, but it’s the healthiest — and more importantly, it’s local.

She should have added, “tasty,” to that list.

Our tour ended at Āhualoa Ranch in Pa‘auilo, where chef Edwin Goto of Village Burger in Waimea prepared us lunch using Kuahiwi Ranch beef.

The patties were flavorful and juicy and grilled perfectly. Goto paired it with brioche baked at Holy’s Bakery in Kapa‘au — it’s Goto’s recipe — and locally grown tomatoes, lettuce, cheese and condiments. (I mean, you can’t eat a burger without mayonnaise!) Talk about a winner.

I mean, eating a perfect burger made from beef grown and harvested on this island, while gazing at the open pastureland of Āhualoa Ranch — how can it get any better?

Special thanks to Michelle Galimba of Kuahiwi Ranch for inviting me! For more information about Hawai‘i’s cattle industry, visit the Hawai‘i Beef Industry Council. And when you shop, look for local beef. #supportlocal

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A letter to my sister

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Dear Crystal,

You are probably at IKEA in Portland right now — yes, I’m infinitely jealous of you — looking for a futon bed or something equally functional for your studio apartment, and I’m still in disbelief that you’re not fast asleep at our parents’ house while Mom is washing your clothes. (It IS Monday, after all.)

You are in Oregon. And you’re not coming back — at least for a year, as your lease would indicate.

You’re going to miss Thanksgiving and Christmas with the family for the first time in your 28 years. And I can’t just barge into your bedroom, you sitting at your computer wearing the kind of headphones we used to rock in the ’80s — when did they make a comeback? — and show you photos of my dogs.

No, you’re literally 2,603 miles away now, living in a state where you can die with dignity and legally smoke weed. You will be shopping at stores like Fred Meyer and WinCo and wearing turtlenecks and rain jackets. (Speaking of which, you better pick those up this week.)

It’s all too surreal.

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It was only the other day that you were this little baby, wrapped like Jesus in the manger on Christmas Day. I would cradle you in my arms and walk up and down the hallway, wondering what kind of person you would turn into. Would you be reserved like our brother or creative like our sister or, God forbid, loud and obnoxious like me?

Then you got older and soon you were running, not walking, down that hallway — you ran everywhere! — singing and smiling and saying something that made us laugh. Like sunshine streaming into our home.

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Soon enough, you were old enough to go to preschool, then kindergarten. And that’s when I started to see you — and the uniqueness that would always be part of your identity. It was at your school’s open house. Your teacher had everyone in your class draw pictures of what you wanted to be when you grew up. Amid the colorful depictions of firefighters and teachers, there was yours, a well-drawn illustration of a scientist studying insects. You wrote — and it was spelling correctly, I might add — “entomologist.” I think even your teacher was taken aback.

Even as a kid, you did your own thing. You shunned trends and forged your own path, opting to watch anime instead of Disney movies — though you did have a thing for “Cinderella” early on and we must’ve watched it 124 times with you — and wore whatever felt comfortable, down to your toed socks.

It was entirely my fault that you got into video games. I remember your complete fascination as you watched me destroy the bosses in “Super Mario Bros.,” barely escape the guillotines in “Prince of Persia,” and navigate the courses in “Battle Bull” on the original Game Boy. I could tell you were hooked — and there was no chance you would continue playing soccer anymore. (I was right.)

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You survived high school, got a biology degree, and even worked as a plant inspector for the state, checking produce at Costco and playing poker at lunch. Collecting a paycheck and bitching about life — you were officially an adult.

But you had always wanted to move away. You wanted to try living on your own, without any help from us — particularly me, who had suddenly transformed from the cool big sister into an overbearing, lecturing adult to whom you were unfortunately related. I don’t blame you for wanting your distance. I left, too, when I was 23, heading off to graduate school in Chicago. Before then, I had never been east of Las Vegas and, worst yet, never seen snow in my life. Our brother and I landed at O’Hare along with the second-worst blizzard in the city’s history. Yay for me.

And now you’re in Oregon — with that same brother who, hopefully, has better weather karma this time — shopping for household goods and boxes of instant ramen.

I’ll miss you, even though we didn’t see each all that often. And you know our parents won’t know what to do with themselves now that you’re gone.

But it’s good. It’s really good. You need to get away and breathe and live on your own. You need to complain about the cost of electricity and discover the irritation of coin-operated washers and dryers. You need to be able to shop at will at a grocery store and watch whatever you want on YouTube until you fall asleep at your computer surrounded by open bags of Doritos and empty Diet Coke cans. (Wait, we’re not talking about me…)

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It will be hard, I won’t lie. You’ll sit on your futon couch from IKEA, alone, listening to a strange silence you’ve probably never heard before — yes, silence has a sound! — and wish you could just walk into the kitchen and see Mom kneading bread while watching the Golf Channel. I felt that way when I moved into a small, one-bedroom cottage in Kaimukī at 25. That first night, when Mom had left to go home and I was all alone in the house, was the worst. I kept the lights on and climbed into bed, surrounded by boxes I still hadn’t unpacked, and cried. I thought I had made the biggest mistake of my life.

Turns out, it was the best decision I had made — and one, despite the thousands of dollars I’ve paid to landlords and property managers, I have never regretted.

So take it from me — the overbearing older sister who has lived through this before — you’ll be fine. You are on a great adventure. You’ll meet new people, eat new foods, see new things. Your entire life will open up — something that couldn’t have happened if you had stayed here — and you’ll grow into the person you want to be.

And who knows. Maybe you’ll love it and stay there forever. Maybe you’ll pack up and move to Paris. Or heck, you might even come home after a year. Whatever happens, just know, we love you, we admire you, we believe in you, we are rooting for you.

Just don’t forget to call every once in a while.

Love no matter what,
Catherine

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I have low dog-owner self-esteem

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The other day I was hiking up the dog-friendly Makapu‘u Lighthouse Trail with my three dogs — we affectionally call the Ratter Pack — and I was reminded about a feeling I used to get at the dog park.

That my dogs aren’t good dogs. And that meant I wasn’t a good owner, either.

Let me back it up: When I first got Sunny, a Pomeranian-toy fox terrier mix, six years ago, I couldn’t wait to take her to the Hawai‘i Kai Dog Park. I was living in the area, newly single with a lot of free time, and wanted to socialize my little puppy as soon as possible. Once we completed the necessary rounds of shots and I got her registered with the city, I started taking little Sunny Girl to the park every weekday afternoon.

The first time I walked into the park, I wasn’t sure how Sunny would react. At home, she was super mellow and quiet. She liked sitting on the couch with me, watching “Top Chef” and eating fried chicken. (Remember, I was single.) So I figured she would be a little shy around other dogs.

Man, was I wrong!

IMG_0190She literally bolted into the park, running and playing and greeting everyone — owners and dogs alike. She loved the freedom, the wide open space, and her canine playmates. And it showed.

And then she started barking.

She barked and barked, mostly at the bigger dogs on the other side of the fence, trying to get them to run with her. And her bark could be incessant if she wasn’t getting her way.

Most people didn’t seem to notice. But there were a few dog owners who would give me dirty looks, roll their eyes or make snide remarks like, “Oh, there goes that dog again.” Sunny didn’t seem to care, but it made me feel badly.

I kept thinking, “Is my dog really that bad?” “What does that say about me?” “Am I a bad dog owner?”

I tried to stop her from barking, which was frustrating, and other dog owners could tell how stressed out this was making me. My new friends at the dog park would tell me to let it go, she’s just barking, who cares? But I did. I didn’t like people judging me — or my dog, for that matter — by her fairly innocuous behavior at the park. She wasn’t biting any dogs, she didn’t play aggressively. In fact, she was just barking — to get other dogs to play. I knew she wasn’t a bad dog, but I kept feeling other people thought she was, and it was really getting to me.

Once, a man walked into the other park, the one for larger dogs, and Sunny started barking at his pooch, a very relaxed English bulldog. I was embarrassed. I ran over and tried to grab Sunny — she’s quick, I gotta say — and apologized over and over again to the man. He just smiled and waved his hand. “It’s what dogs do,” he said. “They bark. It’s a dog park. Let ‘em bark.”

That made me feel instantly better, to have someone — a stranger — tell me what I’ve been thinking all along: What’s the harm?

IMG_8607It’s taken years to get over that feeling that I’m not a good dog owner. I know that I am. I take them walking every day. We hike at least twice a week. We go to the beach, they get bathed weekly, I feed them healthier food than I eat myself.

Still, the looks and remarks can hurt.

As we were walking down the trail, we met up with a large pit bull mix and his owner. Two of my dogs barked at him — I warned the owner ahead of time — and her eyes just widened as we approached. She shook her head and mumbled something under her breath. When another couple approached us — my dogs were well done barking by then — she remarked to them that she was so happy she had a good dog. I wanted to both cry and throw my shoe at her head.

My dogs are happy, they sleep well, they play together, they’re healthy, they get a lot of exercise.

But yes, they bark.

They’re dogs.

Get over it.

At least, that’s what I have to tell myself.

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