FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Melita Corpuz puts the finishing touches on orders ready for customers at Uncle's Fish Market & Grill. In the foreground is a combo basket of shrimp, calamari and fries served with cocktail and tartar sauces.
Fresh fish reels in crowds to Uncle’s
Creationists attacking Darwin's theory of evolution have probably never been to Hawaii, where, clearly, human inhabitants have evolved to adapt physically and behaviorally to island living.
Living in this petri dish, it's hard to realize just how weird and tweaked we are by the notion of crowds and scarcity.
This was painfully evident during a couple of outings to Uncle's Fish Market & Grill at Pier 38, when, hoping to beat a known early lunch crowd, I left the office at 11 a.m. in hope of getting there before 11:30. Construction on Nimitz Highway proved to be a setback, and by the time I got to Uncle's, it was packed. Next day, I left earlier and skirted traffic by going on Vineyard to Waiakamilo. Same thing. More packed.
When space and time are limited, people develop a "beat the crowd" mentality, which would work if everyone else weren't also lining up to lunch at 10!
Fresh fish at a reasonable price. What could be more enticing and, strangely for an island, so rare?
This is a restaurant that would have been warmly welcomed in downtown Honolulu or Aloha Tower, but development of a Fishing Village took precedence. Uncle's, along with Nico's at Pier 38, the United Fishing Agency fish auction and Pacific Ocean Producers, which sells fishing and boating gear, are just the beginning of what the state envisions.
As so happens, a lot of downtown office workers do make the relatively easy trek, a mere two miles away and with a "loose" parking situation -- meaning, anything goes (for now at least). As a sure sign of value, senior citizens also rock the place. One elderly guy even rolled his oxygen tank along while maneuvering his way around the room.
Plan for a long lunch. An hour won't cut it when you have to wait 15 to 20 minutes in line (before 12:30 p.m.) to order at the counter and another 20 to 30 minutes for your food to show up there.
I WAS CURIOUS to see how the new restaurant would affect area pioneer Nico's, but it seems to have had little adverse effect. Although Nico's takes a gourmet approach with its sauces and salads, Uncle's entrepreneur Bruce Johnson takes a backyard approach with ingredients basic to every local kitchen. Both places are packed at lunch time. It would have made sense for Uncle's to stay open longer than Nico's, which closes at 6 p.m. weekdays. For now, Uncle's closes at 5 p.m., making dinner impossible, unless you take it out at lunchtime.
In addition to hot entrees, Uncle's offers a handful of refrigerator items packed to grab-and-go, including $5.95 bowls of delicious ocean-fresh spicy ahi poke on cabbage, sashimi and oysters on the half shell.
The menu is bigger than you'd imagine, because for every fish offering, whether ono, mahimahi, opah or ahi, you also have a choice of four tempting preparations: charbroiled with garlic and olive oil or Uncle's teriyaki sauce; sautéed in garlic, butter, wine and lemon; blackened Cajun-style; or pan-fried with a touch of chili pepper and soy sauce.
For me, sautéing is the way to go if you want to avoid dried-out fish. But the cooks here so far are doing a tremendous job of timing doneness so your fish gets rare-, medium- or well-cooked treatment to order, a courtesy ordinarily reserved for steaks. Both charbroiled and pan-fried styles retained their moisture at medium doneness.
You might wish for more chili pepper in the pan-fried version, but sauces are kept simple to avoid overshadowing the real star, the juicy succulence of fresh fish.
Go for the fish plates. Other menu items are mere distractions. I saw many tables lined with fish-and-chip bowls, but the panko crust on shrimp ($12.95) and calamari ($11.95) or a combination of both ($12.95) was a thick shell that prevented me from enjoying the freshness of the shellfish inside. Swallowed all together, the experience was little better than ingesting freezer fare. These gigantic bowls are definitely not for anyone whose stomach is mostly an oil- and fat-free environment.
Clam pasta ($13.95) featuring a dozen Manila clams and marinara sauce was fine but couldn't compare to the fresh fish. And I didn't care for the starchy chowder ($4.95) or fresh-fish soft tacos ($9.50) in which a poke-size dice of fresh seared ahi took a back seat to cabbage and pineapple salsa, wrapped in two dry tortillas.
The one dish that did measure up favorably to the fish was Uncle's Crab-N-Avocado Salad ($12.95) of romaine and hearts of palm with a dollop of fresh -- not imitation or shredded-beyond-recognition -- crab meat on top. That is another Honolulu rarity.
One man, who works in the federal building, commented that there were so many dishes that looked tempting that he'd have to visit more than once. That's a compliment given the local modus operandi. That is, descend on a new place all at once in its first week to month of operation, love it or hate it, and if you hate it, never return.
Looking over at all the food in front of me, he quipped, "Looks like you don't have to come back."
Thing is, I want to.