Pau Hana Patrol: Tasty surprises at Uncle’s
BY CHRISTIE WILSON / firstname.lastname@example.org
Nico’s gets all the buzz at Pier 38 for its seafood preparations and casual outdoor dining, but if you’re tired of the crowds and prefer table service and air conditioning — while still enjoying some of Honolulu’s freshest fish — just walk across the way to Uncle’s Fish Market & Grill.
UNCLE’S FISH MARKET & GRILL
Pier 38, 1135 N. Nimitz Highway
3-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays
The place is a lunchtime favorite for burly stevedores and the city’s movers and shakers alike, but it’s not top of mind when considering happy hour at Honolulu Harbor. Yet stroll in between 3 and 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and you can sip a cold Heineken or Kona Longboard Lager for $3.50 and fill up on a limited but tasty happy-hour menu.
Uncle’s has yet to build a reputation as a pau hana watering hole, so when we visited around 4:30 p.m. on a recent Friday, we were the only customers in the house. That would have been a problem if we were looking for a place to socialize with others after a hard workweek, but for quiet conversation it was just fine.
Uncle’s Fish Market & Grill is owned by Hawaii fisherman Bruce Johnson, who pays tribute to the “uncles” who mentored him — those “tenacious, humble, a bit of kolohe” fishermen — by displaying framed photos and videos of the old-schoolers to complement the tasteful tropical decor. (Don’t miss the paintings of tuna on the industrial pipes overhead.)
Happy-hour prices are good whether you sit at a table or at the bar against the back wall. Most patrons opt for table seating, but as this is a seaport establishment, you’re likely to encounter some colorful characters if you occupy a spot at the bar.
It wasn’t long before the place started to fill with (mostly middle-age) diners. Our ace server Lisa Gilbert spoke knowledgeably about the drink and food menu, and on her recommendation we tried the Koloa Mermaid ($9 at Happy Hour), a lively blend of Koloa spiced rum, triple sec, lime juice and mango aloe juice.
UNCLE’S is known for its generous portions, and the happy-hour dishes were no exception. Edamame, boiled and then wok-fried with garlic, Sriracha, salt and spices, arrived in a heaping, bright-green mound. The soybeans were fresh and firm. (We asked the kitchen to hold the Sriracha sauce, but there was still plenty of heat without it.)
Curious about the Ahi-cini — a play on arancini, the Sicilian fried rice balls coated in bread crumbs — we ordered a serving of three musubi made of sushi rice, ahi tartare filling and a deep-fried panko crust topped with nori strips, masago and a kabayaki drizzle. The rice provided a pleasant sweetness, although the tartare had cooked by the time we cut into the balls. It was still yummy, though, and if you like the chewy layer at the bottom of your rice pot, this dish will make you very happy.
Also on the five-item happy hour menu: garlic bread with “seriously spicy” marinara dipping sauce ($7); mushrooms sauteed in garlic and white wine ($9); and fries with a “garlicky, tangy, spicy” sauce ($5). Did I mention they like it spicy at Uncle’s?
For a seafood place, the happy-hour menu is curiously short on fish, no doubt for cost reasons. So we trolled the regular pupu menu, falling hook, line and sinker for the Poke Trio ($17.50). Johnson also owns Fresh Island Fish, the state’s largest distributor of fresh fish, so you know Uncle’s has the hookup.
The three versions of melt-in-your-mouth, sashimi-grade ahi poke, each about an ample cup in size, were prepared with kukui nut pesto topped with fried ogo (my favorite); “spicy” style topped with fried onions; and with Hawaiian salt, onions, sesame oil, chili flakes and green onions. A prize catch on all three counts.
I’ll be watching to see if Uncle’s Fish Market & Grill develops a distinct and spirited happy-hour following. Installation of beer taps planned for January may help.
In the meantime, if Nico’s is just too hectic, give this place a try.