Review: Ate-Oh-Ate

Nostalgia can do odd things to people. It can turn strong men weepy, and make normally sensible folks act with puzzlingly sentimental yearnings.

The word “nostalgia” literally means a sickness for home, and when Ben Dyer set out to re-create the food (no one ever accused it of being a “cuisine”) of his native Hawaii, that sickness caused him to do a curious thing: he opened a restaurant about a dozen notches lower than his two establishments, Simpatica and Laurelhurst Market, among the very best restaurants in Portland. Dyer, a superb meat maven, let his standards of taste and judgment lapse for the sake of recreating the foods of his boyhood. Wistfulness is one thing, but sentimentality without self-critique is bathos. For someone so attuned to wonderful cooking and eating, Dyer’s new venture called Ate-Oh-Ate (a play on Hawaii’s area code) makes little sense unless it was devised as a cash cow or an exercise in gastronomical self-indulgence. It is in fact what the French call “nostalgie de la boue.”

Ate-Oh-Ate is a no-frills space, with concrete block walls, concrete floor, communal tables, a coke machine prominently displayed, and orders taken at the counter. You’re asked to bus your tables, but not everyone does. Of course no one ever accused Hawaiian plate lunch spots of trying to get into Architectural Digest, but if you go be prepared for low rent noshing.

You can certainly get a filling meal for peanuts (though not for macadamia nuts). Almost every main course (all of which come with macaroni or green salad and two big scoops of rice, a fixed convention from Maui to Kauai) costs $8.95. And a range of sides go for $2-$3; no wonder there are gaggles of kids there. It’s an economical place to put on the poundage. No one ever praised Hawaiian food for its healthiness, and no one ever went broke consuming it either.

Hopes had been high that Dyer’s expertise at his other places would translate well to Ate-Oh-Ate, that in fact his skills would transcend the banalities of the Hawaiian menu. Sadly this is not the case. My first night I had an order of Kalua pig that was utterly bland if not flavorless.  Traditionally the pig is slow cooked in an imu or underground oven, on hot volcanic rocks in a pit lined with banana leaves. Understandably the USDA frowns on this method for restaurant cooking, particularly because the pig is covered with burlap and dirt during its slow steam. But even with modern cooking methods this is a dish at which Dyer would normally excel, and yet Ate-Oh-Ate’s pig is bereft of flavor, crying out for hopped-up spicing.

Another disappointing dish is the poke, a great Hawaiian favorite consisting of cubes of raw fish or seafood such as shrimp and octopus, marinated usually in soy sauce, sesame oil, and chili peppers. The night I had it the fish was tombo, an Ahi tuna. The marinade was bracing and snappy, but the fish was dreadfully slimy, considerably beyond its youthful freshness—deeply disappointing because when the ingredients are right this simple dish is a great appetizer.

You can’t immerse yourself in the cooking of the Islands without sooner or later encountering that culinary outrage, Spam. This precooked chopped pork shoulder and ham meat bound by potato starch may strike Portland foodies as an exotic species, but almost four cans of the stuff are sold in the U.S. every second! Its name apparently stands for “Specially Processed American Meat,” though wags see it as meaning “Something Posing As Meat.” Ate-Oh-Ate serves a version known as Spam Musubi, in which the meat is wrapped around rice and topped with nori and a piece of a thin omelet. The taste is notoriously insipid, but if you really swoon for this product–and it has its many fanatical adherents, even appearing on McDonald’s Hawaiian menus–you can catch the “Spam Jam” each April on Waikiki.

There are two side orders that are almost worth everything else that comes out of Ate-Oh-Ate’s kitchen: sweet potato tempura and the taro chips. The potato will not really remind you of tempura, which in Japanese cooking is lacy and delicate; these tongue-shaped potatoes lack airiness, but are salty, crunchy, and addictive. However nothing will turn you into a junkie (in both senses of that word) faster than the purple-flecked taro chips, stronger-tasting and even more seductive than potato chips. If you order a green salad to accompany your main course, you should try a side of the macaroni salad (how much health do you demand, anyway?), which represents a decent version of this Island favorite, less mayonnaise-gloppy than is often the case with this old fashioned dish. But the cucumber kimchi, far less interesting than the traditional cabbage version, lacks the fierce bite that any Korean restaurant will deliver on the instant.

Not much is especially compelling at Ate-Oh-Ate. The Korean style short ribs ($10.95) are tiny and not very succulent, and are burdened with an excess of salt. An order of grilled mahi mahi ($10.95) is workman-like, but nothing you couldn’t do just as handily yourself. A reasonably satisfying but fairly mundane concoction comes with a title considerably more interesting than its contents: Bi Bim Bop, Korean for “mixed rice.” In a deep bowl a few pieces of teriyaki chicken or beef and some bits of kim chee lie atop of a mound of rice garnished with a fried egg. If you Google the dish, you’ll find brilliant photos of numerous styles of the recipe, all of which for vibrancy of color are to Ate-Oh-Ate’s version as Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie” is to Picasso’s smoke-brown cubism. There is one especially nice item–“Korean chicken”–Asian wings a bit like Pok Pok’s but a tad less intense, doused in a sauce that combines sweetness and fire.

The only sublime post-appetizer pleasure comes with that Hawaiian staple, shave ice. As any islander can tell you, it’s not at all like a snow cone. The latter is made from crushed ice that’s often refrozen into a solid chunk, whereas genuine shave ice is literally shaved from a block of ice into a fine powder that makes for a more sensuous treat. Ate-Oh-Ate wisely emphasizes such tropical flavors as coconut, orange, and tart and salt-tangy dried plum. In Honolulu you often find stands that pour on the ice such heretical syrups as bubble gum, which is akin to putting blueberries in bagels. At least Ate-Oh-Ate sticks to the tried and true. If they’re offering coconut ice cream under the ice, don’t hesitate: it lends richness and dimension to the affair, which arrives in a large V-shaped plastic cup.

Even though the main dishes are called “plate lunches,” Ate-Oh-Ate is open all day, its lunches and dinner offerings identical. A “plate lunch” is exactly what you may have whether at noon or at 8:00 pm. (At lunchtime itself the ingredients of the larger plates work their way into a small selection of sandwiches.) The plate lunch is generally a carbo-hefty affair that reflects the multi-cultural nature of Hawaii: Chinese, Korean, Philippine, Japanese, and Polynesian. Some locals refer to the state not as a melting pot but a salad bowl, a curiously inappropriate term given how few vegetables you’d find in this cooking.

Some folks obviously find this food a casual and fun-filled experience. And some will no doubt think I should lighten up, that after all Hawaiian food never claimed to be anything to be taken too seriously but is tasty, elemental, and pleasurable in a simple, straightforward way. But I have to say that I eat better at the “restaurant” where I teach, the Reed College cafeteria. I mention this because Ate-Oh-Ate serves essentially cafeteria food. So once again—why do it? As they say in a variant of mountaineer speak, “Because it was there,” long ago and far away, in nostalgia land.

Another wonderful restaurateur, Andy Ricker, goes back each year to Thailand to discover new and often thrilling styles of Thai street food for Pok Pok; but when a native of Hawaii returns for indigenous food, he’s bound, as Ben Dyer has, to come up with the same old. At Ate-Oh-Ate not only are there no surprises, but though the restaurant is new, much of the food already seems disappointingly tired. What is one person’s wistfulness is another’s kitsch.

Roger Porter can be reached at: porter@reed.edu

________________________________________

Food: C

Service: B

Ambiance: C

Address: 2454 E. Burnside Street, Portland 97214 Map

Phone: 503-445-6101

Website: www.ate-oh-ate.com

Hours: Daily 11:00 am-9:00 pm.

Credit cards; no reservations

Noise level: Think McDonalds (FD’s note – Roger Porter has been to McDonalds?)

Drinks: Several beers, ginger beer, mango and pineapple sodas, but no wine

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. deaner says

    I have ate here a few times and dislike….first they brine thier pork and use liquid smoke….how sad the porkbelly buger was dry and sad they grilled the pork belly so much it looked like sad bacon….i want pork bellys not bacon…

  2. extramsg says

    I don’t know Roger. It sounds like you just don’t like Hawaiian food.  Isn’t that kind of like someone who finds country music banal reviewing Gwyneth Paltrow’s new album?  Seems like you should either give us a fair reference point, such as other Hawaiian food joints in town, or you might as well just save us the read and write, “Hawaiian food sucks,” and leave it at that.

  3. Heidi Yorkshire says

    Comparing Dyer’s Hawaiian food to other Hawaiian food in Portland is pointless. Just like saying Kenny & Zuke’s is a fine New York deli for Portland would be damning with faint praise. I believe the owners of K&Z’s had much higher standards in mind, standards that went past simple nostalgia for overrated joints in NYC and re-invented such classics as pastrami, with significant success. What I’d expect from someone with Dyer’s skills and talent is to turn the Hawaiian palette of flavors and ingredients into something both delicious and original, and still be true to its origins. (By the way, this is not impossible — Sam Choy’s incredible and dearly departed restaurant in Kona did exactly that, in an inexpensive, casual atmosphere.) When a chef of Dyer’s stature tackles a project like this, I hope that he’ll find a way to convince anyone who cares about good eating that the cuisine is worth bothering with.

  4. extramsg says

    @Heidi:
    Note the words “such as”.  I didn’t say it had to be a PDX Hawaiian joint, just something as a reference so it doesn’t just seem like the whole cuisine isn’t worth bothering with.
     
    Roger gives the example of Pok Pok, where Ricker just re-creates dishes from Thailand fairly faithfully. He’s not “transcending” jack.  People who’ve spent time in Thailand, especially Chiang Mai, will find much of the menu familiar.
     
    Likewise, you mention K&Z. While you can argue that we’re getting back to doing things the way they were done before mass production took over the cuisine, there’s nothing especially creative or “transcendent” about K&Z’s menu.  It’s all pretty traditional stuff, except for a couple of fun items like the pastrami cheese fries or the pastrami burger (though that was based on pastrami burgers in LA and SLC with decades of tradition behind them).  Nothing transcending the cuisine, just recreating the past — what Roger poo-poos about Ate-Oh-Ate.
     
    Personally, I’m fine with faithful re-creations.  I don’t see why there’s a need to “transcend” cuisines when there’s so much out there with decades, centuries, or millenia of tradition and tasty trial-and-error behind them that’s not available here.
     
    Maybe Ate-Oh-Ate isn’t a very good rendition of plate lunch.  I’ve only been once and my meal was mixed, with items that were quite good and items that were so-so.  But I just think the review would be improved by some context for the cuisine, rather than largely a dismissal of it.

  5. says

    It’s a shame that there aren’t more good Hawaiian places in Portland.  Uwajimaya’s deli counter actually has some great food, but my fave is Tommy O’s in Vancouver.  They’ve got two restaurants, one more kitschy, one more upscale, but the menus are identical.  The food is traditionally Hawaiian, though lacking in spam, and always quite enjoyable.  The cocktails are generally great, too, and I’ve never had any complaints about the service.

  6. Tyler says

    I grew up in the 808 and having eaten at simpatica hawaiian nights, was really excited for ate-oh-ate.  It was by far the most disappointing restaurant visit in my 6 years in portland.  The Kal-bi was one note and not at all like at simpatica.  The pig, bland and mac salad was ok.  The chicken katsu was good, but the sauce was not.  And the burger.  Wow.  Worst in Portland.  Plate lunch places in hawaii have great little terri hamburgers.  I miss those.  Ate-oh-ate is neither a faithful rendition of plate lunch and nor a transcendence of it.  Its just not a good version of it at all.
     

  7. MrDonutsu says

    I’ve been to Ate-Oh-Ate twice now. I’ve enjoyed my meals there but I do think there is room for improvement, both in the execution some of the dishes and in the overall range options available on the menu.
    Based on the track record of Laurelhurst Market, I’m pretty sure we’ll see this improvement occur over the next few months.
    But reading this review, it’s difficult to conceive of any improvements that would please Roger. With its dismissive tone, “…a restaurant about a dozen notches lower than his other establishments…”, “…Ate-Oh-Ate serves essentially cafeteria food…”, it’s clear that Roger wouldn’t like this place no matter how good the food was.
     
     

  8. Tyler says

    I don’t know, I love Hawaiian food and I thought Roger’s review was pretty spot on.  His review had to do with the quality of what was presented, not the type of food.
     

  9. Craig Clark says

    In defense…

    My last plate lunch was in August at Da Kitchen in Kihei, Maui. We had Kalua Pork, Chicken Katsu, and Kalbi Ribs. The Lunches ran from $9 – $16 and included 1 scoop mac salad, 2 scoops rice.

    We had lunch with friends at Ate Oh Ate a few weeks ago. We shared Taro Chips, Tempura, Pickled Diakon, Kimchi, Spam Masubi, Kalua Pig, Shoyu Chicken, Kal-bi Ribs, and Samin. (and Shave Ice).

    As a comparison, I felt that the dishes we had at Ate Oh Ate were very similar to what we ate in Hawaii. I think Ben has got the dishes ”spot on” (at least from whet sampled). If you don’t like them here, you probably won’t like them in Hawaii either.

    My only real disapointment was the Spam Masubi. I’m no expert, but I prefer the warm Spam Masubi from Foodland. Tightly wrapped in plastic wrap and sitting under the hot lamp as you walk in. Rice, spam, rice (no egg) wraped with nori strip. Yum!

    I respect Roger Porter but I think he missed the point here. Thank’s Ben for bringing food memories of Hawaii to Portland.

  10. johnny says

    Jenn there’s a new Hawaiian restaurant in Tigard next to the theater that’s by Joanne’s fabrics. I haven’t tried it but it looks kind of funky I think its name is the Yummy Hawaiian its Holeinthewallesque

  11. glainie says

    Let’s get real here. It would be unusual for a Hawaiian plate lunch to be reviewed in the first place. How much can a critic offer up on the subject of spam and macaroni salad?? I think Roger’s over-arching theme is that if you’re a respected chef, the expectation is that the reletively mundane (in any form) should be elevated or re-imagined. An alternate approach to a review (as extramsg points out) would be the compare and contrast model. He recently offered up somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 individual critiques of a hamburger. Democratic perhaps, but also bordering on ridiculous. I suppose Roger could have weighed the merits of more or less mayonnaise in various Macaroni salads, but to what end?

  12. Eli says

    I’ve only eaten at Ate-Oh-Ate once, and it was really early on, but I kind of agree with Roger.
    Kauai Island Grill out by Sunset High School and Ohana Cafe on Sandy are both worth checking out.  The atmosphere at both is not on par with Ate-Oh-Ate and neither offers beer / wine / cocktails, but the plate lunch is good.

  13. Kevin says

    This seems to have the essence of a review: a sense of what the restaurant is trying to accomplish in relation to the actual food and experience, with concrete examples of how it matched up and how it fell short. That’s just about all the context I need in a review… which is not to say I’d take it as gospel. But if a reviewer managed that, I’d be inclined to trust him or her, even if I didn’t agree on every point.
    In this case, I’d trust that the pig was dry, the poke silmy, etc. without deciding the reviewer must have some bias toward the cuisine. Even if he did, though, it’s still possible to end up beguiled by a dish or a cuisine you didn’t think you liked when it was done really well, but this doesn’t sound like the food made the case.

  14. Joisey says

    “Personally, I’m fine with faithful re-creations.  I don’t see why there’s a need to “transcend” cuisines when there’s so much out there with decades, centuries, or millenia of tradition and tasty trial-and-error behind them that’s not available here.”
     
    Kind of like a burger, huh?
     
    Oh, wait….

  15. extramsg says

    @Heidi: Hardly blasting.  For that you can refer back to my review of your review of Lucier.  It was just an honest disagreement without any rancor on my part.
     
    @Joisey: If you recall, my #1 burger, the double-cheese burger from Metrovino, was basically a double-double animal style from In-N-Out with just high quality ingredients.  Exactly the type of thing I’m talking about.  Nothing “new” about it, just traditional stuff done really, really well.

  16. Jessica M says

    The food is just not that good.  The only reason this place got a review is because of who they are.  I think people were expecting a certain wow factor.  The fact is Hawaiian food is what it is but if you can’t even hit the mark with cooking rice, meat and sides right with some sort of soul then your food is not good.  I’ve eaten here 3 times and all 3 times I’ve found it bland and boring.  Porters review is right on if you want to see more proof just go on to Yelp and read the reviews.  You can take a grain of salt with Yelp but just read the reviews on the food.  These guys should just turn it into a burger bar and call it a day. I think that someone is riding on the coat tails of their sucsess and it’s sad to see this ship sink.  Alot of people use that word chef real loosely.

    And extramsg, hey sweetie this isn’t about you.  You made your point and it was heard.  We all know that you feel that you have to have the last say, but please let people speak without you having to explain yorself, its getting old.  Roger Porters was about the food and it was actually lucky that this place even got a review on this site, not many Hawaiian joints have that privledge.  Not everybody has the free time to eat at every establishment in town, some people have full time jobs.  He wrote a review on the food not a comparasion on the cuisine. Sugar, we all read your what comes out of your mouth, just sometimes put another burger in it before you decide to type 

  17. eternaljanuary says

    I couldn’t agree more with this write up.  Sure, he may come off as someone who doesn’t appreciate Hawaiian food, but what he says about the food at Ate Oh Ate rings true.  Here’s what I said about my experience.
     
    The whole thing reminded me of something you would find on a main drag in Honolulu. It would be a safe place for tourists to try and sample what Hawaiian food is about, but the tourist version of …the food. My preference for Spam Musubi is to be grilled, warm and have some teri sauce on it. Theirs was cold, no sauce and had an omelet in it. The teri chicken was a bit salty and didn’t come through with the grilled flavour. Mac salad was ok, but no standout. It’s cool they have beer, wine and cocktails though. The location on E Burnside is good and convenient. However, give me Ohana any day of the week.

  18. snow says

    To me, it sounds like he didn’t like the food because it wasn’t very good. How can anyone have a problem with that? I get a kick out of people who think food writing is an objective practice. I’ll probably eat there at some point, but based on this I’m not rushing out this weekend. Would anyone else who has eaten there suggest otherwise? I love what appears to be the basic premise from a few comments that ‘Roger doesn’t like Hawaiian food because Hawaiian food isn’t very good.’ Sort of like he doesn’t get it because it’s traditional and by that meaning traditionally mediocre. Good stuff.

  19. shawn says

    How about the new Hawaiian cart at the Alder & 10th pod: Grind.  Anyone try it?  How does it compare to other places around town?

  20. pantisocrat says

    I agree with Porter’s review of Ate-0-Ate.  I lived in Haleiwa on Oahu for four years and was really looking forward to Ben’s homage to Hawaiian food.  I, like Porter, am very disappointed by quality and execution of the food.  I’ve been to the restaurant three times now, nostalgia of Hawaii bringing me back only to be disappointed each time.  Because of the irrational nature of nostalgia, I’m hoping Ben makes this a place I look forward to enjoying instead of wondering if Ate-0-Ate could make it in Hawaii.

  21. Guignol says

    Had a great dinner t Laurelhurst once (only once), SEVERE long wait for two mediocre at best sandwiches at lunch (once), Has anyone ever seen a Hawaiian restaurant last? Hard to choke/live with a review like this, doesnt make me want to go there anytime soon……. Hmmmm…..time will tell

  22. Jill-O says

    Noho’s has been around, what 18 years?  Bamboo Grove has been around for a while.  So yeah, most of us have seen a Hawaiian restaurant last.
    I’ve never been to Hawaii but I enjoyed my one meal at Ate-Oh-Ate…and I wished they served those wings by the bucket.
     
     

  23. Guignol says

    Noise level: Think McDonalds (FD’s note – Roger Porter has been to McDonalds?)
    I recall a review that Roger did almost 5 years ago on Cuvee in Carlton, “The fries at this French bistro couldn’t hold a candle to McDonalds”………..Cant wait for his “McRib” review

  24. salon naples says

    I couldn’t agree more with this write up.  Sure, he may come off as someone who doesn’t appreciate Hawaiian food, but what he says about the food at Ate Oh Ate rings true.  Here’s what I said about my experience.I love what appears to be the basic premise from a few comments that ‘Roger doesn’t like Hawaiian food because Hawaiian food isn’t very good.’ Sort of like he doesn’t get it because it’s traditional and by that meaning traditionally mediocre. Good stuff.

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