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 kimchee 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: [email protected]
Address: 2454 E. Burnside Street, Portland 97214 Map
Noise level: Think McDonald’s (FD’s note – Roger Porter has been to McDonald’s?)