The Tastes of the Tropics

Hawaii’s distinctive foods (including its famed ‘meat’ — don’t be afraid to try it!) hit D.C.’s Hogo

January 10, 2013
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The Jungle Bird was allegedly created in by a bartender in Malaysia in 1978.

It’s hard to believe there are cuisines D.C. has yet to experience, but chef Javier Duran believes he’s found one. “You don’t really see Hawaiian food out here,” says Duran, who grew up in California, where the 50th state’s dishes are more common. “I miss all that food.” He’ll be featuring it for the next few weeks at Hogo (1017 7th St. NW), the new island-themed hotspot from bartender/entrepreneur Tom Brown and his brother and co-owner, Derek Brown. Duran’s gig as a chef specializing in Hawaiian fare began at Hogo’s sister bar, the Passenger (1021 7th St. NW). He’s worked there since it opened in 2009, and he cooked Hawaiian barbecue to accompany the Passenger’s classic Tiki Tuesday drink menu. When the Passenger’s owners conceived Hogo (whose name comes from a Caribbean word that conveys “high taste” and which opened Dec. 18), they asked Duran to take the first shift as chef. By then, he’d become even more versed in Hawaiian cooking. “Right after I started doing Hawaiian barbecue at the Passenger, Derek [Brown] went to Hawaii,” Duran says. “I asked him to do as much research as he could out there.” Brown returned with a bunch of menus, which he and Duran used to curate Hogo’s dishes — including these standouts.

One Hawaiian staple is not prominently featured on Hogo’s food menu: pineapple, which shows up grilled alongside various meats in typical island fare. There’s a reason. “Cooked pineapple isn’t all that appetizing to me,” Duran says. Hogo doesn’t ignore the fruit, however; it’s featured on the drink menu. A prime example is the 1970s classic Jungle Bird ($11), a mixture of rum, Campari, pineapple juice and lime juice. Fruity cocktails are often sugary messes, but in this one the bitter Campari counterbalances the fruit’s sweetness. “I like it because it’s seemingly innocuous and very girly looking,” says Hogo’s head bartender Julia Hurst, “but then it [tastes] boozy and bitter and refreshing.”

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This mixed plate features Kalua pork and Korean short ribs.

The Hawaiian mixed plate originated with immigrant workers’ practice of sharing food on island plantations. Workers of various ethnic backgrounds would divide their lunches to offer one another variety, resulting in mounds of potato salad next to Korean short ribs next to Japanese tempura. Hogo offers two versions of a mixed plate ($13). One comes with Kalua pork (a slow-roasted delicacy that’s traditionally cooked in underground ovens; shown above), short ribs, rice and macaroni salad. The other contains Hawaiian lomi-lomi salmon (the fish is served shredded) and veggie tempura. The mixed plate “is a traditional Hawaiian diner dish,” Duran says. Plus, he adds, “it’s great bar food.”

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The Spam musubi comes with a wasabi dipping sauce.

It’s time to turn off your Spam filter. The spiced meat product sold in iconic tin cans is a staple of the Hawaiian diet. After GIs brought it to the islands during World War II, Hawaiians embraced the meat. At Hogo, it shows up in the form of Spam musubi ($7), a mash-up of Spam and sushi consisting of a slice of the “Hawaiian steak” rolled in rice and seaweed. Despite Duran’s initial difficulty in locating a supplier for the musubi’s key ingredient (since none of Duran’s usual food purveyors carry Spam), there has been plenty of demand for the dish. Duran says diners haven’t been shy about trying Spam (even though they’ve only ever heard about it from their grandparents’ war-is-hell stories).

Don’t Get Too Attached: Hogo’s concept includes an array of chefs and cuisines, which will rotate every few weeks. Chef Javier Duran’s Hawaiian menu will be served through the end of the month (after that, he’ll continue to supervise the kitchen at the Passenger and its backbar, the Columbia Room). Hogo is scheduled to change its menu Feb. 1, when chef Renee Peres begins serving Jewish soul food.

Aloha, Again: If you can’t make it to Hogo before the Hawaiian menu disappears (or if you want to dine on tropical fare more frequently), there are other options to explore. The Hula Girl Truck specializes in teriyaki but also serves a mixed plate with Kalua pork ($11) and spam musubi ($3). Another option is the Maui Wowi truck, which sells fruity smoothies and Kona coffee. Up for a drive to Baltimore? Try Roy’s (720 B Aliceanna St.; 410-659-0099), a Honolulu-born fusion chain with 31 locations worldwide. Roy’s serves enormous sushi rolls, fresh island-style seafood and fruity drinks.

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Fiona Zublin | January 10, 2013