My inaugural visit to Hawaii revealed that even the Waikiki tourist zone offers some intriguing, internationally inspired restaurants, but it wasn’t enough to limit consumption to the main drag. A couple trusted locals surfaced during my stay, and Amy Sherman of Cooking With Amy also proved to be a valuable resource. Sherman is a frequent visitor to Oahu, and helped direct me towards a number of beloved local spots, including Ethel’s Grill, a tiny family-run restaurant in an industrial area south of Nimitz Highway that yielded big flavors (on big plates).
Riyoko Ishii said the restaurant’s been around for 50 years. She’s owned Ethel’s Grill for 34 and maintained the name. She’s from Okinawa, her husband’s from Tokyo, and they immigrated to Hawaii 40 years ago. Daughter Minaka Urquidi runs the front of the house, which has room for only seven tables.
Décor is minimal, consisting of word linoleum flooring, stacks of soda palettes, and a painting of a sumo wrestler facing diners ass-out on the northern cinder block wall. Ishii said that she can relate to the hard-working sumo.
The family has a laminated menu, but most people turn to the wall and order from a sea of taped, handwritten papers, some of them standards, and others special. For instance, specials that coincided with my visit included deep fried turkey tails, lau lau with lomi lomi and unagi avocado donburi. No matter what you choose, Ethel’s Grill offers an option to “Sumo size” any dish on the menu for only $2.50 more, though standard issue portions are still plenty big.
Lunch includes a choice of iced tea or fruit punch with one refill. Naturally, this led to fruit punch, which wasn’t too sweet, and the Kool Aid man was nowhere in sight. The salad was seemingly simple, consisting of crisp iceberg lettuce, tomato and purple cabbage salad, but it featured a culinary flourish: house-made parsley dijon dressing.
It was almost embarrassing how much fish they served as a side of Ethel’s Famous Tataki Sashimi ($5). The lightly seared, rosy fish appeared on crunchy bean sprouts and purple cabbage, with a topping of shoyu-infused shaved garlic that washed over the silky, sinew-free fish.
Mochiko Chicken ($7) involved dark meat chicken coated in rice flour, which browned and puffed up in soybean oil, which pervaded the yardbird. This was amazing fried chicken, for both flavor and texture, especially when dipped in savory, tangy ginger ponzu sauce.
My visit included some great comfort food, but it quickly became clear that Ethel’s Grill works best with a big group, or possibly several sumos, because everything looks or sounds tempting. The Japanese hamburger steak with grated daikon, daikon sprouts and ponzu sauce looked amazing when it passed by. Deep-fried kama (salmon collar) sounded great, as did sweet and sour spare rib saimin and deep fried pork chops smothered in sweet garlic sauce. Two more tantalizing plates passed by on my way out the door and, as if on cue, they ended up in front of two men who looked like they could butt bellies, not that you have to be a sumo to enjoy Ethel’s Grill.