Ate-oh-Ate offers a tour of the islands many flavors
- Anne Marie DiStefano
- Portland Tribune - Features
Bread and Brew
Pretty much every seafaring culture has contributed a little bit to modern Hawaiian cooking, with the most obvious influences coming from Japan (rice, teriyaki) and America (Spam - you're welcome, people of Hawaii).
At the new café Ate-oh-Ate, named for Hawaii's area code 808, this food is found in its full, fatty, funky glory. This is not tourist food. No fruit salad served in a hollowed-out pineapple. No blue drinks.
In the floor in front of the cash register, you can see where Benjamin Dyer, the owner, etched his name in the wet concrete. Dyer also has a hand in Laurelhurst Market, one of the best and most high-profile restaurants in Portland. This project is a simple place, where you order at the counter, and take-out is encouraged.
Happy hour (4 to 6 p.m.) brings icy buckets of Primo beer and snacks like chicken wings, battered and slathered in a sweet, spicy sauce dominated by the taste of sriracha, aka rooster sauce. The wings are quickly replaced by a pile of crumpled napkins streaked with red.
Sriracha seasons a lot of the food here, although it's not as ubiquitous as soy sauce, which is in pretty much everything, and can be an issue for some diners. This is no country for the gluten intolerant.
Ate-oh-Ate is for omnivores. The Spam musubi tempura, another happy hour special, manages to violate almost every dietary restriction I can think of, whether medical, moral or aesthetic. It's also disturbingly good. Slices of Spam are layered with cooked egg, wrapped in rice and seaweed, and then tempura-fried. It's served with Thousand Island dressing.
Hawaii's plate lunches are at the heart of the menu, even at dinner time. The plate lunch format consists of a protein, plus scoops of white rice and macaroni salad (or you can substitute green salad.) My favorite was the kalua pig. A mountain of shredded pork shoulder is steamed into moist tender submission. Its texture matches up nicely with rice, and it's ready to absorb your choice of condiments, including a vivid, not-too-sweet teriyaki. The macaroni salad is soft, creamy and sweet, as is the custom.
My least favorite plate was the pork katsu, a bland Hawaiian-style schnitzel served with katsu sauce that was too sharp and acidic to round out the dish.
There's a daily-changing fish special - recently, yellowtail jack - and a poke of the day. Poke is Hawaii's variant of sashimi, although the day I tried it, it was made with lightly cooked shrimp. These were top-of-the-line shrimp, doused in sesame oil and other Asian seasonings. The flavor was good, but the dish could have used a little less oil to compensate for that fact that shrimp are fattier than fish.
When available, a special of the Korean gallimaufry known as bibimbap is well worth delving into. A big bowl of rice is topped with teriyaki chicken and teriyaki beef, garnished with a fried egg and slices of daikon, different with every mouthful.
The saimin is equally intense. The dark, gamey broth, made with pork, shrimp and chicken, is stocked with kinky ramen-style noodles, slices of pork belly and mild crumbly fish cakes. At some point, half a cooked egg also bobs to the surface.
Despite their origin, the best dishes at Ate-oh-Ate are excellent antidotes to cold, rainy weather. Cocktails like a potent mai tai or a gale-force dark and stormy, both served in pint glasses, complete the effect, even if the little paper umbrellas floating on top take on a slightly different meaning here in Portland.
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, 2454 E. Burnside St., ateohate.com, entrees $7.95-$10.95