Story by Dawn Southard
Photo by Terry O‘Halloran
When chef Mark Noguchi, a veteran of esteemed Honolulu restaurants like Chef Mavro and Town, reopened the ramshackle kitchen at the old He‘eia General Store & Deli this summer, more than a few of the old-timers on the waterfront raised their eyebrows. Noguchi was following in the footsteps of Ernie Choy, a local legend who sold greasy burgers and plate lunches on the pier for more than thirty years before closing up his venerable dive last winter. (He didn’t go far; he’s now the He‘eia harbor master.) Noguchi, by contrast, is a gourmet with a penchant for locally sourced vegetables, homemade sauces and fish right off the boats. But the codgers here are used to showing up just after sunrise, grabbing a weak cup of Ernie’s coffee and spending the day loitering around the picnic tables out front, lying about fish. They aren’t going to spend $12 on Nalo Greens.
Noguchi has wisely decided to keep the best of both worlds. The picnic tables are still there, crowded with fishermen. The deli still serves burgers—but now they’re made with grass-fed beef. And then of course there’s the fish. Every morning Noguchi tweets the catch of the day, which includes surprises like ‘o‘io (bonefish) hash for breakfast, uhu (parrotfish) fish cakes for lunch or, if you’re lucky, a massive slab of seared ‘ahi. Sure, it’s highbrow, but at $10 and under a serving, it’s still plate lunch.
And the view is still spectacular: At the tables outside, diners gaze over the sapphire waters of the harbor toward the Ko‘olau range. Inside, a picture window looks out across the reefs of Kane‘ohe Bay. But He‘eia Pier is no resort. It’s more like a commercial boatyard, its slips full of modest fishing boats and a few weather-beaten sloops. The Nisei, the last aku (skipjack tuna) boat, often ties up in front of the deli. Noguchi hasn’t abandoned that working-class pedigree. He understands that if the new He‘eia General Store & Deli is going to make it, it’s going to have to live up to its old, grubby roots.