story by Sheila Sarhangi
photos by Brad Goda
Pier 38 in Honolulu Harbor doesn’t have a lot of things. There’s no roller coaster, like at the Santa Monica Pier. You won’t see guys in rubber aprons heaving fish around like you would at Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, and if you’re looking for kitschy tourist shops like those at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf or Monterey’s Cannery Rowwell, that’s what Waikiki is for.
No, Pier 38 wasn’t built for tourists; it’s the nexus of Hawai‘i’s fishing industry, and it looks that way. It has an industrial vibe: big box structures, a tidy paved-over landscape, scattered parking lots and a panoramic view of cargo containers across the harbor. Roughly 140 long-line fishing boats land at Pier 38 after spending twelve to fifteen days at sea. They offload their catch‘ahi, mahimahi, ‘opakapakaand wheel it directly over to the Honolulu fish auction for sale. Not the sort of place to go for an evening stroll along the waterfront.
But the powers that be saw opportunity at the pier. In 1988 former Gov. John Waihe‘e met with some of the kingpins in the fishing industry about transforming Pier 38 from a location with rusting gantries and fuel storage tanks to a showplace for Hawai‘i’s fishing industry. At the time, United Fishing Agency, which runs the fish auction, had been operating out of a 3,000-square-foot building at Kewalo Basin. Back then, flatbed trucks had todrive to a half-dozen piers, unload the fish and transport them on ice to the auction housenot ideal for an industry that relies on freshness.
After several fits and starts, the auction finally moved into its new building in 2004. Things moved swiftly after that: A month later the pier’s second tenant, POP Fishing and Marine, a commercial fishing and boat supply store, opened next door in its new 27,000-square-foot-building. Shortly after, the restaurant Nico’s Pier 38 rented out a corner of POP’s building. Fresh Island Fish, a wholesale fish distributor, moved into its new building in 2006 and opened Uncle’s Fish Market & Grill in July 2007.
There’s still more to do; the pier hasn’t yet realized its full potential since only three of its ten lots are filled. But for now, locals have responded by coming in droves to eat at the pier’s two restaurants. And for good reason: Their proximity to the auction ensures the freshest fish on the island.
It’s 6 a.m.; the auction bell rang a half-hour ago. On this particular October morning, 42,000 pounds of fresh fish were unloaded from five long-liners. Under the blinding lights, plastic palettes loaded with fish are positioned along the floor in long parallel rows: One palette holds mahimahi (dorado); another, opah (moon- fish). Huddled around a 100-pound ‘ahi (yellowfin tuna), two dozen bidders stand elbow to elbow, inspecting a slab of meat cut from the tail. How much the fish will go for depends on its freshness, fat content and the richness of its color.
Bruce Johnson, owner of Fresh Island Fish, is standing beside me, his eyes fixed on the action. His buyers on the floor need to snap up 20,000-plus pounds of fish to satisfy the company’s 1,400 restaurant, hotel and retail store contracts statewide. Once fish are purchased, they’re wheeled 600 yards to the Fresh Island building where they’re weighed, tagged, filleted and shipped. Refrigerated vans deliver fish across O‘ahu; neighbor island orders are shipped nightly by air freight to Maui, Kaua‘i and the Big Island. It’s a seamless process and it has to be: Fresh Island Fish is the largest wholesale fish distributor in the Islands.
Johnson, now 58, was involved in the initial talks back in the 1980s regarding Pier 38’s transformation. He’s been in the industry since he moved from California to Kailua-Kona at 17 and worked as a fisherman. Why did he move? “Why not?” he says. “The surf was good; the girls were pretty.” At 21 he became a commercial fishing captain; three years later he moved to Maui. At 27 the enterprising angler opened Fresh Island Fish at Ma‘alaea Harbor. When he was 30, he dipped his hands in the restaurant business and opened Ma‘alaea Fish Market and Grill in the same location. He later opened a second and third Fresh Island Fish in Kailua-Kona and Honolulu respectively. Moving from the old location near Honolulu Airport to Pier 38 allowed for Uncle’s Fish Market & Grill.
Johnson says he wanted to open his restaurant as a tribute to local fisherman, particularly those in the colorful aku (skipjack tuna) fishery, who influenced him. Fittingly, the walls are decorated with fishing memorabilia, from nets and hooks to black-and-white photos of his mentors. “It’s not a gimmick,” he says. “This is our history and our lifestyle.” Flat-screen TVs loop video of aku fishing, in which fishermen would stand on the deck of a sampan and throw their lines and hooks (un-baited) into a school of feeding aku. Once an aku bit, they’d flick it onto the deck at lightning speed. That way of aku fishing disappeared with the advent of long-line fishing, but Uncle’s is a fitting testimonial to what was once the backbone of Hawai‘i’s fishing industry.
But maybe it best honors that industry through the quality of its fish. Uncle’s offers at least seven or eight types of fish daily, blackened, sautéed or charbroiled. The local favorite: fresh ‘ahi belly sautéed in butter, garlic and capers, served with chef Geoffrey Arakawa’s secret sauce. The result: The fish melts on your tongue.
“Six days a week, we go and beat on the fish and bring it here,” says Nico Chaize. “What do you mean, you beat the fish?” I ask, imagining the 33-year-old native of France savaging a mahimahi with his bare fists. “You know, we beat on them,” he repeats. Then I realize: It’s the accent. “Oh, oh, you bid on the fish!” I say, relieved.
Chaize moved from Lyon to Los Angeles when he was 22 and got a job at Café Marguerite, a French restaurant in Marina del Rey. He met his wife, who’s from Hawai‘i, at a reggae concert; they married, and the couple moved to O‘ahu nearly ten years ago. He worked as a cook and sous-chef in two fine-dining restaurants in HonoluluMichel’s at the Colony Surf and the Bistro at Century Centerbefore opening Nico’s Pier 38.
For Chaize the proximity of the auction was an opportunity he couldn’t refuse. “The idea was to offer a high-quality, low-price fish,” he says sitting at one of his outdoor patio tables. “And here I can buy the fish at the auction with no middleman and then serve it at the restaurant.” Theproof is in the print: Nothing on the menu is over $10.
The first year, business was slow. “It was a challenge because there was nothing really here; the fishing village wasn’t even on the map,” he says. Dockworkers and nearby businesses were his first patrons; downtown office workers came next. Today he does 500 lunches in one afternoon. (If you arrive between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., expect a line, swift-moving though it may be.) Now Nico’s lanai is packed every weekday with an eclectic cross section of Honolulu: firefighters and cops, longshoremen, students, doctors and nurses, researchers from nearby Bishop Museum. Nico describes his fare as a “fancy, healthy version of the local plate lunch.” A homemade saucewatercress cream, saffron curry, lemon-caperalways accompanies the catch of the day, and conscious diners can choose brown rice instead of white, or organic Nalo greens instead of mac salad. His furikake pan-seared ‘ahi is by far the restaurant’s biggest seller; about 150 of these dishes leave his counter per day.
Last October, a harbinger of the pier’s future came when Chef Roy Yamaguchi of Roy’s Restaurants chose Pier 38 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his Hawai‘i Kai restaurant. It was like a stamp of approval for the pier; as one of Hawai‘i’s most famous chefs, Yamaguchi could have thrown his gala event at a swanky hotel in the heart of Waikiki. Instead, he set up a tent and hosted a gourmet dinner in which eight visiting master chefs cooked for twenty-five tables, each of which sold for $10,000 (with the money benefiting culinary education). “[We] wanted a venue that was different from the norm,” says Yamaguchi, “and we also wanted to showcase our local seafood to the visiting chefs.”
Though Pier 38 has become a mainstay for Honolulu residents, both Chaize and Johnson acknowledge that visitors have yet to really discover it. Perhaps that’s because it’s off the typical tourist path, and even if you’re driving along Nimitz Highway, you could easily miss it. Perhaps it’s because, for all the great seafood, the pier still looks more like an industrial waterfront than a seaside esplanade. But for those who do eat at the pier or visit the fish auctionwhich the public is welcome to doit’s a piece of Hawai‘i they won’t find anywhere else. HH