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As my mom and I approached the 11th annual culinary event, Taste of Kapolei at Ko Olina, we witnessed yet another gorgeous Oahu sunset. The line to enter this sold-out event looked daunting (an estimated 1,500 gourmands were in attendance), but we were on island time by then and welcomed the opportunity to admire the mandarin-colored sky as it reflected off the Pacific Ocean. Once we got through the gates, however, we could feel a certain shared sense of urgency with the crowd — here were 24 of Oahu’s top chefs and restaurants offering all-you-can-eat tastings. Where in the world does one start?
The decision for me came easily when I heard that Da Pokemon Fish Market was serving two different types of poke, a popular Hawaiian dish made with cubed ahi tuna, green onions, sesame oil, soy sauce and spices. I later found out that this hole-in-the-wall restaurant on Kamehameha Highway is a local haunt also serving Hawaiian staples such as kalua pig, lomi salmon, haupia (a coconut milk-based dessert) and 3½-pound bags of poi. In fact, Da Pokemon Fish Market has such a low profile that it doesn’t even have a website to promote itself (there is a contact number though: 808-622-4629).
In the meantime, lines were forming for Hapa Grill’s teriyaki beef sliders that were caked with basil aioli and squished between two taro buns. I opted for its equally generously sized appetizer, the ahi tower — layers of rice, guacamole, crabmeat and ahi tuna garnished with a fruit salsa.
After hitting the Bacardi tent to try its new Torched Cherry rum (if you’re a fan of Cherry Coke, mix it with your favorite soda) I found myself returning to Da Spot (808-941-1313), a six-year Taste of Kapolei veteran that specializes in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food. Admittedly, I gave in to three servings of its vegetarian dish, fool moudamis, which consisted of perfectly seasoned fava beans in a chunky tomato sauce and served with a slice of pita bread.
My other favorite dish — piping-hot cheesy grits topped with shrimp — was prepared by Soul Patrol, the mobile division of Soul. If I hadn’t indulged in so many tasty treats prior to discovering this restaurant, I would have definitely gone back for seconds. I suppose that’s easy to do at an eatery that plates upscale soul food with island influences, including a Carolina-style pulled pork adobo, Creole paella, spicy Portuguese sausage gumbo and barbecue spare ribs served with a side of buttermilk cilantro coleslaw.
In the VIP tent, Ed Kenney from Town restaurant prepared pork belly bocadillo with green papaya and pickled mustard seeds; Darryl Shinogi from Roy’s Ko Olina presented pan-seared moi and abalone with Yukon potato and leek puree; Dean Okimoto, farmer and owner of Nalo Farms, created his version of a taco salad with micro greens, Kahuku corn, sweet onions and vine-ripened tomatoes; and Scott Higa, from JW Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa plated a Korean-influenced dish of bulgogi short ribs on manapua bread with a side of kimchi slaw.
There was more than enough food to go around and, over the course of a couple of hours, my mom and I were too stuffed to stay for dessert and the fireworks show. Instead, we burned some calories, albeit not nearly enough, by walking along Ko Olina’s manmade lagoons back to our hotel. To our delight, just before reaching the property, the fireworks show began. We pulled up a set of the resort’s beach chairs and dipped our toes in the ocean — the perfect end to an evening well spent.