Sugoi, a Honolulu locals favorite, fills the bill for a hot lunch

TW welcomes Matthew Gray to its Web site. Gray is a former food writer and restaurant reviewer for Hawaiis largest daily newspaper, the Honolulu Advertiser, and is considered one of Hawaiis top food and wine experts. His column will appear occasionally in the Hawaii Update of TravelWeekly.com.

Here in Honolulu the food scene is awash in ethnic flavors and food gems on almost every corner. In one recent week I enjoyed Mexican, Indonesian, Malaysian, Indian, Thai and Italian food. 

One of my favorite places is a little spot called Sugoi.   In the Japanese language, sugoi means awesome, cool or excellent.

Primarily a take-out restaurant that serves a blend of local-style bento and Hawaiian plate lunch, Sugoi has become a favorite of downtown Honolulu office workers.

I first tried their garlic mochiko chicken ($4.85 for the mini and $6.95 for the regular) about four years ago, and I was hooked. It possesses a crunchy, juicy, tender and chewy mouthful to which I have become addicted.

Let me share with you the secret of how they make this dish.

The boneless chicken is soaked overnight in a batter made from mochiko (rice) flour. When cooked to order, the chicken is deep-fried until golden brown, drained, then immersed in a garlic sauce bath that allows the flavors to permeate the chicken. The sauce tends to be a bit on the sweet side, with soy sauce, sugar and garlic leading the way on the ingredients list.

They also do a spicy version of the garlic chicken called karai (meaning hot) -- not to be confused with the Hindi word karai, which refers to a chicken curry dish, or a South Asian cooking utensil resembling a wok.

In this dish, Sugoi uses dried habanero chilies, the worlds hottest pepper, said to be 50 times hotter than the jalapeno. The flavor is better than most dried chili peppers, if you can handle the heat, that is.

The regular plates include two scoops of white or brown rice; teri beef; a rolled, Japanese-style omelet; a hot dog; potato-macaroni salad; and a small, pickled plum called ume. Portions are huge and difficult to finish in one sitting, even for diners with big appetites such as mine.

Other bento offerings include salmon, mahi mahi and garlic ahi ($5 and $7). Sugoi also make two different fried-noodle dishes ($5): Yakisoba are thin noodles; udon are thick and slippery noodles. Sauteed with mixed veggies, fish cake and other flavorings, these noodle dishes combine many different Asian flavors.

One aspect of Sugoi I enjoy so much is the people running the place. The owners are two brothers, Zack and Robb Lee, who work alongside a friendly staff. They all have big smiles and offer up a big dose of the aloha spirit to anyone who walks through the door.

Sugoi takes simple foods (recipes are handed-down family favorites), cooks them up fast (in a spotless kitchen, by the way) and offers abundant portions at affordable prices. A few tables and stools are available if you want to eat inside.

Sugoi is located in the City Square Building, 1286 Kalani St., No. 106. Its open Mondays through Thursdays, 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Fridays and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. For reservations, call (808) 841-7984.

Gray operates Honolulu-based Hawaii Food Tours (www.hawaiifoodtours.com), which offers guided restaurant tours. He markets his tours through travel agents. Phone: (800) 715-2468.

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