Restaurants

Couple enjoys fare and the view at Nico’s Pier. He‘eia chefs take a well-deserved break.
Image: Niko Rivas

Pier Pressure

Two little restaurants-that-could trailblaze dining at the source with fresh local ingredients and an alluring package of waterfront gourmet plate lunches

Heeia Kea Pier General Store & Deli

Try the fried moi–makes you go moemoe right aftah,” a fisherman at a nearby picnic table said with a chuckle as he examined a shirtless local boy soaking in the newly spruced-up Heeia Pier. The boy’s eyes circled around the freshly written chalkboard specials with an indecisive gaze. “Sounds good,” he said. “Still get the same menu?”

Well, not exactly. Entrepreneur Russ Inouye (founder of event promotions company Vertical Junkies) and chef Mark “Gooch” Noguchi, alum of Town and Chef Mavro, took over the reins of the modest deli, which had been run by the Choy family for about 35 years. Engaging talent from Kanoe Sandefur and Blaine Tomita from the Kailua eatery Prima, this innovative team takes mostly Windward side-grown produce and other local ingredients and funnels them into flavorful gustatory delights. The lustrous gourmet lunches are wrapped in a modest plate-lunch package best enjoyed at the coveted spot on the edge of the pier to the right of the take-out window, where you can watch the ‘aama crab slyly scuttle across the rocks.

The prices aim slightly higher than those you’d expect to pay for something on a paper plate, but trust me, the food is more than worth it. In many cases, I found that the dish I ordered was the best version of any I’d ever tasted. And with an ever-changing menu, you don’t need to worry about eating the same entrée twice (which, by the way, totally would not be a bad thing).

Among the colorful roulette of daily specials was the ‘ahi burger ($9.50) with an outstanding rendition of coleslaw in place of the usual lettuce. I highly recommend adding a side of fries drizzled with their teri sauce. The fried moi special ($10.50) had a beautifully crisp crust that housed the tender white meat of this aquacultured fish once reserved for Hawaiian alii. Both dishes tasted incredibly fresh, with bold flavors.

Although one could certainly live on the daily specials, Heeia Pier keeps some favorites on the menu every day. One of these is the perfectly cooked guava chicken ($8.50), liberally coated with a delicious housemade barbecue sauce, with lots of tangy guava flavor. The chicken was very tender and moist but delightfully caramelized on the outside, served–as most plates are–with a choice of white or brown rice, and a colorful blend of ‘Nalo Farms greens or a kalo mac salad (a wonderful play on an old favorite in which steamed taro joins the traditional potatoes and mac).

There is nothing quite like having a meal in the open air next to the ocean.

Simply look up, and you’ll find the majestic Koolau Mountains staring right back at you. It’s the characteristic Hawaiian ambiance that keeps travelers from all over the world coming back. And it’s hiding right in Kaneohe’s back yard. Call it the North Shore experience that you don’t have to drive an hour for.

Nico’s Pier 38

Those who were around when Nico’s was a modest shop hiding in a corner under green canvas may be surprised to see the place post-makeover. At more than 5,000 square feet and with 220 seats, up from a modest 60, Nico’s has blossomed into a popular and sophisticated culinary phenomenon. The impressively expansive area fills up effortlessly at prime-time lunch hour.

During my first visit around noon, I opted for the catch of the day ($12), a generous slab of ‘ahi cloaked in a thin veil of horseradish sauce, served alongside a scoop of rice and fresh ‘Nalo Farms greens. The sauce brightened the dish with a zesty intensity, although the meat was a trifle overcooked–this may very well have been a fluke, considering how quickly my order arrived amidst the crowded frenzy of business patrons. My date ordered garlic shrimp pesto ($12), a simple, refreshing dish that gets the subtle nuances right. If you’re not sated from the heaping plate-lunch portions, I suggest lilikoi cheesecake for dessert. The smooth, velvety texture pops with a bold tanginess.

The sparse, industrial décor and larger, crowded space have an impersonal cafeteria-dining feel at first. Oddly, the new dinner service comes much closer to bottling the cozy and warm intimacy of the prior location. The boat-shaped bar anchored in the restaurant’s center springs to life while excellent live music resonates throughout. Strains of guitar, singing and laughter carry out into the open-air seating. In a careful balancing act between self-service and table-service, the hostess steers you toward the cashier to place your order, where you’re then given a number to set on your own cherry-picked table.

At dinner, the first dish that arrived was Nico’s signature furikake pan-seared ‘ahi ($14). I immediately understood why it’s the house favorite; the fish was tender and delicate, with a much lighter blush than most ‘ahi I’ve had. The flaky furikake lent a slightly crunchy textural contrast, complemented by a side of housemade garlic cilantro dip. My date got the 12-inch Pier 38 pizza ($17), which arrived quickly–in a cardboard box (kind of cute but kind of odd, like getting real plates but plastic cutlery in the evening). The thin, crispy crust was smeared with fresh roasted tomato sauce, kalamata olives, feta cheese and chunks of smoky, grilled pesto-marinated fish. It’s a well-crafted, inventive pizza with sharp flavors.

As for appetizers, I recommend the crab cake salad ($11.25). The colossal crab cake, paired with an awfully tasty sun-dried aïoli, manages to be rich, crunchy and soft all at once. It sits atop a bed of baby spinach, blanketed with a sweet plum vinaigrette.

With spacious indoor and outdoor seating and an additional banquet area upstairs, chef and owner Nico Chaize has come a long way since his humble beginnings at the pier seven years ago. The warm, attentive service especially shines at the adjoining retail fish market, where you can unhurriedly talk story with the fish mongers handling the fish caught just a few hours before.

Heeia Kea Pier General Store and Deli
46-499 Kamehameha Hwy., Kaneohe, Open Tue.–Sun., 7am–4pm, accepts credit cards, no bar, no BYOB, private parking lot, [facebook.com],
235-2192
Nico’s Pier 38
1129 N. Nimitz Hwy., Open Mon.,–Sat., 10am–4:30pm, Sun., 10am–4pm (lunch); Mon.,–Sat., 5pm–9pm (dinner); fish market open Mon.,–Sat., 6:30am–6pm, Sun., 10am–4pm, accepts credit cards, full bar, [nicospier38.com], 540-1377