A Whole Lotta Ox
What’s to like about The Whole Ox, Bob McGee’s new meat palace on Keawe Street across from the old CompUSA?
Not the whole ox, maybe, but most of it.
Love, love, love that there’s really no place like it here. It’s neither a charcuterie nor a New York deli, neither another self-conscious farm-to-table spot nor a plate lunch place. But it’s got elements of all: eat in or take out, lots of choices (from rough country terrines to a classic burger to enticing side salads), no menu except an ever-changing blackboard, fast service (especially considering they’ve only been open since March and are still under the Honolulu deluge).
Love, love, the energy in the place, driven mostly by the ceaselessly good-natured McGee, who often serves as expeditor at the window, handing out dishes and banter. Every time I’ve been in there, he’s said or done something hilarious.
My favorite was when a bunch of sheriff’s deputies came in in full uniform to get takeout and were standing around, everyone having gotten their order but one guy. McGee shouts through the window: “Steve’s order. Steve’s order. I don’t want to scare you, but Steve needs his order and he’s got a gun.”
In a milieu where service usually consists of a blank stare and a poised pen, the counter attendants take their cue from McGee, willingly answering questions, offering their suggestions, smiling.
Love the food, in general.
McGee says the No. 1 seller is the burger ($11), local, grass-fed beef, dry-aged 28 days on the bone, ground and served with grilled red onions and a caper aioli. Prepared rare unless you specify otherwise, it’s one step to the right of a steak tartare and the aging process lends it a sophisticated, slightly sour flavor that may be an acquired taste for some. Though Honolulans seem to be acquiring it in droves.
For me, the gotta-go-back-again choice was Porchettaboutit, Doug ($10)–whimsically named, as many of the dishes are. They take local pork, the belly and loin, bone it but leave the skin attached, brine it three days wih fennel, than tie it into a kind of log stuffed with fennel, garlic and pepper. It’s then then roasted in the Ox’s magnificent Labesse Giraudon rotisserie (made in Paris and about the size of a walk-in refrigerator).
The result is the sub of your dreams: pink, silky ribbons of thin-sliced pork with a scattering of chip-like cracklings on top (yes, pig skin; get over it). My friend ordered it, gave me a bite, then proceeded to devour it while I watched covetously. The Neanderthal in me wanted to pick up a thigh bone, whack him and make off with it. This was a heavenly departure from oversweet, overcooked ham. In this dish are all the years McGee spent working with chefs such as James Beard Award-winning Greg Higgins in Portland, Ore., all the books he’s read, all the time spent “screwing up a lot of food.”
“There’s really no secret to anything we do,” he said in a post-visit interview. “It’s we just do it slooooow.” And, of course, they source their food carefully. It’s McGee’s hope that the Ox will help lead the way in building a viable, grass-fed, sustainably and humanely raised meat industry here.
If the food at the Ox has a fault, it’s a tendency to underseason; a chef friend remarked on it, too.
My already favorite beet salad ($4 per generous serving, like all side salads), with largish chunks of perfectly roasted beet (red one day, yellow the next), dusted with fresh dill. But the taste is just beet, not even caramelized beet. “Needs acid,” my friend said.
Anoher favorite that could also use a little dressing up is a watermelon and cherry tomato salad. Unfortunately, the watermelon available here right now isn’t highly flavored. However, the combination is refreshing — and you need it in this open-air, garage-like restaurant with no A/C.
I encountered this light hand with almost every dish I tasted in three visits: several sandwiches and three different salads, including a barley salad where the grain was, again, perfectly done (not moosh) but it needed something — a little lemon, perhaps.
Love, love, love the little things at the Ox–the shcmear of this and drizzle of that that takes hours to make, captures the essence of its ingredients and of which there’s never enough.
At The Whole Ox, it’s the frizzled onions. I’m crazy about the housemade pickle slices (neither bread-and-butter sweet nor kosher-dill sour but something in between). Pickles come both with the hamburger and with the Chicken Fried Chicken ($11), a crispy fried chicken sub, with chicken tenders piled on interesting greens and this mustard that had chef-friend and me tasting and smacking and tasting again. Brown sugar? Beer? Honey? Something. We pondered. You gotta be good to make two experienced eaters ponder. Bob swears it’s just Dijon mustard but it must be a brand I don’t know. That dish is to a McDonald’s crispy chicken sandwich what fresh-baked artisanal bread is to cattle feed. I took it home and ate it all afternoon.
The Whole Ox serves some vegetarian dishes, including a falafel wrap that looked inviting. But it’s really a haven for carnivores: People like me, who can’t wait to order the Mi-Ki-Mi pulled pork sandwich ($10). Halellujah, real pulled pork, not the usual watery, shredded-to-threads, Liquid Smoke-reeking bad kalua I could scream. This pork isn’t Southern, it not doing that barbecue red sauce thing. The drizzle atop, sorta sweet spicy, really works. And they give you a lot.
Okay, so lots of love. But two things might make your visit uncomfortable. Two words, Bob: Awning. Chairs. Or, okay, awning and tie-down cushions at the picnic tables.
Meanwhile, can I get a Porchettaboutit? To go.