Pounders is for Foodies
Written and posted by Harley M. Charlebois, Blogger
A week into my third visit to Oahu and I’m thrilled to be back at one of my favorite restaurants. Pounders Restaurant at Hukilau Marketplace was named after a nearby body surfing beach and promises an equally memorable experience without the risk of bodily harm. The presence of Master Chef Graham Elliot brings a new life (and menu) to Pounders Restaurant and has initiated exciting changes that we are only just beginning to see.
To be honest, when I entered Hukilau Marketplace during this trip to the island, I was intending to go to one of the many food trucks. Mother Nature had other plans and a hard rain had me running for cover. I was so impressed; I ate there a total of 4 times during my month-long visit.
Where to Start
A Few Disclosures
One: I am by no means a chef; I don’t even cook. Honestly, cooking for myself and others is an anxiety exercise for me. This has made me very fond of going out for my meals and my favorite thing about any vacation is the food.
Two: I worked at Pounders in the Summer of 2019. I really loved a few of the old menu items but, I was unbelievably excited to sample the new menu. This was my first time anywhere near the talents of a celebrity chef and my expectations were high. I was not disappointed.
Three: When I first saw the menu, I wanted to create an entire series wherein I tried every dish listed. My bank account said no. Instead, I will go whenever I can while I am in town and report back in detail about my tasty excursions.
Four: Restaurants rarely remain static. Pounders likes to change their menu seasonally, so do not expect to find everything I’ve listed here when you visit. Just think of this as an example of the amazing experience you will find when you walk through the doors.
The new menu is split into five sections, each of which has a Hawaiian title. The layout of the menu is easy to follow, and the servers are ready to explain exactly what you’re looking at. The first section Pūpū are the appetizers. Pā Nui and Kiawe are both entrée sections, and Meaʻono are the desserts. The ʻOnoʻana Special offers you a choice of an appetizer, entrée, and dessert for $55 per person. This is a great option no matter what you’re ordering. There is also a Keiki (Kids) Menu available that includes a fun “build your own pizza” activity.
Let’s Talk About the Food
There is regular and decaf coffee available as well as a selection of Pepsi products and a Shangri La iced tea, all of which are refillable. But my favorite section to order from is house-made beverages. These non-refillable drinks are passion orange guava juice (POG), mango orange guava juice (MOG), ginger lime cooler, and hibiscus iced tea. (Know Before You Go: There are NO alcoholic drinks served at Pounders or anywhere else in Laie.) On my first visit, I ordered POG and MOG. I tried both previously and found them equally delicious, but I wanted to be able to describe the difference to you.
These are house-made beverages which means their recipe is going to be different than elsewhere on the island. The primary difference at Pounders is that there is no orange in either the POG or the MOG. I actually prefer it this way because I find the orange overpowers the passion, mango, and guava. With this change, it was easier for me to taste the difference between the two. POG has a sharper taste with more zing. On the other hand, I found the mango guava to be very subtle and light.
There were several appetizers that I expect will rank among my favorite dishes. The first I tried leads the pack (so far), the Ahi Poke Nachos! It was a close tie with the dessert described below, but these nachos were my favorite.
Chef Graham brings back a fan favorite from the previous menu by using taro chips as the base. Taro is a versatile root starch that is popular on several Polynesian Islands.
These taro chips are topped with shaved scallions, cucumber, pineapple, and of course, ahi poke. Ahi is the Hawaiian word for tuna and poke is a popular native Hawaiian dish of seasoned raw diced fish. The nachos are also topped with spicy mayo. I was hesitant about the sauce because, as anyone who knows me will tell you, I really cannot handle spice. The paring of the smashed avocado offset the mayo and I really enjoyed the flavor that it added. Nachos really aren’t meant to be eaten dry and sauceless.
I cannot recommend these enough, they were delicious! And HUGE! You could definitely order these for the whole table to share or for a meal in themselves.
Pā Nui: Entrée
For my entrée, I ordered the Grilled Hopu Kai which can be ordered with either the octopus or the Mahi. If you are hesitant toward seafood, I would still recommend trying octopus. It is not briny or fishy and has a mild taste that is meant to be complemented by, and take on, the flavor of the other components of the dish. A word of warning to any first-timers thinking of making octopus at home; cooked incorrectly octopus has the consistency of rubber. Luckily you are in fantastic hands at Pounders Restaurant! The Grilled Hopu Kai marries perfectly with the potato hash, fennel salad, and Portuguese sausage. I am, as always, a sucker for a good sauce, so I cannot fail to give a special mention for the delicious roasted red bell pepper purée. I loved every component of this dish individually and I think they worked wonderfully all together.
Kiawe: From the Fire
This is straight forward enough. Delicious, chewy pizzas prepared in true Naples fashion, most of which have a touch of the islands in their toppings are baked in a traditional open fire oven at high temperatures. The burgers are huge and are clearly made from fresh, quality ingredients. If available, be adventurous and try the Hawaiian Mango Pizza. or the Pounders Burger. I tried both on later trips, and I can’t wait to share my thoughts in further instalments of this series.
Pounders Restaurant’s talented baker Soccoro Jiho has created an inspired twist on a personal favorite dessert pineapple upside-down cake. This treat is made of pound cake topped with caramel sauce, coconut shavings, a dried pineapple slice, a touch of frosting, and a maraschino cherry. This dessert honestly felt designed for me. Carmel, coconut, pineapple; these are a few of my favorite things.
I am not a huge fan of icing especially when there is so much of it that it completely overpowers any other flavors present, but the thin layers of whipped buttercream icing were a perfect compliment. I love dried pineapple, but I usually think there is too much sugar to eat more than one or two of the crystalized treats you find in the average grocery store. This dried pineapple chip parred on top with a maraschino cherry was a perfect balance. It will be difficult to pick other desserts now that I have tried this one. I am contenting myself with the fact that Soccoro Jiho is sure to have created an amazing selection that deserves my thorough (and enthusiastic) exploration.
Know Before You Go
If you walk into Pounders Restaurant from the entrance facing the Hukilau Marketplace parking lot, you will need to walk straight towards the other door to find a friendly host ready to greet you. (As a past hostess, I am going to warn you, if you want a server, don’t seat yourself).
COVID-19 requirements are ever changing. That said, Pounder and the Polynesian Cultural Center prioritizes their commitment to the public and their staff by adhering to all current regulations. Personal preferences do not apply when the safety of all is at stake, so please bring and utilize your mask while not eating, utilize the hand sanitation stations and follow all requests.
Pounders Restaurant opens at 11 am and usually hits their rush between noon and two pm, especially during the summer hours. I came in a little after 1 pm and was seated immediately, this might have been helped by the fact that it was a Thursday in October during a 10-minute downpour. But they work hard to seat everyone as quickly as they can.
The service was great, and the venue is beautiful. Most of the stunning art pieces on display are by mainland photographer Larry Young, who volunteered with his wife at the Polynesian Cultural Center from 2018-2019. The intricate wooden display above the pizza bar was done as an homage to the beach that gave Pounders Restaurant its name.
Though I have been trying to the best of my ability, the food was simply indescribable. I have always loved Pounders Restaurant since working there in 2019 but the update has added a new level that I am excited to see.
My favorite part about visiting anywhere, no matter how many times I have been there, is the food. I am reminded of a James Beard quote that I have always loved, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” I love food because of what it represents; the culture, the story that each dish tells. To have the opportunity to experience this small piece of something beautiful created with respect, dedication, and a degree of talent I have never seen in real life, was an opportunity I will never take for granted. I recommend Chef Graham’s spectacular menu at Pounders Restaurant as an experience not to be missed.
Bio of Harley M. Charlebois, Blogger for the Polynesian Cultural Center
If I’m not traveling, you’ll usually find me at my favorite tea shop with a pencil and pad, I’m old school like that. Otherwise, you’ll find me eating, shopping, or hanging with my kitten. I am always looking for new foods and experiences to share.