Under the looming elevated railway that defines this stretch of Kamehameha Highway, a Taiwanese fusion noodle bar called Fooki opened a few weeks ago in the Pearl Kai Shopping Center. An unlikely restaurant in an unlikely part of Oahu, it begs a question: Who's it for?
Fooki is next to JiffyLube and save for its bold signage, blends in well with its strip mall surroundings. Walking inside, however, is like stepping through a portal. The interior evokes old Taipei — deep greens, rich woods, weathered concrete, industrial fixtures, neon signs and mismatched vinyl seating take you far from suburban Aiea.
And so does the food.
Certain items will grab you, like the li hing mui sweet potato fries ($6) and Holy Pork Nachos ($12) of pork stir-fried with holy basil topped with torched cheddar cheese, served with scallion pancakes in lieu of tortilla chips. Yes, please. Although more cumbersome eating than your standard nachos, the flavors are bold and the dish is easily shared. I just think it needs more scallion pancake chips.
When you see mala on the menu, that means your mouth is in for quite a trip. Mala roughly translates to numbing spicy, and Fooki's mala wontons live up to this promise. Thin, slick wrappers and pork and shrimp filling win me over; they're coated in a sauce of chiles and Szechuan peppercorns that leave your tongue buzzing. Pickled cabbage and a mound of crunchy taro chips add texture and visual appeal.
The Pineapple Fried Chicken Burger ($15) sounds like it would be at home on a menu in Waikiki; instead it's a handheld mashup of Hong Kong and Taiwan. Fooki takes a bo la bao or pineapple bun, named for its visual resemblance to pineapple rather than any flavor similarity, and loads it up with a crunchy Taiwanese-style fried chicken breast, pickled pineapple, sprouts, taro chips and li hing mui aioli. It's easier to wrap your mouth around this than your brain, so trust me when I say that it works. It's on the sweeter side but if you like sweet and sour sauce with your chicken nuggets, you'll understand.
The most popular dish is Cow Wow Noodle soup, a souped-up version of Taiwanese beef noodle soup. There are two variations: the non-spicy and delicate original ($18.50) and the spicy, hearty braised version ($19.50). Both start with a rich, 12-hour simmered beef broth with 20 spices, slices of tender beef shank, bouncy tendon, vegetables, pickles, a soft-boiled egg and big beef rib bone sticking right out. It'll have you saying "cow wow" to the bottom of the bowl.
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The hearty braised soup is available in three additional levels of spice. Level zero is enough for me to enjoy the rich beef broth and thick noodles that pull up the soup with each slurp. If you're coming for this, leave the light-colored clothes at home or bring a bib. I speak from experience when I say the crimson broth will stain your shirt.
Now that your mouth is engulfed in spice, you can tame the flames with one of Fooki's milk tea drinks made with loose leaf black or green tea, brown sugar syrup and real milk. The iced green tea latte ($5) is spot on in flavor, sweetness and creaminess. Amber boba imported from Taiwan is a worthy 50-cent add-on.
With a menu as playful as this, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Carrie Huang and her team from equally playful Egghead Cafe run this show. Huang grew up in Taiwan and knows the flavors by heart. In the kitchen chef Chang, who brings those flavors to life, is also Taiwanese. The name Fooki comes from the characters "foo," which means blessings, and "ki," or double happiness. Together, they represent Huang's desire to deliver happiness through the blessings of comforting food and good service.
So to answer the question of who Fooki is for, it's for anyone open to food that's fun with a touch of nostalgia.
Pearl Kai Shopping Center
98-199 Kamehameha Hwy
Tue-Sun 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-9 p.m.