I got word that Piggy Smalls, a Kakaako eatery shuttered for most of the pandemic, is reopening today and immediately started salivating. It's not just that there's a new chef and menu, which is newsworthy enough. It's that the sister restaurant to Chinatown's Pig & The Lady is debuting a permanent rotating menu of 12 Vietnamese noodle soups: two specials a day, six days a week, most of them not found in Hawaii.
This is ballsy. Many Vietnamese eateries pride themselves on their pho; occasionally you'll also see spicy, beefy bun bo hue, or a version of bun rieu with minced paddy crab and tomatoes. In rare instances you might find lemongrass- and annatto-laced bo kho beef stew with crusty baguettes or wide rice noodles. Noplace I know does 12 noodle soups, and certainly not 12 from the distinct cuisines of Vietnam's north, south and central regions. The recipes are from Loan Le, a.k.a. Mama to Pig's founding chef Andrew Le, bequeathed over the years in parsed-out lessons to Le and Kristene Moon. It is Moon — a teenage culinary student when she started out at Pig's farmers market stand eight years ago — who is the new executive chef of Piggy Smalls.
The new menu defies easy categorization, unless you're familiar with these restaurants. It's eclectic, largely Vietnamese-based, part modern Hawaii-American, part global. Moon wanted the noodle soups at the core, Le says, but nearly the entire menu has been revamped with her own handmade pasta creations, dishes inspired by her Korean heritage and new desserts. The popular vegan pho remains, as does the Burmese tea leaf salad; little else is familiar. There is this new budae chige army stew ($35 at dinner for a family-size pot); the weekend brunch special will be for one: American cheese melting into a tangy kim chee broth studded with Vienna sausages, ramen noodles and pork belly. Grilled meats and whole branzino with olive-and-preserved-lemon relish will feature at dinner. New pastas on the dinner menu include an uni, anchovy and garlic spaghetti ($29); a ricotta cavatelli with fennel sausage, Parmesan and black truffle butter ($23); and a braised chicken and mushroom pappardelle scented with Douglas fir ($21).
See also: Pig & The Lady opens in Tokyo
Piggy Smalls reopens for dinner tonight, Dec. 17, and every night except Sunday and Monday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. On Saturday and Sunday there will be brunch from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Lunch will follow at some point. When Le invited me for a preview tasting, I was expecting two or three dishes. I think I tried 14. It turned out the kitchen was doing a test run of much of the menu, which is how I got treated to the heady sight and smells of nine broths simmering on the cooktop. It got dizzying, with dishes being run out often simultaneously by Le, Moon and pastry chef Kelsey Takara. Here's an early sampling.
Yes, mandoo. This is Moon's recipe, so it comes with a skirt of crispy cheese curds, but Moon's mother hand-wrapped 400 of these dumplings. This is a dinner and brunch item ($13). Also at weekend brunch: crispy butter pancakes, churro french toast 2.0, ahi tostada with chile vinaigrette, pizza bagels, Jerusalem bagel sandwiches, and a breakfast raviolo filled with ricotta cheese and an egg yolk that will spill out when you cut into it, with a sauce of Parmesan, breakfast sausage, caramelized onions and fried sage leaves.
See also: Piggy Smalls' new brunch is pho-nomenal
TUESDAY NOODLE SOUPS: Pho ga (chicken pho, $16), canh chua ca (sweet-sour soup with pineapple, taro stem, tomato and fish, $16)
Pho ga featuring fistfuls of shredded J. Ludovico Farm chicken was on the old menu; this one is upgraded with the addition of tender chicken livers and crunchy gizzards. The organ meats take it to the next level.
WEDNESDAY NOODLE SOUPS: Bun mang vit (vermicelli rice noodles with poached duck breast and bamboo shoots, $16), bun bo hue (spicy beef noodle soup from central Vietnam, $16)
THURSDAY NOODLE SOUPS: Bun thai (spicy Thai tom yum-style soup, $17), bun thang (Hanoi-style light broth with pork and slivered omelet, $16), cao lau (udon noodles tossed with sweet soy base, $17)
Bun thai was the first new soup I tasted; it is a new favorite. Le discovered this at the stall of a renowned noodle soup lady in Ho Chi Minh City, and watching the crowds form, then dissipate when the last bowl of soup had been sold, stuck with him. "We want every bowl to be a signature bowl," he says. "So you might come here for the chicken pho, but if it's not the day for chicken pho, you're still gonna be happy with the bun thai or the oxtail bo kho."
This bun thai, a Vietnamese take on Thai flavors, opens with the scents of lemongrass and galangal, then the spicy, sweet-sour broth, and finally a finishing hint of shrimp. Whole shrimps appear from the tangy soup, with strips of squid and beef.
Another new favorite is this, cao lau from Hoi An. The central port city was busy with traders from China and Japan centuries ago, which explains the chewy udon-like noodles (these are from Sun Noodle) and sweetened soy-based broth. Japanophiles will find it a close equivalent to mazemen dry noodles. You mix together noodles and broth with fresh greens, Pono Pork meat, crispy fried lumpia wrappers and crushed peanuts.
FRIDAY NOODLE SOUPS: Bun rieu (vermicelli with minced paddy crab, tomatoes and tofu, $17), hu tieu nam vang (Phnom Penh pork noodle soup, $16)
Hu tieu and bun thang are the lightest soups of the 12, clean with hints of pork and shrimp. The smoked pork atop this bowl lends its smokiness to the broth, a nice touch.
SATURDAY NOODLE SOUPS: banh canh cua (tapioca noodle soup with crab, $17), mi cari ga (wheat noodles with curry broth and chicken, $17)
This curry soup with braised chicken wing is a Le invention, something his brother Alex, who manages the farmers market and catering operations, calls an Indonesian-Viet mashup. It is as coconut-rich as it looks, with strong curry flavor anchored by spices like turmeric, though without as much heat as you might think.
SUNDAY NOODLE SOUPS: Pho 75 (Le family recipe, $16), oxtail bo kho ($22)
Bo kho, I love. I loved the thinnest, soupiest version I ever tasted, from a tent on a street corner in Hoi An; and I love the pungent, richly red version made by Pig. Bo kho is a rare find anywhere in Hawaii, including at Pig's farmers market booth, where it makes an appearance every few months. That's one of the beauties of the rotating noodle soups: Dishes like bo kho, with giant rounds of meaty oxtails and chunks of braised carrots and tomatoes, will be available every week.
Smalls' new signature dessert is this take on shave ice. It's one of the dishes Le served at this year's Hawaii Food & Wine Festival. There's a lot going on but it blends well, the different flavors emerging as you chew: basil seeds, black-eyed peas and coconut jellies under a swirl of pandan-mung bean custard soft serve and coconut sorbet, doused with pineapple syrup under a cap of salted coconut cream and toasted inamona. It's $9.
Pani popo buns are a brunch item, swirled with a mix of Okinawan sweet potato jam, brown sugar and coconut and baked in a coconut sauce.
Smalls' new Basque-style cheesecake is a creamy, fluffy, milky version of the denser, cheesier cakes that are trendy among global restaurants in Tokyo. This cheese: Laughing Cow, which you find at banh mi sandwich carts around Vietnam; and there's a touch of Laie vanilla.
Noodle soups aside, the menu feels fresh and exuberant, which is partly why I like the Pig restaurants. Says Le, "We're just happy we're not just cooking takeout any more."