Ethel’s Grill is a Place of Local Legend
Dock workers, businessmen and top chefs all share a table at Ethel’s
By Mari Taketa
At Ethel’s Grill in Kalihi, the jalousied dining room seats 22, sumo handprints decorate the cinder-block walls and forklifts and container trucks rumble past the front door.
“Roy and I usually eat the ahi tataki and share a bowl of oxtail soup when they have it,” Furuya says. “The very fact that we all eat here is a sign of how good the food is.” He’s talking about dishes like the Japanese-style hamburger steak, a light concoction of lean beef and pork that’s topped with the astringent crunch of kaiware radish sprouts and grated daikon. And the mochiko chicken dredged in crushed bubu arare—moist, tender morsels that come with a shoyu-ponzu dipping sauce whose tang arcs through the meat and makes it sweeter.
More than local-style comfort foods, more than standard Japanese classics, Ethel’s reflects the marriage of two food cultures. After proprietors Ryoko and Yoichi Ishii—she originally from Okinawa, he from Tokyo—bought Ethel’s Grill 32 years ago, it was Ryoko who took over the kitchen. The fare she pumped out for the truckers and dock workers who were her original regulars included miso soup (with or without saimin), sweet and sour spare ribs (with or without saimin), and Okinawan oxtail and pig’s feet soups.
Great hole-in-the-wall restaurants that serve terrific, well-done foods are a disappearing thing,” says Furuya. “What Ethel’s does is help to preserve a facet of what makes Hawaii unique and special.”Then Yoichi, the son of a fishmonger, retired from the venerated kitchens of Furusato and Kyo-Ya and came home to share cooking duties. Yoichi’s hand is clearly evident in lighter choices like Ethel’s signature ahi tataki, a dozen pieces of the freshest ahi flash-seared and topped with shoyu-pickled garlic chips; and beyond-Japanese fare like his garlic-maple syrup pork chops and chicken and the sweet-tart Dijon-parsley dressing that he whips up for his salads.
Trays of individually wrapped musubi and papaya halves in the back attest to Ethel’s busiest hour, when the eatery caters to industrial workers eating in or eating on the run between 5:30 and 6:30 a.m. In this busy corner of Kalihi, a stone’s throw from the dockyards, lunch crowds begin trickling in at 10. On slow days, when supplies of fresh ahi and Okinawan andagi doughnuts remain high, Minaka Urquidi and Ban Ishii pass out the treats free to regular customers while their mom, Ryoko, the beloved but loud matron of the premises, barks out orders from her kitchen.
Regulars wouldn’t have it any other way. “Great hole-in-the-wall restaurants that serve terrific, well-done foods are a disappearing thing,” says Furuya. “What Ethel’s does is help to preserve a facet of what makes Hawaii unique and special.”
Comments from Readers
I went to Ethel's a few weeks ago and am very impressed with the quality and quantity of the items on the menu.
Ethel's reminds me of the old hanabatta days when life was simple before the Internet.