One day last summer, I was at one of my dealers in the Milwaukee area, Ultra Fidelis, and one of the guys said that he was going down the street to get some lunch from a Hawaiian restaurant/market - Ono Kine Grindz. Wait a minute - a Hawaiian restaurant in Milwaukee? He handed me a menu and said, "Pick away! Our treat!" At the very top of the menu they had Kalua pork listed. Remembering how good it was from our trip to Hawaii three years ago (has it really been THAT long now?), I had to see if this place's Kalua pork was as good. Well, it was. And the portions that were served to me in a large disposable container were just like in Hawaii - a lot of food for a little amount of money. Along with the Kalua pork, I got a healthy serving of Hawaiian purple sticky rice. It was like I was back on the islands again. It was all very excellent.
A few weeks ago, I was up in Milwaukee again and stopped by Ultra Fidelis to see the guys one afternoon. I was asking questions about Ono Kine Grindz, primarily about the coffee selection they had to offer. My wife is addicted to Hawaiian Kona coffee, but it is so damn expensive to ship directly from Hawaii. One of the guys at U.F. said, "Oh, yes. They have some varieties for sale there." After I was through with them and before I left to head to Chicago, I walked down the street to check out Ono Kine Grindz. (see map)
My question, like so many others - why is there a Hawaiian cafe/market in Milwaukee? It all starts with Milwaukee-area native Guy Roeseler, a former chef, who moved to Hawaii a number of years ago after owning a small bistro in Seattle. Managing a handful of restaurants during his time on the islands, Roeseler partnered up with Oahu native David Lau out in Hawaii during his ten year stay on the islands. Lau was also in the food service business and his goal was to eventually buy a little neighborhood grocery store/cafe near his boyhood home, a place he used to go into each morning for sodas, candy and shave ice, a Hawaiian treat. When it turned out the cost of buying the 70+ year old business was going to be prohibitive, the two looked to move back to Wisconsin to pursue their dream.
Pictured right - David Lau and Guy Roeseler. (Picture courtesy On Milwaukee)
Moving to Milwaukee in 2008, the two found that there was no place east of the Mississippi that specialized in Hawaiian cuisine or offered products direct from Hawaii. They opened Ono Kine Grindz (Hawaiian Pidgin language for "Delicious Specialty Foods") in September of 2010 offering casual Asian/Hawaiian food and items that you could find only in Hawaii up to that point. The two were surprised at the number of former Hawaiian residents in the area and were also gratified when the former islanders continued to come back to the little restaurant/market on North Ave.
Sourcing the products to sell in their little cafe/market was a chore. Since no local food distributors carried any of the Hawaiian products they wanted to sell, they had to source items from Las Vegas, California and, of course, Hawaii. The small and cozy little place carries everything from Hawaiian sodas, to Hawaiian sea salt, to Hawaiian spices. They also sell, naturally, Hawaiian shirts, bags and a number of other items that we saw in our visit to Hawaii.
Walking into the small shop (open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday thru Sunday), there is the deli counter upfront to the left. That's where I found David Lau and Guy Roeseler working on sandwiches and scooping up authentic Hawaiian food. David asked me if he could help me and I said, "I think I'm going to look for some coffee, but I just want to take a look around and see what you guys have to offer."
I walked toward the back of the restaurant and up some stairs to an area were a couple guys seated at one of the tables eating some food. The little cafe part of Ono Kine Grindz seats, maybe, 10 people. The furniture is a mis-mash of regular tables and chairs and patio furniture, including an opened patio umbrella.
On the well-stocked shelves were a number of items that had a distinct Hawaiian flavor. Hawaiian-flavored juices, Hawaiian candies and other items that you'd find on the islands were available for sale. They also had a number of specialty sugars from Hawaii and a small deli case had meat products including Portuguese sausage, a staple breakfast item for many Hawaiians. (Come to think of it, I didn't see any Spam on the shelves. I'm guessing that it's readily available at most regular grocery stores in the Milwaukee area.)
I found the coffee up front near the front deli counter and told David Lau that I was looking for some good Kona coffee. He said, "We have one pound bags of the coffee here."
I looked at the price and I couldn't believe it - $9.99 a pound for Kona Reserve Coffee! Holy crap! I asked, "This is real Kona coffee?" Lau confirmed that it was. I asked again, "How can you guys get it so cheap?"
He said, "We get 100 pound bags direct from Hawaii. We know the coffee guys out there and we can keep the cost down."
Man! I'll say! I ended up getting two pounds because, well, my wife is a Kona coffee snob. She says the Kona coffee at Trader Joe's for $19.98 a pound is just *OK*. She really likes the Kona Mountain Estate Coffee - at $32 bucks a pound plus shipping. I thought getting her a couple pounds of this stuff from Ono Kine Grindz would give her enough of a taste to see if she likes it and if she didn't like it, well, she could give the other pound away. (She ended up liking it - a lot.)
I was telling David Lau when he was ringing me up that I had their food earlier in the summer. Guy Roeseler looked up from working at the counter and said, "Oh yeah? What did you have?" I told him I had the Kalua pork and he said, "So, what did you think?"
I said, "It was just like the Kalua pork that I had on the big island." Kalua pork is a pork shoulder (a.k.a. pork butt) that is seasoned with sea salt and other island spices, then wrapped in banana leaves and usually cooked in an open pit dug into the ground. I'm guessing Roeseler didn't have a pit out back, so he probably used a smoker. The pork is then pulled apart before serving. It's tender, juicy and flavorful.
They happened to be smoking Kalua pork that day and they gave me a sample of it. Oh man! Was it great. It turned out that they would freeze the excess Kalua pork and make it available for sale. I ended up getting a couple pounds of it to take home. (We had it with rice one evening - it was just killer.)
Also available at Ono Kine Grindz are other traditional Hawaiian foods such as huli-huli chicken - a smoked half-chicken with a mango glaze; and Asian-themed foods such as Korean-style barbecue beef ribs, and Char Siu chicken - grilled chicken breasts that are marinaded in a molasses/shoyu sauce. Ono Kine Grindz also has a traditional Hawaiian sides of poke - a raw fish salad; and pork hash in a wonton wrap. They also have serve all their meals with a homemade macaroni salad and a carrot/pineapple salad. I don't remember eating much - if any - of the two salad sides when I had my kalua pork and rice. There was just so much food and I know I didn't finish it.
I contemplated getting something to go to eat later in my hotel room in Chicago, but I had a couple stops to make before I got to the hotel. It was cool out, but not cold and I didn't know who well it would travel, even if I put it in my Trader Joe's insulated bag that I keep in my trunk.
But I know that I'll have other opportunities to try other foods at Ono Kine Grindz in the future. I know I'll have to stop back each time I go back to pick up more Hawaiian coffee for my wife and I'll look for macadamia nuts, as well. Ono Kine Grindz is nothing fancy, but it's like walking into a little Hawaiian shop or cafe on the north shore of Oahu. Only without the big waves coming in...