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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, July 5, 2002

Sugoi, Gina's prove delicious doesn't have to be pricey

By Matthew Gray
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

Sugoi features great bentos like the one at left, chicken katsu and teriyaki with a hotdog, rice and ume. Or a try one that includes the famous garlic chicken, at right.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

This month's Cuisine on a Shoestring highlights two more of my favorite inexpensive places, Sugoi and Gina's Barbecue. Both offer delicious food and good value, and I especially enjoy their spicy dishes.


City Square Building, 1286 Kalani St., No. 106 (former GEM store); Breakfast, 8-10 a.m.; lunch, 10 a.m.- 3 p.m. weekdays; open 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays; 841-7984.

In Japanese, sugoi means awesome, cool or excellent. The co-owners of this almost 2-year-old establishment, Ross Okuhara and Zack Lee, both 28, are longtime friends and proud papas of this successful baby.

The two came up with the idea while lunching at a Taco Bell a few years ago (no, that chain did not serve as the inspiration, except in the broadest sense).

"I was working at an auto insurance company, and Zack was headed for a teaching career," Okuhara said. "Neither one of us had a culinary education, aside from working at various okazu-yas and such, but here we are ... Our business has grown about 500 percent since we started."

If you've tasted Sugoi's mochiko chicken, garlic chicken, or spicy chicken (mini $4, regular $5.95) you know why they're doing so well.

The spicy chicken here is called called karai (meaning hot) — not to be confused with the Hindi word karai, which refers to a chicken curry dish, or a South Asian cooking utensil resembling a wok. Sugoi uses dried habanero chilies in this dish, an unusual choice for an Asian restaurant. The habanero is the world's hottest pepper, 50 times hotter than the jalapeno and rated above 300,000 on the Scoville scale used to measure heat in chili peppers. The flavor of a habanero is better than most dried chili peppers — if you can stand the heat, that is. At Sugoi, they are not shy about giving chili-heads the heat they crave.

All regular-size bentos come with choice of entree, teri beef, tamago (rolled omelet) or hot dog in addition to rice. Mini bentos include entree, teri beef and ume (pickled plum). Bento entree choices include salmon, mahi, saba (mackerel) and Cajun 'ahi (all $6.05). Plate lunches (most at $5.75) include two scoops rice with macaroni or tossed salad.

Sugoi takes simple dishes (recipes are those of Okuhara's and Lee's parents), cooks them up fast (and in a clean kitchen, by the way), and offers abundant portions at affordable prices. A few tables are available if you wish to eat inside.

Gina's Barbecue

Market City Shopping Center, 2919 Kapi'olani Blvd.; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 735-7964.

I first heard about Gina's Barbecue from my friend Keira.

"You've got to try their spicy pork," she said. "It'll make you sweat! Oh, and get the potatoes on the side." That was enough for me.

Gina's was established in 1991. It is owned and operated by two sisters, Gina Song and Yong Hae Han.

They have loyal customers who will pack the place and wait as long as necessary to get in on their mouth-watering Korean food.

It's often a notch below controlled chaos inside, but they keep it moving. Most importantly, they get your order right. Gina's generous portions of delicious food are very reasonably priced.

A typical plate lunch comes with entree plus choice of four fresh vegetables and/or salads, with three scoops of rice. The vegetable choices include those potatoes Keira told me about — big chunks that are slightly sweet and spiced just right. Kim chee, daikon, seaweed, taegu, bean sprouts, macaroni salad, long rice and watercress usually are available.

Korean barbecue is Gina's specialty. Kalbi ($6.75), beef bulgogi ($5.45), and chicken (regular $5.30, spicy $6) all possess that just-grilled aroma and flavor.

The jun dishes are egg-battered and fried. Meat jun ($5.50) and fish jun ($6) are quite popular, but I like the squash jun ($5.30) best. They also serve noodle dishes such as bi bim kook soo, with or without kim chee ($5.20 and $4.75 respectively), and piping hot stews and soups — very popular choices.

But it's the Korean spicy pork ($6.50) that I drool over when I think of Gina's. It's prepared and then heated inside a large foil packet, creating a delight that's bright red, aromatic, saucy and sensual. The heat is just right, not too hot, and the taste and texture are sublime.

Reach Matthew Gray at mgray@honoluluadvertiser.com with your comments, questions and suggestions.