Japanese food served up surf-cowboy style
• Photo gallery: Pioneer Saloon Plate Lunch
by Mari Taketa
Special to The Advertiser
With Pioneer Saloon, a couple things need explaining before we get started. First, it's a Japanese restaurant, but not the kind where a row of chefs yells "irasshaimase!" and a waitress bows when you walk in the door. It's Japanese-inspired plate lunches and freshly made musubi, ordered at a counter and served up in Styrofoam.
Second, it's called Pioneer Saloon because owner Nori Sakamoto, a Japanese native, was inspired by a vision of the American West, although apparently his vision didn't end there. So what you have is a Japanese restaurant with swinging doors and a deer skull — plus surfboards, Bob Marley, a mishmash of plastic, rattan and metal seating and liberal use of corrugated aluminum.
So what? Pioneer's location on Monsarrat Avenue's surfer-jogger route means decor isn't really a factor, except to up the quirk value. And Sakamoto, who's worked at Rokkaku, Tokkuri-Tei and Iyasume, has waited a long time to populate his own space with whatever his imagination dictates. Like Monsarrat's other casual eateries, the real questions for Pioneer are food quality, volume and value.
The menu lists 43 chicken, beef, pork, fish, curry and rice bowl choices, with more daily fish specials but only two vegetarian choices. While the potato and green salads that come with every plate lunch are unremarkable, Pioneer clearly pays attention to its rice: It comes in your choice of white, brown, red bean or a daily special like the shiso white rice we luck out on during one visit.
Dishes can be amazingly good if you know what to order. Let's start with the hits: Pioneer's pork hamburger katsu (aka menchi or mince, $6) is as sublime as deep-fried meat gets, an ultra-crunchy panko crust encasing a luscious patty. That texture contrast ranks this way up there for tooth pleasure.
Also extremely good is the grilled miso salmon ($7), a basic dish that's easy to over-flavor or overcook. This one still oozes its steaming juices and is floppy-soft as it should be, with the skin delivering a crispy miso-glazed treat. And the shoyu chicken (Who would have thought? $6), three drumsticks that look dry, but are actually falling off the bone, has a mild, sweet, slightly five-spice flavor that's kicked up by the dab of stinging karashi mustard that comes on the side.
Pioneer's spare ribs ($7) are so good, we're still thinking about them from our initial visit shortly after it opened last October. They haven't changed (Props for consistency!) — three whole ribs whose meat is slightly firm and seasoned with a light teriyaki touch that includes a hint of vinegar. Everybody at the table fights for a chance to gnaw on one.
Now for the passes. While well-cooked, these all fall short on flavor: the best-selling fried chicken ($6), which is extremely moist and tender but even with garlic sauce doesn't quite deliver; and the mochiko chicken ($6), another best-seller that's also juicy but strangely savory, lacking any sweetness or even a firm crust that doesn't fall off the chicken.
The 'ahi katsu ($6) is again fresh and moist, but bland even with katsu sauce. And the miso butterfish ($9), which is hard to screw up even at home, has no detectable miso flavor, putting the butterfish taste too strongly out there with no dancing partner.
Portions are generous, always three smaller or two big pieces of protein and heaping mounds of chicken nuggets, so if you get the right dishes, the value is awesome.
As for the musubi, the Spam-happy can get their Spam musubi with egg, furikake, shiso, ume or cheese ($1.50 each). Fourteen other musubi varieties include tuna with mayo, yakiniku and three vegetarian choices ($1.50 each).
The musubi are made to order, nice and warm and wrapped in plastic for easy transport on hikes, to the beach or onto a flight. And the Koshihikari rice grains are things of perfect beauty, but on every type we try, we miss the taste of salt on the hands that shape the musubi.
Final word: Even in a casual eatery, service matters, and here it can veer ultra-warm or ice-cold. Depends who's working the counter. Ultra-warm means your Styrofoam boxes are delivered to your table with a wide open smile, a casual hand is planted on a hip and easy conversation begun. Ice-cold means tight-lipped, commando-style order-taking, barked notification when your boxes are ready to be picked up, and a petty argument about giving a takeout sauce container with a dine-in order.
Just hope for the best. For the dishes that will linger in your food memory, the rest of the experience is totally worth it.