For most of my life I’ve been addicted to cooking shows. Even as a small child I watched Martin Yan and Jacques Pépin as often as I could on PBS. In my teen years when Iron Chef hit America, my mom quickly picked up on it and immediately turned me onto it and that is where my love of cooking competition shows began. I have seen every episode of Iron Chef, Top Chef, Masterchef, and just about anything else you can think of. I have, however, never had the pleasure of attending any sort of cooking competition.
One day while scrolling through Instagram I spotted an event taking place at the International Marketplace in Waikiki: The Ultimate Chef Battle between Executive Chef Jamie Zager of Stripsteak Waikiki vs Executive Chef Bao Tran of The Street Food Hall (both Michael Mina restaurants). In a twist, Chef Zager would be emulating flavors typical of street food, while Chef Tran would be utilizing steak house flavors. Additionally, cocktails would be a part of the competition. Now, we don’t venture into Waikiki too often and we’ve never eaten at Stripsteak but we’ve heard nothing but good things—elegant, modern, with a mix of new and classic flavors— and we recently checked out Burger Hale at The Street and had a great experience. So, this seemed like a good opportunity for another great food experience. After a little bit of debate, Jacqui convinced me that we needed to go because I was going to have a blast and—once again, folks—my wife was right. So, once again Grammy and Jiichan were called in to the rescue—because the Nugget was not ready for this type of action and we were in need of a date night.
We live in Ewa Beach, so on a Friday night it took us about an hour and half to make it into Waikiki. In order to get there on time we elected to try the valet. The young man that greeted us was great—very professional, on point, ready to do his job he and pointed us in the direction we needed to go. The event was hosted by Stripsteak which is located on the top floor of International Marketplace—the same floor as the valet station—and we were greeted promptly by a very welcoming hostess. Seating at the event was open, which caused a little confusion at first as it seemed someone was saving seats (i.e. a whole table) but we quickly found a spot and settled in with what turned out to be great company. Stripsteak’s patio is spacious and provides a beautiful backdrop to any meal. It was a clear night so we had nothing to worry about, but we did notice an extendable patio cover that can be deployed in case of bad weather.
The competition began with canapes and cocktails. For starters, Chef Tran of The Street presented his take on eggplant parmesan and loaded baked potatoes paired with a cocktail that was described as a play on a Manhattan. Chef Zager offered charred Kauai shrimp and grilled asparagus flavored—grilled in front of you on a shichirin (yakitori charcoal grill)—and flavored with a miso yuzu butter. This was paired with a blackberry piña colada styled to emulate shave ice, Hawaii’s classic dessert.
The first thing I ate was the eggplant parmesan. Normally, I don’t go for these flavors—I’m not much on marinara sauce or tomatoes in general, but this was delicious on all levels. The eggplant was paired with mozerrella then breaded and fried, and served like a mozzarella stick. Being from St. Louis, this felt very much like home. And the marinara tasted very much like what you’d get in any hometown Italian place or pizzeria but, of course, done perfectly. The baked potatoes were delicious, as well, but I wish they were more substantial. Chef Tran opted to use tiny hasselback potatoes served on a skewer with a bacon sour cream. The bite was delicious but was too small. I totally understand leaving me wanting a little more, but this was a little much: I felt like I needed 6 of them just so I could taste it. Fortunately, appetizers were served throughout the entirety of the cocktail hour and we were encouraged to come back for more, so I was able to have about that many. On the other side, I really loved the Kauai shrimp. Grilled and served head on with skewered asparagus, it made for a really nice combination. And putting the final cook on them outside really added something to the whole experience especially with Chef Zager there to chit chat with you. The miso butter was very light and while it added dimension to the flavor it also really allowed the flavors of the asparagus and the shrimp to come through.
For the cocktails, the Manhattan was a little too much for me. My wife said that a cube of ice made the difference for her and while she is normally a clear liquor drinker, she really enjoyed it. The piña colada was beautiful to look at and full of light tropical flavors. While it was a tough decision, I thought the cocktail round went to Stripsteak. Both sides executed everything perfectly, but I thought the shrimp was showcased perfectly and paired nicely with the piña colada making for a well-rounded experience. But, it should be noted that I’m splitting some seriously small hairs here.
For appetizers team Stripsteak executed a delicious tostada featuring sweet corn, avocado, and A5 Wagyu beef. Now, this was delicious and really well done, but felt a little muddled and was difficult to eat. The Street presented a beef carpaccio a la caeser: incredibly thin sliced beef atop a creamy aioli, topped with spices and herbs. This was my clear winner. The flavor balance was perfect. It was meaty and tangy and with the crunchy toasted bread it was exactly what I like to eat. For Jacqui, it reminded her of her favorite go-to lunch during her days serving at an upscale steakhouse. For Jacqui and I, the appetizer round went squarely to Chef Tran of The Street. However, as a group, the tostada won the appetizer round.
Up next were the entrees. Stripsteak came out swinging with their crispy skinned pork belly “porchetta”. The skin of the pork belly was removed and crisped while the meat was braised and pulled apart. The crispy skin was then affixed to the pulled pork belly and formed. Any other night pork belly would be the clear winner for me: crispy pork skin is one of my favorite things in life. But in this case, Chef Tran answered with a garlic crusted short rib that had been sous vide to a perfect tender medium rare. Once again, both dishes were delicious, but if I have to split hairs it was all about that garlic crusted short rib—the potatoes underneath were smooth and perfect, and the Cipollini onion served off to the side was the perfect counter balance to the meaty perfection of the short rib. The garlic crust really came through in a pleasant surprise. At first, I didn’t notice it, but in my second and third bite it really came through and really completed the flavor. Both dishes were excellent, but Chef Tran really spoke to me—and this time the rest of the group agreed.
For the final course we had desserts. Stripsteak offered a pineapple crepe with ice cream and macadamia nuts, while The Street offered a New York style cheesecake (with marscapone) served with Luxardo Maraschino cherries. The last dish my mom really perfected in her life was a New York cheesecake and when they’re done right, for me, they’ll always win. Now, in this instance I had never had a Luxardo cherry, but the nuanced sweetness and tart flavor provided the perfect counter point to a rich creamy cheese cake executed as well as it can be. The crepe with the ice cream was well done but was ultimately underwhelming when put up against the cheesecake. The group also agreed with my assessment, as Chef Tran and The Street won the dessert round.
When the scorecards were tallied it was clear the night belonged to Chef Tran and The Street. Also clear was that we will be trying Stripsteak here in the near future because Jacqui and I were totally impressed with everything we had. Additionally, if I learned anything from this event it’s that I need to spend more time at The Street. Overall, we had a great time and International Marketplace is a great place for a date night from its selection of good eateries to the easy parking experience—both self park or valet.
Where can you Try Ono Oahu?
Both Stripsteak and The Street are located at the International Marketplace in Waikiki on the third and first floor, respectively. If you’re staying in Waikiki it is walking distance from most major resorts and hotels. If you’re staying on the west side of the island (Koolina) or on the North Shore (Turtle Bay) then it’s definitely a drive. Some perspective, it’s a 45 minute drive without traffic (1.5 hrs with traffic) from where we live on the island, but I think it’s well worth the drive—especially if you’re heading into town for other activities.
International Marketplace has its own parking garage with lots of spaces and tall ceilings (great for bigger vehicles). They do offer validation if you purchase more than $10 from one of the shops or restaurants which then makes parking prices pretty reasonable (0-1 hr FREE, then $2/hour through the 4th hour). If you don’t get your ticket validated, it’s $2/20 mins—which is crazy! They also offer valet for $5 plus the applicable parking rates. International Marketplace is located at 2330 Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu—but parking is only accessible from the Kuhio Ave side at Kuhio Ave and Walina St. If you’re using GPS device, it’s better to get directions to Saks Fifth Avenue, as the parking entrance is adjacent to SFA (2345 Kuhio Ave, Honolulu).
We found it was easiest to turn into the parking garage if you head east on Kuhio Ave so you can make a right turn in. There is a light at Kuhio Ave and Walina St, but there is no dedicated turning signal for left hand turns so you’re at the mercy of oncoming traffic. If you’re coming from the west side or from the North Shore we like taking H1 to Ala Moana Blvd, then a right onto Kalakaua Ave. Stay in the left 2 lanes, as Kalakaua will split with Kuhio on the left. The destination will then be on your left. There’s been a lot of construction and sometimes people will park in the right lane of Kuhio Ave so just be prepared for some maneuvering around minor obstacles.
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