When Tracee Hirahara started working on the menu for her new pop-up with her husband, fellow chef Brandon Hirahara, she knew she wanted to add kombu maki. Her grandmother did this to make her grow taller, tying up small patches of kelp filled with pork with sprigs of squash. When the couple moved to the mainland, she continued to cook a version of the dish at home, after shifts at Thai barbecue bar Eem. But for her life, she couldn’t find kanpyō anywhere – the calabash straps used to tie the dish together. Her mother sent her a packet of kanpyō straight from Oahu, especially for her pop-up.
It’s this staple of Hawaiian fare – faithful interpretations of family recipes – that powers Kau Kau, the chefs’ pop-up at Little Griddle. The menu is built around a selection of combination plates, similar to those at lunch, with dishes like chicken mochiko, chicken long rice, lomi-lomi salmon and kombu maki, accompanied by two scoops of rice. and a mac salad. “We wanted to try something that reminds me of my home,” says Brandon Hirahara. “We’ve lived in Portland for 10 years now, but the older we get, the more we miss home.”
Home, for both, is in Oahu; the couple met while working at the Halekulani Hotel in Honolulu, in the banquet division. The two chefs eventually moved to Portland, drawn to the stories they read about restaurants like Castagna, Le Pigeon and Beast. Brandon Hirahara then worked at Langbaan as a chef, and Tracee began working under Colin Yoshimoto at Eem. “We both worked in fine dining restaurants, not super traditional stuff,” says Brandon Hirahara. “Everything we make for Kau Kau is what we make for ourselves at home and what our parents did. For Brandon Hirahara, that means dishes like fried chicken with garlic. “It’s totally my mother’s recipe,” he says. “She texted me her recipe and said, ‘Oh, put that on!'”
However, not all dishes can be an exact replica; Like Tracee Hirahara’s kanpyō, other ingredients have been difficult to find on the mainland, making recipe development tricky. Take, for example, the pop-up lau-lau: Lau-lau refers to a style of cooking, in which meats like pork or butterfish are steamed in ti leaves. But when Brandon Hirahara tried to find ti leaves in Oregon, he was stuck. “It’s almost impossible to get here, and if you get it, it’s frozen,” he says. “You can’t wrap up with this; it cracks. Instead, one of Eem’s cooks, who works with the restaurant’s grilled meats, recommended barbecue paper; now that’s what they use.
In the future, as the weather gets colder, the two want to add more stews and soups to the pop-up menu, like oxtail soup with star anise, raw peanuts and tangerine zest, or a Filipino chicken papaya soup. In the end, they would like to open a restaurant, but they don’t see that far yet. “We’re having fun just for now,” says Tracee Hirahara.
Kau Kau will serve combination plates and sides, as well as butter mochi for dessert, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. today, October 5. Little Griddle, the pop-up’s original base, is located at 3520 NE 42nd Avenue.
• Kau Kau [Instagram]
• Previous Eem coverage [EPDX]