I’m turning over a new plate. Be my witness: When I hear about a restaurant or ingredient, from now on, I’m not going to procrastinate. I’m going to go there. Every time I say “someday,” it ends up being “noday.” I missed the Korean taco truck entirely, even though I drove past their accustomed spot a gazillion times. They seem to have disappeared now. I was invited to the recent opening of Kevin Hanney’s SALT Kitchen & Tastings. Did I go? No, I sat on the couch and played with the computer. I’m going this weekend; that’s a sacred bow. I’ve been hearing about Mana Bu’s for two years. Did I go? No.
At least, not until earlier this week when I woke with this fresh, new spirit. (Or maybe it was just a boredom hangover from being unemployed for too long. Booo hooo! But at least I get to watch “Super Nanny” reruns.)
Mana Bu’s has captured the hearts of the rice ball-loving Honolulans and holds them in a firm grip. The only negative thing I’ve ever heard about this shop is frustration from Mana Bu’s-craving fans who arrived there only to find their favorites gone or the doors shut. One reviewer said the portions would seem small to locals, but I didn’t find them so.
So it was that, on Monday morning, I was at Mana Bu’s at 7:37 a.m.. This is both a good and not-so-good time to go. Good because parking’s easy and nobody’s there. Almost everything is available EXCEPT the desserts. Going back, I’m going to time my visit to between 8:30 and 9, when they should still have everything. Anytime after mid-morning, you’re liable to find the neat little trays of triangular rice cakes much too neat — as in empty.
For the uninitiated, Mana Bu’s, is owned by self-taught musubi chef Manabu Asaoka and his wife, Fumiyo Asaoka, both of whom have backgrounds in marketing and a yen to live in Hawai’i and contribute to Islander’s nutritional health. She’s a nutritonist; both were sadly surprised to see how fat-, salt-, starch- and protein-laden the foods here are.
Their answer was Mana Bu’s, located in a little perpendicular strip mall on the mauka side of S. King Street, a couple of driveways past Punahou across from Washington Intermediate School. Parking is available, but limited. They open at 6 a.m. and close by 1 p.m. It’s a scrupulously clean and bright little storefront where shelved trays of musubi are the centerpiece (though they make some customer-acclaimed desserts, such as strawberry mochi). It’s all takeout. All cash (but the plump musubi sell for only $1.40 or $1.60 apiece). Catered orders 24 hours in advance and pickup after 8 a.m. (9 a.m. Saturdays). Closed Sundays. Find them at hawaiimusubi.com.
That’s the 4-1-1. But the thing to know is something I haven’t heard anyone talk about. It’s not just the wide-ranging flavors of musubi that set Mana Bu’s apart. It’s the rice. I can’t overemphasize how important this is. Rice is nine-tenths of the musubi, after all. Mana Bu’s uses highest-quality regional rices and even identifies them on the signs attached to the trays. (Take note of the names so you can try these; check Don Quijote’s or Marukai or your favorite Japanese or Asian food store.)
Some years ago, Joan Namkoong, then food editor of The Advertiser (she’s in happy semi-retirement on the Big Island, working on various projects), wrote a story on premium-grade rice. The concept was new to me and it changed my culinary life, since I cook rice almost every day. After years as a faithful yellow bag customer, I ventured out into the world of Nishikis and Tamanishikis. Yes, it’s also the world of $26 bags of rice. But with just two in the household and rice such a centerpiece for us, it seemed worthwhile. I decided to allow the Asian-style food pyramid guide my shopping: less and more carefully chosen protein, more attention to the ingredient that fills three-quarters of the bowl. (And it is, by the way, not just the white rice road; premium brown rices and multi-grain rice mixtures are available — and used at Mana Bu’s, too.)
In musubi, premium-grade rice produces just the right sticky factor to allow the chef to mold the rice bowl into a perfect, pleasing shape with not a grain out of place. The rice ball won’t fall apart when you bite into it. The plump whole grains (check your regular rice; you’ll see lots of broken kernels) are rich in starch, creating a a tender texture that’s immediately detectable to a musubi or sushi aficionado.
For me today, rice has ascended to the level of chocolate. I’d rather have one, small piece of luxury chocolate than an entire grocery store bar.
(All that said, I do have to give Mana Bu’s top marks for creativity and bringing less-than-ordinary musubi combinations to our attention: tuna with ume — you can’t imagine how a little preserved plum can take an ordinary can of tuna to a new level); baked salmon; shiso, wakame and spiced ‘ahi, unexpectedly pleasing veggie curry (made with a white rice-based pilaf); spicy takuwan; spicy pollock roe; broiled unagi; sekihan (mochi rice). They don’t even scorn SPAM but they cook it in a “lite” shoyu marinade and cut smaller slices, masked in rice.)
I’m planning a Mana Bu’s tray for my next potluck party. I’m planning to learn how to make better omusubi at home, but that won’t stop me from stopping by Mana Bu’s for inspiration.