Story by Derek Paiva
Chef-owner Mark Pomaski plates in the kitchen of Moon and Turtle restaurant in Hilo. Photo credit: Soni Pomaski.
That’s Mark Pomaski’s mission for the new menu he crafts daily for Moon and Turtle, the award-winning Hilo restaurant he owns and cooks at. Walk in one night and Moon and Turtle’s menu could lead with opah (moonfish) caught in Hawaii Island waters and served with just-picked lettuces from Waimea and vegetables selected from the bustling Hilo Farmers Market that morning. Come again the following evening and Pomaski’s menu might feature a Hawaii Island-inspired take on the beloved Canadian dish poutine, made with fried Hilo-grown ulu (breadfruit) instead of potatoes, Hamakua Coast mushroom gravy and goat cheese from the Puna district. Drop by at lunch and the menu will often have a surf and turf fried rice Pomaski crafts with made-in-Hilo wild boar sausage, island-caught fish and, once again, farmers market vegetables.
Welcome to the international yet regional, frequently changing and Hawaii Island-driven menu of Moon and Turtle.
“I love putting food on the menu that is very much of the Big Island and Hilo,” says Pomaski. “I love telling people that the heart of palm we use comes from a farm two miles from the restaurant. We try to buy as much fresh fruit as we can for the juices at our bar – citrus, pineapples, starfruit, lychee, whatever’s in season. We like to encourage people who are not from (Hawaii Island) to try things that they’re not going to get anywhere else.”
Making the mission of one’s eatery procuring the bulk of its menu locally isn’t easy. But Pomaski, and an ever-growing number of Hawaii Island and statewide chefs, see the challenge of true Hawaii farm-to-table as more than worth it. To take a step further and micro-procure as much of your product as possible from a single island, which Pomaski also strives to do, is yet another challenge he welcomes.
“We need to be supporting the people who are growing the food here because we need to be able to feed ourselves more,” says Pomaski. “The more support that our farmers and ranchers have, the more they’ll be able to grow and survive and eventually meet those needs.”
Moon and Turtle chef-owner Mark Pomaski. Photo credit: Soni Pomaski.
Born and raised in Hilo, Pomaski worked in the kitchens of chef Roy Yamaguchi’s Waikiki-area Roy’s restaurant and chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa’s Nobu 57 in New York, primarily as a sushi chef, before returning to his hometown two years ago to open Moon and Turtle with his wife, Soni, and brother, Tedd. The restaurant quickly received accolades from residents and visitors, positive write-ups from local and national food media, and Hawaii dining awards for Pomaski’s wonderfully inventive menu and use of fresh-caught, fresh-picked and fresh-made Hawaii Island- and Hawaii-procured ingredients.
“When I started working for Roy’s, I saw how dedicated he was to supporting the local economy, and buying local fish and local produce,” says Pomaski. “It really affected me in how we decided to do our business. And my experiences as a sushi chef have really given me a love of working with fresh fish and shellfish.
“There’s such a variety of things that we get to work with from the Big Island,” says Pomaski. “We like that.”
In the spirit of Pomaski’s longtime-resident’s familiarity with Hawaii Island and noted love of nearly all things edible grown, caught or produced on the island, we asked him to share his five favorite Hawaii Island-made things to eat, drink and slurp. His inspired choices follow.
Two Ladies Kitchen mochi
“I love Two Ladies for many reasons. Obviously, the mochi (sweet Japanese rice cake) is excellent. I love that it’s handmade and so labor intensive, a little bit of the old and a little bit of the new. Opening up a box of Two Ladies mochi is like opening a box of chocolate samplers. The variety of colors and shapes and flavors is overwhelming. It’s just so much fun. I also love that Two Ladies was started by my high school wrestling teammate’s mother and (his) mother’s aunty, when he went away to college, and the fact that they’re a simple success story. It’s a small business that was very successful and has grown into a Hilo institution. That’s inspiring to me as a business owner. It’s also inspiring that the people of Hilo are supportive of small businesses here. And Two Ladies (mochi) is something you can only get here in Hilo.”
Big Island Booch kombucha
“When I first tried kombucha (a fermented tea drink sweetened with fresh fruits or herbs) several years ago it wasn’t what it is today. There was a funkiness to it that was off putting and I never got into it. So when I saw Big Island Booch for the first time I was hesitant. But I tried it and it was delicious. They’ve refined it so well. It’s light. It’s effervescent. There’s no hint of funkiness. They’re buying local fruits and fermenting it themselves. And it’s just really, really refreshing. It’s also another inspiring story of a small business that started here and is going through a boom right now. They’re about to start supplying their product to supermarkets. They’ve got a warehouse and they’re increasing production. I love the ginger and turmeric kombucha. We buy it in growlers and keep it in the restaurant for the health benefits. Big Island Booch also uses all kinds of tropical fruits, like lilikoi and soursop. We tried the beet kombucha recently and it was delicious. So light and very refreshing. Their kombucha is also just (visually) beautiful. Natural colors. Nothing artificial. “
Wilson’s by the Bay ice shave
“They make the best ice shave.* The business is operated by some of my (Hilo High School) classmates. They purchased it after they graduated a little over 20 years ago and have been operating it ever since. And it’s another business that’s become an (Hawaii Island) institution. Their ice shave is just really, really good. And I think the reasons why are that they use an old-fashioned ice-shaving machine and make all of their own syrups. The machine looks like an antique. It’s awesome, and produces this really, really fine powder. For syrups, they have all of the usual tropical fruit-based suspects, but they taste so good. We actually buy some of them – lychee, lilikoi and li hing – and use it at Moon and Turtle’s bar in our cocktails. When I go to Wilson’s, I always get li hing syrup with some other flavor, ice cream on the bottom, and (condensed milk) cream on top. Every now and then, I’ll get the root beer syrup because, combined with the ice cream bottom and the cream topping, my ice shave tastes like a root beer float. This summer was really hot and Wilson’s is right by the farmers market so we’d swing up there often.”
* Longtime Hawaii Island residents and ex-pats often refer to shave ice as “ice shave.”
Liko Lehua fruit butters
“Liko Lehua is operated by a friend of mine. Her auntie started the business and eventually gave it to her. They do their own lilikoi butters and tropical fruit butters. I really like Liko Lehua’s Tahitian lime butter. It’s amazing. And they produce everything in a small space on Waianuenue Avenue in downtown Hilo, right up the street from us. They even have a little café that sells plate lunches. Liko Lehua has a huge following in Japan, where they go twice a year for trade shows. Their butters are good on basically anything. English muffins and such, obviously. But adding a scoop into your smoked meat as it’s frying, to make a little bit of glaze, is also really good. Their product just tastes natural. It tastes like butter and it tastes like fruit. And the butters are also (visually) beautiful. They’re so creamy and gorgeous.”
Patele vendor at Malama Market parking lot on Saturdays
“Pateles are one of my favorite foods. My dad introduced me to pateles (a tamale-like dish brought to Hawaii by early 20th century Puerto Rican plantation workers, and known as “pasteles” in most Latin American countries) when I was a kid. I’ve been addicted ever since – I think it’s the combination of olives and pork – and I actively seek them out. If I know anyone who’s at least part Puerto Rican, I’m like, ‘Does your grandma makes pateles, by any chance?’ People setting up a tent on the side of the road with some chairs, a cooler and a big sign that says ‘Pateles’ are a common sight (on Hawaii Island). On Saturdays, in the parking lot of Malama Market in Pahoa, a woman – I don’t know her name – sells pateles from a stand she sets up from her car. One of my employees brought me some and they were just the best I’d ever had – stuffed with lots of pork and lots of olives. The flavor is amazing. When the pork fat melts into the banana masa, it’s heaven. Her spice blend is perfect, too. Demand is pretty high, so I recommend going early. Just look for her and her car, in the parking lot, on Saturdays.”
Moon and Turtle restaurant is located at 51 Kalakaua St. in Hilo on Hawaii Island. For reservations, call (808) 961-0599. Follow them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/moonandturtle
About Derek Paiva: Derek Paiva is an editor and writer on the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau and Big Island Visitors Bureau account team at Anthology Marketing Group. A lifelong Hawaii resident, Derek has enjoyed careers in magazine and newspaper journalism, and was editor-in-chief of Hawaii Magazine from 2010 through 2015. He has traveled extensively throughout the Hawaiian Islands, written about them exhaustively, and is always looking forward to exploring and learning new things about his home islands. He can be contacted at email@example.com.