Hawaii Eats: Mud Hen Water, Oahu
Honolulu, Oahu, HI — At one point, Hawaii’s respected chef, Ed Kenney, had four restaurants. But following the throes of the pandemic, only one remains.
Mud Hen Water is still going strong, thankfully. Opened in 2015 with a strong locavore focus, it continues to be relevant and incredibly popular, among both locals and tourists, as I found when I dined there last week. It’s no wonder, too, because this is food that captures the cornucopia of cultures that comprise Hawaii, from the Mediterranean to most of Asia. With a homey Hawaiian quality and assertive flavors, this is food that you easily crave again and again.
With Kenney’s Kaimuki Superette next-door now closed, Mud Hen Water has taken over that outdoor space to offer al fresco dining. But even if you dine indoors, as we did, there’s plenty of air circulation from whirring ceiling fans and patio doors left open to take advantage of the balmy, tropical breezes.
Start with a playfully named Shurb a Dub Dub ($11), a bracing mix of vodka, lemon, ginger, and seasonal shrub, which in this case was a mix of guava and citrus. Zingy and tart, it’s exactly what you want on a warm night.
An amuse of soft Breadshop soldiers slathered with miso butter garnished with radish slices welcomes you with its creamy, salty, umami notes.
The menu, which changes regularly, is made to be shared. Definitely order a side of rice with the Szechuan lotus roots ($14) to enjoy this spicy saucy dish with peanuts hidden throughout. It’s a mix of thick-cut lotus root, tree-ear mushrooms, shishito peppers, long beans, and rainbow carrots — every veg nicely al dente to preserve each one’s distinct crisp-tender texture.
If you love mapo tofu, don’t miss the mapo rice cakes ($22). Ground pork from 2 Lady Farmers of Hawaii get mixed with silken tofu cubes and Sichuan peppercorns for that familiar numbing, tingling sensation, as well as fresh, chewy cylindrical rice cakes that are as tender as chow fun noodles.
The lu’au stuffed porchetta ($32) is a spiral beauty. Let’s start with the glistening, crackling skin of which you’ll want to devour every bit. That gives way to juicy porky meat, and lastly a center of wilted taro leaves cooked down with a little coconut milk that have a spinach-like taste but with added nuttiness. It’s Italy meets Hawaii — and just plain spectacular.
The one-half J. Ludovico pasture-raised Oahu chicken ($29) is billed as fried, but it eats more like roasted. That’s not a bad thing, though. There’s no batter, just seasoned chicken fried so that the flesh is juicy and the skin crinkly and bronzed, rather than crunchy. It’s served with a zesty, herby seaweed salsa verde, as well as pickled cucumbers and radishes.
For dessert, our server recommended the chocolate-kiawe bean brownie ($9), and he did not steer us wrong.
Gluten-free, it’s made with Hawaiian kiawe bean pods from mesquite trees that have been dried and ground into flour. It’s served warm, so that its edges are still crisp and its center fudgy. A big scoop of black sesame ice cream sits on top that’s strewn with pieces of buttery mac nut brittle. Don’t be surprised if you end up hogging all the nuggets of brittle to yourself because this stuff is so good that the restaurant could sell it alone for a huge windfall.
Mud Hen Water may not be the hot new spot in Honolulu, but when a place does everything right, it’s no surprise that eight years in it’s still thriving.