Whenever this time of year rolls around I am reminded of my first-ever tryst with loco moco. It was a warm day at Washington Park’s sixth annual Asian Food Fest in 2016 where I tried Ono Grindz for the first time. Known for its “island-style flavor,” Ono Grindz has been a constant at Asian Food Fest as well as at pop-up dinners around the city. This year, however, Ono Grindz is “bringing the Aloha spirit” aboard its brand new mobile eatery!
The first time I tried loco moco—a contemporary Hawaiian dish with white rice, topped with hamburger patty, a fried egg, and covered in brown gravy—I instantly fell in love and it immediately landed itself on my favorite foods list. But with its limited and varied availability, I had to find my fix somewhere. Living in landlocked Cincinnati—four thousand miles and six hours removed from The Aloha State—where would I ever find this mythical delicacy?
Enter some delicious Asian cuisine in a pretty excellent food city, thanks to a search on Yelp that yielded a surprising number of results (three!). So here it is—an homage to one of my favorite cuisines, loco moco, and where to find it in Cincinnati.
Ono Grindz, food truck
The Original – I’d imagine this is exactly what loco moco street food looks like in Hawaii. Scratch that; I know it does. I recently got a text from a friend who said, “Just ordered our first loco moco in Hawaii and thought of you!” Of course I asked for a picture, and it looked exactly like Ono Grindz’s take. I’ve never cared to go to Hawaii (not a big beach person) until I tried this Hawaiian fare, and now it resides decidedly on my bucket list. (Thanks, Ono Grindz.)
E+O Kitchen, Hyde Park
The Gourmet – Take the street food version of loco moco, times it by a hundred (y’know, replace the hamburger patty and styrofoam container with sesame steak and chic china), and you have E+O’s take. E+O is an “earth and ocean” Asian-inspired restaurant featuring fancy casual fare, so this version of loco moco is pricier. But, boy, is it excellent. (When you go you have to get the Brussels Sprout Salad. You can thank me later.)
Quan Hapa, Over-the-Rhine
The Embellished – Quan Hapa is Vine Street’s Asian Street Food purveyor, with an amazing space opening up to the outdoors in warmer months. Featuring some of the best indoor-meets-outdoor seating in the city, Quan Hapa serves Kalbi Loco Moco, which is marinated short ribs, garlic rice, brown gravy, fried egg, pickled carrots, bean sprouts, house-made kimchi, and green onions.
Pacific Kitchen, Montgomery
The Hearty – Pacific Kitchen’s menu is the length of a novella, which means there is something there for everyone. This restaurant was the hardest to visit, only because I don’t make it out that way very often. Thankfully BK and I had a date night in the ‘burbs and made a point to try this Asian fusion restaurant, featuring flavors from the Pacific Rim (including Indonesia, Taiwan, Laos, Myanmar, China, Japan, Korea, Tongo, and the Philippines). Their loco moco plate was enormous!
As a dish, I compare loco moco to cheeseburgers. There are cheap ones and there are fancy ones. There are ones topped with more things than you care to count (and may have trouble pronouncing), and there are others that keep it simple. Prices vary from very inexpensive to, “Wow, I paid what for what?” and it all depends on how it’s made and the ingredients used. The good thing is that, as with burgers, loco moco across the spectrum is delicious. Go out and find the one you prefer!
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another Hawaiian delicacy, musubi, a popular snack and lunch food in Hawaii composed of a slice of grilled Spam on top of a block of rice. I probably lost you at Spam, but trust me when I say that I would have never tried this dish in a former life (see: pre-BK). I’m a little embarrassed to admit that this is one of the most adventurous food items I’ve ever tried, but it is excellent. Stop knocking it until you try it. And seriously, try it. Ono Grindz serves a very basic version of it and it is excellent (my mouth is watering thinking about it), and Quan Hapa also has a take that is a bit fancier but also outstanding. According to Yelp I’ve got two more places to try musubi in Cincinnati (Dai Trang Bistro and Sushi Monk, both in West Chester). Do it; you won’t regret it!