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An Eem Sous Chef and Langbaan Alum Are Serving Homestyle Hawaiian Food With a New Pop-Up

Kau Kau, popping up at the Little Griddle today, serves dishes like kombu maki and chicken long rice in combo plates, complete with sides of lau-lau

Braised kelp leaves wrap around small bites of pork in a white bowl.
Kombu maki. Pork filled kelp, tied with gourd strands, are just one of the dishes that Kau Kau serves as a part of its kombu plates.
jreika / Shutterstock
Brooke Jackson-Glidden is the editor of Eater Portland.

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 made it for her growing up, tying little pork-filled parcels of kelp with strands of gourd. When the couple moved to the mainland, she continued to make a version of the dish at home, after shifts at Thai barbecue bar Eem. But for the life of her, she couldn’t find kanpyō — the strips of calabash used to tie the dish together — anywhere. Her mom sent her a package of kanpyō straight from Oahu, specifically for her pop-up.

It’s this foundation of Hawaiian dishes — loyal renditions of family recipes — that fuels Kau Kau, the chefs’ pop-up at Little Griddle. The menu is built around a selection of combo plates, similar to plate lunch, with dishes like mochiko chicken, chicken long rice, lomi-lomi salmon, and kombu maki, complete with two scoops of rice and mac salad. “We wanted to try something that reminds me of home,” Brandon Hirahara says. “We’ve been living in Portland for 10 years now, but the older we get, the more we miss home.”

Home, for both of them, 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 by stories they read about restaurants like Castagna, Le Pigeon, and Beast. Brandon Hirahara went on to work at Langbaan as the chef de cuisine, and Tracee started working under Colin Yoshimoto at Eem. “We were both working in the fine dining restaurants, not super traditional stuff,” Brandon Hirahara says. “All the stuff we make for Kau Kau is what we make for ourselves at home, and what our parents made.” For Brandon Hirahara, that means dishes like garlic fried chicken. “That’s straight up my mom’s recipe,” he says. “She just texted me her recipe and said, ‘Oh, put this on!’”

Not every dish can be an exact replica, however; like Tracee Hirahara’s kanpyō, other ingredients have been hard to find on the mainland, which makes recipe development tricky. Take, for example, the pop-up’s lau-lau: Lau-lau refers to a cooking style, in which meats like pork or butterfish steam in ti leaves. But when Brandon Hirahara tried to find ti leaves in Oregon, he was stuck. “It’s next to impossible to get here, and if you do get it, it’s frozen,” he says. “You can’t wrap with it; it cracks.” Instead, one of the cooks at Eem, who works with the restaurant’s barbecued 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 an oxtail soup with star anise, raw peanuts, and mandarin orange peel, or Filipino chicken papaya soup. Down the line, they’d like to open a restaurant, but they’re not looking that far ahead just yet. “We’re just having fun for now,” Tracee Hirahara says.

Kau Kau will serve combo plates and sides, as well as butter mochi for dessert, from 4 to 7 p.m. today, October 5. Little Griddle, the pop-up’s home base, is located at 3520 NE 42nd Avenue.

Kau Kau [Instagram]
Previous Eem coverage [EPDX]