Gourmet dining at the Black Urchin in Hilo

18 January 2005 - 8:30pm

culinary delights at the Black Urchin in Hilo, Hawaii

Editor's note: The following restaurant review was written by Stephen Peters
a novelist and script writer who lives with his family in Kamuela, Hawaii.

Island Breath Review:

2441 Kalanianaole, Hilo, Hawaii. 808.911.1616

by Stephen Peters on 17 Janury 2005
It had been raining all day in Hilo. So what else was new? I watched it come down from my hotel room, through dirty glass, as water drops trickled and puddled around the smeared-out corpse of a giant tree-roach. Shitty hotel on Banyan Drive. We'll leave out the name.

By late afternoon the rain stopped and a purplish light seeped in under the clouds stretching over Hilo Bay. Purplish-yellow, more like it. A sickly glow that deformed twilight: the nearby volcano at work, puking out gases that ordinarily were swept away by the trade winds to the west side of the island. Not tonight. Stalled winds, gases in the air, bad light. Incipient evening that had something unforgettable written all over it. I should have seen it coming.

So we went off to dinner. We: my buddy Charlie and I. He was in from Kauai on a travel-writing gig for the Times. New York Times, to be exact. Charlie had "pad" issues for this piece, hence the dinner, another place to send tourists trapped in their infested Hilo hotel rooms by 180 inches RAIN ANNUAL. Do they mention the moisture problem in the travel guides? They found a drunk at the bar of the Hilo Hawaiian a couple years ago with lichen, I'm not kidding, a lichen hatched on the side of his face.

Pad the piece, Stevo, Charlie said, and let the Times cover another meal.

We parked the rental car outside the Black Urchin at 8. No more weird light in the night sky. Just an acrid taste of volcanic sulfur in our throats, that we quickly washed out with foo-foo drinks at the bamboo bar. It was about the third rum thingy when the maitre'd fetched us for our table.

Even at that moment, I had the odd boozy clarity drinkers know. Something not quite right about this maitre'd. Simple name. "Kanaka", he introduced himself. Which in Hawaiian is usually preceded by the modifiers "big motherfucking" kanaka. You get the idea. Anyway, this guy had, not a lisp, exactly. Or even a slur. Kind of a mushy, pidgin-inflected delay between tongue, lips, words. Doctor friend of mine would about now be saying, that's really very poetic, but what old Kanaka has here is a fucking sinkhole of a neurological deficit. Wish the doctor had been there. The night might have been cut short right then.

So Kanaka gets us into our chairs. First thing: nice-looking 40's gal at the table across. Experienced leg flash under her table. I'm taking this in not too subtly when I feel Kanaka's breath in my ear. Sweet. A breath mint.

"No try the mushles. Brake da' eenside, bruddah," he said from a quarter inch away.

"Huh?" looking away from the mid-life trim show opposite.

"Mooshells," he repeated. But his mouth slipped sideways -- I don't know how else to describe it. "Muscles. No try." He got it out ok that time. Standing straight now, looking down at me. Muscles? He wasn't kidding. He looked like a jacked-up Lawrence Taylor. I'd never try this guy in a million years, sinkhole in his head or not.

"Got it." I waved to him. He smiled. Walked away. But wavered, funny gait, hesitations in his steps to let a little tremor-like shake go down his right leg. Waiter arrived. Chinese guy with menus. Complimentary appetizer -- a fried fishhead, white bulging eyes, mouth crisped back tight over tiny sharp teeth.

"Carp cheek. You like, guarantee," Chinese guy said. So he stands there. Now I'm not even coming close to tasting this fucking decapitated carp, I tell myself. Why was I intimidated by this little, piss-ant waiter? Charlie wasn't, he already had chopsticks gouging out a fatty, bloody-streaked hunk of fishcheek. Right into his mouth it goes. Savoring it, the drunken idiot.

I drained a fifth rum thingy. Charlie had another carp cheek poised at the end of his chopsticks. He held it to my lips. The waiter stares at me. Next thing I know, I'm chewing a slimy piece of latex that smells like it had recently been inserted into an asshole. So I swallowed it.

So I'm an even bigger drunken idiot. The waiter smiled approvingly. I'm cool with him now. Charlie smiled at me from across the table. Small drip of fishblood at the corner of his mouth. He appeared to be getting farther away than a moment ago. A guy on a moving chair receding into a dark tunnel.

Voices like echoes: "I'll have the mussels in white wine sauce," I heard Charlie say.

Mussels. A distant alarm bell in my head. Then that fucking annoying waiter.

"And you? You like try mussels?"

No. No no no. I thought I was speaking. But my lips were tingly. Numb. Damn foo-foo drinks. I bit my tongue on purpose. Like a dead piece of leather.

"He'll have the seared manchong, start with Manila Clams and raw lobster aioli." Charlie was ordering for me. I couldn't stop him.

Crashing sound adjacent. The 40's gal had tipped over in her chair. She was lying on the floor. Both legs twitched, her sandals clattered on the tile. He neck arched back to allow a long, soft gag to rasp out her mouth.

Laughter. Jesus, who the hell? The waiter. All the waiters. The whole
place was laughing as this woman siezed up grand-mal style, then lay
still next to her table.

"What's she having?" Charlie asked.

"Manila Clam," the waiter answered. Cool smile as he walked away with the menus. Two more drinks arrived, Charlie was all over his.

"I can't feel my lips. Can you?" I asked him.

"Nah. Musta been the carp. Hey, they hand over big bucks for that kinda
fish-buzz in Tokyo. Take it from me."

"I gotta use the bathroom." I stood up. Couple of steps and I felt my leg hitch. Funny little electrical-like pinch ran down my calf into my heel. What the fuck was that? I looked down at my foot. It suddenly dragged along the floor, then found itself again. I looked up -- Kanaka was watching me from the bar.

I found the restrooms. A stunning 20's Asian tourist woman was smoking a cigarette outside the ladies door. Sideslit dress, black eyes. My leg hitched up again. I almost staggered into her. She steadied me. Met my glance.

"Can't eat local reef fish anymore they say. Bad algae. No one prepare it. Only here, they tell me. Only here... You like to live dangerous, handsome man?"

"I ordered the Manila Clam."

Her dark gaze held mine. She nodded. Suddenly ran her tongue over my lips. "Maybe I wait for you. Ok?"


I entered the men's room. Tripped immediately, had to grab the towel holder to keep from going down. Spun and fell back against the wall.

Dark in there. Light from a chinese lantern. A white guy in a pricey Tommy Bahama aloha shirt was on the floor, curled fetally in an expanding puddle of blood-soaked vomit. He emitted an orange-red trail of spittle, looked-up at me.

"Let me guess," I said. "Seared manchong?"
He managed to shake his head. Heaved another time.

"Mussels. Killer. Ya' gotta try 'em." He grabbed his abdomen in agony. Curled-up even farther.

No try the mushles. Brake da' eenside. Kanaka's voice. Resonating way back in my stiffening neck.

I circled the vomit, found the urinal. About to unzip when I saw a whitish mass floating in there with the courtesy mint. Peered down closer. Half-digested sea scallops in a meuniere stench.

I felt dizzy. Someone kept poking my leg with a stun gun. I whirled around, ready to pop some cocksucker. No one was there. Then I saw the words written on the bathroom mirror, dripping red letters formed from cocktail sauce.

"The Shrimp! The Shrimp. God help me."

A morgue-like vapor rose from the sink just below the mirror. I reluctantly looked down into the porcelain bowl -- You really don't wanna know...

Things are unclear after the men's room. The Asian hottie with the cigarette was not outside in the corridor waiting for me. That I remember. And the sound that came from behind the ladies room door. Not wretching exactly. More like some scream in the bowels of a death camp.

I stumbled outside to the tables. I couldn't see Charlie. Only a mound of mussel shells on top of the tablecloth where he had been sitting.

Our waiter was squatting on his heels to the side, moving a big white towel in a circle on the tiles. When he stood, the towel was bright red.

I went for the exit, had to pass the bar. Happy, ashen-faced drinkers pounding mai-tais, every so often dipping a plump shrimp into scarlet cocktail sauce.

The exit door seemed to drift back into that dark, impenetrable tunnel. But I made it outside, just as Kanaka came up behind me, stood in the doorway.

"You come back Urchin again, bruddah. Aloha."

I stepped into the parking lot. Rummaging sounds to my left in the shadows at the rear of the restaurant. Chinese waiters pulling fishheads out of a dumpster, going back into the kitchen with their catch.

I found the rental car. It started raining again. Big, straight-down drops through the yellow glow of neon and the words THE BLACK URCHIN. The rain hit my face. I couldn't feel a fucking thing. I never saw Charlie again. I walk with a limp.

All major credit cards. Reservations recommended.
Conveniently located four blocks from Hilo Medical Center.


hit tracker dy>