Oxtail soup: four bowls in Honolulu
Aiea Bowl's oxtail soup
Two wondrous things happen when an oxtail is simmered for hours: the meat softens and the bones, cartilage and marrow relinquish their flavor into the liquid. A good oxtail soup may have a clear broth, but it’s rich and silky from the dissolved cartilaginous joints. Served with a dipping dish of grated ginger and two scoops rice, it’s one of my favorite comfort foods. Here are four bowls—just barely skimming the surface of oxtail soup in Honolulu—in order of preference:
Local-style oxtail soup tends to have a Chinese flavor profile, the broth spiced with star anise, dried orange peel and ginger. Aiea Bowl’s is the most flavorful, arriving with tender, meaty oxtails, whole shiitake mushrooms, Chinese red dates, peanuts and a sprinkling of fresh green onions. Some baby bok choy leaves add welcome greenery and texture. The cilantro comes on the side, alongside the grated ginger and a housemade ponzu spiced with chili, a step up from the usual shoyu.
$14.50, 99-115 Aiea Heights Dr. #310, Aiea, 486-3499, aieabowl.com
Zippy's oxtail soup
I was surprised by how much I loved Zippy’s oxtail soup. The broth has the best body: clear, yet weighty from the dissolved cartilage, leaving my lips sticky after slurping. It’s also packed with oxtails—five pieces versus four at the other places—though they were slightly tough. The bowl came with slivers of shiitake, a generous handful of peanuts, but there could have been more greens (gai lan here).
$11.95, multiple locations (I visited the Makiki one on 1222 S. King St.), Zippy’s
Ethel's Grill oxtail soup
Here, the oxtail soup is Japanese-style, without the more aggressive Chinese seasonings, though it’s still full-flavored. The meat practically dissolves into the broth and mustard cabbage adds some dimension to this soup.
$7.50, 232 Kalihi St., 847-6467
Described in the menu as “voted Honolulu’s best,” (though it doesn't say for which reader poll) the broth for this oxtail soup was disappointing—saltiness its defining taste. The oxtails themselves were noteworthy, though, simmered into soft submission.
$12.95, two locations: 515 Ward Ave. and 815 Keeaumoku St.
Other notable bowls that I didn't include because they deviated too far from the local-style oxtail soup: Ramen Nakamura's oxtail ramen and Mama Le of The Pig and the Lady's oxtail pho. Any bowls that I'm missing? Let me know!