I know I wasn’t the only one in town who felt a little wistful upon hearing the news that Mark and Marjorie Chang Fuller were converting their West Seattle restaurant into a more casual, Hawaiian-themed eatery called Ma‘ono Fried Chicken & Whisky. Opened in May 2008, Spring Hill had tried to plant an ambitious “New American” bistro outside the central city. Fuller, a 2009 Food & Wine best chef, knew how to craft a crowd pleaser—his burger was one of the city’s best—but he also presented more refined dishes that were at the same time technically precise and soulful; his seafood dishes were to be treasured. I worried that his light-handed grace might be hard to find in the new format, even as I understood that Spring Hill’s more upscale offerings were a hard sell in this tight economy—especially far from downtown.
Restaurants, of course, have been heading in an ever more casual direction, with gastropubs and burger joints thriving in lieu of white linen and epic wine lists. At Spring Hill, the format shift was a direct result of Fuller’s own knack for comfort food. Shortly after opening, Spring Hill started offering friendly fried chicken dinners on Monday nights. Brined, then soaked in buttermilk, dredged in spiced flour inspired by his grandmother’s recipe, and fried not once but twice, the chicken was delicious, and it sparked a foodie feeding frenzy. With only 20 chickens served each Monday, rarity added to the pent-up demand. When the Fullers pulled the plug on their finger-licking Mondays after about a year, the change sparked an affronted Twitter buzz.
And so, last December, the Monday chicken returned, this time dressed in an aloha shirt. Instead of sides like greens and spaetzle, the chicken came with rice and kimchi. The chicken night was called Ma‘ono (“make tasty” in Hawaiian), and a couple of months later, the whole restaurant converted to the casual Hawaiian theme, centered on the chicken and cocktails (hence the whisky tag). “We wanted to provide the customers what they were asking for,” says Marjorie Chang Fuller, “and trying to do that with the Spring Hill menu was sending a mixed message, so we changed the whole concept.”
The island theme didn’t totally come out of the blue: Fuller himself spent large chunks of his youth in Hawaii, home of his mother’s family. The chicken harks back to tropical family picnics, and the rest of the Ma‘ono menu hits notes of the pidgin Pacific Rim cuisine that thrives in the islands: flame-lashed strips of short ribs, redolent of sweet soy in the Korean style ($12), eggy, irresistible Portuguese-style buns ($4) (both shown aboe), and sesame and chile-kissed ahi tuna pokē ($12)—a Hawaiian take on sashimi.
Spring Hill was never a formal restaurant, and nothing much has changed in the elegant, modern, paneled room with concrete floors and plywood booths that have always suggested a classic midcentury coffee shop. Nothing, perhaps, except the crowd: with potent cocktails, big portions and a loud room, the Ma‘ono is even less a place for date-night conversation than its predecessor; much better for boisterous group eating.
Central to that shared eating is, of course, the fried chicken, now available every night. There are only 30 orders available each night, but don’t worry: You can reserve your bird when you reserve a table. When you arrive, you select the type of chicken you want: Spring Hill original, slicked with brick red Korean chili sauce, or coated in a Chinese-style glaze of hot mustard and honey. (One chicken and sides are $38, and serve two or more.)
The price might be steep for fried chicken, but all varieties of the chicken are impeccable (the honey version is outright stellar). Although this dish is much more refined, it taps into that three-sheets-to-the-wind midnight craving for cheap Chinese-food that lives within all of us. (What? It doesn’t live within you? You must be a lot more disciplined than me. You may want to choose another restaurant.) The glossy topping clings to the chicken skin beneath, without obscuring the textural marvel of the bumpy, crackling crust. Each bit of sweetness in the glaze is tempered by a little slap from the hot mustard. Below that, perfectly moist chicken meat is subtly but persistently salted. On the side, a jar full of pungent and juicy kimchi swabs your palate before you pick up another piece of chicken. Other refreshing options: one of Ma‘ono’s excellent beer selections, or an orange tequila drink, the Corazon del Sol ($12).
There is more to the menu than chicken, but most of it also falls into the “sport eating” category: heavy-duty comfort dishes. There’s the bath-size bowl of saimin noodles ($14), with a broth of condensed meatiness and chunks of fatted pork swimming next to a glistening egg. The much feted bacon cheeseburger still beckons ($19). Those sweet rolls I mentioned earlier are served with a devilish butter spread impregnated with the flavor of the kitchen’s pork roast drippings. Even the salads are heavy duty—a spiced-up whole-leaf Caesar ($9); or apples dipped in sweet chili sauce, and bundled in thin slices of house-cured pork loin ($11). Desserts are big and creamy—silky smooth ice cream flavored with popcorn ($4) and a whiz-bang banana cream pie with cacao nibs in the crust ($7).
The brawniness of the food at Ma‘ono will be its draw, but perhaps also its limitation. It’s hard to leave the restaurant without feeling stuffed (the wood-fire grilled trout, $19, showered with cilantro and seaweed, is one exception to this full-contact indulgence, and it is excellent). At the least, I’d love to see a few more produce-focused options on the menu, just to provide some breathing space between burly meat dishes. Spring Hill, after all, used to make the best veggie entrées in town.
None of this should obscure the fact that Ma‘ono is serving really good food, and I admire the Fullers for assessing a tough economy, listening to their customers and fully committing to a more casual, inexpensive (though by no means cheap) concept.
Ma‘ono, West Seattle, 4437 California Ave. SW ; 206.935.1075 ; maono.springhillnorthwest.com $$