Food in Hawaii is a special affair. You had the local Hawaiian cuisine, you had a lot of people bringing their traditional cuisines from home, and then the people mingled, the food mingled, and in the end, you have local specialties that may look like things you can get anywhere, but the tastes? Delicious (or "onolicious") and unique, and very hard to find outside of the islands.
OK. There is the spam fixation, as demonstrated by the repeat appearances of spam musubi on this blog this year. I will admit that spam, even Spam given an Asian fusion presentation, is not to everyone's liking & move on past that to my real, true favorites from small-kid time. A trip home just isn't a trip home without:
The Plate Lunch: OK - the plate-lunch purists out there would be offended by this one - a true Island plate lunch would feature a meat (teri chicken, teri beef or the Korean BBQ short ribs you see here are classic plate-lunch meats - for the indecisive & hungry there are usually combo plates where you get all three, or you can usually get kalua pig & laulau, both featured a little way down in the post) and rice and macaroni salad . The rice is usually in round scoops, and I went particularly off the beaten plate-lunch path on this one because Yummy Korean Barbeque in Kailua actually allows you a choice of sides & I had been pigging out so badly that instead of the traditional perfectly round scoop of creamy macaroni salad, I went for vegetables. The horror, the horror. Move along folks, nothing to see here...
The Malasada: (sometimes spelled "malassada", but I always buy at Leonard's where they spell it with one "s"): This yummy yummy treat is of Portuguese descent. As I understand it, they originated as a Mardi Gras treat, a sugary sweet deep-fried indulgence before Lent. I guess people in Hawaii were a little more hedonistic than that though - you can get 'em most of the year. Just look for one of Leonard's cheery red-and-white striped vans -
and get in line!
Most wonderfullest when absolutely fresh and warm.
I always go for the "plain" of my youth - but now there's all kinds of different fillings. If I had an enterpreneurial bone left in my body (I don't, they were all beaten out of me by a less-than-brilliant stint as a part-owner of a kayak business), I swear I would figure out a way to get a Leonard's truck to NYC & I would make malasadas into The Next Hot Dessert Trend. Cupcakes are SO end of last century, people.
Aaaah. Saimin. Looks like something you could buy on the Mainland, right? Maybe at a Chinese or Japanese noodle bar? Well, you can't. I don't know what makes saimin saimin, but it is a purely Hawaiian hybrid of some sort & nothing else tastes quite like it. One of my few disappointments with the Fulton Street L&L Barbecue was when I saw "saimin" on their menu, did a happy little dance of glee, ordered the "saimin", took it home, took the first sip and found that they were selling some standard NYC ramen bar soup. And no fish cake. Chee. Perfectly tasty, but NOT saimin.
Where to get the best saimin is seriously a matter of contention. I was staying in Waikiki for this trip, so my standbys out in Aiea (Forty Niner Diner) and Waimalu (Shiro's Saimin Haven) weren't so easy to get to. I guess I don't entirely trust Waikiki joints for good local food (case in point: went to a beachfront refreshment stand grill for lunch one afternoon and those lolos squirted bottled barbecue sauce on their kalua pig - WRONG WRONG WRONG!) My first saimin of the trip was therefore at a place I hadn't gone myself but that seemed to be spoken of well on the Internet. Except that it was Boulevard Saimin that was spoken of well and the place that I found when I got to the given address was Dillingham Saimin:
Trying to remember the name of the place I was looking for, I actually just found a Hawaii blog written someone who patronized Boulevard enough to get the real scoop from one of the wait staff. Me, I was just happy to find that although the name changed, the saimin was still "broke da' mouth" - that means GOOD.
In a pinch, Zippy's (local fast food joint) would have been OK too, and I did in fact go there for saimin fix #2 -
It wasn't just the saimin, though - it was because I was riding TheBus past the Hawaii Kai shopping mall where they have the Zippy's that I swear has got the best view of any fast food place in the world.
Actual Hawaiian food!
I did finally get out to my hometown of Aiea on the first Sunday I was there, and it was wonderful. Went to my childhood church, saw a lot of familiar old faces (including a wonderful teacher I still remember from - oh, it must've been 1st grade!), hiked the Aiea Loop Trail I remember hiking many times & stoked up for that with a GREAT lunch at that Aiea classic, the Forty Niner.
Like I said, this is one of my favorites for saimin. The 49er Diner has been in the same place in Aiea forever (at least it seems that way to me). I do seem to remember it being pink when I was a kid, but other than that, all same-same. The original owners did close it down but it was taken over by a new owner who kept the classic menu (including the saimin, which was great), yay, and added some new stuff too - notably including a fabulous Hawaiian plate, which is what I had this time because I had just had saimin a day or two earlier. The meat is kalua pig - one of the main courses at a luau, it's traditionally cooked in a pit oven. Most restaurants would use some kind of modern slow-cooking contraption but the result is still smoky, tender & moist. Adding bottled barbecue sauce is A FREAKING TOURIST-TRAP TRAVESTY. Sorry, had to get that off my chest. The spinachy-looking mass next to the kalua pig is a laulau, salted butterfish & pork (and/or chicken and/or beef) wrapped up in luau leaves (taro leaves). The whole shebang is wrapped in a ti leaf (ti not tea) for the cooking, which would be done in the imu with the pig if you were actually cooking the pig in a pit. As it is, again cooked with some modern invention, still comes out pretty darned good (and I am grateful for the modern inventions because it lets me get kalua pig & laulau at the South Street Seaport where it would be very hard to dig a pit). Accompanying the main dish are 2 scoops rice (properly round this time - that's what plate lunch rice is suppose to look like too!) and a little dish of lomi lomi salmon, raw salted salmon chopped up with onions and tomatoes.
Now next time I go out there, I'm having the saimin at 49er's because I need to go to Helena's Hawaiian Food for my Hawaiian food fix. Had it on the list this time but was completely stalled-out by the fantasticness of the Bishop Museum's new Hawaiian Hall exhibits. Found out too late that Helena's Hawaiian is now operated by an Iolani classmate - found that out when I sat with him & his really nice wife at the reunion. D'oh! Ah well. Next time!
The Manapua: Last but definitely not least of my childhood favorites. Again, this looks something like the steamed roast pork bun that you can get as an appetizer at 90% of the Chinese restaurants in NYC - but it's not the same. Something about the spices. For a brief & shining moment, I did know about one Chinese bakery where the roast pork bun had a hauntingly right flavor to it. I was first taken there for lunch by a co-worker who was also from Hawaii. Within months, they had closed. Auwe! I did find another close approximation at a tiny tiny hole-in-the-wall somewhere in Chinatown - but I failed to write down the address & I will never find them again.
Anyways, THIS one is from one of my favorites from way back when - Aiea Manapua & Snacks.
This is another little local hole-in-the-wall with a great local reputation. Like Leonard's, Aiea Manapua & Snacks has succumbed to variety madness, apparently something called a "pizza manapua" is what they are famous for these days. Personally I pass on the pizza but if pizza manapua is why my favorite snack shop is still open, and thriving, well, God bless the inventor of pizza manapua. I will stick with the classics, though - char siu & lup cheong. Maybe throw in some pork hash, half moon, pepeiao (assorted dumpling) & one big almond cookie if I have somebody to share with!
Well, all pau with tonight's little Hawaiian local foods nostalgia fest.
Don't know if it will encourage The Man who Mans the Tiller and the Woman who is a Tiller of Earth to head to Hawaii, but my goodness did I have fun with this.
Honestly, this is a post I have been wanting to do since I got back from my reunion.
All I needed was a good excuse!