Monday, November 9, 2009

Mixed Plate: Ono Kine Hawaii - Island Grindz is da Bes' Kinez (part 2)

Howzit? Ono Kine Part Deux, comin' at you! Apologies for not posting sooner, but in traditional fashion, let's consider these on Island Time. Those familiar with Hawaii know that ono kine grindz is the Pidgin equivalent of the dinner bell for the best part of living La Vida Loco Moco. If you're wondering, Pidgin is the commonly spoken creole that developed as a result of the mix of cultures in the Aloha State. Pidgin is easy to understand for the most part, as it's English, with a smattering of words and language structure from Hawaiian, Portuguese, Cantonese, Tagalog, Japanese, and Korean. Years ago, this helped to facilitate universal communication amongst the variety of immigrants during the plantation days, and this language of resourcefulness has carried on to present-day. Much like the unique dialect of Hawaii, local foods were influenced by this multiculturalism, resulting in dishes born of humble comforts, war, and the ingenuity to make seemingly unappetizing ingredients into something truly wonderful.

Hawaii style weddings are full of ono food and ohana plenty - Photos by Wasabi Prime

This melting pot of cultures resides in local meals, from simple breakfasts to formal weddings. Brock and I were there for my cousin's wedding, at the very lovely Willows in Honolulu, on a gorgeously sunny day. Cousin J, her sister, mom, and our Auntie S all pitched in to make precious favors of boxed chocolate-dipped shortbread, decorated with orchids, and the dinner was a huge buffet of delicious options -- the whole wedding was grand, complete with a Japanese and Filipino toast to honor the families.

The food items I particularly appreciated were things locals wouldn't think twice about, but might be considered unique most anywhere else -- the reception cocktail hour served up fresh poke (seasoned raw tuna and vegetables, like a ceviche), as well as boiled peanuts. Long before the raw bar craze hit the restaurant scene, Native Hawaiians have enjoyed fresh poke and it's been a social gathering mainstay ever since. Boiled peanuts, a popular snack in Asian countries as well as the Southern states, has also been a longtime pau hana pupu favorite. Hawaii can be a hot, humid place, and the only refuge can sometimes be as simple as a plate of cool poke and salty boiled peanuts, all going marvelously well with your can of Primo Beer. That seems to be the snack litmus test to truly be considered ono, oishii, and pupu-worthy -- if it's good with beer, then it's brok da mout good.

#1 BBQ in Lahaina, Maui; note the $2.99 breakfast special on ghetto fabulous posterboard - Photo by Wasabi Prime

A bit of Hawaii's history can be seen through its plate lunches. I've never been shy about my love for Spam musubi, and this isn't some dark secret that thwarts a political future -- you can get this marvelously mysterious meat at nearly any chain restaurant in Hawaii. Even BK will do it Your Way, freaky-deaky though it may seem. We even picked up individually-wrapped Spam musubis at the local Foodland for a quick lunch. A WWII remnant of military rations and the fact that it's a long way from the Mainland to these islands, growing accustomed to eating meat from a can became a fact of life. But therein lies the magic of ingenuity and a grumbly tummy. During our visit to the island of Maui, we found #1 BBQ, a tiny eatery in a stripmall offering local breakfasts and lunches in Lahaina. It's got a suspiciously Engrish-sounding name, it looks like a greasy spoon dive, but there's nary a tourist nor a fake plastic lei in sight. It's mostly locals who patronize this place, so you know you're getting the good stuff, plus all the best eats are scribbled on a poster board menu.

Lunch and breakfasts powered by Spam and Portuguese sausage - photos by Wasabi Prime

Offering simple $2.99 breakfasts (you can see it on the sign by the order window -- proof that it exists!) that would make my friends at the Cheap Appetite blog cheer, #1 BBQ powered our morning with a hearty portion of scrambled eggs over rice and a choice of the almighty slabs of Spam or extra-large slices of delicious Portuguese sausage. The islands can thank the Portuguese immigrants for coming in to work on the ranches, bringing their knowledge of linguisa-making to bless Hawaii's meals with the wonderfully spicy, fatty sausage. A few restaurants make their own linguisa from scratch, which is a treat if you can find it. A lunch trip to #1 BBQ also let me quiet a serious saimin craving. I love the chewy, crinkly-wrinkly noodles sitting in a loose shoyu broth that's typically more Hawaiian-style than Japanese, especially with the wedges of Spam floating in there. The only thing missing in the saimin were shreds of scrambled egg and thin slices of kamaboko, a pressed fish cake dyed in the unholy hue of Hello Kitty pink. What?! people exclaim when I say this is why I go to Hawaii. You travel all this distance to find hole-in-the-wall dives that serve processed meats and strange cross-cultural foods? Damn skippy, I do.

Quirky and fun Hawaiiana collection at Hawaiian Village Coffee House in Maui - photo by Wasabi Prime

We split our meals between Lahaina and Kaanapali. There was a strip mall close to our hotel, which had two spots we frequented during our Maui stay: The Hawaiian Village Coffee House and CJ's Comfort Zone. We had a refreshingly Starbucks-free morning at the Hawaiian Village Coffee House, enjoying their strong brews and Mr. Wasabi enjoyed their strong WiFi when he had to do some work -- yes, he had to work, and yes, that totally sucks, but (shameless plug alert!) Torchlight turned out totally rad. To escape an overpriced hotel breakfast buffet, we found refuge at CJ's and their early bird special under $6 that included eggs, potatoes or rice, bacon or sausage, and delicious vanilla macadamia nut coffee. While not as ghetto fabulous as #1 BBQ, we returned to CJ's several times to take advantage of their deli-style and local-friendly menu.

Don't bother me, I'm in the Zone with my breakfast, loco moco & mochiko chicken - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Along with saimin, I had to indulge in a loco moco. CJ's was the first I'd ever seen served with slices of tomato, but they felt no further need to gild the lily, serving up two hearty hamburger patties over rice, nestled beneath fried eggs, smothered with brown gravy. I've had this many ways, served with potato mac salad, fried saimin, or the eggs and hamburger over fried rice -- it's the beauty of all these local dishes in that there's really no correct way of making or presenting them, since everyone has their own take on the recipe. I was also able to sample some of CJ's tasty mochiko chicken, a sweet, savory teriyaki-flavored fried chicken. My mother usually makes this over the holidays so I associate it as Christmas chicken, but it's pretty delicious and much like Christmas, should be celebrated all year round.

Makawao, a little town very close to my heart and pastries still stuck in my arteries - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Greasy comfort indulgences aside, the visit to Maui provided a long-overdue walk down memory lane for Ms. Prime. My mother's family is from the upcountry town of Makawao, a small community nestled in the hills and farmland at the base of the volcano Haleakala. It's like traveling to a different place, leaving behind the sandy beaches of Lahaina and driving up into the higher elevation where the surroundings go from arid desert to verdant farmland and fields of sugarcane. The temperature drops ten or more degrees, there are trees everywhere, and the land is dotted with ranches and livestock. This is the place where tourists tend not to venture, and it's a shame, as these sleepy towns are places that have managed to stay a little more authentic. Granted, over the years, my grandparents would lament that their dusty little cowboy town turned hippie with crystal-crunching aura readers and people who would take the avocados from their yard and sell them as healthy and organic, even though they sometimes tasted lousy.

The custardy jewel of Makawao, courtesy Komoda Store bakery - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Along with sharing Makawao's rural charm with my travelmates, they were able to experience a local treat, the cream puff pastries from the Komoda Store bakery. It's a silly thing to say, but they truly are a taste of childhood. I remember many mornings where a box from Komoda Store would be waiting at the breakfast table, the sunlight pouring in through wispy clouds, shining a holy light on the formica table holding that beautiful parcel of goodies: deep-fried malasadas covered in cinnamon sugar, eclair-like long johns, and the Komoda-famous cream puffs. Unlike the traditional French pastry, these cream puffs are filled with a heavy, glutenous pudding. They're also Monster Truck-sized in comparison to the traditional profiterole. The dough is chewy and plain, so as not to compete with the chocolate or classic vanilla filling. Because of its center, it needs to be served cold. I recall pulling the pastry apart in smaller pieces to scoop out the custardy filling, savoring every bite as I read the funnies my mom pulled from the morning paper. I can recall so much sense memory from the time spent in this small, nearly unknown place -- specific smells, sounds, and even the feeling of line-dried sheets as feet slipped into bed. Having a familiar pastry from Komoda Store was a sweet and sad reminder of how much I truly miss those times and the people who now live on in memory.

Not to get all maudlin on everyone -- we had a blast and did not neglect to lavish attention on fruity umbrella-staked cocktails and a local brew or two. We picked up a bottle of Volcano Red, made by the Big Island's Volcano Winery and raised a glass or three one night in the hotel. My folks and I had visited the winery years ago -- their wines lean heavily towards sweet and fruity, and their fruit-blended and honey wines are their stronger suits, compared to the Red. It was a little harsh and on the acidic side, but their honey wine remains a winner as something to enjoy with dessert. I'm just very glad to see the Volcano Winery is still working away, producing vino from the Big Isle.

Hey, man, I got a beverage here! - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Additional frosty beverages that are available in many Mainland stores are the local Kona Brewing Co. microbrews, also from Big Island. Around since 1995, they have been putting out a variety of ales, a lager, and a seasonal porter. Lighter beers have always been a traditional favorite among the islands, as it can be pretty refreshing on a hot evening (enter the boiled peanuts and poke). I stuck to their Longboard Island Lager, which I think is my new favorite of theirs, offering a deeper flavor than their ales.

Hey, braddah, dis post stay pau already, so get one nuddah beer and raise a glass to conclude this edible kama'aina (local) adventure. I realize a lot of the foods here are almost painfully humble, and it's not that fabulous four-star restaurants don't exist -- the islands are awash with them, much like any large city, but I wanted to show some common foods that are unique to the area. They are childhood comforts of the Islands, and it's a collective experience that is perhaps so everyday, visitors may not even think to notice or experience them, and that would be a shame because the food culture of Hawaii is very authentic and rich in history.

I barely even touched the surface of true local foods, just going for the simple, can't mess-up fare, since I'm not as familiar with the Lahaina area. One of my favorite food blogs, The Tasty Island, is a great resource if you are on Oahu or just want to see the variety of delicious food the locals enjoy. Consider Pomai your food guide to da bes' kine, brok da mout grinds, with a handy and effective Spam Musubi rating system. Mahalo plenty.

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  1. i'm going to have to eat breakfast twice now after looking at all these glorious food photos- raw talent, raw food, funky little hole-in-the-wall joints, this is the best of a good vacation!!! and though i don't have roots there, i too love that crazy drive to Makawao: windows down so you can feel the drastic climate change and almost era shift as well. this post may well cause me to reconsider january vacation plans and hightail it to hawaii... thank you!

  2. Is it possible to feel homesick for a place I'm not from? That's how I feel about Hawaii after reading your recent posts, which I've loved. We try to go once a year...I really love it there, and I totally dig the local food--I often find myself craving poke, saimin, and a good plate lunch. Love your photos and your thoughtful narrative on Hawaii's unqiue food and culture.

    At least we can get Kona B.C. beer on the favorite is Fire Rock.

  3. I recognize that Longboard brew! They sell it here in FL.

    Beautiful, beautiful post... spam musubi and all. Glad that you had such a great time, and that you shared it with us in such detail.

  4. I love Spam so much. Great post!


  5. Oh spam... My mom used to make spam for me when I was little and I loved it! I don't think I've had it since I was 6 or 7. Definitely going to have to try it again when I am in Hawaii! The photos of the cocktails in this post are making me thirsty....

  6. The spam musubi is so hawaiian! I definitely love the $2.99 breakfast! I wish i were there. Cream puff is one of my favorite desserts. I love the custard filling. The one you had looks so yummy:) Your post is really great. I felt like I travel along with you. Only that I'm still hungry here. lol.

  7. Hawaii is such a unique State. And I know that there are many Asians including Filipinos that formed a mix of cultures formed into a very unique group of community. I've been to Hawaii once but that was a long time ago but hope to be backs soon.

  8. Oh sistah, those food all look like broke da mouth kine. ;P Thanks for taking me down memory lane!

  9. Howisit!!

    Brings back fond memories of several trips to the islands. Love this toast to Hawaii culture and food.


    CCR =8~)

  10. Oh my, I definitely will go to the $2.99 breakfast! How I wish I was there.... just look at those food and of coz Hawaii is amazing place for vacation. It's a Fantasy Island! hehe....

  11. Another wonderful use of a Dude reference;)

  12. oh my what a great post! I'm so bowled over by Hawaii, and your description of it. Must visit!!

    A little bit irked by the fact that spam is so ubiquitious on the island, because here in Asia we eat luncheon meat (similar, in a way) almost as much. And it's interesting to note how the egg is always an accompaniment.



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