The Aloha State and I are becoming good friends as I’ve spent a fair amount of time there during the last few years. Admittedly, most of that time has been on Oahu, but this latest trip included my first visit to Big Island (aka the island of Hawaii). Along the way, I uncovered a lot of food finds to share with you, and, to really do the trip justice, I’ll be making the next few posts all about Hawaii.
First up is this restaurant round-up of the latest noteworthy places I came across. Next, a few stories of a some Hawaiian food crafters who I hunted down; there stories will mark the start of a new series about artisanal producers called, Food Field Trips. Keeping with the Hawaii coverage, this month’s TasteMaker is a very well respected Hawai food person, Dave Caldiero, who is chef de cuisine of Oahu’s Town Restaurant. Finally, it wouldn’t be complete without a few recipes. As such, the upcoming Pretty.Easy. is a classic Hawaiian pupu (appetizer) and I’ll share my takes on local foods that, in the spirit of New Year’s resolutions, have been revamped to be better-for-you.
But first let’s start with where I ate when I wasn’t busy cooking myself.
This place has been the talk of the town (or the talk of Oahu since it’s not in Honolulu) since it opened last summer. He’eia Pier General Store and Deli has long been a staple for the fishermen of He’eia Pier, but the recent makeover has people traveling from all over the island to check it out. Heading up the kitchen is chef Mark Noguchi — who trained at notable Honolulu restaurants, Town, where he worked with this month’s TasteMaker, Dave Caldiero. Mark and his team are well aware that to be successful in the long term they need to have a place that’s appreciated by the old guard while embracing some fresh local flavors that are key to the new generation of chefs in Hawaii.
True to this local meets traditional and old meets new mentality, Mark serves up Kuahiwi Ranch beef and local produce, but uses it to cook up comfort-food classics like chicken karaage and ice cake (think Italian ice in Hawaiian flavors). What I really likes is that Mark and his kitchen crew aren’t afraid to experiment. While they keep some staples on the menu, like the burger and guava chicken (pictured below), they also cook on the fly for the regulars. The day we visited he had some dried opelu (a type of Japanese mackerel) lying around and whipped up an opelu poke (pictured above) that he served over seared taro cakes. Despite the fact I’d already eaten lunch, I had no trouble finding room for that dish because it was fabulous.
My friends on Oahu’s North Shore can’t stop talking about this place. While the restaurant Opal Thai has only been open a few months, Opal’s well known in the area because he got his start with a food truck in the nearby town of Haleiwa. The truck has long been a local favorite so the community rallied behind him when he decided to expand into a restaurant. Opal’s as well known for his hospitality as he is for his food and, true to form, he treated us all like family. He served us omakase style and showered us with a parade of food, my favorites being the citrusy Tom Kha, the crab fried rice, and the duck curry. Proof that this place is a family-run joint, Opal’s 8-year old son, Lio, delivered our checks along with a few jokes to cap off the night.
Manapua are a must-eat when in Hawaii but good ones can be hard to find. A manapua is like a Chinese bao except that, in Hawaii, it’s commonly baked instead of steamed and often filled with char siu (Chinese barbecued pork), kalua pig (slow-cooked pork), or linguica (portuguese sausage). My problem with most manapua is that the dough is dry and the filling is barely there. Royal Kitchen had a perfect ratio of filling to dough and everyone I served them to during our friend’s happy hour get-together gave them two thumbs up, including the 5-year old picky eater.
For the first time ever, I got to hop over to the Big Island (aka the island of Hawaii). Big Island is a place I’ve long wanted to explore because I’ve heard a lot of about the awesome farms, ranches, and artisans there. Our timing couldn’t have been better because the volcano, Kilauea, started erupting the day we landed. I rallied the troops and we geared up for a 5-hour hike to check out the lava. True to the laidback style of Hawaii, there wasn’t much regulation of the flow site beyond the few signs you see above. It was a strenuous hike over lava flow that looked like something from the dark side of the moon, but it was well worth it. Sure, I was freaked out that I was walking across liquid magma and that it was hotter than an oven but it was an experience I wouldn’t have missed.
From there, we headed up to Waimea on the north side of the island. This place is like a Hawaiian version of big sky country with enourmous blue skies, rolling green pastures, and lots of ranches. Most of Hawaii’s cattle is raised on the nearby ranches by ranchers and the remaining Hawaiian cowboys, aka paniolos. Our friend who lives up there is as rugged an outdoorsman as they come and showed us the ropes, which began with a stop at Big Island Brewhaus. The brewmaster, Tom, used to work at Maui Brewing Company and he’s not afraid to experiment with different flavors and styles. The Overboard I.P.A. was a winner as was the Red Giant, but, in keeping with my love for Belgian-style beers, my favorite of the night was the dark farmhouse style, Dark Sabbath.
It wouldn’t be a trip to the Big Island without a few outdoor adventures. The place is teeming with amazing things to check out from waterfalls and shorebreaks to mountains. My brother-in-law went to high school on the island and always talked about Waipio valley so it was high on my must-see list. Waipio was on of the most magnificent sights I’ve seen and is a treasured place with a history dating back to the Hawaiians who used the land for taro farming. We ventured there to play in the shorebreak, check out some of the wild horses, and to see if we could hike back to Hi’ilawe falls, which are so breathtaking that songs have been written about it.
Fate would have it that we met the unofficial mayor of Waipio, Lio, whose grandfather had written the song about Hi’ilawe and whose property abutted the waterfall. He let us on his land and led us to the river crossing that began our hike. Then, for over an hour, we swam through rapids, scrambled the riverbed rocks, and scaled the face of a few treacherous mini cliffs. Along the way we passed tons of taro, ginger, coffee, and mountain apples, and we got a glimpse into the way Hawaii used to be. It was well-worth the risky hike because, at the end, we found ourselves at the base of a jaw-dropping 1,400 foot waterfall.
After our epic waterfall hike, we stopped by Tex Drive In for some Big Island-style plate lunch. Now, plate lunches are served all over the state but all the servings on the Big Island are, like the island, bigger than everywhere else. My friends tried the classics like the loco moco and the burger, but I ordered the Korean Fried Chicken. Seeing as I live close to LA’s Koreatown, I’ve had a fair amount of K.F.C. but this stuff was seriously some of the best. Crispy, slightly sweet, and spicy, we polished off the plate without a second thought. We then ordered the malasadas (think Portuguese pao doce or yeasted donuts rolled in sugar) to top off the meal. Though they didn’t edge out Oahu’s famous malasada joint, Leonard’s, they were warm, doughy, and just what I needed.
Our friends who lives in the area were insistent that we stop by Village Burger before leaving Waimea and I was very glad we listened. Big Island has a slew of cattle ranches — with most of them based in Waimea — so Village Burger gets the meat direct from the ranch. Most of the other ingredients are also direct from the source since all sorts of great produce is grown on Big Island. I got the local Kahua Ranch burger with local avocados, tomatoes, and goat cheese and topped the meal off with one of their — in their words – chocolate, chocolate, chocolate shakes. It was a commitment of a burger but it was so delicious that it made me happy. Very, very happy and, a few minutes later, very sleepy from the fast-approaching food coma.
As if that weren’t enough food for one sitting, here are some food finds from my past trips to Hawaii as well as a map of where to eat in Hawaii. Be sure to check back during the next week as I share some recipes, food field trips, and other adventures from my trip.