Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Secret Garden

Hawaiian food is always about family, about ohana.    It has always been about a good family meal.   Therefore almost all Hawaiian restaurants are really geared more for taking food home to eat with your family, or taking food out to have a picnic by the sea.   But this creates a little problem.  Since Hawaiian restaurants are really geared more for a casual family dinner, there aren't that many restaurants that present Hawaiian food in a really nice upscale, dress up, type environment.   And there have been many occassions where I wanted to take my guest for a more exclusive, fine dining, experience, yet still treat them to Hawaiian food.   This is true of special occassions, like birthdays or graduations.   It's true of taking a client or a date out to a more elegant atmosphere.   It's especially true of when wanting to entertain out of town, VIP guests.   For all of these occasions, I have really only ever found one restaurant that fits the bill.   It is that beautiful little oasis, hidden away in Moiliili, the Willows.

The Willows was, in my dad's day, THE exclusive restaurant to take people to.    It was originally built on top of a natural spring.  Apparently, during my Goong Goong's time, all of Moiliili was filled with natural springs, and the young boys would swim in them and crawl through the connecting tunnels.   By my dad's time, the one at Willows was one of the only ones left.   As more and more construction was done in the Moiliili area, that spring dried up as well.   So when Willows was renovated, they preserved the original image by creating an artificial spring and pond.   Probably the coolest table at the Willows is the one in the outrigger canoe that sits on the edge of the pond.  

Named for the willow trees, that are still growing over the wall of the restaurant, the grounds are kept as a lush tropical garden.   It is one of the most magnificently kept gardens in the whole state.   From the minute you walk in, you're treated to a visual feast of fauna growing on rock walls, hanging from trees, and everywhere you look.   As you walk further in, you even cross a small arched bridge over a little stream.  

Blue Ginger at the Willows
At the entrance to the restaurant, there is a small art gallery.   The gallery was really significant to me, because for quite some time it was operated by and featured my classmate (well he was an upperclassman), Kelly Sueda.   The first time I strolled into the gallery, I did a doubletake, because in high school, Kelly was more of a thesbian than a painter.   But I guess sometime in college he switched media and has been pretty prolific ever since.

Jumping Water Fountain at the Willows
As you walk in further, there is fountain in the middle of their courtyard that features jumping water.   It's a great little place for the kids to run through afterwards and try to play with (or avoid) the leaping streams of water.   A little further in from that, they've even got a chapel for couples who want to get married and hold a reception there afterwards.

The best thing about the Willows, is that they've got a really great Hawaiian food buffet, that's taken Hawaiian food and dressed it up for a more elegant setting.   So you've still different types of poke, and kalua pig, and lau laus, and chicken long rice, and poi.  But the poi is served in neat little cups, and there are separate cups for your long rice, and the ti leaf is easily removed from your lau lau with the serving tongs, and discarded right at the buffet line.   They've taken all of the familiar flavors and dressed them up nicely. If you come on certain days, the Willows even features a trio of strolling Hawaiian muscians (ukulele, guitar, and cello).  Real, melodic, Hawaiian music, like we used to sing on the porch in Hawaiiana, or at May Day, to accompany your Hawaiian food.   It's the perfect way to show off our authentic culture to malahini from the mainland.

Farewell Brunch at the Willows
I've taken countless friends from the mainland to visit the Willows.   For some, it is their first trip to Hawaii and their first taste of our real culture.   It is the Hawaii of their dreams, and yet absolutely nothing like the faux-Hawaii of the the tiki bars and hula huts.    For others, who have come home after many years being transplanted on the mainland, it is the Hawaii of their childhood memories, yet made even more beautiful when served on fine china rather than those 5-sectioned chinet paper plates they had as kids  (although I do have a certain fondness for those old brown Hawaiian print little square dishes you can't find anywhere else).
We've had many company Christmas parties at the Willows.  But the most important function I ever had at the Willows was my eldest son's 1st birthday party.  Having a lot of senior guests, a few children, several out of town visitors, needing someplace that was comfortable, elegant, and still Hawaiian, there was really only one place that we could go.

I've been trying to figure out where to hold my second son's 1st birthday party.   Given the same criteria though, the list of contenders is really short. 

Friday, October 30, 2009

Like Liquid Lau Lau

When you think of Hawaiian food, certain things are pretty common, kalua pig, lau lau, and poi for instance are pretty common place.   Others are a little less glamorous.   Pipikaula doesn't get much attention, because honestly it's hard to find good pipikaula that isn't too tough, dry and chewy.   But with our history as a seafaring port and our paniolo population, it should be no surprise that Hawaiians knew how to make really good beef jerky. You probably haven't heard too much about na'au stew, because it's stewed pig organs and people in America are a little squeamish about eating internal organs.  Even I can't really discuss it, because I'm not allowed to eat it (too gouty for me).  But one of my favorite Hawaiian foods that is a little off the radar is squid luau.   Squid luau isn't as mainstream simply because well, it doesn't look all that appetizing.  Kids on the mainland already have a hard time eating spinach because of how it looks (thus the spinach farmers enlisted Popeye to aid their cause), and because of its wetness, squid luau looks even less appetizing.  When I think of squid luau, I can't help but think of those old Fosters radio commercials where the Aussie guest mistakes the squid luau for dog food, and incurs the wrath of the angry blalah (which of course he soothes with a cold Fosters beer).

The first time I had squid luau was just out of high school (and you never forget your first time), when my hapa-Hawaiian friend got married.  Although he spent much of his childhood in Michigan, he came home and grew up here, even graduating from Kamehameha School.  His family is one of those really local, pidgin speaking, influential, old Hawaiian families from Waimanalo.   His dad is is one of the nicest, brawniest, most intelligent mokes you'll ever meet, with the really firm handshakes that just exude warmth amd aloha.   So it's no wonder that when he got married, they had a huge, really authentic luau, which to this day is some of the best Hawaiian food I ever remember eating.   The poi was nothing less than spectacular.  The perfect thick, smooth texture and strong taro flavor, absolutely nothing like the watered down junk you get in hotels these days.   The pipikaula I remember was so smokey and flavorful.  But nothing compared to the squid luau at the end of the line.    My first impression was that it was that it looked like a cousin of creamed spinach.   My second impression was that someone had liquified their lau lau.   But as I ate more of it, deep flavors began to emerge.  The strong squid flavor comes out first.   Then the super complex greenery of the taro leaf, which seems so much more pungent than in a regular lau lau.   The slight hint of sweetness from the coconut milk.  And the bright briney intensity of the Hawaiian salt just lights it all up in your mouth.   It's fantastic when done right.  

When Anthony Bourdain came to Hawaii, Lanai and Augie treated him to some home made beef luau.   When Andrew Zimmern came, he got to sample some 1st birthday he'e luau.   I'm not sure why one got beef and the other octopus, and neither got the more common squid, but watching them eat made me real ono for some myself.   So I set off to hunt down some good squid luau, like I remembered.   Since squid luau is a little less mainstream than kalua pig or lau lau though, it's also a little harder to find.  So I headed straight for my favorite Hawaiian food haunts, the "fish markets".   When a friend of mine was visiting from California he complained to me you just couldn't tell what a restaurant was from its name.  He would've assumed, for example, that Sam Choy's was a Chinese restaurant.  He had no idea what John Dominis or Keo's were.  Names that are so significant to us, were a just plain confusing to him.   So I can imagine that he would've been really dumbfounded, that 2 of my favorite Hawaiian food places, are called "fish markets".    Specifically, Yama's Fish Market and Young's Fish Market.

Yama's is the much younger of the 2 restaurants.   They opened in the 80's, but have since moved to take over where Iwase Books used to be, at the University end of Young Street.   Because of their proximity, they were always the placed we used to go to get Hawaiian food ever since I was in high school.   So they have sort of set the standard of what Hawaiian food tastes like to me.

Squid Luau from Yama's Fish Market
Yama's is one of the few places that pretty consistently carries squid luau.   Their squid luau is very homogenized.  It's almost a baby food mush consistency.  It's also a lighter green color.   Both of which I believe have to do with the greater proportion of coconut milk that they use.   The coconut milk taste is very strong, and almost overpowers the dish.  But eaten with rice, it makes a great dish.    Yama's also has lots of other good, if more modern, Hawaiian tastes.

Kalua Pig & Cabbage from Yama's Fish Market
Their kalua pig is decent.  But the addition of a little cabbage, makes the dish much more flavorful.  The cabbage adds necessary moisture to the kalua pig.   It also gives you a contrasting vegetable texture which works really well with the pork. 

Shoyu Chicken from Yama's Fish Market
Yama's shoyu chicken is also pretty good.  It's tender and tasty, where the skin just melts in your mouth as good shoyu chicken should.    The best part about eating shoyu chicken is always the bottom of your rice ball, where it has absorbed all of the sauce from the chicken.

Haupia & Sweet Potato Square from Yama's Fish Market
As far as Hawaiian deserts go, you really can't go wrong combining the classic tastes of haupia and purple Okinawan sweet potato.  It's a great way to top off a good Hawaiian lunch.

Young's Fish Market by contrast, is a much older Hawaiian establishment (though not quite as old as Helena's).   It was started in the '50s, and the flavors reflect a much more old school Hawaiian taste.   They are the flavors that my dad remembers from when he grew up.   They also have the advantage of being probably one of the most accessible Hawaiian places.   Ono's for all it's fame, has no parking and the lines always run out the door.   Yama's has some parking but has very little seating, so we often wind up going to Old Stadium Park to eat.    Young's on the other hand, being in City Square (where the old Gem's used to be), has a ton of parking.   It also has ample nice air conditioned seating, and a nice old Hawaiian atmosphere.  

Squid Luau from Young's Fish Market
The first thing you notice about the squid luau from Young's, is that it is a much darker green in color.   The second thing that you notice is that the textures in it a slightly more distinct.  The taro leaves are a little less like a consistent mush, and slightly more distinguishable as leaves.   The deep, earthy, green flavor of the taro leaves is also a bit stronger in Young's squid luau.   The real kicker though, is the large, much more intense, pieces of squid in their squid luau.   It's got a very strong squid taste, that reminds me of the dried & brushed with sesame oil squids that my Po Po used to make.   This would be much more distinguishable from the beef or he'e luaus.    The old school flavor from Young's also permeates all of their other dishes.

Kalua Pig Plate at Young's Fish Market
The kalua pig from Young's is nice and juicy, and very smokey.   But the real nice surprise is the pipikaula on that plate.  It isn't dry or tough at all.   It's one of the softest, most moist and flavorful beef jerkies I've tasted.   Their poi is a wonderful smooth texture.   Add to that a nice piece of Okinawan sweet potato and some fresh lomi salmon and you've got quite a meal.

Lau Lau Plate at Young's Fish Market
The lau lau at Young's is also quite good.   Again the taro leaves are more flavorful than at other places.  The pork inside is also more moist and tender.  And like a true good Hawaiian place, it includes a piece of butterfish inside with the pork to add much more flavor.

Beef Stew at Young's Fish Market
The beef stew at Young's is also fantastic.   It also has that old Hawaiian flavor to it.   The meat is incredibly soft.   I would say this beef stew is one of the few that even rivals the one at Fresh Catch (although I would still give Fresh Catch the edge). 

I grew up with Yama's flavor, but I think I would give the edge to the squid luau at Young's.  It has a better texture, and the flavors of the taro leaf and the squid are much more intense.  I can see why people would find squid luau unappetizing.  Just this morning as I was changing my baby's diaper, I couldn't help but notice how the color and consistency of his poop was just like squid luau.   But if you can get past that image, the favor is so wonderfully deep and intense.   Maybe, like the spinach farmers, we just need some muscle bound Hawaiian sailor to champion cause of squid luau.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Thar She Blows, Matey!

When I first announced that I was going to start writing a food and culture blog, an old friend of mine excitedly insisted that I write something about Fresh Catch in Kaimuki.   Now, this is of significance, because while we went to high school together, his dad and my dad worked together at the State.  If you know anything about State workers, they're notorious for (among other things) knowing exactly where to find the best hole in the walls are around town to eat.   All jokes about 3-hour lunches aside, my dad did always take me to the tastiest little places that he found out about with his co-workers.  However, this time, I beat my friend to the punch, because I had actually known about Fresh Catch since they opened.

I was driving home on the freeway one day, when I noticed a big orange octopus on the top of a blue roof on one of the buildings on the side of the freeway.   The octopus intrigued me, as did the name "Fresh Catch", because honestly, I thought it looked a little tacky.  I immediately thought of those stereotypical seafood restaurants run by a one eyed, pipe smoking, peg legged sea captain you find on the mainland.   You know, like that guy on the Simpsons.   It didn't seem at all like the kind of place that local islanders, who actually do spend a great deal of their lifetime on the water, would have come up with.   But as with many first impressions this would be totally wrong.

After trying to triangulate it's position from where I was on the freeway, I eventually found the building.   It was the old Pizza Hut on Waialae across from City Mill.   Now, I really do like Pizza Hut.  If I'm jonesin' for super oily, super fatty, cheesy, crunchy junk food, that's where I'm going.   So the fact that the Pizza Hut in my neighborhood was closed, was already something of a blow.   But these guys didn't even bother to build a new exterior.   It looked exactly like the pizza hut, except that their distinctive famous red roof was painted blue.  The body wasn't even cold man!   So what was this place?  Some sort of combination seafood / recycling center??  

Now, I grew up when recycling was first coming into the public consciousness.   It was a time, when we first found out that there was a hole in the ozone layer (when everyone actually found out for the first time what the ozone layer was).  Several of my friends in high school were very, very active in the recycling club at our school.   I remember how they would spend afternoons collecting all the styrofoam containers in school and squirting lemon on them, as they weren't biodegradable.  I somehow think that my buddies would've found the garden outside of Fresh Catch, glistening with crushed beer bottle "pebbles" used as mulch, quite aluring.   Admittedly the sun reflecting all of the colors of the class, with that sparkling green tinge, really is kind of eye catching, if not weird.    But I really didn't see how the recycling center fit in, with the seafood restaurant.   It wasn't til much later that I found out that the owners of the two establishments were brothers, and that recycling there will actually get you a discount at the restaurant (not a bad deal!).

So I was a little skeptical walking in.   But the moment I stepped through the doors, all skepticism washed completely off me.  It was like stepping into a time portal.   To those little deli stores of old Hawaii.   Even their tables were the long picnic tables you would have big family luaus at.   The little aisles in the back were filled brands of snacks, crack seed, and chips you rarely see these days.    But what competely sold me was the food.

Smoked Marlin Sandwich at Fresh Catch
As a seafood restaurant, the first thing that I tried were their fish sandwiches.   They have a really tasty, if not large, crab sandwich, which, being made with real crab, has a strong flaky crab taste.   Their smoked marlin sandwich is also pretty good, as the smokiness of the marlin carries the sandwich.  

Lau Lau Plate at Fresh Catch
Being a Hawaiian place, the first thing my wife tried was their lau lau plate.   Their leaves were nice and flavorful.   The Hawaiian salt really shined through the lau lau.

Ahi Limu Poke at Fresh Catch
But the quintessential thing that any Hawaiian seafood place / fish market, needs to do well is their poke.   If poi is the heart of Hawaiian food, poke is it's soul.  To me, no place on island can compare with the masterful cuts of sashimi grade poke that you get on top of a Poke-don from Gyotaku.  But while that may be the king of poke, poke is all about variety.  At Fresh Catch they've got many many different types.   The standard that I always use to judge poke is ahi limu poke.   To me, the freshest, firmest, reddest, ahi is always found at Costco with their excellent fish supplier.   The ahi limu at Foodland is the most balanced, with a nice fish, great crisp limu, and a delicate sesame oil to hold it all together.    But the Ahi Limu at Fresh Catch is definitely among the most flavorful.   The limu may not be so crisp as to stand out on its own, but it adds brilliant flavoring to the poke.   The differentiator though, is the kukui nut flavor that's grated over the fish.   It just brings out a whole new dimension.  

Smoked Tako Poke at Fresh Catch
While their ahi limu poke is pretty decent, the best poke at Fresh Catch, is their smoked tako poke.   This poke is simply unbelievable.   The tako is nice and crunchy, not too rubbery.   The sauce that you see on it, is the kind that you get mixed in with your spicy tuna sushi.   Theirs is not excessively spicy, just spicy enough to bring alive the creamy sesame oil flavor to it.   But what truly makes this poke brilliant is the smokiness of the tako.   That smoked flavor alone is enough to broke da mouth.  But the combination of the smokiness, the spiciness, the creaminess, all layered upon the crunchy tako, is just plain dreamy.   I don't hesitate in saying it's the best tako I've ever had.  It opens a whole new wonderful realm for octopus.  I would never have dreamed that the tacky orange octopus on their roof would taste this good.  

Beef Stew at Fresh Catch
Ironically though, the best thing at Fresh Catch, isn't seafood at all.   They've got a ton of different meats, all marinated and ready for you to take home and fire up the grill or go tailgating with.   But the very best thing they do, is a classic Hawaiian beef stew.   When I tasted this beef stew, it pretty much defined old Hawaiian style beef stew for me.  Naturally, the beef is unbelievably soft.   The carrots, celery, and potato are all infused with the stew flavor.  But what really gets you is the stew itself.  You will notice that it is not overly red or orange, so it doesn't have too tart or intense a tomato flavor.   It doesn't have to strong a star anise, pepper, or spice to it.   It isn't disgustingly oily like some beef stews.   It is the perfect balance of beefiness, with all of the other flavors that comprise the stew.   It's really hard to describe what makes it so great.   The best thing I can do is to say that the flavor is that of the really old classic Hawaiian style.   It is a flavor that is really hard to find these days, like an old song long forgotten long long ago.   In my mind, it is simply the best beef stew on island, with very few others that can even come close.

What I also found at Fresh Catch, the thing that really made me love the place, was the aloha of the people that run the place.   When I was eating there one day, I had the unfortunate luck to find a small cockaroach in my food.   Now, I don't say this to disparage the place.   Because really you can find a bug in your food in even the best places.  Everyone encounters it every once in a while.   It's just a part of life, and no matter how meticulously clean your restaurant is, there's no way to avoid it completely.   So I brought it to their attention, just to let them know, but I was perfectly happy to keep eating my plate.   At some restaurants in Chinatown I know, even if you give them back your plate, they will just take out the offending portion, and maybe re-heat, and return it to you.  Heck, even my Po Po would occasionally catch a small cockaroach on one of her plates, and just wipe it clean and keep using it.  But at Fresh Catch, not only did she ask me if I wanted a brand new plate, she competely refunded my meal.   On top of that she gave me free serving of any poke I wanted (which could be easily more expensive than my plate).  I had taken the poke (and my money), but declined getting a new plate, as I didn't see having a small cockaroach as completely wasting my food.  But as I was enjoying my poke, she came out to me, just took my plate away anyway, and gave me an entirely new meal free.   Now THAT is customer service!  That is true aloha!   It was a completely genuine gesture.  At that moment, it wasn't at all about running a business or counting your dividends, but making sure your customer, your guest, is happy.  It's what the aloha spirit is all about.

So it's become kind of a ritual for us now.   We keep all of our cans and plastic bottles to recycle.  Whenever we have a big enough full bag, we take it down there to recycle it, and use the money to have lunch at Fresh Catch (with the accompanying discount).   It may still look a little tacky and stereotypical outside, but inside it's got all the flavors, atmosphere, and aloha spirit of old Hawaii.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Oh Wow, Lau Lau

When I first went away to college, I got terribly homesick, and hardly made any friends.   So when it came time to go away to grad school, I was determined to make a better go of it and make more friends.  Luckily, in my program there was already a tightly knit group which I happily found myself welcomed into.   Not surprisingly, this group consisted of all of the foreign students.  It wasn't just that I found myself somehow more culturally comfortable with the foreign students over the mainland students, but also while mainland students would inevitably head back to their own homes, jobs, and families, the foreign students were isolated from their homes with no one but each other to fraternize with.   So I found myself happily amongst people from Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, South Africa, and a large group from Thailand. 

As I got to know my group of friends, each one in turn began hosting a dinner every other week.   It wasn't something that they had planned, but simply that they all liked to eat and it was a nice excuse to get everyone together.   So after a month or two, as the representative from Hawaii in this little band, I decided to host a real luau for them.   As much as I had enjoyed eating home cooked Thai food, I really wanted to share with them our culture, and our music, and our cuisine.    Not too far from my school was one of those super Safeways, kind of like the new giant one on Kapahulu (technically, it was a Pavilion, one of the double sized Vons stores).   They had enough world cuisine that I even found "imported" Taro brand poi.   They didn't have Hawaiian salt, but I found other sea salt which although from the wrong ocean, would provide a similar enough flavor.   The one thing that they didn't have was taro leaf to make lau lau with, so my family was kind enough to FedEx me a couple bags of the real article (since absolutely no substitute would do).   It took me 3 weeks of planning, but everyone had a fantastic time.

I had poi.  I cooked chicken long rice (most of the ingredients for which were easily found in their Oriental foods section).    I got some fresh salmon and tomatoes to make lomi lomi salmon with.   I got some cans of coconut milk to make some real haupia with.   Just to be contentious, I made a whole stack of spam musubi's (but as they were all foreign students, none of them had any of the aversion to spam the mainland guys had anyway).   Unfortunately, there was no way that I could actually dig an imu to do a real kalua pig and lau lau's with.   But I found that with some pork butt, liquid smoke, some sea salt (from an unknown sea), you can make some decent tasting kalua pig in the oven.    The star of my meal though, had to be my freshly steamed lau lau.   After all, the taro leaf had to actually be flown all the way from Hawaii to cook them.    I had to substitute aluminum foil in lieu of real ti leaves to wrap them, but they came out tasting decent enough.   I actually cooked for 2 solid days.   Finally, I threw on some Kealiʻi Reichel and some Hapa, to give them a taste of real Hawaiian music, and let the party run it's own course.   If there is one thing I've learned about human behavior, it is that the fastest way to make friends is to feed them. 

So, now that I'm back home, I generally don't bother trying to make my own kalua pig or lau lau.   Unless I'm actually going to go in the back yard with some hot lava rocks, and dig my own imu, then the lau laus that you get at most places are just as good.  So where would I go to find the best kalua pig and lau lau?   Well, my favorite place to go was Masu's Massive Plate Lunch.   But as they're now gone, everyone else's is pretty similar.   Maybe I'm just not discriminating enough with my kalua pig.   It's just all good to me.   So I guess the better question would be, "if I were again in that situation where I wanted to throw a big luau for a buch of out of town guests, where would I go to pick up the kalua pig and lau lau"?   That answer is much more clearly defined for me.   I'd go to Costco.

I actually feel really ashamed to say that.   I almost want to hide.   I feel like I'm losing my street credibility by disclosing that.   I mean, seriously?  There are so many other places with so much more history and character.  Don't you want to talk about Ono's, or Yama's, or Young's, or Helena's, or Haili's, or Highway Inn or something?   What the heck are you going to find at Costco?   Well, if I'm throwing a big party, then pound for pound, going to Costco, is just more cost effective.   Hawaiian food can get kinda pricey you know.  But besides that, the brand Costco carries, Keoki's, is a tried and true local favorite, just like Taro Brand poi.

Keoki's Sweet Potato Lau Lau from Costco
Lau Lau is actually pretty difficult to get really right.   If it is undercooked, then the taro leaves still have that needle like calcium oxylate that scratches your throat and makes it itchy when you swallow them.   (Did you ever realize that this is the same compound kidney stones are made of?)    So lau lau really needs to be cooked well.   But if you cook it too done, the pork inside can get pretty dried out and the inside can be somewhat bland.   So the piece of pork inside must actually be somewhat fatty to keep it moist and flavorful.   However, often you find lau lau with just a big hunk of fat in it, which you discard anyway, and the meat is still dry.   Masu's was great because they always added a nice piece of butterfish to accompany the pork, giving the whole lau lau an extra added flavor.    What makes Keoki's brand lau lau so great, is that they add a nice piece of that purple Okinawan sweet potato in with it (instead of the butterfish).   The addition of the sweet potato, not only gives you another texture (sometimes it was difficult to differentiate the pork from the fish), but it also absorbs all of that wonderful pork, taro leaf and Hawaiian salt flavors.  The sweet starchiness of the potato also works wonderfully with the savory pork.  It's funny that all it takes is a small piece of sweet potato to really set Keoki's lau lau apart from everyone else's.

Keoki's Kalua Pig from Costco
Kalua pig is another story (BTW - the kalua here has nothing to do with the alcoholic beverage of the same sounding name, it refers to the underground burial method of cooking).  To me, to really do kalua pig right, you need to dig an imu.   The reason for that is because when you dig an imu, you are using the entire pig.   Whenever you use a whole pig, as opposed to just a part of the pig, the flavors and juices from the rest of the pig just permeate its whole body.   This give it a whole different, much more robust pork flavor.  The people who do whole hog barbecue down South also understand this concept.   Additionally, the very slow cooking in that ground, with all of that wonderful smoke, just inundates the pork with deep smoky flavor.  It's really the ultimate pig.  But since digging a real imu is such a completely uncommon occurance these days, we just have to settle for the kind that most people produce.   For the most part though, unlike lau lau, it's not generally as difficult to do decently right.   In the worst case, your kalua pig can be a little too oily.  Or it can be a little too salty.   Or it could swing the other way and be a little to bland or a little too dry.   But most kalua pig is thankfully pretty consistent.  

Ocean Salad from Costco
Costco, also has the advantage of a fantastic fish and meat supplier.   So they make a pretty fresh shoyu ahi and limu ahi poke.   It doesn't compare with the expertly cut sashimi grade poke at Gyotaku, but it is very fresh and tasty.  Though their seaweed selection is nothing compared to what you'll find at Tamashiro Market, they also carry some pretty fresh ocean salad.  When they carry it in stock (and they don't always do), they are probably the most economical place to buy poi as well.   Especially with our poi shortage, poi has gotten quite expensive, and being able to buy it in bulk at Costco is quite thrifty.

I don't know the next time that I'll be throwing such a large luau like I did for my friends in grad school.   But it was a fantastic way to not only parade our culture, but to endear some great friends as well.  Never underestimate the dipomatic qualities of a good lau lau. 

Perfect Poi

Whenever we have guests come from the mainland, it's always fun trying to get them to do 2 things.   Firstly, it's always a riot to get them to try to pronounce our street names, as we're driving home.   Particularly, names like Keeaumoku or Kalanianaole.  They always get stuck the first time.  But after a week with me they usually get the hang of it.  The other thing is to get them to try real Hawaiian food, particularly poi.   Somehow, foods like poi, lau lau, and squid luau just don't look appetizing to them.   People don't get poi especially.  They just don't know what it is.   So I try to put it in reference for them, I call it "mashed potatoes", but instead of using potatoes, we use another tuber root, the taro.

I honestly don't know what people complain about with poi.   People look at it and say that it has the texture of wallpaper paste.   But I absolutely love that smoothness that it has.   It's almost like jello pudding, but more viscous.   People find the gray color unappetizing.   But every time I look at it, I think that that lavender gray is such a pretty shade.   People don't like the tartness of day old poi.   I suppose that may be an acquired taste, but most people serve poi pretty fresh these days, so no one really tastes the more fermented stuff.  I guess, it's just something people aren't used to.   But for us that grew up with it, it's a must have food.  

I really love how unique poi is.   A lot of cultures eat rice as the staple of their diet.  A lot of cultures eat potatoes as their mainstay.   A lot of cultures must have bread in every meal.   But poi... poi is unique.   Only in the islands was poi the main staple of the Hawaiian diet.  Because it was such an important part of the diet, there were so many rules and ettiquite concerning your poi.  True Hawaiians believe you should never "dirty" your poi.   But me, I love dipping my kalua pig or my lomi lomi salmon in with the poi.  It just tastes so good together.   One brings out the flavor of the other.   Just like bread and butter.   And of course, as kids, we all at one time enjoyed the taste of milk and sugar with our poi.   

True Hawaiians would insist that poi should be eaten with your fingers.   There's that whole dipping wrist motion that you have to master properly too.   But in these modern times, you just can't help but eat it with a spoon.   We do however, still use fingers as our measurement of viscocity.   The ideal thickness is always 2 finger poi (thick enough to eat with 2 fingers).  Cheaper poi, which has been thinned with water a little is 3 finger poi.   That is probably the ideal range.  But in the past decade or so, excessive rains have damaged many taro crops, and poi has become a bit expensive.  Add to that the fact that many tourists come, put the poi on their plates, but wind up disliking it, and letting it go to waste, and we've definitely got a poi shortage on our hands.   So these days, it's not uncommon to go to a hotel and find them serving what I would grade as 4 or even 5 finger poi.   It's really tasteless and foul.   If you go down to New Orleans they have the expression "baptizing the gumbo", for watering it down to accomodate more guests.   But as much as I dislike watered down gumbo, poi is all about texture, and "baptized" poi is even worse.   On the contrary, not many people have ever tried poi while it is still being pounded.   Last Summer, I was as the Makaha Mango Festival, and they had a Hawaiian boy pounding fresh poi.  As he pounded, he passed out pieces (yes pieces) of poi that had been pounded, but before he had added any water to it.   The pounded taro actually had the chewy texture of really good mochi.   I really liked it, and I wonder why no one has ever thought to market it in that form.    Then again, I'm always partial to thicker poi.   That's when you know you've got the real good (un-watered down) stuff.

So... where do you get good poi?    Certainly not a hotel restaurant or some place like that.   Some Hawaiian food place?   The supermarket to eat at home?    Almost all of the poi that we eat come from bags of Taro Brand poi.   I really haven't seen many other brands of poi in the supermarkets.   The differences from place to place come from whether they have watered down the poi, or how long they have let it sit.   The true old Hawaiians really liked their poi kinda sour, but honestly I prefer it on the fresher side.   But if you've watered it down, processed it too much, frozen it and tried to reheat it, or anything like that, the poi loses all of its taro flavor, and you really don't get much of anything other than a texture.

Taro Brand Poi from Costco
While I was searching around though, I actually found a poi that really tastes different from other poi.   It all started when my son was first born.  I had remembered when my sister was a baby, she had a problem drinking formula and my mom had run out of milk for her.   So in Hawaii, pretty much all doctors recommend poi for babies who cannot drink milk (as they are lactose intolerant or whatever other reasons), because poi is simply so nutritious.   Remembering how nutritious poi is, and wanting my son to have a taste for local food, I wanted poi to be his first "real" food (after breast milk and baby cereals).   So just to be sure, I asked his pediatrician if this was okay.   She said yes, but she recommended we go with Hanalei Poi.    Hanalei Poi?   Was this a specific brand, or was it just poi that was made in Hanalei in general?  We visited Kauai that year, and drove up to Hanalei, but didn't see any poi company there.    Well, it turns out that Hanalei Poi is a special manufacturer that is pasturized and different from regular poi.   But it is really dang hard to find.

Taro Fields in Hanalei, Kauai
Hanalei Poi is pasturized and boiled much hotter than regular poi.   It's then tightly sealed and shipped.  Because it is boiled so hot and sealed so tightly, much less bacteria is found in the poi causing it to ferment much less (which is probably also why my pediatrician recommended it for my son).   The resultant poi, is the complete opposite of sour poi.   From the moment that I first opened it, it seemed a much brighter lavender color than the gray that we're used to.   It was every bit as smooth as regular poi, but it was much much sweeter.  Not artificially sweet as in adding sugar to your poi, but a natural fresh sweet taste that I had never experienced in a poi before.  You could taste much more of the taro flavor to the poi.   It was extraordinary.   Simply the best poi I had ever tasted in my life.   Here finally, was a poi that was truly different than any other poi.   But it was so incredibly difficult to find.

I was told that I could simply walk into Foodland and buy some Hanalei Poi in their freezer section.  But every time I went, I could never find it.    I went from supermarket to supermarket, but no one seemed to carry it.   Finally, the place I found it was another Hawaii institution.   More than an institution, it is a landmark both physically and culturally.   The place I found it was Tamashiro Market.    Famed for the big orange crab on the top of their light pink building inviting people in, Tamashiro is a monument to seafood in Kalihi. 

Ever since I was little I loved going to Tamashiro Market.  It was so much fun going through the turnstall and wandering down the cramped little aisles to find all kinds of things that you just couldn't find anywhere else.   They were the first place I ever saw jars of pigs blood on sale for your soups and stuff.   The lobster tanks and crab tanks were always full, and all little kids love staring at lobster and crab tanks.   They have tanks and tanks full of different kinds of limu, ogo, and other seaweeds.   Every New Year's Tamashiro is THE place to go to get fresh sashimi (an absolute must if you're Japanese for prosperity in the new year), and the lines for people getting fresh fish are ridiculously long.   Tamashiro is one of the only places (outside of Chinatown), that I've ever seen geoduck for sale. 

Opihi Poke from Tamashiro Market
As a fish market, Tamashiro is also the king of fresh poke of different types.   Besides the regular poke though, Tamashiro is the place for really rare finds, like opihi poke.   I love opihi.   Just thinking of opihi brings to mind Frank De Lima's chipmunk-esque opihi song ("Please don't eat me").   But you know how hard it is to harvest opihi?   Remember, they live on the lava rocks right amongst the smashing surf and the only way to harvest them is with a screwdriver and some daring individual with extremely sure footing (just like the "Opihi Man" song by the Ka'au Crater Boys).   Because of their tenacity and endurance, surviving the harshest of environments, we even adopted the opihi as the mascot for my IT company, Opihi Net, LLC.  The taste of the opihi at Tamashiro, is impecably fresh.   It is crisp and cruncy, and tastes way better than a large abalone.   But the truly, uber Hawaiian experience is having the opihi poke with your Hanalei Poi.   The combination is absolutely extraordinary.

When I was little though, my absolute favorite thing to get from Tamashiro was their bud-bud (pronounced "bood bood").   Bud-bud is a Filipino desert, which is roughly a foot long stick of mochi rice, coconut milk, and sugar, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed.   The caramel colored, coconuty sweet mochi rice is just one of those precious childhood flavors that you never forget.  I have never seen it anywhere except at Tamashiro Market.

For all of their love of markets, neither Bourdain nor Zimmern made it to Tamashiro's on their Hawaii episodes.   Too bad.  They both missed out the truest, freshest taste of Hawaii they could've gotten.   Had Zimmern tried Hanalei Poi, instead of diving straight into the hardcore 5-day old stuff, he might've liked it a lot more.   Maybe it's just as well.   With our taro shortages and our dwindling opihi population, these are 2 truly Hawaiian tastes that I would rather keep all to ourselves.  

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Beef... It's What's for Dinner

If there is one item in America that symbolizes success and wealth it's steak.  Because of the abundance of cattle lands in the midwest, it's the very heart of America's "meat and potatoes" cuisine.  While places like the Big Texan in Amarillo are the workin man's feast, the finer steakhouses like Keens Steakhouse in New York, are the equivalent of America's gentleman's club.   They conjure images of  black and white photos of political powerhouses and old boy networks, gathering to plot the future of government and business in America over a big bloody piece of meat, a glass of hard liquor, and only an unappetizing wedge of ignored iceberg lettuce as the only green in sight.   There is nothing more red blooded, two fisted, American than having a huge dripping slab of of red meat on your plate.

In the islands during my Po Po's time however, having a whole big steak all to yourself was practically unheard of.   It's true that Hawaii had our own cowboys.  People from the mainland are always surprised when I tell them that Parker Ranch on the Big Island is the largest independently owned ranch in the country (including Texas).   They're even more shocked when I tell them that our cowboys, the paniolos, who were originally taught by the gauchos of South America, frequently out-roped the Texas boys in competition back in those days.  However, while we did have access to the cattle, times were tougher then, and plantation workers were often on the poorer side.  My Po Po would tell me how when they were lucky enough to be able to buy a small steak, it would need to be split up amongst the whole family (which for her was like a dozen people).   You were lucky to get maybe a few small pieces.   Both my dad and my father-in-law will tell you, that's why gravy made from the steak was so important, because a little bit of the gravy over the rice meant that you could have some of the flavor even if you weren't privy to much of the actual meat.  But, as farmers from Asian countries weren't used to having so much meat in the first place, it wasn't such a stretch to slice the steak very thinly, so that even though you don't have much, everyone could enjoy a little with their rice and vegetables.    I think that's the concept that is what makes Blazin' Steaks so successful these days, and how they are able to serve a steak, rice, salad, and drink for their famous $6 price tag.  

What about when you finally did come into some money, and wanted to eat at a nice steak place?  My dad likes to tell the joke about the young man who all his life grew up eating only hamburger and never knew what a steak was, so when he was a bit older and finally saved up some money he went to a restaurant and orders a salisbury steak, and is dismayed when he's served another hamburger.  But Hawaii did have some nice places to go when he was just starting to be able to afford a steak.   My favorite place when I was a little kid was called Victoria Station.  I was too young to remember the food exactly (although my dad always considered theirs among the best), but as a little boy I could never forget the thrill of eating dinner inside of an actual railway boxcar parked on Kapiolani Blvd.  Not only has Victoria Station disappeared from our shores, but the enitre chain went bankrupt decades ago, and all that's left are memories even on the mainland.

Teppanyaki Chef at Kobe Steakhouse
Though a fine steakhouse may be the epitome of mainland cuisine, in the islands we of course would add our own island flair to our steakhouses.   Having such a large Japanese population, teppanyaki style steakhouses are of course very popular.    However, while audiences on the mainland thrill to the knife weilding, juggling acrobatics made famous by Benihana,  I always prefer our own local Kobe Steakhouse to the big mainland chain.   Images of Frank De Lima's old "Adventures of Kobe-San" commercials always come to mind, when I sit there and watch the teppanyaki chef work his magic.   Naturally, they've got all the gimmicky tricks, like the flaming onion volcano (a natural must being in Hawaii), but having the chef slice your steak perfectly and grill each individual piece ensures that each piece is perfectly cooked througout.   This is a sharp contrast to western steakhouses, where often the outside can get overcooked and the inside underdone.  Of course as a child of my generation, I can't help but associate teppanyaki steakhouses with that fateful scene from Robotech (or Macross in Japan) when Ben Dixon orders and begins eating his giant steak, just before getting called to scramble and being killed in combat.   The symbolism of the uneaten steak and the fragility of life is something I'll always carry with me. 

Flaming Onion Volcano at Kobe Steakhouse
Of course being in Hawaii, even our most famous mainland steakhouses will have some kind of local touch.  If you've ever walked into Hy's Steakhouse on Kuhio, you'll know that they are famous for their big broiler hidden behind a wall of glass and brass right in the middle of their old library themed dining room, like a big romantic fireplace.   But what is really memorable about the steaks at Hy's is that the fire upon which they smoke and broil their aged steaks is comprised of kiawe wood.   Kiawe as you may or may not know, is our own variety of mesquite.  Just as the volcanic soil and tropical climate make Maui onions and Kona coffee unique to their mainland counterparts, so does kiawe have its own unique smokiness.

My favorite steakhouse in the world however, would have to be Ruth's Chris Steakhouse at Restaurant Row.  They are originally a cajun/creole restaurant from New Orleans, and as such many of their dishes have a distinctly Southern flavor to them.   Their crabcakes, macaroni and cheese, and bread pudding all directly remind me of the style I had while visiting New Orleans.  But again, being in Hawaii, there are hints to our local flavor as well.   Ahi poke as an appetizer for example, is probably not something that you would find on the mainland.   But most significantly, they use Hawaiian salt to season all of their steaks here.   From the days when the old Hawaiians would pour ocean water over the lava rocks to let them dry, Hawaiian salt has given all of our local food it's unique taste  (exactly the same way New York water makes their pastrami unreproducable anywhere else).  So seasoning their steaks with Hawaiian salt, makes them taste completely different and local.

Cowboye Ribeye Steak at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse
The best thing about Ruth's Chris is how they serve your steak on a sizzling 500 degree heated plate.  The one thing that I hate most about eating a steak, is how halfway through it gets cold, and the fats within it congeal making the entire thing totally unappetizing. With the heated plate, your steak stays warm and succulent throughout the meal.  Just walking in to Ruth's Chris, the butter that they brush over the plates (and steak) fills the air with an intoxicating, saliva inducing aroma.

Creamed Spinach at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse
Even their side dishes are extremely rich at Ruth's Chris.   The creamed spinach is perhaps the most decadent vegetable you will ever eat.   Sure it's a leafy green, but with that much butter and cream, it becomes a completely sinful delight.  Their asparagus may be simply par boiled and crisp, but the fantastically creamy hollandaise sauce that accompanies makes it another guilty pleasure.   It may break the bank (and the waistline) to dine there, but I really love the place and can scarcely think of a more genuinely haute and oppulent venue for a celebration.

The sheer hedonism of enjoying such a huge steak often makes me wonder what my Po Po would've said if served one of those giant cowboy ribeyes.  Would she have enjoyed finally having one all to her own?  Or, coming from an era when she would have to share something less than a quarter of that size with a dozen other people, would eating the entire thing have just made her nauseous?  I wonder too if my son will ever really understand and appreciate how hard his family worked to get to the point we can afford to buy the steak he's enjoying.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Meat in Tube Form

So this all starts with my friend Jeff.   One year, I told him that I would take him out for his birthday (as it's customary to do), and asked him where he wanted to go.   I told him that we could go anywhere he wanted.  Nice steak place.  Manly rib place.  Stuff yourself silly buffet.   What did he choose?   He said he wanted to go eat hot dogs.   Naturally, I was of the mindset that, well...  you could certainly go for something better than hot dogs for your birthday, right?   But he said he saw on some travel program this awesome new gourmet hot dog place in town, and that he really wanted to go.    So this piqued my curiosity a little.   Gourmet hot dogs?   What's so gourmet about a hot dog?   So we went over to Hank's Haute Dogs in Kakaako.

Hank's really does offer gourmet hot dogs.   Specifically, they're a restaurant specializing in all different kinds of sausages.   Every day of the week, they've got a different exotic sausage for you to try.   Alligator.  Rabbit & Veal.  Buffalo.  Lobster.  Even Duck and Fois Gras.  Even their regular menu boasts a variety from churizo to bratwurst to andouille, and since we're in Hawaii gotta add Portuguese sausage to that list.  As it was Jeff's birthday, we decided to splurge and try a whole different variety of the hot dogs.   I gotta tell you that each one really tasted different.

Fat Boy at Hank's Haute Dogs
My favorite hot dog there, was the appropriately named Fat Boy.    This polish sausage is wrapped in bacon and deep fried.  Then covered with mayo, lettuce and tomato.   Do I really need to describe for you how this thing tastes?   It's everything that you imagine it to be.   Fatty, salty, crunchy, terribly bad for you delicious.  

French Fries at Hank's Haute Dogs
As an intermission, Hank's had probably one of the tastiest french fries on the island.  You know how when you go to McDonald's or wherever, and you order the fries, the best one is always the very thin, very tiny, super crunchy fry all the way at the bottom of the box?   Well at Hank's, all of the fries taste that way.   None of them are the thick, plump, potatoey fries you get at other places.   At Hank's, each one is a scrawny, kinda thin, somewhat limp, uber salty, uber oily, delicious bad bad for you thing.   If you're feeling really indulgent, then go on Saturday, and you can order the special fries that are fried in pure, unadulterated, unashamed, rendered duck fat.   Seriously.   And to top it all off, you get to dip them in some really awesome garlic aioli or wasabi tobiko dipping sauces.   That's literally icing on the cake, but they're fabulous.

Chicago Dog at Hank's Haute Dogs
The most classic hot dog at Hank's though, has to be their Chicago Dog.   This is done in authentic Chicago style.   It's uses real Vienna Beef.   So it has that extra "snap" when you bite through the casing.  It's also done with the classic Chicago toppings, yellow mustard, neon green relish, a pickle spear, some chopped onions, a slice or 2 of tomato, and the essential celery salt.   In Chicago, they call it being "dragged through the garden".  It's like having a hot dog with a small salad on top.  It's done absolutely authentically.

It's no surprise that the Chicago Dog should be their most classic item.   That's because Hank is originally from Chicago and he borrowed the idea (and menu) from a very famous Chicago institution, Hot Doug's Sausage Superstore.  Hank used to be a star chef in Chicago, helming a famous restaurant called Trio.  But he decided to retire from Chicago, and come to the islands, where his parents were from and owned a hot dog stand in Kapiolani Park in the 40's.   Everything about the place is really gourmet, even the macaroni and cheese has truffles in it.   The question is, are his hot dogs unique enough that people are willing to spend $6 to $12 per hot dog, when they can get one that is twice the size (over a foot long) along with a drink from Costco for only $1.50?   That's a seriously hard question, because Costco's dogs really are premium quality meat too.  We'll just have to wait and see if Chicago's style can take roots here in Honolulu.

Actually, Anthony Bourdain visited (and raved about) Hot Doug's, when he was in Chicago.   Being from New York, the rivalry between New York dogs and Chicago dogs is famous.  It's second only to the rivalry between New York style pizza and Chicago deep dish pizza.   If you've ever watched Bourdain's show, you'll know that he absolutely loves sausages (or meat in tube form as he calls it).  No matter where he goes around the world he seeks out the local unique variation of the hot dog.  He's had Gray's Papaya in New York, Pink's in L.A., a ripper from New Jersey, a tunnebrod rulleor in Sweden, a Bæjarins beztu in Iceland, a currywurst in Berlin, just to name a few.  

So what did Bourdain enjoy when he came to Hawaii?   Well, he went to Puka Dog.  If you haven't heard of it, that's because it's originally from Kauai, and the only location on Oahu is in Waikiki where most locals would never go.   Their gimick, is this truly medieval looking burner that toasts the inside of the cup-like bun, which the dog then slides into and the dressings like mango or guava relish won't drip out from.   I have to admit, the burner is ingenious.  Their bun is a very soft, spongy bun.   But the burner toasts the inside of the bun where the dog is, so the softness is accented with a crunchy toasted layer.   The sweetness of the mango relish goes very well with the saltiness of the hot dog, but then a lot of our various cuisines have discovered how well that combination of flavors works.   My only gripe, is that while their hot dog is tasty, it isn't very iconic of Hawaii. Maybe if they moved out of Waikiki and more locals got to try it, or if they are able to last another 20 or 30 years and establish some legacy, that would change.  But for now, there are so many more representative sausages that he could've sampled while he was here.  While Hank's dogs are awesome, their flavor is that of Chicago, and not our local fare either.  

Lup Cheong Manapua from 7-Eleven
If Bourdain had truly wanted a taste of Hawaii's hot dog variations, he should've started with the uniquely Hawaii version of the hot dog.  You know the bright red, salty one that Redondo's makes?   Or he could've tapped into our Portuguese heritage and tasted some of our own linguica or Portuguese sausage.   He could've stopped by an okazu-ya and had some good shoyu hot dogs.  He could've gone Chinese style, and gotten a smokey, sweet, lup cheong manapua.  Heck, he could've even stopped into 7-Eleven to try a hot dog musubi.  You can't get more local than that.    Any one of these would've made a much more, accurate representation of local tastes than what he encountered.  

Hot Dog Musubi from 7-Eleven
For my money though, the one hot dog that was the most iconic of all of Hawaii's hot dogs, was the waffle dog at KC Drive Inn.   For decades, they were the light at the end of Kapahulu.   They were the line, where you knew you were no longer in tourist territory, but firmly back on kama'aina ground.   They were one of the last drive inns that actually featured drive-in car side service. Almost all of us, have childhood memories of the crunchy sweetness of the waffle that surrounded the savory hot dog in the middle.   And of course, you absolute had to wash it down with a thick, creamy, ono-ono peanut butter shake.   The waffle hot dog and the peanut butter shake were the ultimate combination together too.   The sweetness vs. the saltiness, the crunchiness vs. the creaminess, they just worked so well together.    Sadly, like so many other Hawaii institutions, KC Drive Inn closed a few years ago.   But thankfully, the Asato family still makes their fantastic waffle dogs for fundraisers and special events.    The last time I had one was on the beach, from their little event booth, watching the Dragon Boat Races.   From the very first bite, I was flooded with memories of childhood. If Bourdain REALLY wanted to taste what local hot dogs are like, he should've found a KC waffle dog.

KC Waffle Dog from Panini Grill
20 to 30 years from now, we may look back and think about Hank's or Puka Dog the same way as KC Drive Inn.  Who knows how our culture and tastes will evolve.   If a simple street food can be transformed to something gourmet, or something so embedded into history, anything can happen.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

When the Moon Hits Your Eye

In my mind, there is one and only one truly good pizza.    It is the one true pizza.   The pizza tha defines pizza.    The one pizza to rule them all, and in the darkness bind them.   It has to be Lombardi's Pizza in New York's Little Italy.  Nothing we have in Hawaii can even compare.   For that matter, no other pizza in the world can compare.   Period.   End of story. 

So what makes that particular pizza so good?    I could sound like a pizza delivery commercial and talk about how fresh and real their ingredients are.  But while their mozzarella and other toppings are really great, that's not what makes this pizza so spectacular.    Just like how it is really the bread, that makes or breaks a sandwich, it is the crust that defines the pizza.  Well Lombardi's has something no one else has.  They've got a bloody 900 degree oven!   900 degrees!!  Think about that for a moment.   Go run to your own oven and see how high it goes.   So what does a 900 degree pizza do to crust?   Well, it practically scorches the outside.  The thing is done in like 4 minutes.   But what comes out is incomparable.   The outside of the crust has charred, smokiness to it, and it is supremely crunchy.   Meanwhile the inside is still chewy and has some doughiness to it (like eating cookie dough).  The texture is unmatched.    No one can compare. 

If you believe them, Lombardi's also invented pizza.   As we all know pizza is Italian American, not Italian.  The predecessor to pizza in Italy is almost unrecognizable to us as pizza.   The same is true of chop suey and fortune cookines not existing in China.  Given New York's Italian American population, it's entirely conceivable that pizza was invented there, and Lombardi's has the first business license in history for a pizza restaurant.   So they very well may have invented pizza as we know it.  Most everyone in the country loves pizza, except for my sister.  Even my little boy, who is only 4 and has a somewhat undeveloped palate, loves pizza.   But I think my sister overdosed on it a bit in high school, and now the very thought of it repulses her.   But even she will go to Lombardi's.   That's how good it is.

So if we've got nothing like Lombardi's in Hawaii, what do we have?   Well, there's always the fast food pizza.   There's the ubiquitous red roofed Pizza Hut.  I do love getting a pan pizza from them as much as the next guy, but seriously, they are just fast food.  Being super oily and fatty is what makes them taste so good, it isn't about being truly authentic pizza.   We've also got Boston's Pizza.  They come the closest to being like a traditional New York style pizza, with big floppy slices that you're supposed to fold in half while eating.   Ironically, while it's the uber fatty meat lover's pizza that I like best at Pizza Hut, it's the veggie pizza that I like best at Boston's.   They've got some really big beautiful pieces of tomato, broccoli, olive and spinach on their pizza.    But again, they're baked down til they're like vegetable crisps rather than fresh plump vegetables.  The big drawback to Boston's is that if you don't eat the pizza right there and then, the crust gets all soggy and droopy, even after just a 10 minute ride home.  

Veggie Pizza from Boston's Pizza
So we've got fast food pizza, but what about a really nice sit down pizza restaurant?   In New York they have classy Italian restaurants that specialize in pizza.   What about us?   Well, if you're on Kauai, there's Brick Oven Pizza.   They're not bad, but their ovens don't get nearly as hot as Lombardi's does.   Also, their toppings just aren't as good.   If you're a UH student, then going down to Magoo's Pizza at Puck's Alley is practically a college requirement.  But, if you are willing to forego the supreme crust that Lombardi's has, there is one place where the toppings are almost as good.  My favorite pizza place here would have to be Rosarina Pizza in Chinatown or La Pizza Rina on Keeaumoku and King.  

I'm not exactly sure of the relationship between Rosarina and La Pizza Rina.   It think one's the mother's and the other is the daughter's, or they're sisters, or something like that.   In any case, they're pretty similar, but I think that La Pizza Rina (the daughter's?) is slightly better.   La Pizza Rina is a small little place, so you're lucky if you can get a table.  But it perfectly fits the bill of a sit down, date worthy, pizza restaurant (ie. not fast food).

Antipasto Salad at La Pizza Rina
To start off, I absolutely love their antipasto salad.   For one thing, they may have the greatest oil and vinegar I have ever tasted.   The oil is true olive oil and the taste comes through.  It is nothing like the oil and vinegar you buy in bottles at the store.   Secondly, they have these beautiful thick slices of salami and pepperoni on their salad that really taste like the real thing.   We're not talking about the cheap round red circles that hardly taste like anything you find on most pizza.   We're talking about true pepperoni, sliced thickly from a real pepperoni stick.  With a beautifully salty cured, slightly peppery, meaty taste.    The thick fresh pieces of cucumber, carrot, celery, and cherry tomatoes, and you've got a truly mighty salad.

Spaghetti with Meatballs at La Pizza Rina
If you're looking for another side dish, their spaghetti is pretty good as well.   They've got a kinda sweet spaghetti sauce, which also has a kind of peppery, herby kick to it.  

Combo Pizza at La Pizza Rina
 However, this is a pizza place, so really the only thing that matters is how good the pizza is.   You must be willing to gloss over the lack of Lombardi's crust (which is like saying you're looking at the Mona Lisa but ignoring her face), but here is one place which really has the best, freshest, ingredients.   Really!   Look at the peperoni.  We're not talking about skimpy thin little red dots the size of a quarter.  We're talking about a thick, beautiful slice of real pepperoni that is the size of an olympic medal.  The cheese on this thing isn't some lame shreeded chesse flavored product (ever notice how the more words they add the farther from the real thing it gets?).  This is real deli quality mozzarella, that has all the flavor and the thick gooeyness of real mozzarella.  The same goes for everything else on the pizza, from thick whole rounds of olives, to inch long pieces of Italian sausage (not little crumbled bits), to thick lines (not slivers) of still crunchy, still plump, still sweet, and still green and fresh green peppers.   We're not talking about a "chunky" pizza, we're talking about pizza with real whole slices of genuine ingredients.    The one surprising thing though is that their pizza sauce, like their spaghetti sauce, again has a sweetness to it.   I think this is one of their (and Rosarina's) signatures.   It may be the slight Asian influence of the family that created the place.   Some people may not like that sweetness, but I do.  It's unique.  It reminds you that though this is an Italian American dish, it's been touched by the local hands that made it.  

The one thing I really hate about pizza on the mainland is the so-called "Hawaiian" pizza.   As if adding a bit of ham and pineapple has anything to do with our real local cuisine.  You want a real Hawaiian pizza, add a little portuguese sausage or kalua pig to it.   Or better yet, find a real local family, and taste their interpretation of the classic dish.  

To Everything... Turn! Turn! Turn!

When I went to visit my sister on the mainland, I really got to like Greek food, particularly the gyro (by the way it's pronounced "yee-ro" not "jai-ro").  There's just something about that beef and lamb meat which is so succulent.  It's not as finely ground as a hamburger or meatloaf, yet it's much softer and more uniform in texture than a piece of steak.  I think it's all that time it spends spinning on a spit.  The constant turning and cutting means that every slice is perfectly browned and crispy, while the unexposed side remains so soft and yummy.   But you offset that meatiness with the cold, creamy (but not fatty tasting), slightly tart, brilliantly herby tsatsiki yogurt sauce and your mouth just wakes up with the flavor.   While, gyros are as common as a hamburger or hot dog on the streets of New York, Hawaii is pretty far removed from the Middle East and so we don't really get good Greek food right?   Or do we?

It's true, we don't have nearly the Middle Eastern influence that New York has being on the Atlantic.  However, we do have a number of good Greek restaurants.    Did you know, we even have an annual Greek Festival held at McCoy Pavilion in Ala Moana Park.    We do have a small Greek population, and even have a Greek Orthodox Cathedral here..   We've got quite a number of little Greek restaurants too.   If you're working downtown, you're probably familiar with Leo's Taverna.  If you attend UH, you're probably familiar with the Greek Corner at Puck's Alley, who make this totally addictive garlic mayo for dipping your fries in.  If you're in Kahala, you're probably friends with Sabas over at Olive Tree Cafe.  Ironically though, if I'm hungry for a gyro, it's not a Greek restaurant that I seek out, but an Egyptian one, The Pyramids on Kapahulu.

Maybe it's not so ironic.  In Hawaii we're all the way on the other side of the world, so we're not so accutely aware of it, but Greece and Egypt are just separated by a small strip of water called the Mediterranean.  They've got much shared history.   In fact, all of the cultures in that area that border the Mediterranean do.   When visiting my sister in New York, it wasn't a Greek place she took me to, but a Turkish one.   She has a good friend from Turkey (who by the way has this super suave Turkish accent that imbues his singing voice with romance.  You can imagine all the little girls swooning when he sings U2).   She took me to eat some savory halal meat off a cart on the street as well as a Turkish restaurant for "doner kebob" (pronounced "doh-nair").   Her friend explained that "doner means to turn and kebob... eh, kebob is a kebob"  (okay that bit of circular definition sounds a lot funnier with the Turkish accent).   Fittingly, the word "gyro" itself also means to turn in Greek.  So it shouldn't really be such a surprise that an Egyptian restaurant would have some really good gyros.

Buffet at the Pyramids
Just walking in, the Pyramids are appropriately themed with heiroglyphic wallpaper.  If you visit the Pyramids in the evening, the you will be treated to real belly dancing, and some tasty Egyptian fare, like clay pots of rice and spiced beef.    But to me, the time to go to the Pyramids is for lunch.  Pyramid's lunch menu is mainly their lunch buffet.  Unlike other buffets around town, the Pyramids buffet is pretty affordable.   But this is especially nice, because Greek food in Hawaii is actually kind of expensive.  While you can pick up a gyro in New York for the same as what you'd pay for a hot dog or hamburger, getting a small gyro here is always pricier than buying a plate lunch, so it's nice to be able to have as much as you want for just a little more.  They also don't fall into the trap of all buffets, which is letting the food sit, dry out, and overcook.  They only shave off a little at a time, but have a good turn around for guests.

So what's good there?    Well, the hummus is particularly good.   I don't even like chickpeas, because I don't like the powdery starchy texture.  But their hummus is wonderfully smooth and thick.   It's got a very mild taste, with very sublte hints of the oils and herbs against the smooth backdrop.   Shmear that onto some warm, thick, chewy pita bread and it's immensely satisfying.  On top of that, do you know how expensive it is to buy a small container of hummus in the grocery store these days?  Again, being able to have as much as you want here is fantastic.

My own gyro at Pyramid's buffet
Of course I love their beef and lamb kebob.    I love building my own little shawarma, with a stack of pita bread, Greek salad (lettuce, cucumber, feta cheese), beef and lamb kebob, and some tsatsiki to top it all off.  All of these bright flavors bouncing off each other.  Warm and chewy against cold and crisp.  Browned and meaty against tangy and herby.  They all add up to a perfect bite.    But again, being able to get as much or as little as you want is a big plus.  The first time I took my wife to eat a gyro at a Greek restaurant, I thought she would really like it, because she loves the gaminess of lamb.  But she was really turned off because the herbs in the tsatsiki were just too strong for her.  She doesn't like strong herbs or strong spices, and particularly doesn't like a lot of sauce (a remnant of the those old School House Rock cartoons where they warn you not to "drown your food").   So it took me a while to be able to convince her to try it again.   But she really likes Pyramids, because she can control exactly what she's adding to her plate in just the right proportions.  

Besides the beef and lamb kebob, Pyramids has one of the best barbecue chickens in town.   But it's not barbecue as in marinated in sticky sweet barbecue sauce.  It's not even glazed in kal bi or teriyaki sauce like we're used to.   It's simply got a few herbs to it, but the smoky charcoal flavor is what is so aluringly intense, and it brings out the savory chicken flavor.   It seems like a simple chicken, but the smokiness gives it so much depth.  My parents are also crazy about the tomato stewed okra at Pyramids.  Between my mom's diet, my dad's pickiness, my wife's aversion to spiciness, and my son's young palate, it's usually kind of hard to agree on a place to eat.   But somehow we all agree that we like Pyramids.   That really says something.

We really are on the otherside of the world from the Mediterranean.   As such, I can never really comment on the authenticity of Mediterranean flavors that we have here.  But the world we live in always amazes me, that we even are able to enjoy tastes from the other side of the planet.