Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The 50's, Hawaii Style

It is juke boxes and fuzzy dice.   It is leather jackets, white T-shirts, and blue jeans.   It is the classic Chevy convertable with the big tail fins.   Images, of course, of the 50's.   Now, not having yet been conceived of in the 50's, I can't tell you for certain if that's really the way it was, or if it's just a figment of our collective dream of the 50's.  When I asked my dad if that's really how it was, he said that it was either a highly romanticized image, or that it's not exactly how it was in Hawaii during the 50's.  

The piece of Americana that we imagine the 50's to be is, of course, epitomized in the classic sitcom, Happy Days.   Henry Winkler's Fonzie has surpassed the status of pop culture icon and found a place in American history.  Ironically, the series was made in the 70's, already 2 decades after the era it portrayed and glamourized.   So I remember watching it as a little kid and imaged myself hopping in the car with Richie and Fonzie and heading off to the ultimate 50's location, Arnold's.  Arnold himself was portrayed by the late and great Pat Morita, who was not originally from Hawaii, but who was here so often and who had so much of our character, that we adopted him as one of our own and never knew the difference. 

So you're in the mood for a patty melt and a milkshake and you want to envision yourself sitting at Arnold's with the gang and listening to the juke box.  If you're on the mainland, you can easily go to a Johnny Rockets, but what about here in Hawaii?    If you're on Maui, you can head down to Ruby's Diner in the Kaahumanu Shopping Center.  When I was in college, my friend took me to the original Ruby's all the way at the end of the Balboa Pier.  It was so sublime to have this 50's style diner all the way at the end of the a long pier, with nothing in sight but the beach and the ocean.   But the one on Maui is unique.  Not only do they have the 40's/50's motif, they've got many posters of old airline and travel advertisements for Hawaii from that era.  That in itself is worth the trip.

But as my dad said, the 50's diner image perpetuated on the mainland isn't really how it was here in Hawaii.   So what was it really like?   The Hawaii equivalent would have to be the soda fountains from that era.   Not only did you have the typical cheeseburgers, fries, and shakes, but you would have saimin, okazu food, and  true fountain drinks.   Soda fountains then meant that the proprietor would mix the drink and the carbonation for you, as opposed to the automatic mixing that goes on in today's soda fountains.   So, if you were a pretty girl for example, you could get a slightly better syrup to carbonated water ratio.  The mix was an art, not the hit or miss that you get from soda fountain machines of today.  I really hate it when the machines are off and you get a drink that's way more carbonated water than syrup, which not only burns your mouth in carbonation but has that sharp metallic taste.  The soda fountains back then even had drinks we hardly hear of anymore.  My dad's favorite was the green river, which was a bright green, lime concoction.   For me though, I used to love the chocolate cokes that my dad used to make.  Never heard of a chocolate coke you say?   It's absolutely awesome.  The chocolate mellows out carbonation, and blends well with the caramel taste of the coke (like a liquid Rolo).   Try it for yourself, all you need is ice, some Coke, and some Hershey's syrup to make it at home.   I never understood why they decided to can cherry coke, and vanilla coke, and even lime coke, but decided to forego my favorite flavor.

So do those soda fountains still exist?  Can they still be visited for a taste of 50's nostalgia, Hawaii style?   A few of them have withstood the test of time.  But the one that best captures that era for me, would have to be Sekiya's across the street from Kaimuki High School.   Poor Sekiya's ran into some trouble a while back, with an e. coli outbeak that shut them down while they had to clean everything up.  Since then, they've been struggling to reclaim their image as people, like my wife, were scared to go back there.    However, with their long history, pre-dating World War II, some fans, like my dad's best friend Keith, were back within a week of their re-opening.   Having been back there myself, I can assure you, it's cleaned up and the food is as good as it always was.

Chicken Sukiyaki at Sekiya's
While 50's on the mainland means cheeseburgers and shakes, 50's here means saimin and okazu.   However, while Sekiya's saimin is good, their sukiyaki is absolutely fantastic.   It is ever so slightly sweet, with all of the flavors of the different vegetables coming through.   The tofu literaly soaks up all of the flavors.  Not only do you get standard vegetables like won bok and shiitake, but you get nice julienne cuts of gobo.   It's so rare to find nice cruncy gobo served anywhere.  I especially had the craving to have some of their awesome sukiyaki after watching a marathon of the Rurouni Kenshin anime, where the characters frequently hang out at the Akabeko Restaurant for gyu-nabe (or beef sukiyaki).

Macaroni Salad at Sekiya's
While I tend to favor St. Louis Delicatessen , Sekiya's is also my dad's favorite okazu-ya.  He adores the bentos that they serve there.  The flavor difference between the two restaurants is very subtle, but he and I are pretty steadfast in our favorites.   I do like Sekiya's bentos though, and I have to admit, that they have some of the most flavorful mac salads in town.

Maki Sushi at Sekiya's
Sekiya's even came through on my little mini-quest to find the good old style maki sushi I used to have as a kid.   Nowdays, with different types of sushi being so popular, it's so hard to find the original Hawaii style maki sushi, with the (canned) shoyu tuna, tamago, kampyo, kamaboko, and the distinctive red and green hana ebi powder.  The filing to rice ratio is a little small at Sekiya's, but it is nice to just have that old flavor that I remember. 

Chicken Sukiyaki Meal at Sekiya's
Rather than the romanticized 50's from Happy Days, I think I prefer the honest true to life 50's that still lives on in Sekiya's.   I am really glad that they're still around, as I would hate to lose the true, classic flavors, that my dad grew up with.

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