Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Breakfast of (Local) Champions

It's a bright beautiful morning in the islands.   The sun has just risen over the Koolau's.  The birds have started their daily song.  You've got a full day ahead of you.   So you wake up, brew a cup of 100% pure Kona coffee, and start thinking about what to make for breakfast.   Being in Hawaii, there's a pretty good chance that your breakfast is going to involve rice.   This is where we differ from the mainland a great deal, because to us, a piece of toast or a bagel is just not going to give us the energy for the day.  Certainly, we've got the only McDonald's in the world where Portuguese sausage, Spam, eggs and rice, is served as breakfast, and is such an incredibly popular item.

Our dependence on rice in the morning started during our plantation days.   Plantation workers needed something substantial to fortify them throughout the day.   Being from all Asian countries, oats or wheat certianly weren't as common as rice.   So they started each morning with a bowl of rice.   My Po Po ate the same thing for breakfast every morning, as long as I ever knew her.    She would have a bowl of rice, a few pieces of yellow takuan, and half a fried egg, (and of course a cup of very strong coffee).    I have no idea how she made her eggs.   All I know is that I have never, ever tasted eggs with that wonderful texture ever since.  They were not scrambled eggs.   They weren't full of air and fluffy.   They weren't exactly simple fried eggs either.  Because whenever I try to make fried eggs, they come out relatively thin (as the egg spreads itself over the pan).   Her eggs were always thick and full tasting.   They never had those tiny air bubbles you can get in a fried egg.   They weren't airy, but had much more substance to them.   I could hardly believe that much meatiness could come out of a single egg.   And they had so much egg flavor too.   The only thing (as far as I could see) that she put in them were ha mai (dried shrimp).   They were fantastic.  

When my Po Po made coffee, she always made the old Plantation way too.   She would take her coffee grounds (usually Hill Brothers) and just throw them into the pot and boil them.   She had no perculator.  She had no coffee maker.   There was an old tin cup that she used to drink her coffee out of, that had tons of little dents in the the rounded bottom after years of use.   She would pour our her coffee in this cup and drink from it all day long.   Naturally, boiling the grounds themselves yields an incredibly strong cup of coffee.   A working man's cup of joe.  My dad used to just sit on the porch, drink the coffee and spit out the grinds.   So when he got married to my mom, and she first made coffee for them in a perculator, he thought that it was so weak it tasted like water.   

As she got older, she would only eat half the egg with her breakfast, and save the other half for me to make a sandwhich out of when I got home from school.   They were the best.    I will probably never have eggs that good ever again.   And she was an incredibly hard working woman, she did all the yard work, trimmed the trees, everything, right up til she passed away.  Every morning, what kept her going was just a simple breakfast of rice, takuan, coffee, and a single egg.

As I grew up, eggs and rice were my favorite breakfast too.   But I liked having them the old paniolo way, of having fried rice instead of regular rice.   To this day, fried rice, 2 eggs over easy, and a few slices of Portuguese sausage is my absolute favorite breakfast in the entire world.    But since we're talking about fried rice, therein lies a great deal of variation.   The very mainland form of fried rice with diced carrots and peas with a few bits of egg, simply will not do.   While I, naturally, love Chinese style chow fan, with lup cheong or char siu, that's not exactly what I'm craving in the morning either.   I want the real local style fried rice, which even then is difficult to define. 

My absolute favorite place to get this breakfast used to be the good old Columbia Inn.   Despite the baseball looking logo, the restaurant was named after the bags of Columbian coffee that they would sell.   Columbia Inn to me was like a comfortable old shoe.  Normally, people talk about comfort food, but to me Columbia Inn was like a comfort "place".   Just sitting in the bouncy orange booths overlooking Waialae Ave, was like being home.  It was like literally being in Mel's Diner, on Alice.   The fried rice there was just the perfect local style fried rice.  There was of course, the Chinese and Japanese influences in it, with char siu and green onions, but the flavor was entirely local flavor.   I'm not sure how to describe it.   Maybe it was the fact that they used nice plump, moist and sticky calrose rice, instead of the smaller grain and harder Hong Kong style rice that you find in Chinese restaurants.   Whatever it was, it was my favorite.   Whenever my sister would go back to the mainland after visiting here for vacations and breaks, my family would have breakfast at Columbia Inn, just before taking her to the airport. 

Besides Columbia Inn, the other place with some decent local style fried rice was Yum Yum Tree over in Kahala Mall (where Chili's is now).   Whenever I thought of Yum Yum Tree though, the first thing that would come to mind is their awesome cornbread.   They had some of the most moist, and dense yet soft, cornbread I had ever tasted.     Unfortunately, both Yum Yum Tree and Columbia Inn have faded away into Hawaii memories.   So now that both restaurants are gone, I have been on the hunt to find a new local haunt with the same old local style fried rice, eggs and Portuguese sausage.

The June Jones Special at Hungry Lion
Being on the way to the airport (with a freeway onramp just a block away), we once decided to try Hungry Lion as an alternative to take my sister to breakfast before her morning flight.   While I absolutely adore their Aloha Bowl, their breakfast platter just wasn't the same.   Their "June Jones Special" was huge and had all the elements I was looking for, even adding Spam and corned beef hash.    Unfortunately, their fried rice was kind of on the dry side, and not as flavorful as I was hoping it would be.   I had to break the egg yolk over the rice to moisten it up a bit. 

Fried Rice, Egg & Portuguese Sausage at Big City Diner
After searching a bit more, I found that Uncle Danny's Fried Rice over at Big City Diner was actually pretty good.   It's actually the only thing that I really like at Big City Diner.   Somehow, as popular as they are, and as many local items as they do feature, I never really cared for their taste that much.   But the fried rice was the exception.   It's so far the closest that I've found to my beloved fried rice at Columbia Inn.   It's got a great local brew shoyu taste (you know how our local shoyu tastes different that the one from the mainland or from Japan), and the green onion flavor comes through as well.  So for a while, we would take my sister there in the mornings before heading off to the airport.   But unfortunately, we suffered some bad service there once, and my dad has since decided he didn't want to patronize the Kaimuki location anymore (although we do pop into the Ward location once in a while).   However, I've been back there a couple of times, even taking some visiting collegues from the mainland for a business breakfast.  They absolutely adored the place, and relished the chance to try real local food rather than being confined to Waikiki.

A lot of places make fried rice, but old local style fried rice is actually kind of hard to find.   Still, when I can get it, Portuguese sausage, egg, and fried rice is always my favorite breakfast.   Having it, makes me feel empowered throughout the day, and somehow as strong as my Po Po was.


  1. I know how to make Popo's scrambled eggs. she taught me how to do it. next time, i'll make breakfast before we drop me off at the airport.

  2. Okay, but I'll be the judge of if it really tastes like Po Po's. =)