Monday, December 21, 2009

The Unsung Local Favorite

Welcome to my 75th blog entry!   For my 75th, I wanted to visit someplace really special, like John Dominis.  However, after a considerable amount of mulling, I decided to go a different route.   With the hustle and bustle of the holidays, going someplace really fancy like John Dominis would be both inconvenient and budget breaking.   Additionally, since I already did that for my 50th blog entry, I thought I would try a different approach.   I was thinking about the most iconic of Hawaii foods, the kind of food that local people really miss and crave when they're on the mainland.  The one that kept popping into my head, seemed so boring to talk about, and yet it really is conic of Hawaii.   Perhaps the most local local place I could think of.   So I finally settled on visiting Zippy's.

It really seems anti-climactic doesn't it?   I mean, it's Zippy's.   I might as well be blogging about how great McDonald's is.   Everyone goes there.   It's not like I'm discovering a new little secret hole in the wall or lunchwagon and letting everyone in on it.   It's Zippy's.   It's the place we all go to, when it's late, we're tired, we don't want to cook, we don't want to go anywhere fancy, we don't want to think about where we're going, it's just the default.  But that mentality, is actually exactly why I should be blogging about Zippy's.  When you're in a good relationship, like my wife and I, probably easiest trap you can fall into, and precisely the thing you don't want to do, is to start taking the other person for granted.   My wife does the laundry, does the dishes, gets the kids ready in the morning and takes them to school, cleans up the house, does the finances, and a myriad of other things to keep us going.  What do I do?  Cook dinner and take out the trash.  Somehow she winds up doing the lion's share.   The very least I can do, is make her feel appreciated and loved.  You never realize how good you've got it, until it's gone.    The same goes for Zippy's.   It's pretty much the king of local food, all of our very favorite local foods, all in one place, and it's always delicious.   But we always dismiss it as, eh "we're just going to Zippy's".   Like it's no place special.   But when you're away on the mainland, you are accutely aware of just how special Zippy's is.

Zippy's has just always been there.    I remember all the way back, when their logo was still those 9 rounded orange squares.  Zippy's is the place you run to, to grab one last bite of local food before jumping on an airplane.   Or better yet, since they don't serve food on the airplanes anymore, you take a Zip Pack with you and eat it on the plane and make everyone jealous.    Zippy's is the very first place you want to eat, the moment you've gotten off the plane, weary from jet lag and a 5 hour flight, and you just want something to make you feel better, and right at home.   Zippys is the place you go late at night after seeing a late movie and no place else is open.   Zippy's is the place you go to after a big party, where they served you very fancy food, but not a lot of it and you're still hungry, even if you're still in your tuxedoes and fancy dresses (something my wife did after Sophomore Banquet).  Zippy's is where you go when it's the wee hours of the morning and the sun hasn't even come up yet, but you need a good breakfast before going to work early.  Zippy's chili tickets (and huli huli chicken) are what just about every one of us used to have to sell as school kids for fundraisers.  Naples are one of the best things to bring a box of when going to visit a client.  From our most celebrated nights (like Thanksgiving or prom night), to our most common, everyday, tired after work, just need something to eat nights, Zippy's has always been there.   So if you're seriously going to write a blog about local food, you just can't ignore Zippy's.   It's about as local as you can get.

But besides being the uber local favorite, Zippy's really has really great food.   Okay it's fast food, but it's so much better than any other fast food you'd find on the mainland.  But Zippy's also teamed up with the famous Dr. Terry Shintani, to offer a local yet healthy diet menu.   Their food is suprisingly high quality.   I for one am always surprised at just how high quality their fish is.  It's actually really fresh mahi mahi and ahi that they serve, much better than you'd find at say a Long John Silver's.  They have such a variety too.  Besides they're the only restaurant I know of that has the regular fast food take out windows, and around the corner you've got the sit down restaurant with a totally different menu.  It's like they're 2 different restaurants stuck together at the hip.   Add on Napoleon's Bakery at just about every location, and it's like you're running a 3 legged race.   At some locations, they've even got an Japanese side, like an okazu-ya or sushi bar, and all the pieces come together like Voltron.  But the best part is how diverse Zippy's is.   You've got something from just about every culture that has touched these shores, from saimin, to bentos, to Portuguese bean soup, to oxtail soup, to Korean chicken, and yet everything they make is in perfect harmony with each other, like they're meant to go together.  All of these different cultures, these different foods, are now just our local foods, and all done just right.   So let's look at a few of my favorites.

Portuguese Sausage Omelette Sandwich from Zippy's
It's 4:30 AM, and I've got a 5:30 AM flight to Kahului to work for a day.  I need something yummy and warm to get me going, cause I'm really dang tired.  The sun hasn't even risen yet.   Few places are going to be open.  But Zippy's of course is.  So I grab one of my favorite breakfasts in the world, the Portuguese sausage omelette sandwich.  This thing is totally Portuguese.  Not only is the omlette filled with small chunks of Portuguese sausage (linguica), but they've even put it on a soft sweetbread (pao doce) roll, with some nice melted cheese.   There is nothing at all that's crunchy on this sandwich.  It's like the opposite of crunchy.  Every bite is a completely soft, warm, melty, yumminess that's exactly what I want in my tummy in the morning.  Best of all, it's only like $2 per sandwich.   2 of them are just enough for a light breakfast on the run.

Chili from Zippy's
Of course you gotta love their chili.   Southwestern chili is all about the spices.   It's all about how hot they can make it, what kind of peppers they can put into it.   It's about that earthy, almost burned, chipotle flavor.   Filipino chili on the other hand is sweet.   Unnervingly sweet.   Zippy's chili, is unlike either of those.  It's probably the epitome of mild.   It's just this perfect mild, meaty flavor.  I can't even figure out what seasonings (I shudder to call them spices), they put in it, because it's just so mild.   I doubt that anyone on the mainland would like it, as it's so mild and not what they're used to, and yet everybody on the island loves it.   We all have memories walking door to door as school kids (usually in our parents office buildings), trying to sell tickets of benefit chili.  Besides huli huli chicken or school kine cookies, they're just about the easiest thing to sell, because everyone loves it.   Ever since I was a kid, I've never even liked chili.  I just don't like beans.  I don't like the chalky, powdery texture of beans.  And yet, I love Zippy's chili.  Even the beans are so mild, and creamy in texture, I don't mind them.   That really says something.

Spaghetti & Garlic Bread from Zippy's
My wife on the other hand, prefers Zippy's spaghetti.   It's not that their noodles are freshly, hand made and perfectly el dente.   It's not that they've got a secret blend of herbs or uber fresh tomatoes straight from their garden.  It's not even in the same league as my mom's ultimate spaghetti sauce.  Their spaghetti is just regular old every day meatsauce.  Like their chili, its just all around very mild with a very simple meaty flavor.  And yet, that's what makes it so great.   It's comfort food to da max.   It's the perfect execution of a basic everyday food, that keeps you wanting to come back to it.

Chicken & Chili Plate from Zippy's
Of course, I love Zippy's fried chicken (as does my wife).   In fact, it's just about my favorite fried chicken in the world.   I really like KFC and Popeyes.  Neither of those can compare with Zippy's chicken.  For one thing, it's all thighs.  Which to me is the best piece.  No dry breast pieces.  No skimpy drumsticks.   But the meaty, juicy, thighs with the fantastic skin on them.  The skin is so crunchy, much crunchier than the Colonel's original recipie, and much more flavorful than his extra crunchy.   Yet it's not really very oily either.   It's got that Japanese fried chicken taste to it, that's completely different from the Southern offerings.  So again, I'm not really sure that people on the mainland would like it as much as we do.   But even if it costs 50% more than the Colonel's, I'd rather have a barrel of Zippy's chicken any day.  

Oxtail Soup at Zippy's
In one of my very first blog entries, I've talked about how awesome the oxtail soup is in the sit down side of Zippy's.   But it's worth mentioning again.   Their oxtail soup has some of the tastiest, tenderist, meatiest, ox tails in town.   All of the mushrooms, and the choi sum, and the peanuts, and the ginger, all work in perfect harmony to bring out the wonderful flavor of the soup.   It's just awesome.

Zip Pack from Zippy's
But the thing I love most at Zippy's, the thing that I'm compelled to order every time, is their Zip Pack.  It is perhaps the quintessential local style bento.   Everyone tries to emulate their combination, but they fall short because they don't have Zippy's awesome fried chicken, or their super fresh and crunchy mahi mahi.   It is the bento that sets the gold standard by which all other bentos in Hawaii are compared to.  It's got beef, pork, chicken, and fish all on one plate.   The crunchy takuan and the furikake on the rice are the perfect little touches to top off this great bento.   The fact that I love Zippy's chicken already puts the Zip Pack ahead of the game.  But what's so surprisingly good is always the fish.   Zippy's must have a deal with some really good fisherman, because it always surprises me how high quality the fish is.   From a fast food place, you're expecting the fish to taste a certain way, ie. processed, previously frozen, and not really associated with any real life from the ocean.   But no, Zippy's fish is flaky, moist, and tastes like fresh fish.  Throw in some spam, it's the perfect local combination.  The best of all worlds.  Something that calls to me.  Something that I crave.  Something that I must have.

You gotta give props to Napoleon's Bakery too.  Clients love it when you bring them a big box of Naples, of just about any flavor.  They're so wonderfully flaky and they disappear very quickly at business meetings.  My very favorite dessert at Zippys was always the jello cream cheese squares.   The sweet, crumbly, crust (which reminds me of the top of a french apple pie), works so perfectly with the cream cheese.   The cream cheese is so light and creamy, not at all thick and heavy like a normal cheesecake.  And the red jello at the top just makes the whole combination so beautiful to behold.   These days, I don't get to eat a lot of those, but happily Napoleon's also makes some great sugar fee cakes.   The chocolate is good, but the blueberry is particularly spongy and light, and has a delightful blueberry taste.  

Okay, Zippy's isn't exactly a profound discovery.   But sometimes, we just don't appreciate just how wonderful and local it is.   I just can't imagine a Hawaii without it.

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