A lot has been made of this collection of tropical islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Secret celebrity wedding ceremonies are always accused of being held here; ancient island curses alway threaten to ruin Peter Brady’s life. Hawaii is filled with a mystique that mere mainlanders and foreigners can never truly fathom. Or so it would seem.
The reality is that the allure of Hawaii is all too obvious: balmy breezes, azure seas, soft sands, beautiful people, ripe fruit. That may be one of the real luxuries of the tropics, the gorgeous weather that leads to such a natural abundance of food. The ready harvest gleans shoals of ahi tuna, pineapples, coconuts, sweet onions, Maui beef, and loads of other fish with strangely fitting names like opakapaka, ono and mahi mahi. And that leads to a strong preference for flavors like sesame oil, soy sauce and sugar. Especially sugar.
The Hawaiian dish “poke” is the perfect example of the mix of local flavors: fresh, meaty fish (or steak) paired with the omniscient soy sauce and onion, with plenty of sesame oil and toasted seeds for texture. There are myriad ways to present this popular dish — sizzling on a hot plate at Roy’s, stuffed into deep-fried tacos and buried under lashings of cream at the Hula Grill, or cubed and served fresh with a splash of citrus, a bit like the poisson cru of Tahiti but without the coconut milk. We had them all.
It wasn’t all about the ahi. There were a multitude of other fish armed with confusing and sometimes similar names, to the point where @SpecialKRB said the Hawaiian language may be an elaborate joke played on the hapless foreigners with the temerity to try to master it. The fish dishes were many and varied, but mostly revolved around variations of simply grilled flesh, accompanied by something sweet, natural and generally unfussy. Attempts to go high-concept with the ingredients, like a fussy pairing of melon and hearts of palm, mainly met with disappointment.
And then there were the extra-special creations, examples of the evolution of Hawaiian cuisine to include more recent influences like American food, such as the strangely named loco moco (what @sergiomireles says means “crazy booger” in Spanish. Appetizing, I know.) It was many things: a lot of food, a lot of fat, a lot of grease, a lot of everything, except flavor. The ubiquitous packet of soy sauce was supposed to shoulder that burden, I guess.
For many who have visited Honolulu, it probably comes as no surprise that a highlight of our time there, food-wise, was Alan Wong’s restaurant on King Street. Beautifully concocted salads included a peeled whole, fresh beefsteak tomato inexplicably paired with a “yuzu dressing” that resembled Thousand Island, as well as a wonderful aluminum pillow that, when slashed, revealed perfectly cooked shredded pork and clams. The meal ended with a luxury version of Hawaiian shave ice and a great selection of coffees from all over the islands. Alas, while the food was super, the lighting was not the greatest for taking pictures. So you’ll just have to imagine it.
I know I had almost no time, and a lot of it was spent accommodating more upmarket palates that had little to no interest in plate lunches and rickety little bakeries. I also must admit that I spent one meal eating this:
I know, it’s Red Lobster. Let he who must deal with $60 lobsters at home cast the first stone.
Alan Wong’s Restaurant – 1857 King Street, (808) 949-2526
Roy’s Restaurant – 6600 Kalaniana’ole Highway, (808) 396-7697
Feast at Lele (yeah, it’s in Maui, whatever) – 505 Front Street, (808) 667-5353
p.s. You might have noticed most of the photos here are of superior quality to the ones you usually see on this site. That’s because @SpecialKRB is back!