While I’ve talked about many of the dishes that demonstrate the ethnic fusion of Hawaii, few of them embody the multicultural fusion of Hawaiian cuisine as much as “saimin”. Saimin is basically a noodle dish that is a mild fusion of elements taken from each the major cultures of Hawaii’s plantation era: Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Hawaiian, and Portuguese. The resulting dish is a noodle soup that bears a lot of resemblance to Chinese “mein” and Japanese “ramen”, usually with some other ethnicities adding ingredients, such as Spam, gyoza, udon, or wontons. In any case, much of the Kahili neighborhood had Saimin joints popping up during the middle of the 20th century, usually run by recent Okinawan families. And pretty much everyone I know that grew up in Hawaii has told me stories about how much saimin they ate as a kid, either as soup, or as the related “fried min” (pan-fried noodles with the same sorts of toppings). Oahu has dozen of Saimin places, and one of the older, more classic, and, quite frankly, no-frills places is Palace Saimin.
For our last meal in Hawaii, we decided to check out Alan Wong’s The Pineapple Room. Alan Wong is one of of several Hawaiian Chefs (along with Sam Choy, Roy Yamaguchi, Peter Merriman, and Bev Gannon, amongst others) that have worked for the last few decades to establish “Hawaiian” as a proper cuisine type. For all my discussion of local Hawaiian food, such as the Loco Moco, the Spam Musubi, and the Plate Lunch, there’s also a lot going on in Hawaiian cuisine in the fine dining sector. One of the places that’s often recommended is Alan Wong’s restaurant, called simply “Alan Wong’s Restaurant”, but our itinerary didn’t have the time, and we didn’t have the stomach space, to visit there. But Alan Wong also runs a lesser known restaurant, The Pineapple Room, which is nicely hidden away inside Ala Moana Mall. Specifically, inside the Women’s department in the Macy’s. It’s also fairly easy to get reservations there, and you also have a pretty good chance of getting a walk-in seat. So on our way to the airport (after a pleasant hike up to Koko Crater), we stopped at Ala Moana for some light shopping and one last meal.
If there’s a single place that really represents what “Hawaiian Food” is, the first place probably has to go to Zippy’s (their competitor L&L Drive Inn comes in at a close second). Zippy’s is a combination fast food and casual restaurant (literally, since most Zippy’s have both the fast food counter and a table service dining room) that started in Honolulu in 1966. Filling nominally the same sort of market niche that Denny’s does on the mainland, the key to Zippy’s is that just about every local Hawaiian food item I’ve talked about is on their menu in one form or another. Spam musubi? Check. Plate lunch? Check. Saimin? Check (both fried and as soup). Teriyaki burger? Check. Portuguese sausage? Check. Shrimp plate? Check. About the only thing I didn’t see on their menu was a malasada. So their motto is “All your favorites”, and at least with Hawaiian food, I think they’ve got that covered. So, on our last morning on Oahu, it was finally time for me to make some time for a stop in at Zippy’s, ducking into their Kaneohe location right by the Windward Mall.
On our way up to our rental condo on the North Shore, every time we were leaving Kaneohe and heading north on the Kamehameha highway, we ran into two places that triggered my “Offbeat Eats” sense. One is an older place on the West side of the road called the Hygienic Store, which is basically a convenience store (the name comes from it’s former life as the “Hygienic Dairy”). We never made it in there, so we’ll have to save it for another trip. But across the street is some sort of abandoned business, but out in the parking lot are two food trucks that make up Mike’s Huli Huli Chicken. There was something cool about the hand-scrawled sign for chicken that make me interested, and when my friend Mark in Kaneohe mentioned that they were actually really, really good, we decided to follow up on it.
Our visit to Oahu was filled with all sorts of recommendations, and one of the more interesting ones came from my friend Tim from Minneapolis: “Go to Sushi ii, order the omakase, and eat whatever they put in front of you.” Sushi ii is off of most tourist radar, located in a small strip mall (the “Sam Sung Plaza”) across the street from the Walmart a few blocks north of the Ala Moana mall, Sushi ii (the “ii” is from the Japanese for “good”, it’s not a Roman “II”) is one of those neighborhood sushi places that somewhat blend into the background: while I may have picked it at random if I was in a sushi mood, I probably wouldn’t have found this place without a good solid recommendation.
After the trip to Waimea Valley, we took the western route back to Honolulu, stopping in Wahiawa for burgers at Teddy’s. Normally a place that is advertised as “Teddy’s Bigger Burgers” wouldn’t immediately make my short list: of the many adjectives I look for in a good burger, “bigger” isn’t at the top of the list. But I didn’t let the name stop me: I had heard rather good things about getting a teriyaki burger in Hawaii (it’s one of those standard things you can expect at most places selling burgers in Hawaii), with a liberal application of teriyaki sauce and a slice of grilled pineapple… and that Teddy’s was one of the better places to get one. So we stopped in to give it a try.
While most mornings in Hawaii we either ate breakfast in our condo, or picked up something on the fly, we did decide one morning to go out and get a full, righteous breakfast. Both of us were craving pancakes, and after reviewing the various options of the North Shore, ended up driving down to Kailua to check out one of the local favorites, Moke’s Bread and Breakfast.
For the last stop on our food tour, they took us to Leonard’s Bakery, a modestly-sized bakery located in the Kaimuki neighborhood, not to far from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, with their gleaming sign advertising malasadas and pão doce. The destination wasn’t particularly a surprise, since I’m pretty sure that Leonard’s Bakery was far and away the most-recommended place on Oahu, with literally dozens of people telling me that I had to go to Leonard’s and order a malasada. But I’m sure quite a few of you are now asking “what’s a malasada?” Well, as I mentioned, Hawaii is quite the culinary melting pot, and that influence includes Portuguese cuisine (a large number of Portuguese workers came to Hawaii from the Azores in the late 19th century to work on the sugar cane plantations). This immigration added several major items to Hawaiian cuisine, including Portuguese sausage (available at most breakfast places in Hawaii, and also widely available as a choice in a standard plate lunch), pão doce (Portuguese sweet rolls, kind of like a sweet dinner roll), and the malasada. The malasada is basically a Portuguese donut: a nominally egg-sized lump of dough is fried up and, in its most basic form, served up rolled in granulated sugar. It’s one of the classics of Hawaiian cuisine (indeed, the wedding we attended had fresh malasadas at the reception), and it’s a dessert widely available across the state. And, as I mentioned above, most anyone’s list for “Best Malasada” has Leonard’s near the top of the list.
During our food tour of Chinatown, we had about half an hour to explore Chinatown, including the Maunakea Market and the surrounding area. We decided to check out a place we had passed earlier: Char Hung Sut. Char Hung Sut is another one of those old school places in Chinatown, and they’ve been producing manapua and other dim sum for a rather long time. Indeed, I’m not even sure how long, since aside from finding mention of it in a 1960 Hawaii tourism guide, I can’t find any reference to how long they’ve been around. But in any case, they make most short lists I’ve found online for where to go to get good manapua.
After Liliha Bakery, our hosts with Hawaii Food Tours took us to central Chinatown for a nice sampling of the various food establishments there. Probably the high point of the visit was them taking us to a fairly subtle store front on the Kekaulike Market: the Ying Leong Look Funn Factory, for a look at making fresh rice noodles. Walking inside, it’s less like walking into a store than, well, a factory, and you pretty much walk right into the noodle production line. They are making fresh funn, the wide sheets of glutinous rice flour noodles that are one of my favorite noodles from Chinese cooking. When fresh, these are always wonderfully toothsome, stretchy, and tender all at the same time, and they do a great job soaking up sauces. Here at the Ying Leong Look Funn Factory, you can see them being made.