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.
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.
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.
The next stop on the food tour was Liliha Bakery. Located in Kalihi, which is one of the older and distinctly less touristy parts of town, Liliha is one of those places known for three things in particular: coco puffs (no, not the cereal, we’ll get back to that), great pancakes, and being open 24 hours a day (except for Mondays, when they take a day off). Indeed, when I was getting recommendations for places to check out for “local eats” in Honolulu, several people all gave me the suggestion “Get some coco puffs from Liliha Bakery”. So when our Hawaii Food Tours van pulled up and stopped at Liliha, I had an inkling as to why we were there.
After attending my friend’s wedding, we had several more days on Oahu wandering about and exploring. However, the splendid, sunny weather that had greeted us upon arrival turned primarily into… rain. Now, several tourism guides on the internet will tell you that it doesn’t really “rain” per se in Honolulu, just “drizzle and trickle”… but if that’s the case, we got almost 8” of “drizzle and trickle” our last few days there. So that left us with a lot of non-beach activities to do, and one of those was taking a food tour. In our case, we went with Hawaii Food Tours, who offer several highly-rated tours on Oahu. In our case, we opted for their “Hole-in-the-wall” tour focusing on “local” food for the Honolulu scene. So our first stop with them was in Chinatown Cultural Center at the edge of Chinatown, in a place called Royal Kitchen. While Royal Kitchen does serve up a lot of standard Hawaiian fare like plate lunches and saimin, what they are really known for is manapua, the Hawaiian version of char siu bao, those Chinese soft buns filled with meat. As I mentioned in my previous review of 7-Eleven, those little buns are available almost everywhere on the island, in a variety of flavors. But Royal Kitchen stands out, since most places steam their manapua, while Royal Kitchen bakes theirs.
The next day in Hawaii, we decided that it was time to go on a hike, and ended up settling on the Kuli`ou`ou Ridge Trail in the Eastern part of the island. It’s a pleasant hike, climbing from a residential neighborhod through some tropical forest, then pines, and then above tree line up to a pleasant ridge overlooking Waimanalo. It was a thoroughly enjoyable hike, and it left us craving a cold, refreshing snack. That’s exactly what shave ice was invented for. Looking up shave ice places on the internet, there’s one clearly popular place (Waiola Shave Ice), but there was another places nearby with particularly good reviews on several sites, the rather cool-named Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha (HOPA).
So, one of my former coworkers invited me to his wedding in Waikiki, and we decided it would be a good opportunity to go explore Oahu and its sights and cuisine. However, that means getting there from NH. There aren’t a lot of great ways to do that, with most every option involving either a long layover, multiple hops, or red-eye flights. Or a combination of these. Between that, and an actual snowstorm in Seattle (requiring us to wait almost an hour for what is apparently just the one deicing truck at SEA), we pulled into HNL at almost midnight. Luckily, we had known that our flight would be getting in relatively late, so that we decided that the easiest way to handle things would be to get a hotel room near the airport. However, the area around the airport is not exactly a culinary hotbed of activity (and, quite frankly, most anything else, unless you have access to the nearby military bases). And that entire area seems to be filled with former restaurants all boarded up. But amongst the few options available, we did find one gem of a place: Joe’s Grill Express.