I first fell for Poke in – where else – Hawaii and haven’t had it since our trip there several years ago. So I was pleased to see a story this week in the NYTimes about the new Poke places popping up in Manhattan. Some of the Poke is a little too orange and creamy for my taste – k raw salmon slathered with orange midwestern salad dressing (but is actually chile aoili and quite good. spicy too.)
The kind I really fell for in Hawaii is red chunks of raw ahi tuna in a sesame oil/ salty soy sauce (the japanese version, Shoyu) with maybe some shredded carrots or seaweed or avocado.)
I first spotted it in the Big Island (see photo above!) when a hipster surfer guy staying at our bed & breakfast was eating some from a plastic takeaway carton. Had to try it – and it was delicious. Then I found it in odd places, including a little hole-in-the-wall natural foods place (Ruffage) restaurant off Waikiki Beach in Honululu; a very upscale version at the elegant Alan Wong’s (Obama’s favorite Honolulu restaurant) and then on the side of a two-lane highway, being sold out of the back of a parked white pickup by a guy with two Styrofoam coolers full of the stuff. I lived to tell the tale (I was a little concerned about food poisoning but it was delicious.) Short of another trip to Hawaii (some day, I hope!), I’ll now look for it in NYC. – best spot according to the NYTimes is Sons of Thunder in Murray Hill.
Wandering around Honolulu’s Chinatown in January 2011, I chanced upon an amazingly good Chinese BBQ (known in Chinese as Char siu, meat seasoned with five spice, honey and other things that turn the outside skin or meat bright red) at a hole in the wall aptly named Char Siu House (photo below), with a small counter and butcher’s block and maybe three card tables for people who want to eat in rather than carry out (like me.) I had some delicious pork, moist, full of flavor, crispy red skin. As I was eating, a food tour suddenly arrived and the guide noted that this was the Honolulu’s best Chinese BBQ place, or some such.
With this memory in mind, I finally tried New Le’s BBQ here in Des Moines (photo above)- in what passes for a Chinese ,or more accurately, an Asian, neighborhood – on Second Avenue. (The street has a popular Asian market, Double Dragon, that I go to every once in awhile for hard-to-find-elsewhere items and just because it’s an interesting place full of unfamiliar foods. There’s also a few Thai and Vietnamese Po restaurants.) Le’s has been around for years and an Asian friend recommended it. But it looked so uninviting from the outside that I passed it by – until yesterday. I was surprised to find it was far more cheerful inside. Instead of a drab butcher shop, I found a slightly less drab restaurant with lots of empty tables (midday on a Saturday), a lit-up display on the wall of the Chinese entrees available and a case full of bbq-ed meat that left little to the imagination (still-intact ducks with spindly necks and heads, dangling from hooks, looking like they’d been flattened by a steam-roller; a pigs head). I ordered some duck, pork and ribs – and we tried them last night. The red crispy ribs were best – moist well-seasoned meat, tasty-edible skin. The pork was first runner up – moist meat with a smokey flavor but lots of fat and crispy skin that wasn’t as edible as it looked. Even more of the same with the duck. Oh well.
Woke up to snow on the ground, blowing snow, and cold temps here in Iowa. At least it was sunny. But made me think fondly about our recent trip to Hawaii and what we liked best:
Best Hawaiian specialty food: poke, Lau Lau (Pork Wrapped in Taro or Ti Leaves) and malasadas.
(Worst Hawaiian specialty food): Loco Moco
Best Meal: Alan Wong’s (Honolulu); Allen’s Table (Waimea, Big Island); Side Street Inn (Honolulu); Char Sui House (Honolulu’s Chinatown)
Best Star Sighting: Elton John and entourage at Alan Wong’s!
Worst meal: Kilauea Lodge dinner (breakfast much better)
Best place for a drink: La Mariana sailing club
Best Beach: 69 Beach near Hapuna Beach on Kona side of big island; Hanauma Bay near Honolulu
Worst beach: wasn’t one
Best Tourist attraction: Doris Duke’s Shangra La (Honolulu)
Best national park/monument: National Volcano Park and City of Refuge (big island)
I knew when a very suave guy in a pink sport jacket with a folded handkerchief in his front pocket arrived with a group of about seven other equally interestingly-dressed people walked into Alan Wong’s – the famous foodie hotspot in Honolulu – that someone famous was part of this group. And there he was: Elton John. The entire restaurant played it cool – and no one made a fuss. But it was astonishing to sit at the table next to a singer I’ve listened to since I was a teenager – over 30 years. The pink sport jacket guy turned out to be Elton’s husband (at last, my People Mag reading comes in handy.)
Beyond that, the food and service at Alan Wong’s was terrific – he does very creative takeoffs on traditional Hawaiian dishes, which we appreciated after almost 10 days of getting to know what those dishes are. We had a very unique take on poke (my favorite Hawaiian food) and a very clever “coconut” – coconut sorbet inside a chocolate brittle crust resembling a half coconut shell, served with a few native fruits and a yellow tangy sauce. Wow. We also had very good short ribs (we’ve eaten a lot of pork this trip) and red snapper in a miso sauce with corn and mushrooms, fantastic garlic mashed potatoes (one thing we never ate was poi. next time.) And I had the best mojito I’ve ever had (not that I’ve had many but this one had bits of watermelon in it and tons of mint.)
Earlier in the day, I toured the Iolani Palace and then wandered around Chinatown where I found a fantastic char siu place – a tiny hole-in-the-wall called, aptly, Char Siu House. The char siu pork was chopped behind the counter and served on a bed or rice with steamed greens. A Hawaiian food tour group prompted stopped by and the guide introduced the place as the best char siu in Hawaii. Who knew? Around the block I stopped at Summer Frappes for a smoothie – mange, pineapple and kiwi. And thought of my friend Myra as I passed Myra’s Leis across the street.
Today, I toured Doris Duke’s phenomenal estate Shangra La, packed with Islamic art and artifacts on a glorious four-acre spit of land in a posh Honolulu neighborhood then D and I rented a car (dollar rental $48) and drove to the north shore to Hale’iwa, a fun funky surfer town, where we had a good burger and fries at Kua’aina sandwich shop and then made an obligatory stop at Matsumo’s grocery store for shaved ice. There was a surfer competition at sunset beach and watching the surfers try to make it through enormous waves and the famous Bonzai Pipeline (where the surfer rides inside a tunnel of water created by the wave as it arches up and over and then onto the water – was mesmirizing. The drive itself all the way around the island was gorgeous and next time I’d love to do some hiking around Waimea Valley, which is a gorgeous area of jagged mountains and valleys. I was somewhat underwhelmed by Kailua but the beach did have the most perfectly soft sand I’ve ever walked upon – it turned to a soft paste when wet. After dirck left tonight (i leave tomorrow for san francisco, he had to go home) I found a perfect place to eat alone – the counter at a japanese noodle restaurant near our restaurant called Ramen Ezogiku.
Tonight, before D left, we snuck in one last drink (I was back to maitais, dirck has stuck with Kona beer) at the Hosue without a Key – a lovely outdoor bar at the elegant Halekuia hotel next door. Three hula musicians and a beautiful woman dancing hula performed – a perfect way to say a reluctant goodbye to hawaii. Aloha.
I’ve loved this trip!
A few things I’ve learned from life here at a big convention hotel in Waikiki:
– Concierge! I want a concierge for life. Everytime I need something, I call or drop by their desk and get an answer. They’ve made me reservations and even got me $5 off my tour ticket to the Iolani Palace today. It occurred to me that I’ve been my kids’ concierge for years now (although that’s changing now that they’re in college.)
– Beware the tour package: The concierge did suggest a $20 tour to Hamauna Bay but when you read the fine print it’s more than that – and it’s easy enough to take the #22 bus, which I did, to the bay. Both there and back, a van driver pulled up and offered us a ride for $5, claiming that the bus was long delayed. They got a few customers that way – and each time the bus pulled up about 10 minutes after they left. (the fare is $2.50 and I realized today that the transfers everyone seemed to get aren’t transfers but instead free return trips (if made within 2.5 hours I think. never seen that anywhere.)
– Everything is cheaper off the strip. And just as good although maybe not the view… We ate very good fast good Korean bbq, dumplings and bim bin bop (sp?) at Me BBQ, a popular place with, yes, locals on Uluniu Ave. Also found a good gift shop run by an Argentian couple nearby.
– Touristy places can be fun. Case in point: Having a drink at sunset at Duke’s Canoe Club, a shrine to the famous surfer Duke K. in the Outrigger hotel near ours. We also popped in at the Royal Hawaiian hotel next door – a pink Moorish palace. What a cool place. And today’s tour of the Iolani Palace was interesting, as was a stroll around Chinatown where I found Obama’s favorite restaurant there (according to my Obama-centric guidebook). We’re going to another Obama favorite tonight – the foodie-in-chief tends to like the same stuff we do. I stumbled upon a terrific little place called the Char Siu House on Maunakea Street – and had terrific Char siu pork served atop rice with steamed greens. Fresh and high quality meat. And a Hawaii Food tour dropped by – it’s a stop on the tour. So I guess I picked right. Around the block is a cute place for a smoothy – Sunshine Frappe.
Hanauma Bay was gorgeous and it was fun snorkeling, although a little unnerving at time since I found myself several times almost stuck atop a coral reef when the water suddenly got shallow. A nice Cambodian guy I met showed me a cut he got from just such an episode.
I’m surprised that I like Waikiki Beach so much – I figured it would be too commercialized and crowded. And it is both of those things but you just kind of have to go with it and once you do, it’s fun. And bottom line, it’s a stunning location with the gorgeous turquoise and cobalt blue waves of the bay and the mountains rising in the distance.
And staying at a resort hotel – even if this is one of the larger less charming ones – is nice. I haven’t used the facilities much – although did lounge around briefly on the little chunk of beach and floated around on the infinity pool. If I come here again and am paying my way and have lots of money, I’ll stay at the Moana Surfrider – it’s a lovely old plantation style building with a big columned entry way and rocking chairs on the porch. We had a drink in the bar by the beach where a very good guitarist played Hawaiian versions of the songs of my youth (Crosby Stills nash and Young etc.) I’d also like the look of the pink Moorish pile know as the Royal Hawaiian and certainly wouldn’t balk at staying at the sleekly elegant Halekulani.
As always, I found cheaper food a block or so off the main drag (Kalakua Ave) on Kuhio Sreet and Uluniu Street (Found a french patisserie, nothing fancy, on Kuhio – St. Germain Patisserie I think) and very good ahi poke with avocado at Ruffage Natural foods) which I ate while sitting on a bench near the Duke the surfer statue and chatting with a retiree from Calgary who spends two months here. Earlier I met a flight attendant from Dallas on a layover.
We went to a way cool tiki bar – the real thing not some Midwestern suburban confection – for a private party last night. La Mariana’s Sailing Club on Sand Access Road. Low-ceiling place with lots of carved wood Polynesian statues, seashell-lined lanterns, a cool band playing groovy beach music (the lead singer wore white gogo boots!). Seemed like the right place to have my first matai. so I did.
( Take Nimitz west from Waikikii to the Sand Island Access Road. Turn left and go 3-4 blocks to a street that goes into an industrial area. Watch for the sign “La Mariana Sailing Club” at the corner. Follow that street to the end, turn left, and you will see the restaurant on the left side of the road at the next intersection.)
The scene at night on the strip outside our hotel reminded us of Vegas – lots of people strolling casually down streets lined with luxury shops and souvenir stores, stopping to watch street performers, shopping in stores open until 11 p.m. (on a sunday night no less). Fun.
A cryptic flyer posted on the wall of the Kileau Lodge where we’re staying landed us in what looked like a camp cafeteria watching five hula musicians, several playing the ukulele and about 10 hula dancers perform traditional selections from all over the islands. It was great. The flyer mentioned something about hula at KMC – which turned out to be Kileau Military Camp, which we’d passed a few times while visiting the National Volcano Park and wondered about. We learned that it’s a camp for veterans and active military and their families for R&R. There’s another such camp on Oahu. The hour long performance was free and very entertaining. I was pleased to see that some of the hula dance movements I used to do when fooling around as a kid are pretty close to the real thing. How or where did we learn this stuff as kids (Elvis movies? Hawaiian punch commercials? Hawaii Five O?) Visiting Hawaii has made me realize all the stereotypic pop culture stuff I know about the islands – even though I knew very little about the real Hawaii (including which island Honolulu was on.)
After the hula performance we had an excellent meal at Thai Thai – one of the few restaurants in Volcano.
Sometimes it looks like the top of a very crusty pan of brownies. Other times, like the dark rough folds of a rhinocerous or elephant. That’s what came to mind as we were walking across the other-worldly surface of the Kileau Iki crater. It was also easy to imagine a sci-fi film crew suddenly appearing to take in the scene.
The four-mile hike on a glorious sunny day did not disappoint. We made our way along a path zigzagging through dense tropical vegetation down into the black barren wasteland of the crater surface where we walked right straight across. The only guide were cairns (stacks of rocks) scattered at various points to let us know where to go, sort of.
The drive down to the sea – Chain of Craters Drive – was spectacular. It took us 19 miles first through forest, then through lava-flattened and blackened fields and then to an overlook where way down below the ocean crashed up against more cliffs. Winding down another level towards the ocean we looked back at the green mountains we’d just been standing on and could see stretches that were blackened by lava flowing to the sea. The last 11 miles of the drive are closed due to previous eruption damage and there was no active lava flow but we did have not one drop of rain, which I gather is somewhat unusual. In fact, it’s only rained for a few hours during our six days here.
We also stopped in at the art gallery next to the visitors center in the park which was full of terrific stuff – koa wood bowls, painted gourds, wood block prints, wooden furniture, paintings – but all too expensive fur us. At 4 p.m. we had lunch – sharing a tuna melt at the pleasantly funky lava rock cafe and waited for my laundry to dry at the nearby Volcano Wash and Dry. After a brief stop in the hot tub here, we’re off to see some hula dancing back at the park on the grounds of the military base there.
The Kileau Lodge, by the by, did a MUCH better job with breakfast this morning (than dinner last night). We enjoyed sitting by the old stone fireplace with plaques set into it from YMCAs all over the world. And the food was well prepared and served.
My sun bunny companion was yearning for a real beach where we could jump in high waves and walk through pristine white sand so we backtracked just a bit and went to the Kohala Coast. We found what we wanted/needed. First stop was the Mauna Kea resort which guards access to a public beach on or near its grounds but we were told that the public parking was full (this was 10 a.m.) so no more room for the ordinary folk. No problem. We drove a little down the road, past the very famous Hapuna Beach State Park to a local favorite beach (that several locals including our waitress last night) recommended. The 69 Beach is a little stretch of caramel colored sand with lots of pretty shady trees and a few large black rocks hemmed in on each side by a jutting little cliff. So it created a nice little enclosed beach and waves that hit us from the front and the side (as they bounced off a rocky cliff.
We did drive over to Hapuna Beach to check it out and were dazzled by the color of the water – turquoise by the shore and cobalt blue beyond. Lots of people but lots of room. I’d be happy there – even if the locals think it’s too developed (it even has lifeguards and a snack shack.
On the way back to Honoka’a, we took the Old highway just past Waimea which was like stepping back in time – a two-lane road that felt at times like a country road, winding through green hilly farm and ranch country, lined in parts by huge trees or a jungle-like thicket. The road ended right at Tex drive-in which was on our list for lunch – so we glided right in, parking near two huge horse trailers (complete with horses) and joined the long line at the fast food joint. The best thing by far were the malasadas- heavy fried rectangles of dough dipped in sugar. I dared to try Loco Moco – the hawaiian comfort food which pretty awful. It was a styrophone cup with rice at the bottom topped with an overdone hamburger, a fried egg and gravy. For some odd reason, they gave me two – needless to say I barely ate one. Dirck had another classic Hawaiian meal – the plate lunch. He did skip the more typical macaroni salad side but did have two thick pieces of roast pork covered in a gloopy brown gravy. Ick,
By 3 p.m. we were in Volcano the little village just outside the national volcano park – staying at the lovely Kileau Lodge in a large elegant room with the hawaiian bedspeads I love and lots of wood. The lodge itself is a cool old YMCA lodge – so lots of wood and stone and character. If only the lodge’s restaurant was better. After last night’s meal, the bar was set very high but even without that the meal we had was yukky. too bad because great setting.
Dirck and I did go over to the volcano park to check it out and got to see the smoldering caldrons. Pretty cool. Tomorrow we hike!