Five young surfers eating from takeout containers on a bench outside Honolulu's Ward Farmers Market tipped us off. We were in the warehouse district between Waikiki Beach and Chinatown, hungry and jet-lagged, when we spotted them digging into plates of poke (pronounced "po-kay"), the local specialty of raw fish and spices. The surfers directed us into the cool, dark market, where vendors hawked ahi poke—cubes of fresh tuna gleaming like rubies and sprinkled with roasted kukui nut, coarse sea salt, and a confetti of green onion and seaweed. There were shiny black crabs, too, and a poke made with octopus and delicate red threads of ogo seaweed. With pocket money, we bought two plates and settled on a bench. It wasn't until we saw one surfer stretch and yawn that we remembered it was only 9 a.m. In our excitement, we'd forgotten that this was breakfast.
We'd come to Hawaii to find great food. For more than 10 years now, travelers have returned to the mainland with the news that eating in Hawaii no longer means choosing between your hotel's steak Diane and a salty satay from a plate-lunch diner. A loose coalition of 12 chefs has reinvented Hawaii's polyglot culinary heritage with meticulous technique and cosmopolitan flair. They call it Hawaii Regional Cuisine, and their reverence for organic, Hawaii-grown ingredients has taken root across the Islands. Where mainlanders used to grouse that the California iceberg and Iowa corn they'd eaten in Lahaina had flown as far as they had, micro-regionalism now reigns. It seems as if a thousand small farms are racing to meet demand, not only from restaurant kitchens but from farmers'-market crowds and greengrocers. Even at Safeway, you can fill your cart with baby eggplants from Waimanalo and fern shoots handpicked in the up-country town of Kula.
During nearly two weeks of meals on four islands, in chic hotels and family restaurants, we learned that Hawaiian dining at the start of the new century offers a twofold thrill: the luxury of the freshest raw materials and a total immersion in an utterly American food dialect.
Less than 12 hours after eating our morning poke, we encountered "poki-pines" at Alan Wong's. His raw tuna and spices were wrapped in a delicately fried wonton whose edges were sculpted into spiky quills—hence the playful moniker. Wong has stints at Lutèce and the Greenbrier under his toque, but he was born in Hawaii, and his cooking reflects an exuberant, welcome-to-Honolulu spirit. He challenges natives to reimagine Hawaiian standards and trusts that tourists will hang on for the ride. Here, on the third floor of an unassuming office building, the luau staple laulau—pit-cooked pork steamed in a parcel of taro leaves—was deconstructed: smoky, meltingly delicious pork enclosed in a purse of lumpia dough, nestled in a silky pool of puréed taro leaf. Opihis, or limpets, often found in Hawaiian markets tossed with diced tomato and onion, emerged from Wong's kitchen as "shooters": a small flute of tomato water, a limpet, a niçoise olive, a shiso leaf, a basil leaf, a nib of green onion, and a dried plum—which the waiter insisted we take down in one gulp. But underscoring the fun is a seriousness about Hawaii-grown ingredients; when we asked for coffee, we were given a menu of seven estate-grown roasts.
The next morning, we stopped at Sam Choy's Breakfast, Lunch, & Crab, a warehouse space hard by the piers where tankers dock. Choy, a North Shore native, built his reputation opening upscale regional Hawaiian restaurants, but in his latest venture he brings the care and skill of fine cuisine to the simple foods he grew up with. We sought it out because it was such a departure for him: a place where he's gone back to his roots. In his open kitchen, he sharpens the flavors of down-home specialties such as the ubiquitous plate breakfast loco moco—a fried egg and a hamburger patty piled over rice and smothered in gravy. Though it sounds like a double-cholesterol diner disaster, his version was a triumph. We debated at length whether the mushroom gravy was sweetened with honey or taro. Whichever, it was darn good.
And then we set out to find the fabled lunch wagons. In the early 1930's, these panel vans, modified to become plate-lunch kitchens, traveled from plantation to plantation selling quick meals and groceries to workers. We weren't a hundred yards past Waialua, a laid-back hamlet where even the bakery sells surfboard wax, when we saw a sign that read PICKLED MANGO, with an arrow pointing down Haleiwa Road.
It was a promise too good to pass up. The Oga-Terukina family's pickled mango was sublime—an addictive, refreshingly sweet-sour treat with the snap of a carrot, made from peeled, underripe mangoes soaked in brine, sliced, and packed in a concoction of cider vinegar, preserved dried plums, and a few secret ingredients that Dorothy Oga, the family matriarch, would not divulge. In the front yard of their compound, the family chatted, played poker, and talked food. Dorothy's husband, Perfecto, reminded us that for plantation laborers who arrived in Hawaii in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—from Japan, China, Korea, the Philippines, the Azores, Madeira, and Puerto Rico—homegrown "organics" weren't fashion; they were survival. "We grew all our own food, without any chemicals," he said. "We had no choice." The culinary creole created in the labor camps is the source for a great deal of the high-flying fusion that goes on in hip restaurant kitchens all across the Islands today.
We pressed on but found not a single lunch wagon. We looped east around the north shore and south, back to Honolulu. Still no wagons. But we were hungry—despite having eaten a quart of pickled mango—and eager to keep our dinner reservation at Chef Mavro.
At Mavro we found our culinary Valhalla. George Mavrothalassitis, a.k.a. Chef Mavro, deftly channels the bounty of volcanic earth and the enveloping sea. His plump, cumin-marinated Kahuku prawn, resting on a bed of pineapple-studded tabbouleh, delivers measured layers of spice and fruit, sweetness and acidity. He plays the meaty, mackerel-like flavor of local moi (Pacific threadfish) and the crunch of its tempura-fried skin off a grassy parsley oil over celery root puréed with Hawaiian vanilla bean. To talk to Mavrothalassitis, a Frenchman of Greek descent, is to confirm his (discernibly Gallic) passion for food. As he chats about his ingredients, he flashes a toothy smile, as though he still can't believe his good fortune: to cook in a place where prawns are delivered live to his kitchen door, and where predawn visits to the Oahu Fish Auction are sure to yield nohu, the firm-fleshed fish essential to bouillabaisse and scarce in his native Marseilles. But Mavro's passion fruit—filled malasada—the hole-less doughnut brought to the Islands by the Portuguese—shows he's not just cooking French with a Hawaiian accent. It's also the best jelly doughnut we've ever tasted.
In our own visit to the fish auction, at 4:30 a.m., we found thousands of pounds of fresh-off-the-boat tuna, bellies glistening silver, flesh garnet-red, and a pack of 50 buyers bidding on it in a swift, nearly unintelligible patois. The gathering seemed friendly and stress-free, with lots of joking and discussion of the Atlanta Braves, but Brooks Takenaka, the auction's administrator, hinted at the underlying competition: "Guys will buy fish they don't need just to keep someone else from getting it."
The sun was rising as we returned to our hotel. We napped till lunchtime, then headed to Ono Hawaiian Foods, a tiny 12-table room packed with regulars, where the Oh Young family has been serving up hearty plate lunches for 40 years. Ours included a choice of pit-cooked pork or chicken with noodles—and either rice or poi, the thick, soupy pounded taro root. Both selections came with a simple salad of salted salmon, diced tomato, and onion called lomi salmon; pipi kaula, the jerky-like dried beef; and haupia, a creamy coconut dessert. Each item was served in its own small Melmac dish, leaving our table a vision of pink, blue, and green.
THE BIG ISLAND
The first Hawaiians came ashore in the fifth century: Marquesans in dugout canoes who brought pigs and chickens, sweet potatoes and taro. These foods, along with fish, remained Hawaii's staple diet until 1793, when the British gave King Kamehameha a gift of Texas longhorns. Beef has been big ever since, and these days the mountain town of Waimea is the epicenter of Hawaii cattle ranching.
Waimea stands at the crossroads of the Kohala Mountains, the fertile Waipio Valley, and the emerald slopes of Mauna Kea, where, it seems, a hundred organic farms thrive. Not surprisingly, the town has become the Big Island's hottest dining destination. Here Peter Merriman opened Merriman's in 1988, resolving to use only Big Island—grown ingredients. As you enter the restaurant, a display of black-and-white photos of nearby growers and ranchers shows that he's serious. The dining room is quiet and unfussy, all force brought to bear on the food. There is a psychosensual thrill in knowing that the juicy free-range lamb chops come from Kahua Ranch, just up the mountain, and that before sunrise the tender baby greens were still growing a few miles east of your table.
The following morning dawned misty and chilly, and we warmed up with Kona coffee and poi pancakes at Maha's Café. Big Island native Harriett-Anne Namahakolani Schutte (a.k.a. Maha Kraan) cooks her family's recipes in the oldest house in Waimea. Her pancakes—moist and slightly sweet, with lavender flecks of poi and a delicate crust, drizzled with homemade coconut syrup—are fabulous (and a must, even for the poi-shy).
We noticed that Maha's lunch menu listed a salad with Big Island goat cheese, a creamy, supple version we'd sampled the day before at a natural-foods market. Eager to find out who made it, we inquired. Maha called out from her tiny kitchen, "Hey, Marjorie, where'd Heather go?" We had just missed Heather Threlfall, the cheese maker, but Marjorie filled us in: They'd been having a celebratory coffee because Threlfall had just scored the Alan Wong account. Waimea is more than a great place to eat out—the town pulses with the rhythm of lives lived near food.
Since touching down in the Islands, we'd eaten so many luscious baby greens—red oaks, lollo rossa, even the rare cocarde—from Hirabara Farm that the place had acquired a somewhat mythic status. When we learned it was just a few miles east of Waimea, we made a pilgrimage. The farm is a scant acre and a half, neatly striped with rows of lettuce—every head of which is spoken for. Kurt and Pam Hirabara pick, pack, and ship 350 pounds a day for the 19 temples of regional cuisine that were lucky enough to land accounts before the Hirabaras closed their client list. On a dry-erase board near their office, many of America's star chefs have left tributes to the gregarious couple. But when we spoke with Kurt and Pam, their tone turned grave as they discussed the pressures of farming in paradise. "Land is getting too expensive," Kurt said. "But," Pam added, "we realize that the future of Hawaii Regional Cuisine—once the chef's responsibility—is now in our hands."
There's no evidence of farm-life stress at Daniel Thiebaut, the latest addition to downtown Waimea's restaurant scene. The canary-yellow paint has just dried on the sprawling roadhouse, created from the sagging shell of an old cowpoke's general store. It's a great place to indulge in dreams of everlasting abundance while soaking up tropical vibes from the bright and breezy 1930's Hawaiiana interior. Thiebaut calls his cooking French-Asian, but dishes like Hunan spiced rack of lamb with eggplant compote and Big Island goat cheese are inalienably Hawaiian, revealing all that's fresh and phenomenal nearby. His desserts show off not only his creativity but also his fine instinct for when to let good ingredients shine on their own. He marinates local strawberries in red wine to create a simple soup, garnishes it with a scoop of coconut ice cream, and dusts it with cracked black pepper. Even the water here is astonishing: unbelievably sweet, soft, and perfectly neutral. Our sunny young waiter revealed that it is rainwater, twice-filtered, collected from the hills above town.
The sugar industry in the Islands is nearly extinct, but when we landed in Maui, the night air was fragrant with the malty aroma of burning cane. In the sweep of our car headlights, we saw lanky stalks crowding the roadsides. The next morning we set out for Sam Sato's, a noodle shop we'd heard raves about back on the mainland, and found ourselves roaming a windswept industrial park on the grounds of a defunct sugar mill.
Cruising the Islands, we'd learned to expect great food in unlikely places, and this site looked promising. Then we spotted the telltale sign: a packed parking lot. We took the only two stools left at the low lunch counter and ordered what our neighbor was having—noodle soup, with a rich, oniony broth, and a skewer of char-siu barbecued pork, which was heavenly. Like poke, poi pancakes, and loco moco, this was yet another Hawaiian reinvention of "breakfast."
From the cliffs around Hookipa Beach, we spent some time watching wind surfers get airborne. Then we drove farther east to Paia, a mellow town where a sign in a wineshop window read, WILL OPEN TODAY AT 11:33. At a tiny café and bakery, a barista drew our coffees, then went back to playing a mean guitar for a table of friends.
With an afternoon free, we decided to tackle the legendary Hana Highway, a harrowing 30 miles of narrow pavement that traces the craggy, cliff-bound contours of Maui's windward coast—a rite of passage for first-time visitors to the island. Six hundred—odd hairpin turns offer about the same number of breathtaking vistas. In Hana, we had time only to steel ourselves for the return trip with cans of cold pineapple-orange-guava juice from the Hasegawa General Store. Back on the road we spied a small flatbed truck parked on the shoulder, loaded with a freshly shot wild boar. Someone was planning a luau. If a uniformed wildlife agent hadn't been giving the guy a ticket, we would have asked for an invitation.
The Merriman's on the Big Island had the hushed serenity of a Midwestern family restaurant, but the recently opened Merriman's Bamboo Bistro, overlooking the harbor at Maalaea on the western coast, is a hip tiki lounge for the 21st century. We dropped by at six, just as Jared Robeck, a local guitarist, was doing a sound check, and settled in for drinks and tropas, Merriman's Hawaii Regional spin on tapas. We liked the shrimp and corn fritters and the lobster martini, but the highlight was the li hing mui margarita. Li hing mui are dried fruits preserved in five spices, sold by the pound across the Islands in shops called crack-seed stores. Alone, they taste like a salty, sulfury accident. But powdered and lightly dusted on the rim of a margarita glass, they were the perfect antivenom for the sweet wallop of tequila and triple sec.
Later that evening, for our final dinner on the Islands, we drove to Maui's western shore along a two-lane highway, passing campgrounds where you can pitch a pup tent on the Pacific shoreline. The farther we drove, the more crowded the landscape became, with shopping plazas and housing complexes that transported us to Dallas or Albuquerque. By the time we pulled into the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, for our reservation in the Anuenue Room, we were in Los Angeles, with stretch limos clogging the porte cochère, valets sprinting to and fro, and oversized white columns everywhere.
Inside, things were different. We were seated at a table with an ocean view; Joni Mitchell covers laced with a slack-key, Don Ho twang floated through the air; and then the menu arrived. Virgile Brandel uses Hawaii-grown ingredients we hadn't yet encountered, and makes inspired dishes with ones we'd come to love. Limpet ravioli with goat cheese, mushrooms, and steamed lotus seeds (think chestnuts) was a triumph, as was the seared Parker Ranch fillet, with pickled papaya and a thick, fresh heart of palm steamed and stuffed with beef marrow. We were back in an aloha state of mind.
Tables at the Anuenue Room are miles apart, but pieces of conversation fluttered through the open-air dining room like sparrows. We heard one woman trill, "We haven't left the resort since we arrived." Her husband piped in, basso profundo, "Nor do we intend to." For a moment, we felt duty-bound to tell them about Sam Sato's or Hana. But we let the moment pass. The Hana Highway is no place for a stretch limo.
The island of Molokai (population 7,000) is a Hawaiian food adventure in microcosm. With its ace fishing fleet, fertile farmlands, two shrimp farms, and large herd of wild deer, this island has it all. Even popcorn: Orville Redenbacher grows experimental seed corn. Here's how to get the most from a food-focused trip.
WHERE TO STAY The 54,000-acre Molokai Ranch & Lodge has a split personality: the Ranch Lodge exudes the charm of the twenties and thirties, but down by the beach the bungalows of Kaupoa Beach Village are decidedly 21st-century. 8 Maunaloa Hwy.; 877/726-4656, fax 808/534-1606; doubles from $305, bungalows from $205.
WHERE TO EAT For a sublime Hawaiian lunch, grab a cold six-pack from the gas station and make your way to the Molokai Ice House, a tiny cooperative on the wharf off Kaunakakai. Fishermen sell their catch dockside, so the sparkling deli case offers some of the finest poke we tasted, including spicy marlin with sesame seeds. Dine at the wharf's picnic tables, with views of Lanai and Maui. Kaunakakai Wharf; 808/553-3054; lunch for two $15.
Kamuela's Cookhouse in Kualapuu is an airy, well-run café that serves lunches such as fried poke and mahimahi sandwiches. Uwao and Farrington Aves.; 808/567-9655; lunch for two $20.
SATURDAY SPECIAL Saturday is market day in Kaunakakai, and on Ala Malama, the main drag, island aunties set up card tables to display a wild assortment of vegetables and fruits grown in their backyards—long, curly eggplants, mangoes, peanut-plant tops, a bean with fins called padalang—and tropical flowers, including the edible white katudai, which resembles a gargantuan sweet-pea blossom.
BEST SOUVENIR Tuddie Purdy is the man to see for macadamias, the only nut in the world that can be harvested year-round. Purdy will give you a tour of his five-acre farm and sell you some of the freshest, most buttery macadamias (and macadamia honey) you'll ever taste. Lihi Pali Ave., Hoolehua; 808/561-6601.
Ward Farmers Market 1020 Auahi St., Honolulu. A handful of vendors, including Haili's Hawaiian Foods (808/593-8019), offer take-out portions of laulau, kalua pig, black crabs, and ake poke.
Alan Wong's 1857 S. King St., Honolulu; 808/949-2526; dinner for two $120. An open kitchen greets well-heeled locals and in-the-know mainlanders, and turns out tongue-twisting takes on Islands traditions.
Sam Choy's Breakfast, Lunch & Crab 580 N. Nimitz Hwy., Honolulu; 808/545-7979; lunch for two $25. This busy hub for plate-lunch favorites delivers all the thrills of the lunch wagons without the wild-goose chase.
Pickled Mango 66-036 Haleiwa Rd., Haleiwa. This clan's crunchy, sweet-and-sour mango pickle is incomparable.
Chef Mavro 1969 S. King St., Honolulu; 808/944-4714; dinner for two $125. Make Mavro your first or last impression (or both) of Islands cuisine.
Ono Hawaiian Foods 726 Kapahulu Ave., Honolulu; 808/737-2275. The Oh Young family's tiny monument to traditional "grinds" (pidgin for "grub") is as close as you can get to Polynesian food nirvana.
Crack Seed Store 1156 Koko Head Ave., Honolulu; 808/737-1022. When school lets out, neighborhood kids throng Kon-Ping Young's closet-sized store for dried guava peel, salty mango seed, and wasabi codfish. Pick up a copy of the store's mail-order catalogue.
Waiola Bakery & Shave Ice II 525 Kapahulu Ave., Honolulu; 808/735-8886. The cotton-candy softness of the shaved ice and the range of flavors (green tea to lychee to Coca-Cola) make it second to none.
Leonard's Bakery 933 Kapahulu Ave., Honolulu; 808/737-5591. Ignore the collapsing wedding cakes in the window. The malasadas are made to order, and they arrive—six to a box—piping hot, with a crisp, sugar-dusted outside and a pillowy, eggy inside.
Haleiwa Smokehouse Waialua Sugar Mill, Waialua; 808/637-8850. When he's not skippering his longline boat, captain Steve Shiraishi prepares tender fish jerkies—ahi, yellowfin, cuttlefish tentacle, marlin—seasoned with a chef's skill.
Merriman's Opelo Plaza, Hwy. 19 and Opelo Rd., Waimea; 808/885-6822; dinner for two $85. The high priest of produce keeps his temple in top shape.
Kahua Ranch Kohala Mountain Rd., Kamuela; 808/882-4646. "Free range" doesn't do justice to the 8,500 acres of emerald-green mountaintop that Monty Richards's lambs and cattle graze on. You can roam the ranch too, either on horseback or by all-terrain vehicle.
Maha's Café 65-1148 Mamalahoa Hwy., Waimea; 808/885-0693; breakfast for two $20. Stellar poi pancakes, papaya coffee cake, and a bottomless cup of Kona coffee in one of the oldest houses in town.
Hirabara Farm Kamuela; 808/887-2400. Kurt and Pam offer cooking demonstrations at their recently installed professional open-air kitchen in the shadow of Mauna Kea. By appointment only.
Daniel Thiebaut 65-1259 Kawaihae Rd., Waimea; 808/887-2200; dinner for two $70. Waimea's newest culinary star is in an exquisitely restored roadhouse.
Tako Taco 65-1271 Kawaihae Rd., Waimea; 808/887-1717; lunch for two $15. Fresh fish tacos with a zesty tomatillo-and-pineapple salsa make a good between-meals snack.
Hula Bean Coffee 75-5719 Alii Dr., Kailua-Kona; 808/329-6152. The area's best selection of the superb Big Island Ice Cream. Custom flavors include chile-pepper chocolate, Jack Daniels caramel swirl, and ginger Grand Marnier.
Basically Books 160 Kamehameha Ave., Hilo; 808/961-0144. A wonderful resource for maps of the Islands and books on Hawaiian flora, fauna, and food.
Sam Sato's The Millyard, 1750 Will Pa Loop, Wailuku; 808/244-7124; dinner for two $20. Hit-the-spot noodle soups, barbecued pork, and manju—bite-sized wheat-flour pastries filled with adzuki beans.
Merriman's Bamboo Bistro 300 Maalaea Rd., Suite 300, Maalaea; 808/243-7374; dinner for two $85. This stylish, loungy restaurant next door to the Maalaea aquarium, the Maui Ocean Center, serves delicious Hawaiian-style tapas and li hing mui, or five-spice, margaritas.
Anuenue Room at the Ritz-Carlton 1 Ritz-Carlton Dr., Kapalua; 808/669-1665; dinner for two $210. Fabulous food and service, as befits a big-columned hotel's restaurant.
Ono Organic Farms Star Rte. 149, Hana; 808/248-7779. Chuck and Lilly Boerner grow rare tropical fruits on an organic farm adjacent to OheoNational Park, known as the Seven Sacred Pools, a series of pools and waterfalls along the Hana Highway.
Haliimaile General Store 900 Haliimaile Rd., Haliimaile; 808/572-2666; dinner for two $90. Beverly Gannon's restaurant in Maui's agricultural heart is one of the original outposts of regional cuisine.