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New Hawaiian Food Revolution

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Photo: Coral Von Zumwalt

Anybody here remember pineapple coulis? Macadamia-crusted mahimahi? Does the phrase “wasabi mashed potatoes” mean anything to you?

If you spent any time in Hawaii over the past, oh, 20 years, you may recognize these items from your dinner menu.

This story is not about those things.

First, some background. It’s been two decades since a coterie of forward-thinking chefs put Hawaii on the culinary map. Seizing on the then-current trend for East/West fusion, they blended classical techniques with Hawaiian ingredients, mixed in bold Asian flavors, and called their style Hawaii Regional Cuisine. It was a thrilling amalgam, and HRC’s star burned brightly for a spell, making celebrity chefs of Alan Wong, Roy Yamaguchi, Sam Choy, and Peter Merriman. But as Pac-Rim fusion’s novelty faded, foodies’ affections shifted, like those temperamental Kona winds, to more beguiling shores. By the turn of the millennium, the term fusion had become a slur.

Which isn’t to knock the HRC chefs’ chops. Most of the original crew are still doing fine work today—and, for plenty of visitors, their names, dishes, and many restaurants still define Hawaiian food, fickle dining trends be damned.

But something else has happened of late, as a new generation of Hawaiian food pioneers emerges. They’ve embraced HRC’s creative spirit and applied it to more traditional Hawaiian foods, drawing from the islands’ past as much as the globalized future. They’ve amped up their commitment to sustainability, to local farmers and ranchers and fishermen, and to unsung or forgotten ingredients. They’ve moved past the gimmicky aspects of fusion to embrace its tenets naturally, intuitively, as only pan-ethnic, polyglot Hawaiians could do. They’re cooking some extraordinary—often extraordinarily simple—food. And they’re making it more accessible, in presentation and price, to Hawaii’s workaday population, not just to well-heeled diners and tourists.

That last point is fundamental, and explains a lot about where you’ll find the new breed. Hawaii’s next wave is cresting not in the fine dining rooms of Waikiki, but in an ever-growing number of roving food trucks, farmers’-market stands, plate-lunch diners, guerrilla pop-ups, surfers’ haunts, barbecue pits, and hyper-creative hot dog and hamburger joints. Suddenly, out of the blue, Hawaii is one of the most exciting places to eat in the country.

The beachhead of the movement is a defiantly casual Honolulu restaurant called Town, run by Oahu-born chef Ed Kenney. With his sleeve tattoos and flair for charcuterie, Kenney would fit right in among the scruffy hipster chefs of Brooklyn, Portland, and Montreal—except he’s clean-shaven, built like a surfer, and as Hawaiian as they come. (Kenney’s mother, a renowned hula dancer, and father, a Broadway singer and actor, used to headline shows at the Halekulani and Royal Hawaiian hotels from the 1950’s through the 70’s.)

Flush against the hillsides of suburban Kaimuki, far from the thrum of Waikiki, Town feels more neighborhood canteen than haute-dining mecca. The interior is a study in slacker chic, with hardwood benches, rough-hewn plank walls, and portraits of island farmers hung with easel clips.

The kitchen is far more ambitious. Take that charcuterie: all of it cured in-house, and all made with Hawaiian pork, from the spicy soppressata to the cumin-spiked terrine. Tart pickled star fruit provides the ideal counterpoint.

Kenney’s beef comes from the Big Island’s Kuahiwi Ranch, where it’s pasture-raised and grain-finished for a pleasing minerality balanced with the depth of fat. A seared flatiron steak is served with local watercress and dense, chewy coins of fried paiai, or mashed taro root. Paiai—the solid form of Hawaii’s beloved poi—has all but vanished from island menus, since small-scale production of it virtually ceased and was even illegal for a time. But a native Hawaiian named Daniel Anthony recently began selling his own organic, hand-pounded paiai, to the delight of chefs like Kenney. If anything could stand in for fried potatoes with steak, it’s this.

Other curious local ingredients find their way onto Kenney’s plates. A filet of buttery opah (moonfish) is sprinkled with feathery limu seaweed and sided with pohole ferns, lending umami and earthiness to the fish. Town especially dazzles with island-farmed greens and herbs, most of them sourced from MA’O Organic Farms, on Oahu’s western shore. I’d always envied Hawaii for its sweet mangoes and apple-bananas, but I never thought I’d envy its ethereal tatsoi, fennel, and kale. Even the bartenders get in on the act, muddling arugula, celery, sage, and fresh turmeric into the cocktails. Indeed, the bar menu is one of Town’s high points, especially given the dearth of good cocktails elsewhere. (Most drinks still taste like someone tossed a bag of Starburst into a Vitamix.)

Turn up any Saturday at Honolulu’s crazy-popular KCC Farmers’ Market and you’ll be floored by the range of local ingredients on offer: tropical rambutan, sea asparagus, wild mushrooms, bitter melon, abalone, goat cheese, duck eggs, sweet Ewa corn, tangerines, taro, Kona coffee beans, Maui lavender, avocados the size of your head. For a traveler accustomed to islands in, say, the Caribbean—where fresh local produce is depressingly scarce—the variety and quality of homegrown foods is startling.

“People say we can grow anything in Hawaii, and it’s true,” says Gary Maunakea-Forth of MA’O Farms. On a tour of the farm’s 24 acres, he shows me the new experimental garden, where a blueberry shrub is now thriving in the shade of a papaya tree. (Michelle Obama, who’s made multiple visits to MA’O during the First Family’s trips to Hawaii, has planted her own small vegetable plot nearby.)

Star fruit, mangosteens, blueberries: Hawaii is blessed with such natural bounty that it’s shocking to learn that the state actually imports 85 percent of its food, at a cost of $3.6 billion a year. Dismaying but true: between the high price of local labor, the loss of farmland to rezoning, and the vagaries of the global supply chain, it’s cheaper (at least superficially) for Hawaiians to ship food in rather than grow it themselves. This, in one of the most remote places on earth.

Back on the mainland—and in my own archipelago of New York City—chefs tend to speak of sustainability as an ethic rather than as a necessity. But the locavore argument takes on a very real urgency on a chain of islands 2,500 miles removed from anyplace else.

Of course, before Europeans arrived, the islands’ food supply was entirely self-sustaining, thanks to sophisticated farming and fishing systems developed by ancient Hawaiians. “Our ancestors lived here for thousands of years with no imports, feeding a population close to what we have today, by putting every acre of land into production,” says Kamuela Enos, of MA’O Farms. “They weren’t just dancing hula—they were scientists and naturalists, figuring out how to live on a finite biosystem indefinitely.” In the plantation era, however, Hawaiians were steadily driven off their farms and removed from the land. Today, fewer than 1 percent of Hawaii’s residents work in agriculture, and fewer still are growing actual food for Hawaiians to eat. (Hawaii is now the world’s leading producer of genetically engineered seed corn—some 10 million pounds of it per year—every ounce of which is shipped overseas, and none of which is even edible to begin with.)

It’s no coincidence that the Hawaiian diet has changed drastically as well. Fiber-rich taro was once the islanders’ go-to starch; it’s been almost entirely replaced by cheap white rice. (Because of blight, taro is challenging to grow, and is priced beyond the reach of many consumers.) Processed, fried, and fast foods have pushed out still more whole foods and fresh produce. In just a few generations, “traditional food” has come to mean gravy-soaked loco moco breakfasts, greasy plate lunches (with a double scoop of macaroni salad), and musubi rice balls topped with Spam. The state has had an alarmingly high rate of increase in obesity and diabetes, especially among the native Hawaiian population. Poverty plays a huge role in this, of course. There’s now a concerted effort among local chefs, farmers, and policy makers to reclaim Hawaii’s agrarian roots and to make good food available and affordable across the islands.

On Oahu’s windward coast, at the edge of Kaneohe Bay, an old fishing pier juts into the water. Roped alongside are a few dozen houseboats and rusty-hulled fishing boats. At pier’s end stands a ramshackle bait-and-coffee shop that, for 30 years, served basic diner grub to fishermen and surfers. Last spring, two local friends—chef Mark Noguchi and restaurateur Russ Inouye—took over the lease. Today, He’eia Pier General Store & Deli is one of the best restaurants in Hawaii, if you could properly call it a restaurant.

Noguchi, 37, was born on Oahu and raised on the Big Island (where he danced hula as a teenager). After training at the Culinary Institute of America, he worked in some of Honolulu’s top kitchens, including Town and Chef Mavro. At He’eia Pier, Noguchi gets back to basics, elevating traditional Hawaiian food—using fresh fish, organic meats, and local produce—without elevating the prices. No dish costs more than $13.

The daily-changing menu reads like a familiar array of plate-lunch staples, but when the food arrives you realize it’s on another plane entirely. Noguchi’s ahi katsu is delicate and flaky, brightened with fresh scallions and spiced with a surprisingly nuanced teriyaki sauce. His musubi are light and fluffy and shaped like dainty quenelles, nothing like the leaden, gummy rice balls Hawaiians are accustomed to; in lieu of the regulation Spam, they’re paired with a terrific “tuna salad”—chopped ahi dressed with shiso, onion, Kewpie mayo, vinegar, and torn mint. And Noguchi’s marvelously elemental luau stew—tender chunks of slow-cooked pork, onions, and taro leaf (tasting like spinach crossed with fenugreek)—could make a Hawaiian grandmother weep. The milieu is comfort food, but refined and enhanced. (As my friend Christine Quinlan at Food & Wine has noted, this may be the only plate-lunch joint in Hawaii with two immersion circulators in the kitchen.)

Like Ed Kenney, Noguchi is fond of sourcing odd, overlooked ingredients, such as akulikuli (a.k.a. sea purslane), a tidal succulent that he harvests just down the shore. The plant’s magenta flowers are used to make leis, but few younger Hawaiians realize that akulikuli leaves are actually edible: crisp, full of juice, and deliciously salty. Noguchi uses them in a zesty salad with pickled limu seaweed, Hawaiian chiles, and plump local tomatoes.

High-tech kitchen notwithstanding, He’eia Pier remains the same weather-beaten shack it always was. You can still buy a bilge pump or a gallon of outboard-motor oil along with your meal. The old-timers still turn up—only now they share picnic tables with food pilgrims from Honolulu, as well as the occasional biker gang, who’ve no doubt heard the rumors about Noguchi’s phenomenal cheeseburger. After lunch they linger on the pier to watch the paddleboarders drift by, or gaze at the verdant slopes of the Koolau Range, whose sculpted peaks are usually shrouded in mist by midday. Following a rain shower—a near-daily occurrence on the eastern coast—the entire mountainside lights up with waterfalls.

Noguchi is just one of several island restaurateurs who’ve traded white linens and wine stems for a more democratic setting. Henry Adaniya was the toast of Chicago at his acclaimed restaurant, Trio (where wunderkind chef Grant Achatz, now of Alinea, got his start). In 2006 Adaniya shut Trio, left Chicago, and moved to his parents’ hometown of Honolulu to start…a hot dog joint. As at He’eia Pier, the food at Hank’s Haute Dogs is far, far better than it needs to be.

Over on the Big Island, chef Edwin Goto, a veteran of luxury hotel kitchens, recently downshifted to set up Village Burger, located next to an Orange Julius in a Waimea shopping center. Goto is serious about his farm-to-fork. Not only is the beef local (Hawaii Ranchers red veal; Kahua Ranch Wagyu beef), but so are all the trimmings: Kekela Farms baby greens; Nakano Farms tomatoes; Hawaii Island Goat Dairy chèvre; Hamakua mushrooms.

Just up the road is the promising Allen’s Table, opened last fall by Allen Hess, who previously ran the kitchen at Merriman’s, the long-running HRC bastion in downtown Waimea. Hess’s new place has two faces: by day it’s a freewheeling roadhouse specializing in barbecue (the brisket is fantastic). At night the votives, tablecloths, and jars of flowers come out, and Hess gets creative. A salad combining fresh and fried green-zebra tomatoes (grown year-round at nearby Honda Farm) is laced with silken house-made ricotta and topped with smoked Kona kampachi (jackfish). Grilled ika (squid) finds a provocative partner in melt-on-your-tongue short ribs. And Hess’s grass-fed Big Island rib eye is damn near perfect, with a distinctly buttery character. “That’s because we finish the beef on avocados,” he says, flashing an impish smile. Huh? “Yeah, it was an idea born of a few beers in the backyard. Like, ‘How good would that taste?’ A friend owns an avocado orchard, so I paid him a few hundred bucks to dump a truckful at the ranch. The cattle are raised on pasture, but for the last month they gorge on avocados.” Hess is on to something. That beef was delicious.

Oahu has a reputation for overpriced food, one that’s certainly justified at the tonier resorts. But you can also eat exceptionally well in the least assuming places, wearing little more than board shorts and flip-flops. (Trust me, you’ll fit in better if you do.)

You can, for instance, find a soul-stirring tuna poke made by a Korean lady at the back of the Kahuku Superette, a dingy-looking North Shore grocery store. You can get a fabulous, fiery pad kee mao at Opal Thai, a bare-bones surfers’ hangout in Haleiwa run by Bangkok-born chef Opel Sirichandhra, who started with a food truck before going brick-and-mortar last November. You could spend a whole afternoon in the food court of Honolulu’s Shirokiya department store, sampling hundreds of humble Japanese delicacies—from salmon-roe donburi to yakisoba (fried noodles), from sautéed okra to hot, gooey, made-to-order takoyaki (octopus fritters). You could troll the industrial district near the Honolulu airport to find Mitch’s, a hole-in-the-wall fish market that hides one of the city’s top sushi bars. You could also make the rounds among Oahu’s vaunted food trucks, which have exploded in popularity and number, going from 90 three years ago to more than 250 today. (What, you thought L.A. owned that game?)

Or you could have a great meal at one of the itinerant lunch stands that set up inside local farmers’ markets. Best among the current crop: The Pig & The Lady, run by a young Vietnamese-American chef named Andrew Le. His family is there to help: Le’s three siblings, plus their Hanoi-born mom and Hue-born dad. (They’ve also hired a Japanese translator for the bazillion Japanese tourists who descend on the weekend markets.) Le’s bun bo Hue—the lusty, spicy noodle soup of his father’s hometown—is the finest I’ve had outside Vietnam; if you look serious about it he’ll drop in a slow-cooked pig’s trotter. The Japanese swoon over bo la lot (grilled beef wrapped in betel leaf) and Hoi An–style com ga (chicken rice seasoned with turmeric and topped with shredded banana leaf).

Three nights a week, Le takes over the storefront space at Hank’s Haute Dogs and transforms it into a remarkable pop-up restaurant, also called The Pig & The Lady. It’s here that the chef really shines, with an ever-changing, five-course tasting menu. A recent dinner started with a knockout punch: Chioggia beets, speck, and raspberries, draped in horseradish crème fraîche and sprinkled with mint. Kaffir lime and Vietnamese lemongrass gave a kick to the salmon cured with Sichuan peppercorns, fennel, and grapefruit. A crispy confit pork belly was plated with pickled onions and black rice purée, topped with a soft quail egg, then drizzled in a sriracha vinaigrette.

So hold on a minute. Aren’t some of Le’s dishes—with their East/West flavor collisions—pretty much what we used to call “fusion”?

Well...yes. We just don’t use that word anymore. Yet for many Americans, fusion-by-any-other-name is precisely how we eat now. Young chefs are again turning east (and west, north, and south) for inspiration, and embracing the remix, the hybrid, the mash-up: the Korean taco, the sunchoke-and-beef-cheek shu mai. The “f” word forms the angle at so many zeitgeist-defining restaurants, from Lukshon, Spice Table, and A-Frame in Los Angeles to Wong, Fatty ’Cue, and Talde in New York City. To a new generation of American diners, the once-exotic tastes of lemongrass and kimchi are as familiar as home cooking. These days you’ll find a bottle of sriracha sauce—the ketchup of the 2010’s—on every hipster’s table.

What, then, do we call this post-global culinary style? “Transcontinental food”? “Srirachan Cuisine”? Maybe, for once, we should just call it “cooking.” For there’s a natural, homey quality to the current school. While Reagan-era fusion came off as soulless and inauthentic—like its musical analogue, jazz-rock fusion—today’s iteration feels more organic, more real, in part by dispensing with the “authenticity” issue altogether. Chefs have moved beyond both the limitations of tradition and the cloyingness of novelty for novelty’s sake. They’re aiming not for purity but for pure deliciousness—and to hell with where it came from.

Another reason fusion originally lost its cred on the mainland: all those exotic ingredients flew in the face of the emerging locavore movement. In Hawaii that conflict goes out the window. Unlike in, say, Minneapolis—where local yuzu and wasabi are nonexistent—Hawaii’s brand of fusion cooking runs hand-in-hand with the field-to-fork ethic. “A third of our menu at He’eia Pier is sourced in our immediate area,” Mark Noguchi says. If almost anything can indeed be grown in Hawaii, from lychees and persimmons to vanilla and cacao, why shouldn’t island chefs embrace all that bounty, in its myriad combinations?

And so Hawaii, after years out of culinary fashion and favor, finds itself once again in sync with the times, on multiple fronts. But as Noguchi is quick to point out, trendiness has nothing to do with it. “This is how Hawaiians have been eating all their lives,” the chef says. “My entire larder is ingredients I grew up with.” So-called fusion cooking—be it refined Hawaii Regional Cuisine or a down-and-dirty teriyaki loco moco—never went away here. How could it? From the earliest Marquesan settlers onward, the islands have been defined by far-flung influences, resulting in a remarkable demographic diversity: Polynesian, Filipino, Japanese, Portuguese, Chinese, Malay, British, Vietnamese, and on and on.

“Hawaii has always been a melting pot of ethnicities, cultures, and cuisines, as much as New York or Miami, if not more so,” Noguchi says. “Look at us: we are fusion. Here it’s not just a concept or some fleeting trend—it’s a way of life.”

Peter Jon Lindberg is T+L’s editor-at-large.

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