Waiola Shave Ice (Honolulu, HI)


waiola-shave-ice
The subject of the best shave ice is a hot topic in Hawaii. For years on Oahu, the faithful have been heading to the North Shore to Matsumoto’s (and Aoki’s next door). Even busloads of Japanese tourists stop by there to pay homage. We went there last year and made it a point to stop in Haleiwa. But, there have been those who make the claim that Waiola Shave Ice in Honolulu, within walking distance of Waikiki, makes a superior product, mainly because of the very fine, powdery shave ice. Matsumoto’s has a slightly grainier ice. So, in the interest of the debate, we headed over to Waiola to decide for ourselves. We didn’t know it at the time, but we also made it over to Matsumoto’s later in our trip.

My wife’s ice was topped with lychee and guava syrups and condensed milk, mine with POG (passion fruit, orange and guava) and vanilla ice cream underneath. (As at most shave ice places, you can also add kintoki and mochi balls.) The problem with ice this fine is the melting factor–things will get pretty slushy and sloppy if the weather is too warm, or the syrups aren’t cold enough. Sure enough, as quickly as the syrup was poured, the cone of ice began to slump  slightly (see photo above). The verdict was that I liked Waiola better than Matsumoto’s; today my wife liked them both as being equally superior in their own right, but later (after going to Matsumoto’s) agreed that Waiola is better. The ice is indeed finer, softer, almost fluffy in texture. Because ice cream is so cold, the shave ice closest to the ice cream will solidify and create these crunchy granules at the bottom, so the faster you eat the shave ice, mo betta.

A few other comparisons. Waiola has a few more toppings–li hing mui powder, lilikoi cream, Hershey’s chocolate, all 50 cents extra. You can also order (for 50 cents) li hing mui seeds. Other variations at Waiola include an azuki bowl (shave ice on ice cream, topped with condensed milk, mochi balls and kintoki), ice cream bowl (a bowl of shave ice with three scoops of ice cream on the side and one on top), sundae shave ice (ice cream topped with shave ice, then poured over with Hershey’s chocolate syrup), custard bowl (shave ice topped with flan), mocha bowl (shave ice topped with what might be Starbuck’s mocha mix), each at $4.50. To me, these are excesses that detract from the main event–plain and simple shave ice.

Waiola Shave Ice
2135 Waiola Street, Honolulu, HI
808.949.2269

Jimbo (Honolulu, HI)


Honolulu has several excellent Japanese noodle shops. Ramen and saimin garner the lion’s share of devotion. But udon deserves as much attention, especially those served at Jimbo. Made in the Hokkaido style (according to the waiter), the broth is rich, luscious, slightly smoky from specially imported katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes). We were told that one chef makes the broth and another, the udon; one in the evening, the other in the morning. The noodles have a soft, velvety exterior over a firmer, chewier middle. Though there are other Japanese entrées on the menu, the udon is likely the star of the restaurant.

The nabeyaki udon ($14.70), served in a traditional nabe, comes piping hot. I burnt the palate of my mouth. The tempura consisted of a single prawn and a Japanese eggplant, both wonderfully flavorful. The batters retain their crispiness unless you let them sit in the dashi too long. Thoughtfully, an empty bowl is provided if you decide to rescue the tempura. Rounding out the ingredients is a single piece of kamaboko, sliced baby bok choy and negi, snow peas, spinach, napa, dried shiitake, raw egg and fuki. As good as these additions are, you could argue that they almost take your attention away from noodles and broth.

Nabeyaki

Nabeyaki

The ume wakame udon ($11.40) is an impressive combination. The ume flesh, which the restaurant bothers to scrape from whole umeboshi and mince, lends an interesting tartness to the dashi and provides a nice contrast to the rich broth. A few slices of negi onion are sprinkled on top.

Ume wakame udon

Ume wakame udon

For an extra charge, you can order different sizes of udon, large or skinny. Also for extra, you can substitute soba. The skinny noodles in my wife’s order were very good, though they didn’t have quite the same texture as the regular. All these variations are handmade at the restaurant.  On hot summer days, you can also order many of the udon dishes cold.

A popular dish for slime fans is natto bukkake udon. It comes in a dark broth with the ultimate combination of natto, okra, daikon oroshi and nori. I’m surprised grated satoimo wasn’t included. The waiter said that the natto is particularly odoriferous, a big asset for natto lovers. Hmm, maybe on another visit.

Jimbo is another restaurant that is dedicated to offering an unparalleled experience by making everything from scratch and using the best ingredients. The waiter also indicated that most of the ingredients are flown in directly from Japan. The udon prices are definitely higher than you’d normally pay elsewhere, but with udon this good, you don’t really care.

Jimbo
1936 S King St # 103
Honolulu
808.947.2211
 

Poke Stop (Waipahu, HI)


Sweet onion ahi poke

Sweet onion ahi poke

The Waipahu Poke Stop is in the middle of an enormous shopping center, those maddening strip mall/village hybrids that meander over acres, making it almost impossible to find any particular store. What an odd place to set up shop for a chef who trained under Alan Wong, Emeril Lagasse and Sam Choy. But, it’s a seafood restaurant Elmer Guzman wanted, one where he could serve locals the freshest seafood available.

The poke is what caught the fancy of the locals. Depending on what’s fresh, you’re going to find a wide variety of poke, all of it displayed behind glass cases and all of it available for sampling. The menu lists the following: limu ahi, shoyu ahi, sweet onion ahi*, creamy ahi, blackened ahi, Kapakahi ahi and opihi, garlic edamame ahi, seafood wasabi ahi, sesame tako, kim chee tako, creamy tako, furikake salmon*, ginger scallion shrimp*, limu mussel, kim chee mussel, Inamona white crab, kim chee Kona crab, “Da Works” oio*, hamachi poke, and tofu poke. The asterisked ones are menu-listed as “must try” signature pokes. The price is $10.95/pound (hamachi and Kapakahi are $12.95).

We ordered the sweet onion ahi (top photo), crispy chicken chunks (third photo) and seared ahi bowl over furikake rice (second photo). The ahi was very fresh and sweet, lightly seasoned with salt and sesame oil, sprinkled with green onions and chile flakes. The onions were sharp and biting; Maui sweet onions in season would definitely improve things. The seared ahi was also nicely done. The chicken is prepared Korean-style. Chicken thigh nuggets are lightly battered and fried, then tossed with taegu sauce.

One dish I regret not having ordered were the eggplant fries. I kick myself for forgetting. This has been mentioned several times by internet posters as a “must try.” It’s served with remoulade.

While the poke is excellent, it might not be worth the trip out to Waipahu or Mililani Town just to try it. If, like us, you’re on your way to leeward Oahu (Hawaii’s Plantation Museum or Ka’ena Point), it’s worth a stop in Waipahu. For closer-in poke, the word is that Ono’s Seafood (not Ono’s Hawaiian, but across and up the street from it) in Kapahulu has an excellent version.

Poke Stop
94-050 Farrington Hwy # E4
Waipahu, HI 96797
808.676.8100
Menu
 

Hawaii Plantation Village


Hawaii’s Plantation Village showcases the restored living quarters of the sugar cane workers who worked on Oahu’s last sugar mill. Laborers came from all over: China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Portugal and Puerto Rico. Many of the buildings that housed the workers are on display, complete with furniture pieces, articles of everyday living and other artifacts. It’s very interesting to see how differently the ethnic groups set up their homes. Despite the sugar mill’s deliberate strategy to segregate the communities, much intermingling and sharing of food took place, which might be a clue to explain what evolved into island cuisine. Plants, trees and vegetables important to the diets of each group are also on the grounds.

The association trying to keep the village on-going is obviously having a difficult time, despite some government help to pay for restoration. Much vandalism and theft continue to take place.

Volunteer docents lead very informative tours. Depending on the interests of the visitors, they can last upward of 2 hours or more, like ours did. Our guide Amy (who works only on Thursdays) led a fun and fact-filled tour. Having grown up in the area, she recalls things that happened when she was a child.

Hawaii’s Plantation Village is a must-see.

Hawaii’s Plantation Village
94-695 Waipahu Street
Waipahu, HI 96797
808.677.0110
 

Gulick Delicatessen (Honolulu, HI)


Gulick Delicatessen
Hawaiian plate lunch diners serve all sorts of local staples that are islanders’ version of comfort food. They are believed to have originated in the sugar cane fields when workers used to take rice, leftovers and pickled vegetables for lunch. Eventually, food trucks began serving these lunches to the workers, a role that such trucks play today. Restaurants that serve this kind of food are generally called okazuya. There are many of them all over Hawaii. Gulick Delicatessen might sound like a place out of Brooklyn, but it is actually named after the street on which it’s located and the fact that everything is on display behind glass counters. It’s situated in a residential area (mostly apartments) and looks like it’s been serving customers for a long time. We walked here from Bishop Museum for lunch, about a half mile away (and then returned to Bishop to eat it, since Gulick is take-out only). Another branch opened up closer to Waikiki (1936 S King, next to Jimbo). If you’re a first-time customer, like we were, you will be overwhelmed by the number of choices.

Every imaginable treat is sold here: fried rice, tempura (both shrimp and vegetable), nishime, shoyu salmon, musubi (ume-filled or wrapped in nori or Spam or sprinkled with furikake), chicken katsu, shoyu chicken, fried chicken, kimpira gobo, kombu maki, teri burger patty, chicken long rice, namasu, pork long rice, chow fun, shoyu hot dogs, garlic eggplant with pork, corn beef hash patties, sliced omelet, cucumber salad–in other words, everything under the Hawaiian sun. You can order as little as you like or you can get combination plates. Plate lunches come with two scoops of rice, macaroni salad, and yakisoba.

We ordered the chicken katsu plate and ume furikake musubi. All for a little over $10.

No one should expect gourmet eating. The quality of the food is solid. The chicken katsu (☆☆½) was serviceable. Islanders prefer their batter thick, so this is what you get. The macaroni salad (☆☆) was average by any standard, with no discernible onion or vinegar taste. The yakisoba (☆☆½) was tasty enough, but strangely lacking in Worcestershire sauce flavor. I concluded that there are probably better things to get here. It would take a long time to try everything here.

For satisfying okazuya-type fare, it’s hard to beat Gulick’s and their selection. And it’s a sight cheaper than eating at the Bishop Museum cafe.

Chicken katsu, ume musubi

Chicken katsu, ume musubi

Gulick Delicatessen
1512 Gulick Ave
Honolulu, HI 96819
808.847.1461
 

 

Bishop Museum (Honolulu, HI)


Since the strong winds continued to blow this morning, we decided to go back to the Bishop Museum, after finding out too late yesterday that it was closed.

Bishop is considered the finest museum of Hawaiian arts, culture, history and anthropology in the world. The Hawaiian Hall itself is worthy of a visit all by itself. But, there is also a stunning science center that explains the geology of the islands and other buildings that specialize in various aspects of Hawaiiana. The Sports Hall of Fame showcases Hawaii’s top athletes. The Kahili Room displays the Hawaiian royal staffs (called kahili) in all their feathery splendor, the finest collection anywhere.

There are frequent tours and demonstrations throughout the day. Volunteer docents explained to us about Hawaiian mythology and about the royal line. One extravagant artifact is the cloak worn by Kamehameha I made from the yellow feathers of 80,000 mamo birds, now sadly extinct. There was also an entertaining overview of lava, including the artificial creation of some in a fiery furnace right before our eyes. One display (Polynesian Hall) traces the three major groups of Polynesia.

The Hawaiian Hall is an impressive, three-story structure, open in the middle, that displays wonderful artifacts. Suspended from the ceiling is a life-sized model of a whale and an outrigger.

You can easily spend two days here if you’re so inclined.

Ramen at Yotteko-Ya (Honolulu, HI)


yotteko-ya

Yasai Paitan Ramen

Yotteko-Ya is hard to find at first. There is no restaurant with that name on the outside, only one that says “Kyoto Ramen.” It’s located on the second floor at the west end of the McCully Shopping Center.

Yotteko-Ya is primarily a ramen restaurant, though a few other Japanese items are offered on the menu. For example, we’ve read that the chicken karaage is excellent. Their specialty consists of a paitan base, a broth that has been 10 hours in the making, using “pork, the freshest chickens and 10 different vegetables and spices.” In the process, collagen is extracted from the bones, yielding a thicker, milky broth that is highly prized in Kyoto and by ramen fans around the world. It isn’t as thick as kotteri tonkotsu, which therefore makes paitan more accessible if you’re put off by kotteri’s extreme porkiness and thickness.

The subtlety of the broth here is somewhat different from those we’ve had before with ramen. This doesn’t mean that it lacks flavor. There is both refinement and richness, balanced with no specific quality dominating any other. And it isn’t over-salted either. Too much salt can mask defects in the broth. Yotteko-Ya is confident you’ll enjoy the broth; they provide you with a large-bowled, long-handled spoon, whose underside looks like it’s fashioned out of an ohitsu container.

There are five versions of paitan available, differing primarily in the quantity of chashu that come with it. My wife picked the standard paitan ($7.45, two chashu slices), while I chose one with vegetables (Yasai Paitan Ramen, $8.95), which included not only a single slice of chashu but cabbage, onions, bean sprouts, negi (Japanese green onions) and carrot.

Any of these ramen can be ordered in either of two noodle textures: the traditional “Japanese style,” which is boiled al dente; the other is called “local style,” a softer (and therefore longer cooked) noodle. We both opted for the former. As anyone who appreciates great Asian noodle soups will agree, the texture of the noodle is as important as the flavor of the broth. Here, the pasta cooked al dente rewards you with a wonderful firmness and chewiness that, for reasons having to do with economy and expediency, is not found in most ramen restaurants.

Now a word about the kakuni, those slices of pork that resemble chashu. They are flat-out addictive. Unlike Chinese char siu, they are very tender with teriyaki flavors with savory undertones (dashi). They tease you with a single slice in the yasai paitan. After one bite, I was compelled to get a side order of 5 pieces ($3.50), they were so good. Paitan Chashu Ramen ($8.95) gets you 5 pieces right off the bat (but no vegetables), while a “block” comes in the Kakuni Paitan ($10.95).

Yotteko-Ya is a superb ramenya. I’m already looking forward to a return visit.

yotteko-bar
Yotteko-Ya
1960 Kapiolani Blvd #214
Honolulu, HI 96826
808.946.2900
Menu

Liliha Bakery (Honolulu, HI)


We stopped at Liliha Bakery on the way back from Helena’s. Customers come here for the coco puffs. There was a line to order the bakery items. A cafe inside also serves meals, breakfast apparently being the favorite time. For the puffs, you get your choice of original, green tea, chocolate or custard, although it’s beyond me why custard is a separate kind. It seems to be in all of them. The custard is lightly sweet and creamy, surrounded by a tender, eggy shell. The effect is not unlike a good cream puff. As of this writing, they are $1.35 apiece. Personally, I didn’t find these desserts to be compelling enough to warrant a return visit. They are certainly good, but Leonard’s is mo betta pastry.

Liliha Bakery
515 North Kuakini Street Honolulu, HI 96817
808.531.1651
Baked goods

Helena’s Hawaiian Food (Honolulu, HI)


The last few days have been really blustery. Strong winds have been blowing across all the Hawaiian Islands, gusting up to 30mph right here in Honolulu, not exactly conducive to hiking weather. So we made a decision to stay in town.

Our day out to Kalihi started out pretty badly. Bishop Museum turned out to be closed. A visit to the bus pass center (about 1.5 miles away) to purchase a senior pass didn’t work out either. But, our day wasn’t a total loss because we got to eat at Helena’s, which is popular among the locals and much less known among tourists, likely because it is quite out of the way. It takes about 30 minutes to get here by bus. To add to its distinction, Helena’s was a James Beard Regional Classics Award Recipient in 2000.

Kalua pig with cabbage

Like Ono’s, Helena’s is a hole-in-the-wall diner that serves delicious island food. It’s less expensive than Ono’s and you can order a bunch of small portions a la carte, although plate lunches are also available. We took the small plate route: Kalua pig with cabbage ($3.80), luau squid ($3.60), long rice chicken ($3.60), pipikaula short ribs (small order, $4.70), poi ($2.60) and rice. The Kalua pig (☆☆☆½) is made in an imu (underground oven). The result is fork-tender and wonderfully smoky in flavor (more so than Ono’s).

Long rice chicken

The long rice chicken is basically chicken cooked together with rice noodles, ginger and broth. Helena’s is not bad (☆☆½); the chicken was dry. My wife and I both recall enjoying the version at Sib’s in LA, and we don’t recall it being soupy.

Pipikaula

The star of the show is definitely the pipikaula (☆☆☆☆). Instead of boneless beef flank steak (like Ono’s), theirs are made with beef short ribs that are first marinated and then hung to dry over an oven. When ready to serve, they are fried in hot oil to crispy perfection. Even the slightly charred edges of fat exploded with flavor. These are best eaten out of hand (your fingers will be slathered in grease). There is also occasional pockets of gristle to get past (unless you enjoy eating it), but most of the pieces are meaty. Don’t forget to dip them in chili water and sprinkle with a little rock salt. The hearty beef flavor lingers long after the bones are discarded.

Squid luau

An island staple you won’t find in many places is squid luau. This dish superficially resembles Indian palaak, but the greens are taro leaves (luau) that have been long simmered with squid and coconut milk. Helena’s squid is chopped up; in other versions, you’re likely to get the entire tentacles. We’ve never had anything like this, but it definitely was delicious (☆☆☆).

Highly praised is Helena’s haupia (☆☆☆½). To me, there isn’t a more quintessential Hawaiian dessert than this. Helena’s is smooth and has a robust coconut flavor. The poi was sour, an indication that it has been fermented longer than, say, Ono’s. It has been likened to eating yogurt. How much tartness you like is a matter of preference. The chile water has a yellowish tinge, unlike Ono’s, which is more reddish. It has more chile potency than Ono’s and is saltier. Sliced onions and red rock salt also were provided.

Helena’s is onolicious. And the price is right, too.

Helena’s Hawaiian Food
1240 North School St.
Honolulu HI, 96734
808.845.8044
Menu

Ono’s Hawaiian (Honolulu, HI)


Salt meat with watercress

On most lists of the best of Hawaiian cooking on Oahu is Ono’s Hawaiian. The restaurant has been serving food since 1961 when it opened for business. Because Ono’s has been popular with locals and tourists alike, long lines form to get seated at one of the very few tables inside. A sign on the door encourages you to be patient and go with the flow (“No huhu,” which means “No get mad“). The place isn’t much to look at from the outside, but once you step through the doors, you come into the small dining space and are greeted warmly by owner and staff alike. The walls are adorned with memorabilia and old photos, presumably of celebrities who’ve dined here. It seems that not much has changed since the first day. The lady who brings your meal scopes you out and asks, “First time?” If it is, she will explain to you how to eat the meats.

We ordered a Kalua platter and salt meat with watercress (a la carte). The platter is a good way to sample many of the islands’ favorites. Not only do you get whatever the

platter is named for (such as Kalua pig, left) but also lomi-lomi salmon, pipikaula, poi, rice and haupia. So here’s the island way to eat the meat: take a small portion, dip it in chili water (which can be refilled with a big bottle on each table), then dip it in poi and eat. You can also augment all this with some lomi salmon and a raw onion slice sprinkled with Hawaiian rock salt. As they say here, broke da mout.

The kalua is made in the old-fashioned way–in an imu, or underground oven–though not by them, according to the owner. It is fork-tender and smoky goodness. The salt meat with watercress (top photo) was supposedly invented by the matriarch, who took the island staple of stewed salted beef and added watercress to appeal to the island’s Asian population. Now, a few other island restaurants serve it. The watercress is one of the very few vegetables you’re likely to eat in a Hawaiian diet.

Pipikaula

The pipikaula here is a kind of beef (flank steak) jerky, though not in the sense that most Americans know it. It is marinated, then dried, but not to a leathery texture. You can eat these with dentures.
The haupia is a coconut cream, starchy dessert flecked with shredded coconuts.

Ono’s is a rare family-owned restaurant that both has been around a long time and serves excellent examples of its type of cooking.

Ono’s Hawaiian Foods
726 Kapahulu Ave
Honolulu, HI 96816
808.737.2275
Menu