Ascent to the Heavens: The Summit of Mauna Kea

The ascent to the top of Mauna Kea shouldn’t be taken lightly. At an elevation of 13,796ft (4,205m), it is inadvisable to do it without first stopping at Onizuka Visitor Information Station to acclimate, about 30-45 minutes. The problem, of course, is that there is a paved road to the summit, providing too carefree and quick a means to reach the top. Only 4WD vehicles are permitted to go all the way up, all others recommended to remain at Onizuka. That hasn’t stopped the intrepid (and stupid) from trying.

We wanted to experience sunset at the summit and see the night sky of millions of stars. Not wanting to drive all the way back to Hilo in the dark, I decided it would be better to take the 4WD van tour that conveniently started from Arnott’s Lodge where we were staying, the only one originating from Hilo. And what a brilliant tour it was, our guide Dino Morrow possibly the best we’ve ever had. Even though he came to the islands 13 years ago from San Diego, for all intents and purposes he is Hawaiian, in his speech, dialect and soul, a bruddah.

The final stretch above Onizuka was highlighted by spectacular views of giant cinder cones, side-lit by the low-hanging sun, and the impressively broad outline of the still active Mauna Loa. It’s easy to see why Mauna Loa, an enormous shield volcano that stretches the length of Hawai’i, is the emblem of the Big Island, for it can be seen from anywhere.

Mauna Loa

Mauna Loa

The moon projected onto a blank surface from a telescope (Onizuka Center)

The moon projected onto a blank surface from a telescope (Onizuka Center)

The rarefied air and freedom from cloud cover are the reasons that more astronomical telescopes and observatories (four of them, none open to the public) have been set up here than anywhere in the world. Lots of cars and tour vehicles were already at the summit when we arrived. As we made our way to an overlook, my breathing became labored, though my wife experienced no such thing! Toward the east, we witnessed a phenomenon the likes of which we may never see again. Mauna Kea cast its great triangular shadow on the cloud cover, thousands of feet below, as the Great Pyramid would on the Saharan desert.

Shadow of Mauna Kea on cloud cover from the summit

Shadow of Mauna Kea on cloud cover from the summit (click to enlarge)

Sunset, summit of Mauna Kea

Sunset, summit of Mauna Kea (click to enlarge)

On the way down, we stopped one more time at the visitor center for a laser light astronomy lesson by Dino. An almost full moon, one night before the super moon, prevented our seeing a true night sky, but the major constellations, Polaris, Mars and Saturn were visible. We arrived back at the lodge past 10pm, agreeing that this evening had been truly memorable.

Malasadas at Tex’s Drive-In (Honoka’a, HI)

The word is that Tex’s Drive-In has the best malasadas on the Big Island. We were only a short distance away from where we started on our guided tour down to the Waipio Valley. There’s more here than Portuguese donuts: breakfasts (including Hawaiian-style), burgers, musubi, salads, loco moco, and Hawaiian plates. Our Bavarian cream and mango malasadas came hot from the oven. Inevitably, comparisons must be made to Leonard’s, and both my wife and I gave the nod to Leonard’s. Their dough is lighter and they have more fillings, Tex’s only having a half dozen. Still, the malasadas there are no slouch. The Bavarian cream is justifiably their most popular.

Tex’s Drive In
45-690 Pakalana St #19 (Highway 19, mile marker 43)
Honoka’a, HI 96727
(808) 775-0598

Ono Grindz at Hawaiian Style Cafe (Hilo, HI)

“What’re your most popular dishes here?” I asked the waitress.

“Everything’s good on the menu. It doesn’t matter what it is.”

Normally, I would throw away an answer like that. In this case, the restaurant is Hawaiian Style Cafe in Hilo. I wasn’t so quick this time to disregard it because Travel & Leisure Magazine voted its pancakes among the best in America and because the restaurant has been a hit among locals for some time. It’s  been in operation since only 2011, but you’d never know it when you first walk in, exuding an atmosphere of having served satisfied local customers for a long while. Because of its location on Manono Street, it doesn’t attract the casual tourist who may be sightseeing around the main part of Hilo around Lili’uokalani Gardens. It turns out I also had the original Kamuela (Waimea) restaurant on my list of possible eating spots if we visit the North Kohala area.

When we first got to Hawaiian Style, we stared for the longest time at the sandwich board outside.

specials menu

These were only the specials!

The regular menu is impressive in its own right. Just perusing the breakfast list is enough to make you want to come back. Suffice it to say that all the standard Hawaiian items are on it, including the famous pancakes, pork chop and eggs, omelets which any of four meats (the cafe makes its own Portuguese sausage), chicken fried steak and loco moco. Its most daring breakfast entrée is something called the Mok-a-Saurus, a dinosaur-sized plate of Spam, chicken cutlet, kalua pork, hamburger patty and two eggs on top of fried rice, smothered in plenty of gravy. And one other highly regarded item is kalua hash (served with two eggs and fried rice). This is a serious eating place, more for gourmands than gourmets, anathema to the yogurt-eating crowd. Anything on the menu is served all day, announced the waitress.

It took a while for my wife and me to decide what we wanted. The first roadblock we had to get past was the enormous portion sizes. “We don’t want you to go away hungry,” another waitress beamed. The quandary was reconciling the conflict between quantity and wanting to try different things on such an interesting menu. We wound up ordering seared ahi and Seoul Bowl, both from the specials menu. We would leave behind much of the rice if we had to (and we did have to), two scoops with the ahi and a big bowlful that came with my Korean-inspired dish.

The tuna, sprinkled liberally with aonori (seaweed) and sesame seed (both black and white) furikake, was cooked perfectly, a remarkable feat to sear the outside while keeping the inside moist in fish sliced a half-inch thick. A similarly prepared ahi we had at Eggs n’ Things last year was in fact overcooked though tasty. Even if my wife would’ve preferred furikake coverage on the concealed parts of overlapping slices, she praised the fish (☆☆☆½), dressed with a subtle wasabi aioli. Instead of a mac salad that came as a side, she chose a dinner salad, another way to cut down on the carbs.

Seared ahi with wasabi aioli, rice and salad

Seared ahi with wasabi aioli, rice and salad

Seoul Bowl is actually a donburi, the best tasting one I’ve had since Sawa Tea in Vancouver (now closed). Spicy and sesame oil-coated ahi poké, Korean chicken wings (dakgangjeong) and avocado were served on rice, scattered with lots of flavorful furikake and green onions. The tuna was faultlessly fresh (as you’d expect in Hawaii) and the wings were heaven itself, supremely crispy, moist, a tad too sweet and salty. An outstanding donburi (☆☆☆☆).

Seoul Bowl (spicy poke, Korean fried chicken and kimchi)

Seoul Bowl (spicy poke, Korean fried chicken and kimchi)

It would be easy to come back here for dinner (or lunch) if it weren’t for the fact that there are so many other places to eat in Hilo. Hmm, breakfast could be another matter.

hawaiian style cafe

Hawaiian Style Cafe
681 Manono St.
Hilo, HI 96720

The Loco at Koji’s Bento Korner (Hilo, HI)

Koji’s Bento Korner doesn’t look like much from the outside, has nowhere to sit down inside; it’s take-out only. It kind of reminds me of a country store, not out-of-character for Hilo. Inside, there’s enough room for just a few people to order. Despite all that, locals come here for the Koji loco special: two hamburger patties, three Portuguese sausage slices, fried rice, one fried egg, mac salad and kimchi. My wife and I stopped here for breakfast before heading out to Waipio Valley.

After picking up our order, we had to figure out where we were going to sit. One possible place was across the street at Wailoa River State Park, but the better one was around the corner, a spot graciously offered to us by Paul’s Place Cafe where my wife bought coffee. (Would you believe they even gave us glasses of water while we ate our breakfast?)

Loco moco, or the idea of it (patties covered in gravy over rice), has never appealed to me very much, not helped by the thought of dried out ground beef so common in burgers nowadays. I made an exception today because of its status among Koji’s customers. I’ll be the first to admit his loco moco was quite good. The gravy had teriyaki flavor. More importantly, the ground beef was tender, likely a combination of not being too lean and overly handled. The sausages were of high quality, nicely browned, and not too salty or chewy (like Hawaiian Style Cafe’s). The macaroni salad was one of the better ones I’ve had in Hawaii, the fried rice rather ordinary. The kimchi was typically Hawaiian-style. In short, Koji loco was a winnah (☆☆☆).

Koji’s Bento Korner
52 Ponahawai St.
Hilo, HI  96720
(808) 935-1417