I’m not surprised, but it was inevitable that public fear of the Zika virus has caused heightened fear of dengue fever in Hawaii. I saw a poster (below) at Lihue airport in Kauai yesterday that gave pointers on how to eliminate mosquitoes to protect against dengue, transmitted in Hawaii by the two mosquito species that transmit Zika. Like Zika, dengue has been around for a very long time. Alarming also is that there has been a recent outbreak of dengue on the Big Island.
A more fascinating tree I’ve never come across. It’s more commonly known as the cannonball tree because its russet-colored fruits are shaped like and almost as heavy as cannonballs and give off an explosive sound when they fall and hit the ground. The fruit pulp inside is bluish-gray and attracts wild animals which eat the seeds that get propagated through droppings. The balls are attached to woody extrusions from the trunk. In big clusters around the tree trunk, they look odd.
The other surprise is the strangely beautiful flower. The petals have a magenta and peach color. Some of the stamens, blue-violet with yellow tips, look like sea anemone tentacles that protrude from the tip of a hood-like structure, while less showy and shorter stamens line the inside in a ring pattern. Unlike the fruit pulp which give off a stench, the flower has a pleasant perfumy aroma.
For obvious reasons, these trees are generally not planted where people are expected to be walking below. I saw this specimen growing in Foster Botanical Garden in Honolulu and another one at the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden in Papaikou near Hilo.
As aquariums go, Honolulu’s in Waikiki may be small, but it is no less interesting than others twice its size. It has several captivating specimens, all of which inhabit the Pacific Ocean. The collection includes several species of giant clams (Tridacna gigas). When I first saw one there, I couldn’t tell it was a clam. I was looking for colossal shells when I should have focused my attention on what was there. All I could see was the beautiful mantle, which is actually a colony of single-celled algae (zooxanthellae) that do the job of feeding the mollusk through photosynthesis. Amazingly, the clams need no additional food to stay alive. The mantle looks like a huge, purplish cloud ear fungus. That these algae can organize themselves into this amazing organism is beyond belief.
Equally splendid was the exhibit for syngnathids, the fish family to which seahorses belong. While seahorses are always fun to watch, other members of the family in tanks were more fascinating, probably because they’re rare. I’d never seen seadragons before. Leafy seadragons look like floating seaweed, which as it happens is part of their camouflage. The species in the aquarium is the weedy seadragon, which is not as “leafy.” Pipefish look like small, colorful cousins of eels with pointed snouts. I may have been witnessing a mating ritual where a pair of them seemed to be involved in a courtship dance.
At the KCC Saturday Farmers Market in Honolulu, we wanted to buy fresh fruit. Even an apple banana or papaya would have sufficed. But we hit the jackpot at a stand that was selling tropical fruits. There were lots of nicely arranged fruit. What struck my eye were plastic tubs of mixed, cut-up fruit, none of which I had ever eaten before. The one I selected consisted of lum kai mango, dragon fruit, Hong Kong pink guava, Egyptian pear guava and mamey sapote. Whether all were grown in Hawaii, I can’t say, but I can say we enjoyed them for breakfast on the following day. They were exotic, intensely flavorful, and full of edible seeds—an experience.
A group of us drove to the North Shore to enjoy its special pleasures: gazing at the beautiful beaches and pounding surf, and making our way through the trifecta of required eating—a shrimp truck, Ted’s Bakery and Matsumoto’s.
A stop at Fumi’s Kahuku Shrimp is always an event to look forward to. We always love it there, this trip being no exception. It would be practically a capital offense not to stop at Ted’s and have the chocolate-haupia pie. We were not guilty of any crime this time through either.
One of Oahu’s biggest attractions is Matsumoto’s, the shave ice store in Hale’iwa. It has long been a destination ever since shave ice became the rage when surfing in the area became big time. Its popularity has spread beyond local shores, for legions of Japanese tourists arrive in phalanxes of buses, lining up out the door cheek by jowl with locals and other tourists (including our party), to satisfy their lust for shave ice. It is said that Matsumoto’s turns out over 1,000 cones daily. With a crew of only 3 or 4 people working behind the counter, one wonders how it’s possible to turn out consistent product. The fact that they’ve been doing it for years now is quite remarkable.
But, on this day, my wife and I noticed a difference in quality from what we remembered from two previous visits. The first thing is that the shave ice granules seemed to be coarser, a sacrilege in Hawaii which prides itself on serving almost fluffy snow. The other failing was the short-shrifting of syrups. Or they lacked their customary intense fruitiness. The shave ice was mostly ice on top, with the syrup pooling at the bottom of the cones, mine overflowing several times and tasting watered down. A finer grind of ice would have done a better job of suspending the syrup evenly. Is Matsumoto’s cutting corners to satisfy the onslaught of customers? Let’s hope not. I’m almost loath to go back.
Its history convulsed by vulcanism, the Big Island is basically a giant lava rock. It reveals its ancient past and continuing growth everywhere you look. At one-third of a million acres, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is home to two volcanoes which can both claim Guinness Book statistics. Mauna Loa is Earth’s most massive; Kilauea is the youngest (and one of Earth’s most active). While Mauna Kea at the Big Island’s north end is dormant, these two are still active, sometimes threatening human property (and lives) with lava flows.
I was attracted to Hawai’i as much as any visitor trying to get a glimpse of Earth’s restless energy. These days it isn’t possible to see active lava other than by air, a fact that helicopter and small plane tour companies have capitalized on by charging high prices. Still, I seriously considered taking a copter ride, but the timing never worked out during our brief stay in Hilo. For now, there is no lava pouring into a boiling sea, sending up stupendous plumes of superheated water into the air .
At the park, my wife and I had time only to take the Chain of Craters Road. Though it’s only 20 miles long, it takes 45 minutes of straight driving from the visitor center to the lot near the literal end of the road on the Puna coast. But, there is much to see along the way, including several craters that you can drive up to. There are reminders, like vast fields of hardened lava, that what used to be verdant forest can disappear under lava’s relentless, incendiary march.
The most extraordinary crater vista is the one above Kilauea Iki. The view from the main overlook is not the best. There is a much better (and smaller) one, unobstructed by trees, a short distance up the trail that leads to Thurston Lava Tube. In 1959, there were multiple eruptions in Kilauea Iki that filled the deeper, older crater with a lake of hot lava, several hundred feet deep, that eventually drained partially through vents back into the magma chamber to form the solidified floor that you see today. From the overlook, we could make out tiny figures of hikers making their way over the trail that goes through the middle of the crater. The area from where the eruptions spewed is now an enormous cinder and spatter cone (called Pu‘u Pua‘i). Other viewable craters include Mauna Ulu and Kealakomo.
A short distance from the Kilauea Iki overlook is Thurston Lava Tube, one of countless many tubes that riddle the land. Walking through it is disquieting when you realize that only 500 years ago, there was a river of hot lava rushing over the very ground you’re standing on. The attraction is well-lighted and the ground above is surrounded by rain forest.
Along stretches of the road are vast fields of previous lava flows, as late as 1974. It’s a strange juxtaposition of untamed nature and modern civilization when you see jumbles of basalt next to paved highway. You can get out of your car and within feet, clamber over craggy pahoepahoe and a’a. These fields would be dead ringers for surfaces on a lifeless planet if it weren’t for little pockets of vegetation that have sprung up.
Before reaching the Puna coast, the road passes the Holei Pali (cliffs). An overlook faces the ocean and the broad beach below that reveals wide swaths of hardened lava flows. You can make them out as patterns darkening the lowlands. It must’ve been quite a spectacle to see hot lava spilling over these escarpments into the sea.
From this overlook, the road switches back and descends toward the beach. As you get closer to the lava fields, they appear to be oil-slicked.
Chain of Craters Road ends at a parking lot. Nearby is the much-photographed Holei Sea Arch, a testament to the power of water to erode lava rock. Cars can go no further beyond this point.
The road continues though it can only be traversed by foot. About a mile and a half beyond the restrooms and concession stand, you reach the “end of the road.” In 2003, a lava flow covered a ten-mile section. A “road closed” sign is left to stand where it was inundated as a reminder that nature observes no human barriers.
It’s easy to see why this fish is called a parrotfish (uhu, in Hawaiian). It’s also good eating on the islands. We saw these specimens at the Maunakea Marketplace in Honolulu’s Chinatown.
Foster Botanical Garden in Honolulu is known for its outstanding collection of tropical trees, including an impressive set of palms. There is also an orchid garden, but we didn’t see many flowers in bloom. Inside the conservatory was another matter. Although not the largest orchid collection I’ve ever come across, there were some beautiful specimens interspersed among plants that are splendid for their leaf patterns and color contrasts.
It wasn’t until Anthony Bourdain in 2009 featured Side Street Inn on “No Reservations” that this local hangout became nationally famous. It’s the answer to the oft-asked question, Where do famous chefs go to eat after work? Some of Honolulu’s top chefs, including Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong, had been coming all along just to “hang out” and have good grub. The restaurant bar on Hopaka Street has also become a rock star among local and visiting foodies, appearing on many lists of ‘must eat’ places in Honolulu. The concept is simple: serve tasty comfort foods at reasonable prices and big portions. Woe be to the couple who wants to try more than a thing or two. It’s much better to be part of a larger party.
In July of 2010, a second location opened up along Kapahulu, a street at the eastern end of the Ala Wai Canal that is fast becoming a food mecca for locals and tourists alike, especially those who want to stay clear of Waikiki. Kapahulu also hosts Leonard’s, Rainbow Drive-In, Ono Hawaiian Foods, Ono Seafood, Irifune, Uncle Bo’s, and more. The new digs are classier (but not stuffy) than the Hopaka site that has a more down-to-earth ambience. What better place for my wife and me to have a final meal in Hawaii, and with my wife’s sister and her family to boot.
It would be an understatement to say the menu is astonishing. You could stare at the menu and have a frustrating time trying to decide what you want. The menu is that seductive—and mind-boggling. It’s said that the Kapahulu location has more on the menu than the original one. Let me see, shall I have smoked pork, musubi, garlic fries, rib-eye steak, kalbi, cheeseburger, steamed clams, furikake ahi, yakisoba, buffalo wings, chicken katsu, misoyaki chicken, yakisoba, oxtail soup, Hawaiian-style short ribs? The specials menu tempted us tonight with Korean chicken wings, Chinese ribs, blackened ahi, and more. See what I mean?
Even if a litany of delicious-sounding items made our eyes glaze over, in the end our first meal here had to include two of Side Street’s signature dishes: pork chops and fried rice. We could worry about da’ udda stuff some other time. We also augmented our meal with fresh poké and On Da’ Strip’s Chinese Chicken Salad.
The salad was beautiful to behold, a tower of nicely piled greens and shredded chicken, topped with fried wonton strips. But it was underdressed, like eating raw greens (☆☆½). Despite the whole foods appeal, substituting mixed greens for, say, simple shredded Romaine lettuce does not add anything.
In Hawaii, it’s almost impossible to get bad poké. Ahi is always fresh off the hook. Not surprisingly, Side Street’s was very good (☆☆☆), although Ono Seafood’s (also on Kapahulu) is now my new standard. Market price likely is responsible for having kept the portion size reasonable, about a cup and a half’s worth.
Ample portion sizes are a different matter for the remaining two dishes. Three large chops constitute Da’ Famous Pan Fried Island Pork Chops. The crispy flour and cornstarch batter is thinly applied on succulent, thick and lightly seasoned chops, then pan-fried. Rather than serving them whole, the kitchen separates the bones from the meat, which it slices into half-inch pieces. The bones, which can only be sensibly eaten with your hands, are like ribs and terrific to gnaw and suck on. A plastic tub of ketchup is served on the side. Great chops (☆☆☆½).
Side Street’s standard fried rice is a combination of Portuguese sausage, bacon, char siu, peas, carrots and green onions, flavored with oyster sauce. That combination is enough for good Hawaiian flavors, but the addition of hon dashi is the ingredient that makes the rice an umami bomb. (Yeah, I know hon dashi contains MSG.) We got Da’ Works Fried Rice instead, which adds lop cheung and kim chi to the mix. All—and I mean all—kim chi fried rice I’ve had up to this point have been too soggy, likely from using too much kim chi or not wringing out enough liquid. Side Street managed to escape that shortcoming to provide a nice tangy accent to an exceptional symphony of ingredients (☆☆☆☆), the second great fried rice dish I’ve had on this trip.
Side Street Inn deserves repeat visits. Mo’ bettah no can get.
Side Street Inn on ‘Da Strip
614 Kapahulu Ave
Honolulu, HI 96815
One of my favorite dessert flavorings is coconut. Coconut muffins, coconut ice cream, coconut cookies, Ted’s chocolate-haupia cream pie, the list goes on. No bettah place to have than Hawaii, yeah?
At the KCC Farmers Market, one particular vendor has been selling young coconut for at least the last three of our visits. Chilled in ice water, one is pulled out when you pay your $5. With a sharp cleaver, the fellow cuts off one end just enough to expose the white flesh underneath, then with the corner of the knife, gouges out a little hole. The coconut juice is then sipped through a straw.
There’s quite a bit of liquid in there. When you’re done, you give the coconut back to the guy, who will then cleave it in half, scoop away the tender flesh and give a half shell back to you containing all the meat. The flesh itself is rather bland and has little of the concentrated flavor that desiccated coconut has, but the entire experience was very nice, especially drinking the chilled juice on a hot, muggy day.