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3 days of cheap gluttony in Honolulu: a travelogue

swyeoh | Jun 13, 201603:06 AM     2

I spent three days in Honolulu by myself on the way to the US mainland. The weather back home in southern Australia had taken a turn for worse: impish fingers of morning frost began to obscure our car window and an ill Antarctic wind blew without pity or favour. My wife was busy at work; she dropped me off at the airport and wished me luck, knowing as well as I did my modus operandi. She had seen, trepidation in her heart, that I had packed neither guidebook nor camera, neither swimming shorts nor beach towel. I went to Honolulu to do nothing but eat; to drift zombie-like between drive-inns to cafes to saloons, fearing neither man nor beast; to grind mercilessly in open defiance of God until I lose the ability to feel my legs.

To give further context to this write-up: I pride myself on spending little and tried to pay less than $20 for any meal in Honolulu, and took buses everywhere instead of taxis. I had planned to have good mobile internet access, but unfortunately my phone battery was malfunctioning. Therefore I am painfully aware that I may have missed out on some of the best dishes at the places I visited: sadly, research capabilities when out of the hotel were limited. Please feel free to give recommendations for next time.

I live in a city with great mainstream Japanese and Korean restaurants, as well as burgers and mainland American fare. We barely have, however, any representation of Filipino food (despite a growing community) and certainly not of Hawaiian food. This, therefore, was trip focussed as much on anthropological discovery as calorie intake. The flight seemed to take forever; I was giddy and impatient with anticipation.

I loved the rustic feel of Jets immediately: it was 7:30 in the morning, sleepy and temperate. The padded booth style seats were a relief after the plane ride, and the perfect place to sit back and watch some Hawaiian morning TV. I got a loco moco, sunny side up eggs. Mac salad was al dente but, for my tastes, too sweet. Apart from that, I was a huge fan: the meat was liberally interspersed with sweet onion, clearly handmade, with slightly caramelised bits. The gravy was mild and splashed 'all ova', co-mingling furtively with the runny egg yolk: I kicked it up a notch with some hot sauce on the side.

Oh man, was this place cheap! Still not sated from the loco moco at Jets, I wandered here to make it a surf-and-turf morning with some garlic shrimp and eggs and brown rice. I got a seat next to the open kitchen and watched, mouth agog, an never-ending procession of meats being rapidly grilled, battered, deep-fried, and otherwise pounded into submission: it was like one of Dante's circles of hell, if it were run by cheerful Filipinos. As for my dish, I perhaps chose wrongly: the shrimp were plump and gorgeous but the brown rice was quite dry by itself. Egg yolk would have made a great impromptu sauce, but I ordered them scrambled instead. Next time, I plan to try some of their Filipino specials (Sari sari! Tapsilog! Pinapaitan!) or, failing that, a monstrous chicken katsu. Seriously, they looked huge: you could have used one as a baby cradle.

Perhaps the above choices were a little heavy, so I wandered up to a nearby industrial park to check out this traditional Filipino joint in the Moanalua Market for something more soothing to calm my stomach. This appeared to be a charming stand-alone food court, in full swing at 9 in the morning. From a loquacious auntie I was served one of my absolute favourite meals of the trip: a rice-with-three-dishes combo. Pinakbet was replete with my favourite vegetables, bitter melon and eggplant; just slightly sour from tamarind; and shot through with tiny pieces of roast pork. Mongo beans were a improbably tasty thin stew of what I would call yellow mung beans, similar to a garlicky dahl, with bittergourd leaves and some more pork for good luck. Finally, chicken papaya soup was the discovery of the year for me: the boiled green papaya was soft and mild, with a similar mouth-feel to chayote, and the chicken pieces fell off the bone. The dominant elements in the soup were ginger, white pepper and time. It had clearly been cooked for hours, reminiscent of the cuisine of my own Southern Chinese ancestors. This soup felt like a hug from my grandmother. I burst into tears.

Might I court disfavour by saying that I wasn't as big a fan of the poke here as I should have been? Oh god, I know. It was probably my fault though: I ordered mussel poke and spicy salmon poke straight-up, without rice to balance it out. Therefore though the fish was incredibly fresh they were both a little too salty, and I expected to have a sit-down area to eat it. (Not doing my research properly, I thought the term 'market' implied an open air hawker centre, instead of a big shop). Therefore I took my poke outside and staggered around Kalihi in the burning mid-morning glare, unable to find a park or shady bench, eating on the run, dodging trucks and stepping over rivulets of soapy water and petrol from the auto repair joints. It was memorable in a perverse way. Next time, I'll probably just rent a car.

Undeterred after Alicia's, I pressed on for a chicken manapua for just over a dollar. I preferred some aspects of this to a Southern Chinese bao: I liked the slightly breadier, yeastier texture of the bun, and the greater filling-to-bun ratio (Chinese baos tend to have a whole inch of bland dough at the top gathered at the top which serves no purpose except to dry out your mouth). I wasn't so enamoured of the manapua filling though. When I think of a chicken bao I think of the Cantonese dai bao, a double-size behemoth stuffed with a spongy chicken meatball, shittake mushrooms, water chestnuts and a whole quail egg, redolent with ginger and sesame oil. Libby's filling was ground chicken in a slightly dark sauce with some onions and carrots, a little more prosaic. Still, you can't argue with the value for money, which the line of people getting a dozen in a Barbie-pink takeaway box attested.

Nothing like rounding off a Kalihi adventure with a heaving plate of garlic chilli fried chicken. This was wonderful, and paired perfectly with a bowl of miso soup and a salad with a slightly creamy parsley dressing. Plus a pile of rice the size of my head, can't forget that. Across from me, an ancient lady and her granddaughters polished off slabs of tuna tataki. It was 9 in the morning and I was high on life. Looking across the street, I saw Kahai Street Kitchen beckoning and licked my lips in anticipation for a fourth meal, until I realised I was only halfway through my chicken plate and was already having troubling breathing. As I crammed in the last delicious morsels, like Obi-Wan Kenobi, I felt a great disturbance in my pancreas. Ethel's had defeated me. It was time to return to the hotel, lie down and think hard about how my life had come to this.

Jesse's Filipino Bakery gets little love on Yelp, mainly for its less-than-stellar service. I stumbled across it at 9 in the evening, which probably helped: there were only a few customers there so the service was fine, although the ladies certainly didn't seem interested in me as a human being. Impassive in their matching pink aprons, shuffling between the gingham tables, they made it feel like I had travelled to a grumpy alternate-universe Liliha's through some sort of dyspeptic time-space portal. But it's all about the food, right? This was actually pretty good: I chose a three dish combo of dishes I hadn't tried yet and it ended up a bit too meaty and imbalanced. Pork gisantes was dull: it tasted like achiote powder and salt. Dinadardan was nice, but a bit one-dimensional: I would have preferred a few different types of organ meat mixed with the blood sauce to liven up the texture. Interestingly, the most prosaic dish was the tastiest: chicken adobo, a piece of bone-on thigh with a brilliant vinegar tang. The dishes that other families were ordering around me looked even better, but were too big for a solo diner: igado, fried tilapia, banana lumpias.

Australia is caught in the grip of an American food craze- bourbon-smoked X and ranch-dressed Y, served at inflated prices by tattooed millennials with names like Jaerryd and Skye who actually hate you. One thing we don't have, however (or at least, not without a cloying dose of irony) are American diners like Liliha Bakery: where sweet middle-aged ladies who've been there since time immemorial serve you bottomless coffee, saying warm hellos to regulars and families while wearing matching hats and aprons. It was a magical place, though I went nursing a mild headache and didn't feel like a big meal. Thus it was saimin and a coco puff for me. The saimin was the perfect choice for my disposition: soothing and mellow with wakame flavour, firm noodles and a judicious amount of Spam. The coco puff was balls-out incredible. Walking around Liliha afterwards (headache cured), I realised I was deep in saimin country and perhaps I could have gotten my saimin fix from a specialist shop. Still, I'm not sure it could have been improved by much: saimin seems to be a comfort food, and nothing felt more comfortable than sitting at Liliha's counter, people-watching and feeling at one with the cosmos.

I grabbed a take-away breakfast special of fried rice and scrambled egg for 3 dollars just to see how cheap I could go. It was tasty and served up cheerfully in a plastic box, but upon leaving it in my bag and walking around Chinatown for half an hour it leaked a hefty amount of what I assume was bacon grease through a gap in the lid. Fortunately, I had nothing else in my cheap cloth bag except a bottle of water: I just threw the bag out and was left with a relatively healthy, grease-free breakfast. Winnahz! Perhaps I should have waited for the gourmet lunch specials here though: looking at a sample menu online, I see they do crab cakes, chicken cordon bleu, stuffed bell peppers. For a tiny joint, they ooze ambition.

I found the vibe of this place fascinating: it felt the most South-East Asian of anywhere I ate. It was a dark, humid hall lined with Filipino, Thai, Japanese, Hawaiian and Puerto Rican vendors, customers stoically sweating at long plastic communal tables, concentrating intently on their meals. I must say that the lack of air conditioning got the better of me and I moved outside to the courtyard where, once I found shade, I could better enjoy my pastele (a little bland and lacking in banana flavour) and Filipino vegetables (also bland, but in a more comforting way: a stew of banana blossoms with tiny dried fish, and another of pumpkin and five-angled bean). I was feeling like something light and this hit the spot: next time, it'll be crispy pata and kare-kare all the way, possible topped off with a sugar bun from the stoic white kids running a bakery in there. Major props to them, operating an oven and somehow not passing out.

Still following my Filipino trail, I ducked in here and picked up a daily special of palabok (short rice noodles braised in a seafood sauce topped with sliced boiled egg). This clearly wasn't 'fast food' in the traditional sense: everything seemed homemade with love and care, and was wildly underpriced ($5 for a full plate). I must say the palabok took a while to grow on me. The seafood sauce initially seemed a bit timid and the noodles cooked just the far side of al dente. Then I mixed in the toppings and the whole dish began to sing in a bizarre roundelay: shards of pork skin, deep fried garlic, and what seemed like tiny wedges of cold sour guava. I'm still confused by the dish today, thinking about it.

By 10am this comfortable joint, all decked out in glorious mustard yellow interiors, had already started serving lunch. I was thrilled. Going straight for the Hawaiian options, I got a squid luau and a long rice with watercress. The squid luau was sweet and coconutty, which I understand could be divisive. I personally love savoury dishes that are a bit sweet, and so loved the flavour although the squid pieces were a little scant. The watercress long rice was piping hot and packed with the verdant leaves. My table admittedly looked bizarre: essentially I had one large dark green plate and one large light green plate, the lightness of the latter balancing out the unctuous richness of the former. Broke da mouth.

Perhaps I chose wrongly, but I didn't really love my chicken and creamy mushroom sauce mini plate (too goopy and monochromatic, 1 scoop rice and mac salad). Perhaps I should have noticed that approximately 98% of the pictures on Yelp involve katsu of some kind, and that getting a non-mini plate could have scored me some sweet kimchi and chow fun sides. Apparently President Obama used to come here in his youth, so I tried hard to love it, but the mac salad was too sweet. Help me out here, guys. Is it just me, or is Hawaiian mac salad always like candy?

Aesthetically and gustatorily, this place's Hawaiian combo plate was the most beautiful thing I ate. On an elegant emerald tray came a lavender-coloured poi, a deep red tripe stew, a white square of haupia, a shockingly violet tumble of Okinawan sweet potato, a bright pink scoop of lomi salmon and a pale brown mound of kalua pig. It was like a Joan Miro canvas, with extra cholesterol. Highway Inn was slightly more upmarket that the other places I visited, but I was just happy to be able to get a quality beer (Big Swell IPA) for $5 with their Pau Hana happy hour to complement the incredible food. I'm still dreaming about the tripe stew and will probably do so for life. You know that mawkish Pixar film "Ratatouille" that everyone loved but I despised, about the sociopathic rat chef who abuses his only human friend's trust in his megalomaniacal scramble to power? Remember that ending scene where the sour-faced restaurant critic tastes the rodent's ratatouille and is, for the first time in his adult life, transported to the heights of physical ecstasy? I feel like tracking down the film's director and slapping some sense into him. Are you insane, man? Are your Gallocentric proclivities so ingrained that you believe a tepid Provencal three vegetable stew actually constitutes the apex of the world's culinary endeavours? Have you not tasted how Hawaiians slow-cook a cow's stomach?

I made the happy decision of staying along Kapahulu Avenue, which allowed me access not only to Waikiki Beach (I walked along it for two minutes, said "that's nice" and left for another meal) but to the clutch of amazing local eateries in this area. I would encourage anyone sharing my interests to stay here- notably, I missed Rainbow Drive Inn, Haili's Hawaiian, Side Street Inn, The Hawaiian Poke Company... the list goes on. What I did try included:

I don't really love sweets, nor li hing (dried plum powder), but these malasadas were dope. Not sweet on the inside and the li hing added a pleasant subtle sourness. I returned for a pomegranate custard special another evening: cute, but a little light on the pomegranate.

Breakfast poke! I'll never get over lamenting how disappointing our breakfast culture is in Australia, where cafes blearily open their doors at 10AM and serve gussied-up avocado and Vegemite on dry toast for half a day's paycheck. Inhaling marinated raw tuna and smoked octopus at 7AM watching the wan morning sun rise, that's a way of life I can really get behind. I loved the Fort Ruger team's formula of toppings including little crumbled kukui nuts and plenty of green and white onions. Again, though, I found both pokes just a bit too salty. I probably performed a rite of severe sacrilege by diluting the sauce out with some bottled water, but in retrospect should have asked if they could prepare it without the shoyu (given that Hawaiian salt is already added). Or perhaps I should have balanced out the poke with some rice. Or a slab of roast pork. Yeah, that's probably the solution.

This place was effortlessly charming, decorated with curios from around the world and run by amiable Japanese women (In fact, I barely remember being served by a man in Hawaii at all: ladies seemed almost universally to run the joint, and did a great job keeping their men in the kitchen). The atmosphere was genteel and soothing; though I can't explain the incongruent name which conjures up visions of rib-eye steaks, Stetson hats, brawling with vaqueros and Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman. I had a grilled butterflied mackerel with brown rice and salad, delicious and oozing with omega-3 oils. Apparently there is a fantastic shave ice store nearby that serves Okinawan black sugar syrup but I totally missed it because I'm an idiot.

A lot of local places tended to close fairly early, so I walked 5 minutes from my hotel for a late dinner here, not knowing what to expect. i have had minimal exposure to Okinawan cuisine so went straight for the goya champuru (bittergourd and pork scrambled with eggs). This was very light in flavour, but served with a lovely miso soup and some great pickled yellow daikon, as well as what was a bottle of likely awamori (Okinawan chilli vodka: for dipping, not drinking). All in all, a sweet little place filled with bonhomie, peopled with Japanese tourists and Japanese-origin locals alike. It's the kind of down-home joint with colouring books for kids, Asahi in cans, Bible verses posted to the walls, pig's foot soup on the menu.

I've made a big deal about atmosphere in this report, more than I would have imagined at the outset. One part of me likes to believe that it's all about the food, everything else be damned. Perhaps as I'm getting older, though, this rings less and less true. A great atmosphere contextualises food and imbues it with history and narrative. Notably, a great atmosphere for me rarely means being doted upon by silver-spoon service at fine dining establishments. This has always made me tense, as if I've been co-opted unwillingly into an exchange with obligations to fulfil. As if I've entered into, and disrupted, a conversation in a language that's not my own.

A great atmosphere is like the one at Ono Hawaiian Foods. The walls are invisible behind endless photos and posters, heavy with decades of Pacific Asian pride and history. The room is small enough to overhear conversation: a local family greets returning members from the US mainland, hankering after months away for salt beef watercress. A tourist returns to Oahu for the fifth time, memories still fresh, ordering kalua pig and pipikaula without looking at the menu. I sprinkle ground chilli paste into my lau lau, moist and complex, elevated further with sweet raw onion a splash of contrasting sour poi. A sense of atavistic Zen presides. Everything in its right place. Free haupia arrives for me without explanation. Time slows, bends, and falls away.

Zippy's Kalihi
Kalihi Bar-B-Q Drive-Inn
Kahai Street Kitchen
Ethel's Grill
Highway Inn Kaka'ako
Highway Inn Restaurant, Catering and Seafood
Waikiki Beach Walk
Haili's Hawaiian Foods
Side Street Inn On Da Strip
Fort Ruger Market
Liliha Bakery
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