I just returned from 4 days on the wet side of Hawaii Island (the Big Island) with 4 great but not food focused friends. I spent some time planning our visit there, various things to see and do, and of course places to eat. As an ordained friend likes to remind me, if you want to hear God laugh, make plans. We did manage to see, do, and eat about half of what was planned. The rest was unplanned and unscheduled, but worked out pretty well for the most part. And yes, I said wet side, not West side. Arriving at oh-dark-thirty on Thursday morning, we saw the snowy tops of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa looming above Hilo in the early morning light. That was the last time we saw both of them at the same time, if at all. The clouds closed in and the rain began. Off we headed to:
KEN’S HOUSE OF PANCAKES. Ken’s is Hilo’s oldest 24 hour ‘coffee shop/diner’ dishing out the grinds since 1971. The 5 of us had a pretty broad sampling of the breakfast menu, including pancakes, omelettes, loco moco, and pork chop & eggs. In spite of large servings we pretty much demolished the food in short order (pun intended), with very little left on our plates. I had the Fresh Banana Pancakes, made the traditional way, with the banana mashed into the batter. The pancakes were almost a banana bread, with the rich banana flavor fully infused into every bite. I had a combination of maple and coconut syrup (the coconut is so thick it is almost a batter consistency, lots of coconut flavor) so good with the banana in the pancakes. From here we headed up the highway to:
KTA, the local supermarket. We got stuff to pick on at lunch, as well as fixings for steak and salad that night for dinner. Local produce, fish, and beef are featured at KTA, at relatively reasonable prices compared to Oahu where local grown is often 20-30 percent more than mainland food, except at the Diamond Head farmer’s market where it is generally 30-50 percent more. But back to KTA. The produce was wonderful and the steaks, roasts, etc. looked great. Ended up with some nice New York strip steaks for under $6.00/lb. We also got two or three kinds of poke, very good quality, very fresh. (Later on one of the guys found a place called “Poke to Your Taste” that was also very good.) After picking up the bulk of our groceries we headed over to the:
HILO FARMER’S MARKET. Although open every day, Saturday and Wednesdays are the big days, so it was pretty limited on Thursday morning. We ended up with some pineapple and papayas, considered some avocado, but decided we had enough food already. Our cheese, crackers, salami, poke, and sliced fruit along with some chips and pork rinds made a great lunch, sitting on the front porch of a house that someone was letting us use in Volcano Village. There are several cottages available for rent the Volcano area, its a nice way to stay up there. That afternoon we visited the main attractions in the park, the hotel is still closed. After that we stopped by the:
VOLCANO WINERY. They offer a sampling of their varieties,and I have to say I was both surprised and impressed. The first time I tried the wines there, almost 20 years ago they were amazingly bad, and much of it was not from the grapes grown there. This time I found most of the varietals quite palatable, even if some of them were too sweet for my personal taste. I particularly found the Pino Gris, the Symphony, and the Pino Noir entirely drinkable. I’m not going to say they were the best I’ve ever had, and for the prices they could have been better, but I did buy a bottle or two, and over the next couple of days we drank them. The “infusion” which incorporates locally grown Tea leaves (Tea - Camellia Sinensis, not Ti - Cordelyne Fruticosa) was oddly engaging, but somehow less satisfying than green tea ice cream. I think the most disappointing was the Macadamia Nut Honey wine, even our sweet wine lover wasn’t impressed by that one. Still a worthwhile trip if you are in the area.
I almost ruined dinner that night by overcooking the steaks (it was almost dark, it was raining, and i wasn’t used to the grill. The trip to the winery had nothing to do iwth it - that's my story and i'm sticking to it) They were quite charred on one side - but not burnt, and although the pink was gone, they were still juicy. More a tribute to the quality of the steaks than my grilling talents. I did better on the grilled pineapple. And the locally grown red leaf lettuce, cucumber, and tomatoes made a great salad with the Tropics papaya seed dressing. We spent the rest of the evening sitting in front of the fire listening to the rain on the corrugated metal roof (tautung in pidgin.) Remember that Volcano Village is at 4,000 feet, and it gets cool in the evening, especially for us locals who are used to nighttime lows of 70 in the winter, not the low to mid 40's.
Saturday was our long driving day. 4 of us were supposed to go, but a golf tournament was rained out, so it turned out to be 5 of us. Fortunately the 4 of us decided to have breakfast in Volcano as we figured the heavy rain would not be good for the Hilo’s farmer’s market, and according to a friend, we were right. We ate at:
LAVA ROCK CAFE, surprisingly good breakfast as this place get’s mixed reviews. My fried rice was excellent, and the pancakes, omelette, loco moco and breakfast sandwich that others had were good too. Prices for Volcano were reasonable, about $8 each plus beverages. In the meantime we found out the tourney was postponed, so we started a bit late while #5 drove back up the mountain to join us. From Volcano we headed back through Hilo, and up the Hamakua Coast. Beautiful even in the rain. We eventually stopped in Honokaa for lunch, eating at:
BLAINE’S - a popular Big Island drive-inn. In Hawaii the specialty of drive-inn’s are plate lunch, that ubiquitous local creation consisting of some kind of protein, often gravy covered, two scoops of (white) rice, and one scoop of macaroni salad. Blaine’s special that day was Chicken Katsu, and Blaine’s wasn’t bad. On the way out of Honokaa, we passed:
TEX’S DRIVE-INN. Tex’s is renowned for their Malasadas, a portuguese ‘donut’ without a hole. Because of the way the roads are routed I had never seen Tex’s before, but the other road out of town back to the highway was being paved, so this time I did see it, and although we just had lunch, we decided we had to stop. On Oahu, malasadas are generally nerf or baseball size spheres of deep fried dough, covered in sugar or sugar and cinnamon. The newer variety is filled with a flavored custard. The malasadas at Tex’s are cut from a large sheet and left rectangular, about 3”x4” and an inch and a half thick or so. They were good, but being from Honolulu I think i prefer Champion or Leonard's. No doubt Big Island residents would be happy to teach me the error of my ways. I have no idea what ‘authentic Portuguese malasadas’ look like. These also seemed heavier, more bread like than the raised donut texture of the Oahu variety. Still we each had at least one (we bought a dozen, including 4 filled) for the 5 of us.
The original plan was to have lunch in Hawi and an early supper in Waimea, but we were hours off schedule, so instead we headed down to Kawaihae to see the culturally/historically significant and beautifully restored Pu’ukohala Heiau. Back up the hill and through Waimea and across to Saddle road, up to the:
MAUNA KEA VISITOR CENTER for sunset and stargazing. So that this stop is justified in Chowhound, they sell freeze dried fruit and dehydrated ‘astronaut ice-cream’ in foil packets. The astronaut ice cream was especially fascinating. At room temperature with a semi cookie/cracker consistency it was surprisingly reminiscent of ‘real’ ice cream, which i suppose it is. It is very cold up there, maybe 50 at sunset and goes down from there, but the view of the stars, and looking through the telescopes is truly amazing through the thin air at 9,000 feet. We didn’t do the summit as we didn’t have a 4wd vehicle. The gift shop also sells cocoa packets, coffee packets, tea bags, and cup noodle and has two large hot water dispensers. They do a land office business. We got back to Hilo around 10pm that night and headed back to:
KEN’S for a late dinner. I don’t remember what each of us had. Some burgers, some saimin, a plate lunch. All of it was fine, but Ken’s does better on breakfast type foods. We snacked on this and that (including real ice cream which survived the trip from Hilo to Volcano without melting - inside joke) with our next real meal being lunch at:
KIAWE KITCHEN early on Sunday afternoon. 4 of them had sandwiches of various types, I had a pizza. Sadly the thin crispy crust on the pizza was kind of soggy, really disappointing considering how good it used to be. The sandwiches looked very good and I regretted my choice. Once they finally got to us (10 minutes) the service was pretty good. Sunday evening was the meal I had been waiting for. The five of us along with a friend who now lives in Hilo had dinner at:
KILAUEA LODGE. For all the usual reasons this is my favorite restaurant anywhere. The food is great, inventive yet classic, featuring local foodstuffs. The ambiance is wonderful, a 40x40 room with a peaked beamed ceiling, a huge fireplace on one wall, it is a former scout lodge and has achieved a true casual elegance that can only develop with time and care. The servers know the menu, are prompt but not overbearing, and obviously enjoy working there. And I’ve had at least a dozen good meals with various friends there over the years that the room is full of happy memories for me.
In addition to the regular menu that night two of the specials were Duck L’Orange, which I had the first time I ate there many years ago; and Antelope Schnitzel, pounded from antelope leg. I was really torn. I love the duck, but I’ve never eaten antelope before. I was asked to order first, so I was brave and ordered the schnitzel. Fortunately the friend sitting to my left ordered the duck, so I got a taste, and it was as good as I remembered. My schnitzel was excellent, the breading just enough to give the schnitzel the crisp texture, but not overwhelming. The antelope was good, a nice meaty flavor, a lot like venison according to one of my other friends who hunted when he lived on the mainland. It was served with an interesting german cabbage preparation - not sauerkraut, and a vegetable medley (meh.) I think everyone got one or the other special. Half of us started with soup, I had the potato leek, two others had the hunter soup which was a rabbit base with root vegetables. As always the soups at Kilauea Lodge were great. The other three had the starter salad, local grown greens (some grown on premises) with house made dressing. One had blue cheese, the other two had the papaya seed - much better than the tropics papaya seed, even though it is pretty decent. They said they wanted to lick their plates. Yes, I’ve gotten my courses out of order, but I’m not going to re-write it.
We skipped the appetizers so we could enjoy our desserts. Although the entrees weren’t huge, they were very satisfying. One friend and I had bread pudding, very very good. Two had the chocolate mousse with brownie, one had chocolate cheesecake, and one had a Grand Manier custard. The custard was probably the only underwhelming of the bunch. No one opted for the key lime pie or the raspberry-apple crisp. Only two of us were wine drinkers, and since we had split a bottle of wine in the hot tub before dinner we decided not to drink at dinner, lest we pass out at the table. They had a fairly decent (if pricy) wine list. They offer bottles and half bottles, but except for champagne, nothing by the glass. The wine prices surprised me only because for the quality of food the prices at Kilauea Lodge are not high. The 6 of us ate for about $360.
Monday morning was leftovers meal. A fruit platter (papaya, pineapple, rambutan, grapes, bananas) crackers, cheese, chips, ice cream. Whatever was in the fridge or on the counter it got eet. After wandering around the park for a while we returned to Volcano Village for lunch (the Volcano House is still closed for a few more months for a long overdue renovation, there is no food service at all inside the park.) We ate again at:
LAVA ROCK CAFE, this time sandwiches, burgers, a plate lunch, and wraps. The crab and shrimp wrap was the winner this time, although my hamburger steak plate lunch was good. They had just started serving a tour bus when we arrived, but the hostess explained that their food was all pre-ordered and ours wouldn’t take long, and it didn’t. This is a very casual spot, a bright clean greasy spoon type place. Late Monday afternoon we were supposed to join the friend who lives there at the:
IMILOA SKY GARDEN RESTAURANT for dinner before we got on the plane. It is on the UH Hilo Campus, but it is closed Monday, and only open for dinner Thursday through Sunday. Hilo friend was properly chagrinned when we pulled into the empty parking lot, but thinking fast and knowing what omnivores we are, he took us to his favorite plate lunch place:
K’S DRIVE IN. It’s one of those places with an ever expanding menu, along with about a dozen or more ‘specials’ every day. Some of the specials are just a discount on the regular price, others are different menu items. Wouldn’t say it was the best Kalua and Cabbage plate I ever ate, but it was good with plenty of meat, and the mac salad was good, not too much mayo and some chopped vegetables (carrots? peas?) to give it some body. Good prices. Clearly a long time local favorite. Sometime on Monday afternoon we did manage to stop at:
BIG ISLAND CANDIES. Famous for their chocolate dipped shortbread cookies, this place has grown tremendously since it opened in 1977. A good place to pick up some last minute gifts on the way to the Hilo Airport. We spent about twice as much as we planned when we were there, and since each of us bought a package of something or other to share between then and dinner, its amazing we ate any dinner at all. Thank goodness one of my friends took the chocolate bark away from me before i went into a euphoric trance. If you managed to read all this way, you really need to find a hobby. Hope bits and pieces are helpful to other hounds. THE END