Hawaiian Food: Where to Eat Like the President on the Mainland

Posted Dec 22nd 2012 11:49 AMUpdated Jan 4th 2013 12:32 PM

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The pictures of our Honolulu-raised president eating shave ice while on vacation represent only a glimpse of the Hawaiian foods that make the Aloha State such a favorite with foodies. Since Barack Obama came into office four years ago, Hawaiian food has experienced a mini-revival on the mainland, exposing more people to the joys of loco moco, tuna poke and kalua pork. Besides earning the presidential seal of approval, Hawaiian dishes and flavors have proved popular with today's urban trendsetters: food trucks. Furthermore, the TV presence of James Beard Award-winning chefs Alan Wong, Roy Yamaguchi and Sam Choy has made more haoles aware of the cuisine, which combines island ingredients with flavors from Japan, Korea and the South Pacific.

"It's only a matter of time until Hawaiian food makes its way across the U.S.," says Choy. One of the 12 founders of the Hawaiian regional cuisine movement (now more than 20 years old), the chef opened his Pineapple Express food truck – inspired by food trucks on Oahu's North Shore – in Los Angeles earlier this year. "I think we will see a big boost in Hawaiian concepts this next year and moving forward."

Kamala Saxton, whose Marination Mobile spawned two brick-and-mortar restaurants in Seattle, says people are drawn to the emotional connections of Hawaiian food, even if the dishes aren't familiar to them. "Hawaiian cuisine is tied to hospitality," she says. "If you are in a small town in the Midwest, you might not know about laulau (fish, pork, chicken or vegetables steamed inside ti leaves). But you might know the people who are cooking for you. That extended 'aloha' is part of our culture."

While a trip to the islands remains the best way to sample the state's particular blend of fusion flare, consider the following dishes a delicious dip into Hawaiian cuisine while you're on the mainland.

LOCO MOCO

What it is: The comfort food centerpiece of almost any Hawaiian plate lunch establishment, the typical loco moco involves several hamburger patties on heaping servings of rice, slopped with gravy and a runny egg (or two). If that's not enough, some places add a scoop of macaroni salad.

Don't miss it at: Some restaurateurs have gone upscale with loco moco. For instance, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, the L.A. chefs behind meat-centric restaurant Animal, offered a foie gras version before California banned the delicacy. But if you want a more typical gloppy experience, go to one of the 175-plus outposts of L&L Hawaiian BBQ. There's even one in New York City's Financial District.

SPAM MUSUBI

What it is: The Hawaiian taste for spam has been well-documented; its popularity dates back to World War II, when the processed meat put out by Hormel was widely distributed to GIs. While you can find Spam prepared in various ways on the islands, it's most often marinated and pan-fried, then wrapped with dried seaweed on a block of rice.

Don't miss it at: At Kamala Saxton's Marination Mobile in Seattle, Spam musubi is often ordered in a whisper. "It's a bit of a dirty secret," says Saxton. One of her employees even made a sign telling customers not to be "spam-prehensive." "It's a guilty pleasure. It's salty and sweet and really hits the spot." Besides following the Marination Mobile food truck on Twitter (@curb_cuisine), Seattle Spam lovers can find it at Saxton's storefronts, the Marination Station in Capitol Hill and Marination Ma Kai in west Seattle.

POKE

What it is: If you're a sashimi fan, you'll love poke (pronounced po-kay). Served in grocery stores on the islands, poke consists of raw fish cut into cubes that are then marinated with sea salt, soy sauce, sesame oil, chili oil and sesame seeds; onions, tomatoes, macadamia nuts and other local ingredients can be added. "It is something that I've always loved," says Choy, who considers it the "gateway" Hawaiian food. "It is something that can be reinvented to complement any season, peak produce and, of course, seafood."

Don't miss it at: Choy's truck, the Pineapple Express, serves poke in sliders, a parfait or a simple cup. "We pride ourselves on utilizing only sustainable seafood species," he says. "So one day it may be ahi, and the next it's ono or salmon. It's really provided our guests an opportunity to sample the dish over and over again." Find the truck in Los Angeles on Twitter (@SamChoysPX) or Facebook.

KALUA PORK

What it is: Served at luaus, kalua pork usually comes from a pig that has been seasoned, salted and cooked in an underground oven, or imu, lined with banana leaves and stuffed with hot rocks. Over the years, chefs and home cooks have streamlined and modernized the dish by wrapping pork shoulder butt in ti leaves, flavoring it with mesquite or liquid smoke and slow cooking it in an oven or pressure cooker.

Don't miss it at: Roy Yamaguchi, one of the pioneers of Hawaiian regional cuisine, usually has at least one kalua pork dish on the seasonally changing menu at his nationwide chain of Roy's restaurants (23 on the mainland U.S. and six in Hawaii). Look for it in quesadillas or tacos, baked in a smoked Gouda mac 'n' cheese or popped into an eggroll-like lumpia.

MALASADA

What it is: While Hawaiian food is more commonly associated with Pacific Rim flavors, Europeans played a role in its development as well – and nowhere is that more apparent than in this doughnut-style pastry of Portuguese origin. Deep-fried and traditionally served before Lent, malasadas came from the Madeira and Azores islands to the Hawaiian ones through plantation workers; now visitors and local residents line up at bakeries like Leonard's in Honolulu to get their fix.

Don't miss it at: You can find malasadas at bakeries in places with traditional Portuguese communities, such as Providence, RI, and southeast Massachusetts. Chef Carol Wallack (who has a home in Maui) makes a version with hot fudge and raspberry sauce at her Hawaiian-influenced fine dining restaurant Sola in Chicago's North Center.

SHAVE ICE

What it is:
Don't add the "d," and definitely don't call it a snow cone. Hawaiians feel proprietary toward their keep-cool-on-a-hot-day, melt-in-your-mouth dessert, made with fine ice that has been shaved, not crushed, from a block. Various flavors of brightly colored syrups are absorbed into the ice, usually served in a paper cup. Ice cream, condensed milk and even adzuki beans can be used as toppings.

Don't miss it at: Shave ice flourishes in Southern California, where Hawaiian expats have long taken advantage of the hot weather and beach culture to spread their cuisine. Not as logical: the success of shave ice in suburban Washington, DC, where two food vendors serving up the sweets have become summer staples. The Clayboys Shave Ice stand in Bethesda (corner of Bethesda and Woodmont) has been around for more than a decade (as a twist, a Swedish fish is stuck inside).

The young operators of AJ's Hawaiian Iceez (brothers Adam and Jonathan Holland are still in their teens) make up in publicity what they lack in years: The Prince George's County residents have been highlighted by BET and the Washington Post and have won several entrepreneurship awards. Find them at festivals and large events during the summer; check their Facebook page for details.

(Photo: Sam Choy's Pineapple Express)

Filed Under: Food + Drink

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