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Hawaii Special: Big Island & Oahu

Local Flavor

The greats come in modest packages, so judge food over Formica and go for the ethnic nibble over glitzy looks

March 23, 1997|PHYLLIS C. RICHMAN | Richman is food critic for the Washington Post

HILO, Hawaii — You've got to admire a place that sells sushi in gas stations and convenience stores. Even if it is Spam sushi.

Hawaii is the land of the world's highest mountains, but most of their height is below sea level. It has some of the driest spots on Earth, and some of the wettest. It's a place where every yin has its yang, and any aspect that people love about Hawaii is what other people say they hate.

Sure, Hawaii is the Spam capital of the world. It is fast-food heaven, and all-you-can-eats are the hot spots in the tourist areas. But if there is one thing I have learned in my decades as a food critic, it's that the places with the worst food also sometimes have the best.

I set out to prove this first on the Big Island.

"Why did you come to Hilo?" our waitress at the Seaside Restaurant asked, her voice disbelieving. "Oahu is the place to be."

The Seaside looks like a roadhouse, with bare Formica tables in an unadorned dining room adjoined by a porch. The kitchen is no grander than that of a standard tract home, and one evening nearly every party of diners had a baby sleeping on someone's shoulder. Nothing fancy here.

The important part of the restaurant is outdoors, the 30-acre pond where three generations of the Nakagawa family have raised mullet, trout, perch and catfish for the table. You can't get fish fresher, though it's plunked on a plate with two scoops of rice and a mound of canned corn. Side dishes aside, the fish is as fresh as you'll ever find, respectfully sauteed in garlic butter with capers. Ocean fish such as mahi-mahi, ahi and ono are also available, but locals prefer the small, bony and utterly tasty fish. To set them off properly, drink the delicious local Kona beer. We were told that Kona's secret is that its bottles are sprayed with yeasts before they are filled, so the flavor develops in the glass when it is poured. If so, it works well.

We couldn't bear to be on an island, particularly one with so much Japanese influence, without immediately tracking down some sushi. Sure enough, barely a block from Hilo's public fish auction is Nihon Restaurant and Cultural Center, a second-floor restaurant overlooking the bay. The ahi (tuna) roll is coated with chopped macadamia nuts; the choice of hand rolls includes poke--Hawaii's local specialty of diced, marinated and herbed raw fish--and even soft-shell crabs were in season in the dead of winter, ready to be fried and rolled in rice. Though we ordered a la carte, we were also tempted by the bargain-priced business person's lunch (that might include shrimp tempura or chicken teriyaki) at $9.95.


Of course, most business people in Hawaii, as well as nonbusiness people, are generally found in small cafes or food stands eating what is called a plate lunch. Plate-lunch places, no matter how small, offer a wide choice of Japanese teriyakis, Korean bulgogi or grilled short ribs, Polynesian kahlua pig (a cousin to shredded pork barbecue) or laulau (fish or meat with taro tops, wrapped and steamed in banana or ti leaves) or vinegary stewed pork adobo from the Philippines. The common theme is rice, two scoops of it, and salad, usually macaroni but sometimes potato. A plate lunch is a farmhand-size serving for $3 to $6 nearly everywhere, though nowhere better than at Kenkel's roadside stand on Hawaii Route 72 in Waimanalo, northeast of Honolulu.

Yes, this is a rice culture. Even at breakfast, instead of piling eggs and meat and sauce on English muffins as mainlanders do for their morning eggs Benedict, Hawaiians eat loco moco. Rice is the base, piled with a hamburger, a fried egg and doused with gravy.

Rice is also the key to the Hawaiian breakfast mystery. Around dawn, the tourist hotels are a hive of activity. Oceanfront gardens are already busy with tai chi, jogging and ocean watching. The coffee shops are bustling. But all the breakfasters in sight are haoles--Caucasians. Where are those busloads of Korean and Japanese tourists? They're in the hotel's Chinese restaurant, eating an early morning banquet of rice gruel, pickles, dumplings and stir-fried vegetables--the typical Chinese breakfast.

With such a mingling of cultures, how could Hawaii not be a fascinating place to eat? The trick is to avoid the showcases and seek out the ethnic nibbles. The famous Kilauea Lodge, near Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island, is seductively wood-paneled and fireplace-warmed. But apart from its fine, densely flavored soups the food was merely decent, the seafood tasted as if it had been frozen and the fruit sauces lent a repetitious sweetness to everything.

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