FOOD: A Day of Dining on Oahu, Hawaii
Ask just about any traveler and they'll agree - food is an integral aspect of a trip. Whether you return time and time again to the same bakery in your favorite city or walk into an unknown restaurant at a new location on a whim, most travelers arrive back home from a trip with a lot to say about the different foods they ate while away. Some folks don't even wait till they're home - food pictures are a pretty common offering on social media for those who are currently footing in away from home!
Food is an integral part of the travel experience and it's one that ranks very high on my list of things I love about this little hobby of mine.
When I first started this version of the blog, I wanted to focus a bit more of my writing on the travel experience - the destinations themselves, the people I met, and of course, the flavors that I encountered. I think I've done a pretty good job of doing that, though the food aspect of things have been lagging behind the others. I have only published one post to date on some of the unique food offerings on the Japanese island of Okinawa (LINK), which I'm disappointed about.
Happily, I've finally reached the point in my "drafts" queue where food posts will likely become a more regular topic of conversation here on the blog. Which is likely a good thing for you as a reader, because if you know anything about me you know that talking about food is in my top three things to discuss - right after travel and right before Chris Pratt's dad-bod.
My second attempt at food blogging will follow my culinary choices over the course of one day in a familiar location for many folks - Oahu. Home to the infamous Waikiki Beach and Hawaii's largest city, most visitors to the Land of Aloha end up spending at least some time here. As a previous resident of Oahu, I tend to find myself stopping in to the island every year or two so I can spend a few days enjoying my favorite locations and foods that remind me of my childhood.
On this day I was meeting up with my "Hawaiian Mama" Ginny, a fellow traveler that I'd met through social media with whom I've developed a good friendship. The plan was for her to pick me up at my hotel and we'd spend the day hopping around the island enjoying some local culinary favorites and doing a little light sightseeing. I was only going to be in Hawaii for a few days and my day with Ginny was the prime event of this trip. With this in mind, I did something I'd never done before in all my trips to Hawaii - I sent an alarm to make sure I woke up early the next day.
Ginny picked me up early the next morning, yet still juuuust late enough for me to not be a complete monster of a person. It's no surprise I'm not much of a morning kind of guy. I don't eat breakfast on days when I'm not traveling, so the days when I find myself on the road are the only ones where I'm actually looking for a breakfast. With this in mind, Ginny and I had agreed to start the day off with a quick brekkie at one of my favorite Oahu institutions - Leonard's Bakery.
But before we sink our teeth into breakfast, a bit of a history lesson!
The influences of immigrants from Japan, China, the Philippines, and more recently Vietnam and Korea are quite apparent in Hawaii. Menus in Honolulu are often offered in Japanese and English, Asian food and its influences are found in so many aspects of Hawaiian local cuisine, and Asian faces outnumber any others when you make your way through most of the islands. In fact, most of the food I'll be eating throughout the day is Asian and not necessarily Hawaiian.
What many people often don't see without digging past the surface is the Portuguese influence in the isles. The first Portuguese immigrants arrived on the shores of Hawaii in 1878 to work in the sugarcane fields, reaching a peak of over 16,000 individuals by 1911. Though never as impactful as the waves of Asian immigrants, the Portuguese legacy remains in the Hawaiian islands in a variety of forums including the ukelele, the annual celebration of the Festival of the Holy Ghost, and the production and consumption of many Portuguese baked sweets such as pao doce and my goal for today's breakfast at Leonard's - malasadas.
Malasadas are a puffy fried dough that remind me slightly of beignets, though they're more round and slightly more dense. Like beigents, malasadas are often dusted with sugar (granulated instead of powdered) and are popular as a sweet treat. For many Oahu residents, Leonard's (LINK) is a favorite location to pick up one (or a dozen!) of these puffy little balls of perfection.
Opened by the grandson of some of those original Portuguese immigrants in 1952, Leonard's currently has three locations - one near Waikiki, one in Yokohama, Japan, and a mobile location in a van. The Kapahulu Avenue location is the most convenient for those staying in the downtown core of Honolulu's Waikiki area, and that's where Ginny and I ended up stopping that morning.
There's something delightfully retro about the building, with its neon sign and a slightly faded awning. Ginny pulled her van into the parking lot and lucky for us we seemed to arrive at a time when the line was almost nonexistent! Leonard's can get quite insane if you happen to arrive at the wrong time, so I thanked the Lord for having my back that day - I was hungry and needed to get my mitts on some fluffy little sweet things.
Traditionally malasadas are coated with some granulated sugar, but the Hawaiian adaptation of these delicacies over the years has seen some innovation to the offering. Malasadas can be ordered the traditional way as well as with a cinnamon sugar dusting. There's also a very specific local option available - li hing powder, a topping made from Chinese salty dried plums which I will discuss in-depth later in the post.
Leonard's also sells malasada "puffs", which are filled with custard, dobash (chocolate), or haupia (coconut).
While I'm a fan of innovation in many arenas, when it comes to malasadas I typically go traditional, so today's order was for two original and I gussied it up a little with one li hing dusted delight.'
I'm a horrible friend, as I immediately started munching on the li hing malasada before I even hopped back into the passenger seat of Ginny's van. It was suprisingly light for something that's fried, the li hing powder adding a unique sweet and sour kick to the outer layer of dough. Like heavy, dense cotton candy. Quite good!
Good thing Ginny likes traditional malasadas just like I do, as we ended up splitting the two remaining pieces without any commentary offered on the scarfed li hing ball. I liked the sour pastry but the traditional malasada is where it's at, folks. Simplicity is a wonderful thing in some situations, and this is one of those times. The granulated sugar adds just the right amount of sweetness to the salty, savory dough of the pastry.
It's definitely a great way to start a morning on the shores of Oahu.
LIBBY MANAPUA SHOP
With breakfast taken care of we had a little conversation about how to spend the rest of the morning. Ginny suggested that we head out to the Byodo-in Temple in the Valley of the Temples Memorial Park, a small-scale replica of a temple in Uji, Japan. The temple is on the windward side of the island in a town called Kaneohe, a good 40 minute drive from my hotel on Waikiki. I told her that the temple sounded like a good stop for the rest of the morning.
That settled, she then suggested we pick up some dim sum at a shop she liked out by the airport that we could eat for lunch later at the temple. I'm never one to turn down Asian food, especially dim sum, so I quickly agreed and Ginny angled her trusty van down the infamous Highway 1 toward Libby Manapua Shop (LINK) and we rocketed off to explore a bit of that Asian influence discussed above.
Located on Kalihi Street, the area around the shop struck me as much more industrial than residential or business-oriented. The shop has pretty limited room to move around, designed more for people to walk in and pick up food and walk right out again. A long counter was prominently featured with row after row of bright pink takeout boxes lining the wall behind it.
Service at the restaurants and hotels along Waikiki is like Disneyland - fun, a bit endearing, but ultimately pretty artificial. One of the things that really struck me about both Leonard's and Libby Manapua is that the service is real - a little rough around the edges but given with a genuine sense of friendliness. A collection of no-nonsense staff are there to get a job done, just like they have been for years on end. It might seem odd to prefer this to a plastered smile and cheery, forced "Mahalo" given along Waikiki's Kalakaua Avenue but .... I do.
It was soon our turn to place an order and Ginny made a few selections that she deemed likely to please based on our mutual tastes. Hopefully she also used a little intuition to gauge each items ability to stay tasty after the trip out to Byodo-in, too!
So what did we get?
Manapua is a Hawaiian term for what the Chinese and many Americans know as char siu bao - barbeque pork buns. Since the shop had manapua in its name, of course we couldn't skip out on those. We ordered a few pork manapua along with some vegetable spring rolls and some half moon dumplings. It was packaged up very neatly by the staff, placed on the van's dashboard, and off to Byodo-in we went.
As discussed above, Asian influences are abundant in the isles. Sadly, at times Hawaii feels much more Asian than it does Hawaiian, but that's just the reality of Hawaii's history at this point in time. Of all the Asian influence in Hawaii, the Japanese are both the most numerous and the most influencial, and the temple is a testament to that legacy. Byodo-in Temple was build in 1968 to commemorate the one hundred year anniversary of the first Japanese immigrants to the islands.
As we walked over the bridge into the temple grounds, I immediately felt like I was back in Japan. The bridge's orange along with the white accents along the walls of the temple building immediately reminding me of the Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto. The only things that reminded me that I was actually strolling around Oahu and not a hanamachi were the tropical ocean breeze and and the craggy mountain peaks in the background.
Ginny and I wandered around the grounds, taking in the beauty and quietly chitchatting about life. The surroundings naturally inspired conversation about me growing up half-Japanese and Ginny discussing the many Japanese Hawaiians whom had impacted her life. After meandering around the little lake and wandering through the open air hallways of the temple, we found a little bench under some trees and decided it was about time to pop open our boxes of dim sum.
We started with the spring rolls and half moon dumplings. The spring rolls were narrow and quite crispy, reminiscent of the lumpia many of my friends' mothers' would make when I was a child. The contents on the inside were a bit oily, providing a little bit of moisture to help crack the flaky exterior of the wrapper. This isn't high class, pinky-raising cuisine but I'll take it just about any day over a fancy emulsion on kale chips, folks.
The half moon dumplings were like hefty portions of gyoza, a dumpling with a thin wrapper that's Chinese in origin but found throughout Asia. Typically I eat dumplings in this style when they've been pan-fried and their flat bottoms are crispy from the griddle, but these were steamed and were a bit slippery to the touch. Filled with pork (I think?) and a variety of diced vegetables, the pungent punch of garlic bobbed between bites as I munched away.
As I reached for the eponymous manapua, Ginny tells me of how she'd met her husband in Utah years before and the decisions they made in life that have lead them to the large, loving family they care for today. The doting mother of a large brood of adopted children, Ginny is a tireless advocate for the rights and needs of at-risk children in her state and in this country.
As I take the little puffy globe of dough in my hand and crack it open, I think about how much of a giver Ginny is - she gives to her family as a caretaker, she gives to her community as a champion for child welfare, and she gives to me in what little time she has left in her life by driving me around the island for a day in her van and buying me lunch. I place a quarter of the bun in my mouth, the pinkish tint of the barbeque pork indicated a fiery flavor but instead I'm met with a mellow, sweet tang of sugar and honey that envelopes my mouth. I close my eyes to savor the flavor and try to think of a way to thank Ginny for her generosity today.
Sated and with slightly sticky hands, we gathered up our garbage and started making our way back to the van. Enjoying one another's company and with plenty of daylight left, Ginny suggested we take a drive down to a beach near a military base that she thought was particularly picturesque.
How can you say no to a Hawaiian beach with a pretty Hawaiian mama? You can't. So off we flew with a twinkle in our eyes and laughter on our lips.
BEIJING RESTAURANT WAIKIKI
The beach was indeed quite stunning and in stark contrast to the sands of Waikiki - completely empty. We walked down to the water and dipped our toes in the water, still meandering in and out of conversation about our favorite places in the world to visit. She tells me she's really never been to Chicago and I do my very best not to gasp in shock and faint right there in the waves.
She explains that she's flown through Chicago's airport at various times in her life on her way to somewhere else, but never bothered to get beyond the confines of O'Hare. I could feel the beginnings of a litany of jokes on my tongue about being such a worldly traveler but having never seen one of America's greatest cities, but then I remembered that I'd flown through New York City's various airports dozens of times and also hadn't spent any time in the actual city. This is likely a larger travel crime then missing out on the Second City to be honest, so I decided to hold my tongue for the time being.
This did give me an insight into a potential way to thank Ginny though - have her come to Chicago and show her all of our amazing sites and culinary delights. Tit for tat of our day so far. Sounded good to me, and it sounded good to her as well. We started talking about when might be a good time to come visit Chicago and what we might do on our hypothetical adventure.
After a bit more dilly dallying in azure surf, Ginny let me know it was time to call it a day. We hopped back into her car and headed back towards my hotel, making a quick pit stop at Hanauma Bay to take in the view of the sheltered bay before we were giving each other long hugs and promising to see each other soon.
The beginnings of hunger pangs were creeping into the pit of my stomach as evening started to fall, and I was still feeling in the mood for some Asian food. I had heard of a Chinese joint called Beijing Restaurant that was located on the top floor of the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center just a short walk down from my hotel. The appeal - they allegedly sold xiao long bao, one of my favorite foods of all time. Any time XLB pops into my head it's pretty much a done deal, so off I marched to the doors of Beijing where I was immediately seated by a rather surly hostess.
It doesn't take me long to figure out what I want to eat when it comes to Chinese food, so almost immediately I was flagging down a waitress and giving my order over - one basket of xiao long bao, some roasted duck, szechuan wontons, and a seafood dumpling. I wasn't quite sure what the seafood dumpling was, but I thought it sounded good. The waitress snapped her notepad closed and marched off into the din of the restaurant.
The clientele here was all Asian today, which some might take as an indication that the offering was more "authentic", though I know it probably just means Asians tend to like eating Asian food. Groundbreaking logic, I know. It was still relatively early in the evening so it wasn't too busy just yet. Other than the diners and the staff, there wasn't anything particularly Chinese about the restaurant. White table clothes and lacquered wood chairs dotted the dining room. A few Chinese-style paintings in heavy frames hung on the walls.
The food was delivered as it was prepared, and tonight the roasted duck seemed to be first on deck. I have to give props to Beijing, they really did a bang up job on presentation compared to the dining I'd been doing earlier that day, but on the other hand it's not hard to win that contest when your competition is two cardboard boxes and a pink plastic bag. The duck came on a oval plate with wedges of lemon and a colorful flower garnish. The mandatory bowl of plain white rice sat at its side along with a little saucer of hoisin glaze and granulated sugar.
I appreciate that they give you the option to customize your duck, but when I picked up the first sliver of meat and chewed off a piece, I knew that the extra options would remain garnishment - this was cooked just the way I like it. Duck tends to be a rather oily/greasy meat, but that lends itself to being quite flavorful. Asian barbequed meats are almost always sweet and smoky, and this duck held that party line. With a crisp exterior of flaky skin and a succulent, juicy interior of fleshy white meat, I felt like the duck was twerking on my taste buds. The amount provided was just enough for an entree for one, and the white rice on the side served well as a palate cleanser to help absorb a bit of that oil that lingered on the sides of your mouth and the creases in your lips.
Next up was the seafood dumpling, which was delivered to me in a small soup bowl filled with broth. A rather bland, nondescript stuffed dumpling skin floated in the brown liquid, a sprinkle of blanched crushed peanuts sitting on the tip of the Chinese iceberg so to speak. I think most people's instinct when eating food that's served with broth such as phở or ramen is to pick up their chopsticks and dive into the noodles. Personally, I think this is a mistake. The real essence, the real hallmark of flavor in these dishes is always in the broth. If the broth is not flavored correctly, the contents that are floating around in it will also miss the mark.
I picked up the large, white soup spoon that was delivered with the dumpling and lightly dipped it into the broth, bringing it to my mouth and slowly pouring it past my pursed lips. A cascade of salty, fishy stock hit my tongue. I closed my mouth and rolled my tongue, sending tsunami waves of pungent broth across the full palate of my mouth. The taste was good, very lightly seasoned but still bringing with it the hint of the ocean. I couldn't exactly narrow down whether the broth was fish, shrimp, or a mix of flavors, but it didn't matter in the end since I was happy with the end result. Satisfied with the soup, I took the spoon and cracked open the dumpling, which was much too thick to eat whole.
Inside the dumpling was a whole shrimp along with a meatball of unidentified origin. Not quite sure how to eat this little delicacy, I decided to use the spoon to smash up the meatball and the dumpling skin into smaller bits and simply proceed like it was a soup, which worked out nicely. While the broth was understated the meatball packed quite a bit of briny sea flavor. The interplay of chewy shrimp and dumpling skin against meaty, fatty meatball worked well on the texture front, providing a bit of tactile pleasure along with the culinary enjoyment.
While I was polishing off the seafood dumpling another plate of food materialized, and I say that because I honestly never registered someone coming to the table and dropping it off. A beautiful plate of szechuan dumplings swimming in chili oil was awaiting my chopsticks just to my left when I set down my soup spoon.
Wontons are rather ubiquitous in Asian cuisine, rather simply to make and thus prepared in numerous iterations across the continent. Szechuan-style wontons are one of my favorite version of the dish, with delicate packets of meat wrapped in dough and then set to soak in what typically is a bed of chili oil, garlic, and scallions. The sauce is fiery but balance is provided inside the dumpling where the meat filling is often coupled with rice wine and sesame oil.
Beijing's win streak continued with these little dumplings, as the flavor profile was on point. A slow broiling heat that starts on your tongue and spreads outward while the slippery skin of the wonton wrapper acts like a fire blanket, smacking down the heat with it's cool interior and texture.
I was hopeful Beijing would be able to go 4/4 on home run dishes, but as soon as the basket of xiao long bao (or caged juicy dumplings as they called them) was placed on my table as the crowning glory of my meal, I knew that wasn't going to be the case. If you know anything about XLB, you know that the four sad dumplings above are so poorly made that it's almost enough to make you cry. Limp and deflated, lacking any hint of a supple, juicy interior that's so vital to the experience that is a good soup dumpling. One of the dumplings already had a hole in its skin, and if you look closely at the picture above you can actually see the soup glistening on the lettuce leaf on the right hand-side.
And sure enough, as soon as I attempted to pick up my first dumpling, the over-cooked skin shattered and the meager soup contents inside spilled out into the bamboo steamer, lost to the lettuce leaf or falling through the cracks onto the lily white table cloth. Welp, two down. Two to go.
The last two dumplings did manage to stay intact, but the taste really wasn't much better with them having survived the perilous journey from steamer to soup spoon. Based on the deflated look of the dumplings, it's not surprising at all that there was precious little soup inside and the little that remained was actually fairly bland. These little packets of heaven are supposed to pack a flavorful, savory punch with every sip and bite. Instead it felt like the fight was a forfeit from the start.
A bit dejected, I called it a night at Beijing, paid my bill, and started walking toward my hotel for the evening. It was still pretty early in the evening and I decided I was probably going to spend the rest of it reading a book and enjoying the long bench in my room that overlooked the ocean. And if I was going to do that, I might as well pick up a snack in case I got a little peckish before bed. Or three snacks as it turned out. Because I'm a garbage person and have no self control.
LI HING MUI MANGO
As I mentioned in the section on Leonard's malasadas, li hing powder is made from the skin of li hing mui - a Chinese salted, pickled plum. The powder is sold separately in many Hawaiian stores and can be used as a topping on a variety of food items. Popcorn. Shave ice. Arare (rice crackers). Even sour American candies like sour patch kids. Anything goes!
One of my personal favorite li hing uses is on candied mango, which is often sold pre-seasoned in little plastic bags at various convenience and grocery stores in Hawaii.
It's a classic sweet and sour combination, with the pickled plum playing off the candied skin of the mango. Li hing does have a bit of a salty kick to it as well, which many folks who aren't used to eating it can find a bit off-putting at first, causing many people I know who've tried it for the first time to comment on how it might be an "acquired taste".
Not for this guy though! I really love li hing mango and it's one of the first things I like to pick up when I arrive in Hawaii. I purchase a few packets and toss them in my backpack, cracking open a packet for a quick snack on the beach or while transiting across the island. I was fresh out of packets that night though, so I stopped into at a store to pick up some more and ended up seeing two other things that caught my eye.
MOCHI ICE CREAM
Mochi ice cream isn't exactly an unknown food for most Americans, as it has become a rather common dessert offering in sushi bars and various Japanese and Asian restaurants across the country. Still, Hawaii does know how to put their own spin on things, and mochi ice cream is no different.
For the uninitiated, mochi is a the product of heavily pounded cooked rice. The repetitious beat of hammers on the hot, sticky rice eventually turns the grains into a gelatinous ball, which in Japan is eaten year round but is often associated with New Years celebrations. Mochi ice cream is created when that pounded paste is rolled out and wrapped around a small ball of flavored ice cream. The mochi is almost always flavored, and the ice cream in the middle is either vanilla or flavored the same as the mochi wrapper. Common flavors found throughout the US and Japan include matcha (green tea), chocolate, strawberry, and azuki (sweet red bean).
These flavors are also offered in Hawaii and are often quite popular, though the locals do create a few offerings that are unique to the isles. The store I was at was selling mochi ice cream, but only in a packet of four. I didn't need quite that many but did want to pick some up, so I asked for two li hing mui and two guava.
The li hing mochi ball was quite sour, which was a nice change of pace from the almost too sweet desserts you can find all across the good ole US of A. The chewy mochi exterior tricks you into thinking your teeth will sink through easily upon first bite, but you're quickly met with the cold, steely resistance of the interior core of ice cream. If you have any sort of tooth-sensitivity, biter beware - the contact with the cold middle can set teeth to aching. The ice cream on the inside was vanilla, as was the guava option. The guava option was fruity and sweet, reminding me more of Fruity Pebbles cereal than guava to be quite honest. I suspect the aim was more along the lines of a sweetened guava juice drink vs. actually biting into a guava fruit.
If you like mochi ice cream, or even just like trying unique dessert flavors, definitely keep an eye open when in Hawaii. A sampling of other cool flavors that were available at the store - calamansi lime, kona coffee, lychee, passion fruit, tamarind, and of course, pineapple.
LILIKO'I CREAM PUFFS
The last snack I grabbed in the store, and also the last food item I ate that day, was a six pack of liliko'i cream puffs. They were sitting in a white box inside a cooler near the cash register, calling me like some sort of fattening siren. Just like the mochi ice cream, the six pack was way more than I actually needed, but what can you do when delicious things are only sold in large quantities?
If you're unfamiliar with liliko'i, don't panic - it's not a very common word outside of Hawaii. It does go by another name outside of Hawaii though, and chances are you've heard of it. Passionfruit.
The cream puff itself was pretty hefty, surprisingly so in fact. The inside was filled with a vanilla custard, which threw me for a loop since when I visualized the cream puffs back in the store the filling was the liliko'i portion of the pastry. Instead, these cream puffs were frosted with a thick layer of liliko'i cream cheese. Now, I don't care where in the world you're from, adding a thick layer of frosting to any sort of pastry is always, ALWAYS, an excellent choice!
The texture of the cream puff itself was airy, just the way they're supposed to be. The vanilla filling had the consistency of a thick custard, lopping around in my mouth awkwardly but flavor-wise wasn't overly sweet. The liliko'i frosting on top was where the real flavor punch came through. Creamy and fruity, the frosting was the perfect accompaniment to the cream puff. It could have easily been overly sweet if the vanilla custard filling had more sugar, so the fact that they showed a little restraint there really was key to making this a delicious treat.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, concludes a very full day of dining on Oahu. It certainly wasn't a tour of Honolulu's finest restaurants. No five star restaurants or venues on the up and coming list of hot spots in last week's New York Times. Just your average day running around the island eating a few of my favorite local dishes. From Portugal, to Asia, to the local fruit flavors in some of the desserts, Hawaii is quite a tasty destination. I'm not quite sure if it's nostalgia guiding me or the food itself, but I always find myself quite happy with the dining options on Oahu.
Though I have been to Oahu quite often and have my own favorites, I'm curious to know if you have anything you absolutely love to eat when you venture to the Gathering Isle - snacks, restaurants, specific absolutely cannot skip foods? Let me know!