Some people travel to Hawaii to frolic on white sandy beaches and ride the warm turquoise waves on surfboards. For them it is a tropical oasis where pristine waterfalls crash into deep pools surrounded by pink and purple orchids. Yeah, yeah, yeah … whatever. I go for the food, the real food of Hawaii.
My daughter Julia and I agree that you will find Hawaii’s best version of shredded kalua pig in this grungy little restaurant in Honolulu.
One of my hangouts in Honolulu is called Ono Hawaiian Foods. As you can see, it has about as much ambience as a gas station mini-mart, but the kitchen puts out one hundred percent Hawaiian food, including phenomenal kalua pig. This is the island’s version of pulled pork and in many ways it comes very close to the pulled pork of North Carolina. The main difference is that in Hawaii the pork shoulder, or sometimes the whole hog, is wrapped in green taro leaves before it is cooked. The taro itself, a fibrous vegetable covered in bark, is the one and only ingredient in another local specialty, poi, a mush of the cooked, peeled, and mashed taro. The leaves have a mild flavor, a little subtler than spinach; they are used mostly to trap moisture inside the pork. Traditionalists in Hawaii also wrap the pork in burlap and cook it in a covered underground pit filled with hot volcanic rocks. Other Hawaiians I have talked to like to barbecue the pork on a covered grill and add wood chips to coals for more flavors, which is very much like the North Carolina style. The pork is cooked for hours and hours, until the meat is ready to fall apart. Then it is “pulled” into shreds with fingers or forks. The Hawaiians sometimes sauce it up with a spicy, tart blend of vinegar, chiles, and salt. While folks in North Carolina serve the pork on cheap white hamburger buns with coleslaw, Hawaiians often eat it with poi or rice.
On a trip to Hawaii this May, I found kalua pig in a couple of unexpected places. One night at the Kiki Kiki lounge on Waikiki Beach, while drinking Mai Tais and listening to some island rhythm and blues while warm breezes rustled through the palm trees (okay, I really do like the whole Hawaiian experience), I ordered quesadillas filled with kalua pig. The warm, crispy wedges of shredded pig and melted cheese were topped with lomi salmon, which is basically a tomato salsa mixed with tiny cubes of cured salmon. The combination may sound odd, and maybe it was the Mai Tais talking, but I really liked those quesadillas.
On another night my wife and I had dinner at one of Honolulu’s chic, high-end restaurants, called Alan Wong’s. My appetizer was a kalua pig Caesar salad. This combination definitely did not work as well as the quesadillas and it paled in comparison to the kalua pig at Ono Hawaiian Foods, especially because the meat was terribly bland. It tasted as if it had been roasted in an oven instead of underground or on a grill. It just goes to show that sometimes the high-end restaurants are really charging you for the wallpaper and chandeliers. As my father-in-law says, “You can’t taste the wallpaper and you can’t chew on the chandelier, so who needs them?” He’s got a point. Next time I am back in Hawaii I’ll stick to Ono Hawaii Foods and maybe the Kiki Kiki Lounge….
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