See also Eating My Way Across Kauai
New for Lost fans: see extra links at the end of the post
We had fewer days on Oahu than Kauai, and part of that time was spent visiting family, so we had a lot fewer meals out on Oahu. But, on our last full day, we went on the Hole-In-The-Wall food tour of Honolulu with Hawaii Food Tours. I've been on several really good food tours around New York, but this blew them all away. I highly recommend taking the tour if you ever get the chance.
Also, the title above is misleading, because all but one of the places reviewed below were in Honolulu.
As a kid, one of my favorite treats was when my father picked up mochi from Fugetsu-Do in the Little Tokyo area of Los Angeles. Unfortunately, New York offers nothing comparable. (I've found several places that offer various kinds of manju, but not the kind I grew up with.)
In planning our trip, I found several mochi stores in Honolulu that I knew we had to try.
Mikawaya Confectionary (inside the Shirokaya department store in Ala Moana Center): We bought four pieces and split them. The hits were orange gyohi (an unfilled orange-flavored piece that tasted a bit like a creamsicle), and taro gyohi (a purple piece with taro-flavoring in the outer dough).
Fujiya Limited (hard to spot store on Waikamilo Road): The specialty here is fruit mochi. I was expecting some kind of fruit paste, but no, it's whole pieces of fruit wrapped inside the dough along with a little bit of bean paste. We had strawberry, blueberry, and raspberry. (I also snuck in a tsumami, which was the closest I've had to the ones I grew up with, but softer.)
Nisshodo Candy Store: The hardest of the three to find, it's literally in a warehouse behind a strip mall. Unfortunately, it was by far the worst of the three, so don't bother. My beloved white bean filling was particularly bad.
I usually tend more to the savory side, but the rest of my family shares a profound sweet tooth. Hence, many of our stops involved sweets, even beyond the mochi above.
Liliha Bakery (N Kuakini St, just a little off Liliha St): Two words‒coco puffs. They sell over 5000 of these puppies a day. Basically an oversize cream puff with a creamy chocolate filling and a cap of chantilly frosting. How good are they? We went to the bakery four times, including three times in less than 24 hours! Interesting tidbit: The tiny little diner attached to this bakery is where they shot the scene in Lost where Kate visited her mother.
Leonard's Bakery (Kapahalu and Charles): It's all about the malasadas (Portuguese doughnuts). Fried dough, more bread-like than ordinary doughnuts, with hints of Portuguese sweet bread. Always served warm. Covered in your choice of several different powders (I took the classic sugar, but wish I had tried the li hing). Available with several different fillings (I chose haupia), or without. If you're into sweet fried dough‒you know who you are!‒this is probably a must try. I'm not, so I thought it was merely good. However, more people on our food tour picked this as their favorite stop than any other single place. Given the quality of the other places we stopped, Leonard's must be doing something right.
Rainbow Tea Stop (Maunakea Marketplace): Very good coconut tarts, but then we tried their banana lumpia. Bananas fried in lumpia wrappers, with a carmelized coating. Out of this world. And I don't even like bananas!
While I'm talking about sweets, I should say a few words about haupia, a kind of coconut pudding. Imagine coconut-milk jello not quite as firm as finger jello and you'll be on the right track. Haupia is everywhere in Hawaii, either by itself or as a filling for other desserts, such as malasadas from Leonards or the amazing vanilla haupia pie at the Snack Shack on Kauai. If you're willing to use canned coconut milk, it's very easy to make at home. Whisk 3 cups canned coconut milk with 5 tablespoons sugar and 5 tablespoons cornstarch. Keep whisking over heat until bubbly. Spread into a pan, and refrigerate until firm. Cut into squares to serve. (Some people substitute water or milk for up to half of the coconut milk.)
The name “manapua” literally translates to “flower power”, which makes no sense because it was a corruption of the longer phrase “mea ono pua'a” (roughly, pork pastry).
Manapua is the Hawaiian version of a Chinese bao, with the bun made out of a dough similar to Portuguese sweet bread. The buns can be baked or steamed, and the fillings can be savory or sweet, with char siu (Chinese roast pork) being the most popular. Manapua are so popular on Hawaii that they used to be sold door-to-door by the “manapua man” (Hawaii's version of the Good Humor Man). These days the manapua man sells out of a truck.
Royal Kitchen (on the pedestrian part of River Street just off N Kukui Street): If I could transport one shop from Hawaii to my neighborhood, this would be it. I could eat a couple of these EVERY SINGLE DAY for breakfast. I loved the cha siu manapua, and the lup chong manapua was almost as good. I probably wouldn't bother with the curry chicken manapua again, but I'd still like to try the kalua pork and the Portuguese sausage. The sweet lovers in my family also enjoyed the coconut manapua and the black sugar manapua. (Another Lost sighting: the pedestrian bridge by Royal Kitchen is where they filmed Sun paying off Jin's mother.)
Libby Manapua (corner of Kalihi and Kalani): After enjoying Royal Kitchen so much, we stopped here on our way to the airport to pick up lunch. My internet research had turned up Libby Manapua as a strong contender for best manapua on the island. My verdict was that Royal Kitchen is better. The buns at Libby were bigger than Royal Kitchen's, but with too little filling for all that bread. Also, Libby offered a much smaller selection of fillings. On the other hand, the pork hash at Libby was fantastic. You can see these little pork-filled dumplings in the upper right corner of the box.
Sing Cheong Yuan Bakery (Maunakea Street): Not really manapua, but close enough that I'll mention it here. We never went into the store, but we were able to sample their ma tai su, a flaky bun filled with an intensely flavorful pork/shrimp mixture. Heavenly!
Ramen Nakamura (on Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki): After binging on Hamura Saimin on Kauai, I wanted to compare it to the “real thing”. Ramen Nakamura was very, very good‒I'd happily eat there again anytime‒but a notch below Hamura. To me, the biggest difference was in the noodles themselves, but I also had a slight preference for Hamura's broth. To be fair, Ramen Nakamura offers several different broths; I had the miso, but maybe the shio or shoyu broth would have fared better. Someone whose opinion I trust later told me that Ramen Nakamura has the best ramen in the city, and I believe it. Any negativity here should be read as praise for Hamura rather than a knock against Ramen Nakamura.
Ying Leong Look Funn Factory (Keekaulike Street): We were lucky enough to tour this tiny factory, where they still make look funn rice noodles by hand. First, they ladle the soupy noodle batter onto aluminum sheet pans, then steam them in the silver steamers shown in back. When the pans come out of the steamer, they are stacked in front of fans to cool. The noodles are carefully peeled out of the pan... ...and folded into stacks that look like giant calamari. Most of the noodles shown in these pictures are plain, but you can see small chunks in the batter in the first picture. These chunks are green onion and either char siu or shrimp. Below, you can see the finished product, sliced and drizzled with a little bit of soy sauce. Delicious!
Polynesian Cultural Center Luau
We spent a full day at the Polynesian Cultural Center. It's fun and worth the trip, although if we do it again we would skip the tour guide. But forget all the cultural stuff‒I'm here to talk about the food!
First, I have to get something off my chest: Dear PCC, The shave ice you sell in the park really should be shaved, not crushed!
Ok, I feel much better now.
The shave ice may have been disappointing, but their luau more than made up for it. Everything I tried was at least good, with many dishes reaching into outstanding territory, including
- fabulous kalua pig, probably the second best I had on the trip
- outstanding taro rolls (purple dinner rolls made with taro flour)
- the best poke I had on the trip (poke is marinated chunks of raw ahi, although I found out later that PCC uses a Tahitian recipe rather than Hawaiian)
- a wonderful sweet potato salad made from purple Okinawan sweet potatoes
- fabulous pipikaula (similar to beef jerky, but softer)
- the best haupia I had on the trip
Of course, they also had luau staples such as poi, lomilomi salmon, chicken long rice, chicken teriyaki, and fresh pineapple. All these were good, but not as memorable as the above dishes.
A few years ago, I tried li hing mui, the king of the Hawaiian snack genre known as “crack seed”. Li hing mui is a salty dried plum covered with a bright red powder. The combination is salty, sweet, sour, stains your fingers red, and does funny things to your mouth. I have to admit I didn't like it. I think I even used the word “disgusting”.
But what I've now learned is that you can get the powder without the plum. I had it several times this trip sprinkled on fresh pineapple, which takes an already excellent treat up to the next level. I've heard that the powder is also good sprinkled on other kinds of fruit, on popcorn, even on ice cream. We brought a bag home that I look forward to experimenting with.
New for Lost Fans
I found a website (Lost Virtual Tour) that includes some great pictures of the places I mentioned, showing what they look like in the show and in real life.the pub where we went to our family luau.