Monday, January 18, 2010

Eating my way around my hometown

Which version of Hawaii do you want to see when you fly out to the islands 2,670 miles from Seattle? The Jurassic Park experience? That’s Kauai. The tropical fantasy island resort experience? That’s Maui. The local food experience? That’s my hometown Honolulu.

Man vs. Food’s Adam Richman and Guy Fieri of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives made their respective rounds around Oahu last year. Let me take you through breakfast, lunch and dinner at a few of the local favorites I enjoyed on a recent visit.

Start your day at Boots & Kimo’s Homestyle Kitchen in Kailua. Take a tip from another expat islander who, since he was elected in 2008, has made Kailua the westernmost White House. Come to this suburban beach town curled around Kailua Bay known for it’s ideal windsurfing and kayaking conditions. Here is where you will also find one of the best breakfast spots around. Order the house special pancakes at Kimo’s, the one with macadamia nut sauce.

What’s their secret? I don’t know but it tasted like a super premium vanilla macadamia nut ice cream melted until it became a shimmering, pale golden sauce, rich, creamy, buttery and nutty, poured over a large stack of light and fluffy pancakes. That’s what keeps long lines of local coming back for more. If you’re not in the mood for sweet, try the kimchi fried rice with eggs sunny side at the nearby Big City Diner.

For a taste of Seattle in downtown Honolulu try The Manifest. A new establishment in a very old part of town, it’s a coffee house by day and hipster lounge by night amidst the butcher’s cheeks and jowls, dive bars, noodle shops and art galleries in Chinatown. As a coffee house, The Manifest has so far succeeded by opening early mornings to catch the office worker crowd on their into town and on their way out for a coffee break later in the day. Owner Brandon Reid said he has worked hard to turn the space from what used to be a porn shop into a warm, wood toned bar with exposed brick and ample space to be both art gallery and chill lounge.

In Honolulu’s Chinatown, the brick and mortar were laid in the early part of the last century and have been preserved as one of the last remnants of the pre and post-WW II period. Only faint echos now remain of steamer ships bellowing in the harbor and the Oahu Railway & Land Co. locomotives chugging by on their way back out to the plantations. What remains are the fragrance of flower lei stands mixing in with the ocean smells of fresh caught fish, loads of fruits and vegetables piled high on sidewalk stands, sides of freshly butchered pigs, pungent whiffs of strange brews wafting from herbal apothecaries.

Feel like Chinese for lunch? Like other American cities with a large Asian population there are more Chinese restaurants here than you could shake a stick at. Try the Little Village Noodle House. A local favorite, it was crowded with both downtown office workers and tourists at lunch time. You won’t go wrong ordering the mochi noodles as one of your dishes here.

For a taste of the classic local Hawaiian plate lunch, travel to the other side of downtown Honolulu. Surrounded by warehouses and repair shops, Tsukenjo has served a lot of bang for the buck for decades. The hefty laulau plate (see photo above) I enjoyed here came with spare ribs that were falling off the bone juicy and tender.

If Tsukenjo is a venerable icon of the old school local cuisine, within a block of this classic plate lunch place, Fresh Cafe sits as an oasis of cool in the part of Honolulu that sports more auto body shops than anywhere in town. It’s an odd place to have a coffee house/internet lounge but somehow it works as I found office worker types enjoying lunch as well as twentysomethings busy online.

For dinner, you’ll be happy to know that the thin-crust pizza we so love in Seattle is also deliciously alive and prospering in Honolulu. Again, what’s been hailed as the popular favorite is not where you might expect it. The V Lounge is in an unusual location but not too strange for Honolulu. It’s located across the street from Ala Moana Center, a shopping mall with 300 retail stores (yes, including Nordstroms) and restaurants.

Opened in 2009, V Lounge quickly established it cool creds as a late night spot but recently made a name for itself again when it started offering pizza in the early evening. Owner Russ Inouye brought in Chef Alejandro Briceno, a kiawe wood-fired stone oven and a Neapolitan style thin crust that has been been crowned the best pizza in town.

V Lounge succeeds because it is a hybrid beast, something that is critical to the survival of this species of establishments in Honolulu. Another piece of the puzzle is their participation with their produce supplier in the burgeoning CSA community on Oahu. On Monday evenings, the V Lounge becomes the place to come pick up your CSA box from Mo’o Farms on the other side of the island. (Disclosure: Inouye is a relative of mine.)

Big City Diner
108 Hekili Street
Kailua, HI 96734

Boots & Kimo’s Homestyle Kitchen
119 Hekili St.
Kailua HI 96734

Little Village Noodle House
1113 Smith Street
Honolulu, HI 96817-5140

The Manifest
32 North Hotel Street

Honolulu, HI 96817

705 Cooke Street
Honolulu, HI 96813

V Lounge
1344 Kona St.
Honolulu, HI 96814

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