The waiter looked down at us with our feet up on the metal chairs gazing out over the clear, calm water of Ala Moana Beach park. “You visiting?” It’s not so much a question but an assumption. Sondra shared that she lived on island and we had decided to come in for a drink to cool off for a bit from our time at the beach.
“You should have brought a cooler of drinks with you. Would have cost you half as much as two drinks here.” He walked away to place our order and I laughed. Only in Hawaii would a local literally dissuade you from his own livelihood to find a way to relax more conviently by the ocean. To his benefit we didn’t take his advice as I was trying to tick off boxes of things that I had yet to try in Hawaii that had been noted as the best and we were only visiting Ryan’s Bar and Grill in Ward Center for the recommended Li Hing Margarita. The margarita arrived with a lip brimming over with red li hing powder, a taste I had only just discovered a few years back the last time I was on O’ahu. Li hing mui is salty dried plum that is popular in Asian cultures and therefore highly prevelent in Hawaii. The li hing infused tequila flamed like sunset in a glass and sang on my tongue but not necessarily my favorite song. In the summer heat of the island it needed to be colder, like a frozen plum rolled in salt but instead it was just a tepid bath.
Ed Kenney is probably one of the most popular and influential chefs in Hawaii right now. His first restaurant, Town, opened in 2005 and since then he’s opened two new hot spots in Kaimuki, a district half way between the overcrowded streets of Waikiki and my snowbird suburb of Hawaii Kai. I had to try them both after my fond memories of eating at Town for a birthday a few years back. Kaimuki Superette’s tag line is SEAsonal SANDwiches and SUNdries so I needed a sandwich for my sun and sea. I drove my warm porchetta sandwich like it was a newborn baby, tenderly and making sure it was safe buckled into its passenger seat. Only this baby made my mouth water and my stomach grumble as I halted and lurched through Honolulu traffic.
Finally at Kapiolani Beach Park, my mouth sunk into the crunchy outer layer of fried pig and landed into the soft underbelly of pork fat that, literally, seemed to melt when it hit my tongue. I was in Paradise and not just because I was in Hawaii staring down the line of famous Waikiki hotels lining the glimmering beach. The sandwich was large enough that I probably only needed half but I tore through that whole thing without a second thought and then waddled to the bathroom to squeeze myself into a full piece swimsuit that now felt more like a corset holding all my organs into place after the porchetta displaced them.
The next day I met friends at Mud Hen Water, the sister restaurant to Kenney’s Superette. We sat at the white marble topped bar and watched our platinum haired, tattoo-covered Aussie bartender whip us up some drinks. I had the Vishnu’s Vice which was made with Opihr Gin, juiced turmeric, honey, orange blossom water and topped with peppercorn. If it didn’t have alcohol in it I would swear I was detoxing in the most delicious way. It was spicy, hardly sweet in a good way and not too much kick on the alcohol side either which I can appreciate when I’d actually like to remember my meal. We ordered a couple starters to share and landed on the fried chicken and the I’a Lawalu for our mains. The latter was a white fish buried in coals to cook in a banana leaf with vegetables and coconut milk. The fish was buttery soft, the peppers were smoky and we devoured it like starved shipwreck survivors. For dessert we couldn’t narrow down the choices so with both bartenders prompting us to go for it, we ordered three, a pineapple polenta upside down cake with coconut gelato, doughnuts with espresso ice cream “like breakfast for dessert,” as one bartender put it, and finally, because I insisted we have it, two scoops of black sesame ice cream. The pineapple and black sesame won out as favorites and Sondra and Patrick told me all about their favorite doughnuts from Kam bakery, purple poi doughnuts. Seeing that our doughnut dessert could not match up, they promised to pick some up before our hike in the morning.
Kamehameha Bakery, better known as Kam Bakery, has been serving up baked goods since 1978 and the poi-glazed doughnuts are worth all the word of mouth. Even as I write this I wish I had another one in front of me to eat and can’t believe I may have another year to wait until I get one. As you bite into the purple confection, the doughnut smushes together like resting your head on a feather pillow and then expands again in your hand as you pull your mouth away, the dough rising again in long sugary strings, puffy and light from pockets of yeast. We had just spent the morning exploring ruins in the jungle on the one downpour of the week and decided that the only way to warm up was with hot tea and baked goods. I thought I could stop with one but had to try both original and the strawberry flavor which was an electric pink color.
“Pau Hana” is the Hawaiian equivalent to “happy hour” but means literally “after work.” Most people think of enjoying a tropical drink by crashing waves in Hawaii. I like to think of Hawaii for its food and for my end of the school year holiday, I couldn’t think of doing anything after work other than eat my way through the island and this was just a sampling of some of the treats I found there. To see more of my food porn and get suggestions for your own Hawaiian travels check out my Instagram @goodetravels.