Drivin' to Drive In
Looking for Hawaii’s culinary history? You can drive right up to it.
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3145 Waialae Ave. // 734-3673 // Monday through Saturday 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday until minight; Sunday 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. // Free parking, cash only
After my Bob’s experience, I resolved to spend a month eating at drive ins. Admittedly, drive ins aren’t really drive ins anymore. How I miss Alex Drive In on Kapahulu, where the waitress would bring the mahi sandwich and lime slush to your car.
The remaining drive ins are simply parking lots with walk-up windows, but they are repositories of Hawaii’s culinary history. How could I resist?
I could not resist revisiting St. Louis Drive In, where I used to eat decades ago, because (1) I lived nearby, (2) I could afford it and (3) it stayed open late.
St. Louis seemed exactly the same, if older and grimier. The linoleum at the takeout counter was worn away, its surface elided by thousands of Styrofoam boxes sliding into hungry hands.
If Bob’s in Kalihi is about meat, St. Louis is about fish. I ordered the Japanese plate, which came both regular and deluxe. At $8.50, why not go for the deluxe?
The deluxe was the only plate lunch I’ve ever opened to find, cradled in a lettuce leaf, sashimi. The ahi was cut from the thin end of the fillet, but it was perfectly reasonable sashimi, to go with the two flattened shrimp tempura, the gristly teri beef, the unfortunately cold mochiko chicken.
Even better, because remarkably fresh, was the generous portion of fried ahi belly, served with rice and a small paper cup of salad squiggled with an orange-colored Tropics-style dressing. This was history on a $6.75 plate.
Here are some things John Heckathorn had to say in past months. Visit our Dining page to read more reviews!
2255 Kalakaua Ave.
“If you are going to drink here, you should sip rum as if it were Scotch,” warns Heckathorn, adding that Rumfire’s cocktails are dreadfully sweet. As for rum, he recommends Coyopa or Pampero Anniversario from Venezuela, “which will put hair on your chest, regardless of your gender.” The food at Rumfire—such as the inside-out musubi—is tasty but comes in small, expensive portions.
Reviewed in our May 2008 issue.
We went back to the counter to purchase teri saimin, having never heard of it, although we should have figured it would be some (undistinguished) saimin with slices of teri beef. For $2.50, we should not have expected culinary innovation.
As we stood at the counter, my friend exclaimed, “They have Green River!” Green River, a noncarbonated soft drink, is a source of nostalgia for people of a certain age in Hawaii. “We have to order it,” insisted my friend.
I’d never had one. A Green River is green all right, deeply, darkly green, with an overwhelmingly sweet, horribly artificial lime flavor. We took it back to the office and poured it around. Everyone who’d ever had one, said, yes, that’s it. Some expressed a deep appreciation—but no desire for more.
3297 Nimitz Highway // 836-0541 // Open daily 24 hours // Free parking, cash only
Byron’s, with its ’60s “Space Age” roof, is tucked under an overpass near the airport. It’s a survivor. It was one of the first restaurants—the first were Leon’s and Andy’s in Kailua—created by a St. Louis High grad named Andy Wong, who died in 1985.
At its height, Wong’s restaurant empire had grown far beyond drive ins, to include such eateries as Wong’s Okazuya, Chinese Chuckwagon, Seafood Emporium, Byron II Steakhouse, Orson’s Bourbon House, Andrew’s, Fishmonger’s Wife. The only other remaining restaurant is Orson’s Chowder House in Ward Centre.
Like the Wong empire, Byron’s has faded. We ordered at the window, much cluttered in drive in fashion with various impromptu signs, and ate at a booth under a sign that forbade drinking on the property, under nonworking cobwebby ceiling fans.
The kal bi here ($8.25) is not kal bi. It’s an overly sweet teri short rib. “No self-respecting Korean would eat this,” insisted the friend who accompanied me.
The New York steak ($8.75) was such a disappointment—hurriedly thawed, we guessed, gray, totally unseasoned—that we didn’t finish it.
What to get? Just for the fun of it, we’d ordered the kalua pig loco moco, the yolk still soft, the kalua pig in a mound, the whole thing drenched in that standard gravy that seems to get slathered on all loco mocos.
It was runny, soft, nasty goodness, complete with a scoop of macaroni salad tucked on the side. Thinking we’d only have a few bites, we’d ordered a mini ($5.25)—and thoroughly regretted not ordering a full portion.