Drivin' to Drive In
Looking for Hawaii’s culinary history? You can drive right up to it.
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94-226 Leoku St., Waipahu // 677-4345 // Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., counter service only 2 to 4 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. // www.myhighwayinn.com
While I was hitting historic places, I seized the opportunity to drive to Waipahu. There, Highway Inn was established in 1947 by Seiichi Toguchi, who at the time was just out of a California internment camp and looking for a profession that would feed his seven children.
Of course, it’s no longer really a Highway Inn. In its third location, it’s become more strip mall restaurant, with paneled walls and stacking chairs and tables. Still, it’s got that historic feel to it.
Unlike its 75-item catering menu (“Funeral Menu Available on Request”), the restaurant menu is limited. Our waitress, Edna, strongly urged us to order one of the Hawaiian plates—and to hurry up, because at 2 p.m. we could only order from the counter. “I don’t want you to eat on paper plates,” she insisted.
So it was a laulau combo ($9.25), which despite what it said on the menu, Edna insisted would also come with kalua pig (it did). Plus a beef stew plate ($5.25), which was, as my friend pointed out, exactly like his mother used to make in Hilo—tender beef, potatoes, carrots in mildly tomato-flavored soupy sauce which flowed nicely onto the rice.
The Hawaiian food at Highway Inn is fairly standard—lomi with fresh tomatoes and green onions but little salmon, decent poi, some delicious pipikaula and a thoroughly acceptable laulau, though I missed upwrapping a ti leaf to get the full fragrance of the steamed luau leaves.
I am not sure there isn’t equally good or better Hawaiian food in town, but I have to say Highway Inn is one of the most welcoming places I have ever been in. Edna the waitress felt it was her duty to guide us through the meal. I guess we had townies written all over us, because other staff stopped by, asked if we’d come a long way.
In addition to the autographed pix of semi-celebrities stuck on the wall, Highway Inn had something I’ve never seen in a restaurant—a wall with 100 Polaroids of its steady customers, just pictures from the neighborhood, kids, old people, an ohana feel if I’d ever felt one.
745 Keeaumoku St. // 941-2515 // Daily 24 hours (except the Monday going into the second Tuesday of the month, closed midnight to 5 a.m. // Free parking, cash only
Walking into Like Like Drive Inn at lunch, I realized that it’s one of Honolulu’s unheralded major restaurants. At one booth were the HPD brass, in blue dress uniforms with literal brass shining on their shoulders. In another was a gaggle of radio executives. In the front door wandered a pair of Japanese tourists, still rolling their suitcases, ready for their first meal in exotic Hawaii.
Everyone eats here.
Like Like, though it was totally rebuilt in 1994, was founded by James and Alice Nako in 1953. When our waitress, Gloria, asked us whether we wanted soup or fruit cup with our meals, I realized that at Like Like, it was still 1953. The vegetable soup (canned vegetables) came with those little cellophane packs of saltines, so you can crush the saltines still in the pack and sprinkle them on your soup.
I once asked Ledward Kaapana what he was eating at Like Like Drive Inn when his guitar was stolen from his car. He laughed and said, it was his birthday, he had the rib steak.
How could I not? The rib steak ($18.75) comes on a sizzling platter, covered in grilled onions. It was a reasonably good steak, a little tough, underseasoned, though I’d go for the El Paso steak at Bob’s any day.
Much better, full of flavor, was my companion’s thin, breaded pork cutlet smothered in mushroom gravy ($11). She covered her bets by ordering mashed potatoes and then eating most of the nicely textured, golden french fries that came with my steak.
She ate so many she could not eat the dessert that came with her meal. Gloria had a solution for me. She could bring me two desserts, the custard and the vanilla ice cream. She even brought on a side dish the whipped cream that normally topped the custard, though she didn’t recommend using it. No, no, she explained, “The custard and the ice cream go together perfect.”
“I don’t have any aunts,” said my friend. “Do you think she’d adopt me?”