Barack Obama is Back!
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After five consecutive Hawaii vacations, President Barack Obama is expected to travel back to Oahu with his family this month once again. Even on vacation, he’s a man of routine, but many kamaaina still look forward to his winter visits—minus the traffic. Here’s what to expect.
There’s a decent list of local restaurants and snack shops Obama has frequented since his youth: Zippy’s, Rainbow Drive-In, The Chowder House (now closed), Grace’s Inn. While the list has dwindled since he became president in 2008, Obama still makes sure to stop by a few favorites every winter. What does it take to be a presidential choice?
Alan Wong’s Honolulu
For the 44th president, it wouldn’t be a Hawaii vacation without an evening at Alan Wong’s Honolulu. Obama has been dining at the King Street spot since he was a U.S. senator. Chef/owner Alan Wong says he still gets nervous on those annual December visits. “I want everything to go well,” he says.
Obama’s favorite dish is one of Wong’s classics, the twice-cooked short rib, soy braised and grilled kalbi style with ko choo jang sauce. For dessert, it’s another classic, the “coconut”: haupia sorbet in a chocolate shell, with fruit and liliko‘i sauce.
Wong says Michelle Obama usually orders his most current tasting menu. “She is big on farm to table,” he says, although he’s never been able to talk shop with the couple about locally grown produce. “It’s not like you can do that easily,” he says with a laugh. “You just can’t say you want to have a conversation with the president, and I want to respect his privacy and allow him to enjoy his time with his family and friends.”
Wong says he doesn’t get much advance notice of the president’s arrival, “so it’s business as usual.” While there’s no official taste tester before the president’s food goes out, Wong says, “I have guys in the kitchen; there’s guys all over the place.”
And even though he’s serving the president of the United States, at the end of the night, he still has the server present Obama with the bill. He’s known to tip very well, once leaving a 52-percent gratuity for a server at a New York cafe.
Earlier this year, on Jan. 4, traffic on Kalia Road, Lewers Street and Helumoa Road was stopped for hours while the president and first lady dined at Nobu Waikiki with some of their friends. As usual, the press was held at bay, while Secret Service vehicles lined the road outside along with hordes of people hoping to get a glimpse of Obama. Nobu’s assistant general manager declined to share any information about the restaurant’s preparations for the Obamas or their dining experience, respecting their privacy as any other customers’, but it’s impossible to keep everything from us: 2013 was the second year in a row that the Obamas celebrated the New Year at Nobu, with the menu including ozoni soup, oyster shooters, salmon ceviche, seared oh-toro, lobster with curry foam, duck, foie gras and more. While there’s no word on how the president enjoyed the meal, a threepeat doesn’t seem like a long shot—so be wary of four-hour traffic shutdowns in Waikiki come January.
Nobu isn’t the only spot the Obamas have hit up more than once: Their first meal out after arriving for the past few years has been at Morimoto Waikiki, where the presidential party dines in a private room while the restaurant remains open to the public. In 2012, customers had to go through a magnetometer and get screened by hand-held wands, but those are minor inconveniences to be able to claim you’ve feasted with the president.
Obama and his family don’t just stick to high-end spots. The Kailua shave ice shop, Island Snow, has been an Obama family favorite for years, and even sells T-shirts with “Obama Kailua” on them. “A lot of people think Obama has helped Kailua town,” says James Kodama, president and CEO of Island Snow Hawaii. “We’re really proud to have him come by.” Ever since the year before he became president-elect, Obama has gotten his shave ice fix at Island Snow, ordering the same combination of flavors that has become known as the “Snowbama”—lemon-lime, cherry and passion-guava. (An employee talked him into adding Melona to the mix a few years ago, but he never takes it with ice cream.)
“The sign [that Obama is coming] usually is we see Secret Service and people start to congregate at the center,” Kodama says. “There are also times when that happens and he doesn’t show up. His daughters come many times—they just come and stand in line, Secret Service is with them but it’s not so intense security. They stopped in five times last year.” Some people do recognize Sasha and Malia when they come, Kodama says, but they fit right in with the young crowd that’s already there and they “stand in line like everybody else.”
When Obama comes, though, the roads start to close about 10 minutes beforehand, and Secret Service comes through to check out the store. “In the beginning, Secret Service wouldn’t allow any more customers in, but they’d let customers who were already in stay,” Kodama says. “Lately, the Secret Service comes in and mentions to us just minutes before that they’re already closing off the street. They come in and mention that no more customers can come in the store, and everyone files out. … By the time the cars start rolling in, only employees are in the store.” They also put up barricades outside to keep everyone at a distance, but Kodama says that Obama is very personable and spends a lot of time with the employees, hanging out and making them feel comfortable. Though he didn’t stay for long last year, sometimes he will hang around for up to 45 minutes meeting with people. “Some people come every day just hoping [to run into him],” Kodama says. “Even the Secret Service guys are really nice.”