11 Hawai‘i General Stores You Must Visit
Hole-in-the-wall general stores dishing up their own eats— even if it’s just one ‘ono item—are a beloved part of Island life. Here are a few of Hawai‘i’s best.
(page 4 of 5)
Open Since 1992
Photo: Olivier Koning
Nona Maneclang has the scoops at Kahuku Superette.
Photo: Olivier Koning
The coast from Punalu‘u to Kahuku seems to spawn more than its share of mythological beings, from Yan Quong Ching to Sam Choy’s father. That it’s also credited as the home of the original poke bowl seems almost unfair.
‘Ahi (preferably fresh), slicked with some kind of sauce, on a bed of hot rice—how did it take so long? It turns out that what might seem a slam-dunk marketing gimmick was born of an overflowing heart, says Harmon Lee. When his future wife Tina bought the Kahuku Superette from another owner in 1992, she watched the dusty worn-out boys coming from high school football practice tramp into her store, stop, and count change. “Lotta kids don’t have too much money,” says Lee. “They show how much. Rice was 50 cents, so if they have a dollar she cut so much fish, more if there’s more.”
Word that Tina Lee always erred on the side of generosity led to a loyal following among a market that literally kept on growing (note the size of the Red Raider line). But that wasn’t the only innovation, says proud husband Harmon. “The old owner was also Korean, but used a lot of sugar and a little gochujang, but store-bought gochujang. So [Tina] started making sauce, her specialty. Lets it age. Ferment. Thirty buckets at a time.”
He shows us the walls of gochujang lining the back room as a family member hand-cranks a grinder, slicing fresh ginger into bathtub-size vats. Tasting the special poke, we now understand why someone would dare to play fresh ‘ahi off against the savory, slightly fermented tang of the sauce. While Harmon is from Wahiawā, Tina is from Korea, where they like their kimchee strong and goopy, unlike Halm’s, which was formulated for our local market’s lighter tastes. Perhaps, for that reason, the shoyu poke—less assertive—is the bestseller.
The lunch trade flows around Harmon as he goes down the cold case describing the offerings. Spicy tuna is going fast today; takeout plastic cartons of raw marinated beef go by twos and threes. We come to Harmon’s favorite new project: shrimp taegu (rather than the traditional cod).
“Try this.” With a flourish he scoops us up some, an instantly intriguing combination of crunch (the shells), sour fire (special sauce) and sweet (honey). At $29.99 a pound, he won’t be feeding the poor, or many football players, but some things are best left for adult tastes. Score another knockout for the Superette.
56-505 Kamehameha Highway, Kahuku, 293-9878
Open Since Early 1900s
Sue Kim has the goods on the famous roti and pake cookies, and a lot more.
Photo: Olivier Koning
Looking for the rumored roti from Lā‘ie Cash & Carry? Then you want the place that’s behind the place where Sam Choy’s father got his start behind a stove. But the place behind what is now called the Hukilau Café isn’t called Lā‘ie Cash & Carry anymore, except on Yelp and Foursquare—nope, it’s called Sam’s. Nobody we talk to thinks he’s the owner, and, if you thought that was a tad confusing, finding Sam’s can be, too.
Construction of the expanding Polynesian Cultural Center and its hotel has warped the landscape around Lā‘ie enough that you may have a wee adventure finding the address on Wahinepe‘e Street.
At Sam’s, the counter is that close to the sidewalk. Sue Kim will be behind the register with a smile. It grows wider when we ask for roti. She points. Within the shiny stainless box warmer, where a row of musubi work on their suntans, are thick squares of aluminum foil. What kind? Kim says: “Chicken.”
It has been years since we’ve had a good roti, like the kind you get anywhere on Lexington Avenue down in the 20s in Manhattan’s Little India. Cab-driver food, some might sniff, but, once you try one, you’ll probably go on the circuit, sampling as many variations as there are shops. All of which is to say we’re prepared to be disappointed, but wildly hopeful.
“Sam Choy, his father ran it long time, yeah,” says Kim. “Sometime he come. Plenty history. One hundred years.”
We ask who made the roti. She starts to speak, falls silent. We get it: We will not discuss who makes the roti. For such a small counter, there’s a lot of food—tempura shrimp, fried chicken, teriyaki beef—but nothing compared to the pile of fresh pake cakes, which are much praised on the foodie sites. “Here,” says Kim, handing us a warm musubi to go with our roti.
Something in her manner tells us this is no ordinary Spam musubi, and, in the parking lot, we give it a professional examination. The nori wraps it completely; the meat is sandwiched between the rice, along with a thin omelet and a layer of furikake. One bite and we lose all inhibition, driving down the highway with taste buds going off. Feeling guilty, we tear the foil off a corner of the roti. It looks bland. One bite leads to another, then another. Chicken, potatoes, curry sauce—so simple and yet perfectly addictive.
Car swerving as we wrestle the wheel and try not to dribble precious curry down our chins, we must look like a Lexington Avenue taxi driver. A happy one.
55-662 Wahinepe‘e St., Lā‘ie, 293-5344