An Authentic Luau
It isn't just the food—it's how you make it and who you eat it with.
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Here are some things John Heckathorn had to say in past months. Visit our Dining page to read more reviews!
• Hy’s SteakhouseWaikiki Park Heights Hotel
2440 Kuhio Ave.
Not much has changed about this classic steakhouse in the past few decades, including the décor and the veteran wait staff. Unlike other steakhouses, Hy’s steaks are kiawe-grilled, giving Heckathorn’s rib-eye “a lovely charbroiled crunch to all the edges.” The restaurant won’t “soak you for sides,” either. The “wonderful steakhouse staple,” the baked potato, comes with butter, sour cream, chives and bacon bits.
Ala Moana Center
The takeout meals aren’t just plates. Everything comes packaged individually, first in its own cup or bag, then in a box.
Some patient volunteers have assembled 2,500 cake boxes, stamping them with the church name.
Everyone lines up around long tables. At the first station—this is my job for a while, not requiring much ability—you open the box and place a Styrofoam cup of poi inside. (Fifteen members of the Kihewa family came at 4 a.m., diluted the poi, and filled each container by hand.)
In addition to the poi—some of the mildest and best I’ve tasted—the box moves on to the next station, where it gets a cup of chicken long rice, scooped up fresh into a container, still hot from Uncle Aike’s crew.
Then a cup of kalua pig.
There are actually two assembly lines. In a back room, a table of ladies is mixing lomilomi salmon: the non-mushy tomatoes, green but not round onions, and a remarkable quantity of salted salmon. Others dish it into plastic containers using slotted spoons.
Another table is loading a smaller plastic cup with swordfish-limu poke and opihi.
Young girls bring the cups by the trayful into the main room. Both poke and lomi go into each box. Then a pineapple wedge in a plastic bag. On top goes a plate, patiently assembled by yet another team of ladies early that morning. The plate has a slice of baked sweet potato, dense haupia and a square of yellow cake that doesn’t look like much, but turns out rich and delicious.
It’s a lot of food for $15, especially since the church throws in a chilled can of Hawaiian Sun juice with each box.
When the boxes are full, runners, mainly 11- and 12-year-old boys, roll them on carts to Mel Spencer III in the back.
Spencer has inherited this job from his father. “My dad’s not even here today,” he laughs. “He used to drag me along when I was a kid and give me the worst weekends of my life.”
Now, Spencer insists, he’s got an easy job. He sells takeout tickets in advance, and then on luau day, he hands out takeout boxes.
Spencer’s supposed to pace the operation, so that when people drive up, there will be hot food. He’s worried that he’s taken some big orders. One customer ordered 67 boxes to feed everyone on a job site.
Unfortunately, the pickup for 67 boxes shows up just after someone who’s bought 20 boxes, and just before someone who’s ordered 40. “Wiped out,” he says.
To make matters worse, the opihi runs out, necessitating a run to Tamashiro Market next door.
Things slow down. Traffic backs up to Vineyard Boulevard and even back to the Palama Street off-ramp. It takes more than an hour to catch up. The Lakona family, in charge of feeding the workers, passes out dishes of bread pudding and ice cream to cheer up the workers.
Finally, by 5 p.m., the pickup is over. But not the day.
Upstairs, a group of volunteers has been arranging flowers and setting tables.
I run into one of my new friends, Lorna Matos. I remember her story: She came to this luau two years ago with friends. “I thought the people here were so wonderful, I joined the church,” she says.
Matos worked on the takeout line all day. Now she ties on a palaka apron to wait tables for the sit-down. “This isn’t work,” she insists. “This is relaxation.”
There’s a flurry in the church kitchen. The lomi salmon has run short, and with the Robot Coupe returned to its owner, there’s chopping to do by hand. Uncle Aike’s crew is making yet more chicken long rice.
The guests for the sit-down dinner arrive, colorful in aloha wear. They walk through a buffet line and then find a seat at one of the communal tables that stretch the length of the dining room.
At $25, the sit-down meal seems like a bargain—even before you realize it’s all you can eat. The waitresses are always there to refill your plate, hand you a new container of poi.
Some friends join me at the sit-down. “This is so cool,” says one, several times. “I wonder if it would taste as good if it wasn’t for all this.” She gestures to take in the welcoming atmosphere, the hall of people, the stage full of musicians and dancers from Leimomi Ho’s halau.
Whatever the reason, it’s great food. I set a personal record for consuming poi and kalua pig.
The crowd leaves. After cleanup, it’s time for church.
Kellie, who insists her brain is fried, gets up in front of the small congregation and says, “It’s been a good day.”
They sold out, people liked the food, but there were two things that were more important than that: tradition and fellowship.
Kahu Kamanu offered a prayer. He thanked the Lord not for the money, not even for helping them get through a long day. “Thank you,” he prayed, “for all the new people the luau has brought into our lives.”
John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.
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