Dining: Eating Outside the Box
Someone out there in restaurant land was doing some unconventional thinking, perhaps just to keep me from getting bored.
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Tucked away on my computer desktop, I keep a list—not of restaurants to eat at, that’s never a problem, but restaurants that seem interesting enough to write about.
This month, I looked at the list and scratched my head.
Even by my standards, it was an eccentric assortment of eateries: A downtown paninoteca. A Nepalese restaurant in Kaimuki. A high-end macrobiotic cafe. And a venerable takeout place turned out by its landlord into a lunchwagon.
The only common denominator? They were individually out of the ordinary. And as a list? Sort of weird and wonderful, definitely not boring. It was the least I could do to eat at all four.
Haili's Hawaiian Foods
1020 Auahi St. // 808-593-8019 // Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. // www.mybackyardluau.com
I am as fond of Rachel Haili as I could be of anyone who once fed me ake maka, raw beef liver dotted with inamona (crushed kukui nuts) and hairy with ogo. She at least handed me a napkin, just in case I spit out the first bite. I didn’t. I’ll eat anything once, though in the case of ake maka once was enough.
Haili is one of three sisters, the second generation to run Haili’s Hawaiian Foods. The ake maka was part of lesson eight years ago in real Hawaiian food that also included aama crabs, loko (don’t ask) and raw octopus—none of which were included in the mainstream Hawaiian fare they dished up at their half-century-old stand in the Ward Farmers’ Market.
You hate to see an institution go down, and Haili’s looked like it might when a reshuffle of Ward tenants pushed them and other vendors out of the market. “We didn’t want to lose our customers in this location,” says Haili.
They didn’t. “The Ward people suggested we do a lunch wagon,” she says. At first she thought, “No, no, that’s too small. I can’t do what I do.” But then she remembered her Chinese mother running a lunch wagon at KCC, so now there’s a brightly painted, shiny new lunch wagon parked across from the Ward Theatres, with a few picnic tables in a landscaped strip along the parking lot.
Haili’s Backyard Luau, they call it. Which works if you happen to have Auahi Street running through your backyard.
We stopped by, ordering a Hawaiian combo plate ($8.50) and a pelehu steak plate ($9). “We have squid luau today,” said the girl at the counter.
“Get it, get an order,” said the friend who’d joined me. “Don’t even hesitate.”
I’d ordered the combo plate because it came with Haili’s pork laulau, which manages an extraordinary richness without adding the usual square of fat. In addition, it has a dense layer of taro tops. Taro tops, when cooked, look like moribund spinach, but Haili’s still have a wonderful, almost floral fragrance, and a slight mint tang.
The plate—actually a cardboard cafeteria tray—came with some watery lomi salmon, a spicy poke made with au (swordfish), some tasty but nearly chickenless chicken long rice.
Much the same, minus the laulau, came on the steak plate—bite-size pieces of steak, marinated in the usual garlic, pepper and sugar, with a texture that made it obvious somebody had been at it with a meat tenderizer. The steak came with a housemade mango and pepper salsa, which was good, but unnecessary.
Since my friend was diverted by the squid luau, I stole as much steak as possible. I like squid luau, which despite the name invariably contains octopus, not squid. But the coconut-taro tops stew is often too sweet for me to consume in any quantity. Finally my friend set down his plastic spork. “Pau?” I asked.
“After you eat all the octopus, the magic’s gone,” he said.
Haili’s still has some magic going for it. “Business has been picking up, the location is so visible we are getting tourists,” says Haili. “They’re cute, always asking, ‘What’s poi?’”
The Haili clan intends to keep the lunchwagon going even after it completes its move to a new location, probably on Kapahulu Avenue. Look for it. Order the laulau.