Dining: Parking-Lot Food
The Farmers’ Markets are cookin’, literally.
From my years on the East Coast, I don’t miss snow tires and storm windows. I do miss street food—quick, cheap food cooked right on the sidewalk and eaten on the run, everything from roasted chestnuts to the spicy Middle Eastern lamb sandwich I bought last time I was in Manhattan, a giant, tasty thing for $6.
When I first moved to Hawaii, I strolled down Kalakaua Avenue, anticipating teri meat sticks grilled on a sidewalk brazier—and there was nothing, not even a manapua wagon. Hawaii is impoverished by whatever regulations keep people from selling street food.
Then I heard someone complain about how our Farmers’ Markets are jammed with people looking for prepared food to eat on the spot.
Bingo. We may not have street food, but we have parking-lot food. I set out to get me some.
Kailua Farmers’ Market
Kailua Town Center Parking Garage // Thursdays, 5 to 7:30 p.m. // www.hfbf.org/FarmersMarketKailua.html
Kailua is civilized: It has its Farmers’ Market in the evening, an hour that guarantees folks will arrive hungry. I was not surprised to find food heaven. Garlic shrimp plates! Poi-battered fish! Salmon and capers! New York steak!
I stopped at the booth that offered the most exclamation points, former restaurateur and disk jockey Tom Purdy’s Taro Delight, which offered the Oh Wow LauLau!!! [all three exclamation points his].
Purdy’s thing is finding new uses for taro, like dips and “taronaisse.” But behind his dip table were pressure cookers, which he assured me could cook laulau in half the time as steaming. “Plus the sound, the smell, draws a lot of attention,” he said. The perfume of cooked taro leaves was intoxicating.
The Oh Wow laulau contains tender taro chunks and tangy, fatty salmon belly, wrapped in “plenty leaf,” just as it says on the sign. For $7, it is as Big!! as Purdy’s double exclamation points promise.
I needed to follow up with something smaller, so I wandered by Country Comfort Catering, which was offering deep-fried foods from many cultures—beignets, lumpia and wondrous arancini.
Arancini are a Sicilian version of rice balls, a step up from musubi. You start with risotto—in this case, a risotto with mushrooms. Put mozzarella in the middle, roll the whole thing in bread crumbs and cook it golden brown. It’s sort of like fried mozzarella sticks, except round and actually good to eat, two for $3.
While I was waiting to get hungry again, I stopped by the cheerful Kele Smith of Na Ono’s “Farm Fresh from the Chef,” and spent $3 on a fun-to-nibble Kahuku corn on the cob. Na Ono offers conventional corn toppings, but, ever adventurous, I got mine slathered in shoyu butter and sprinkled with furikake. Not bad.
Refreshed, I went back to the plates. North Shore Cattle Co. was offering everything from steak to burgers. Being in a local-food frame of mind, I ordered the chop steak plate, $8. Mistake. The beef was tasty enough, but the chop steak was soupy and numbingly sweet, with far too much celery and hardly any onion. I tossed it.
Next, I waited patiently in line at Starpoint Catering, where I had sausage and pepper pasta, a big plate with salad and bread, $7. Starpoint’s owner, Kate Wagner, insisted I have spaghetti instead of gemelli pasta—“Overcooked,” she said.
The firm links of mild Italian sausage and the charred baby peppers were cooked separately from the chunky tomato sauce, and still had great integrity. It’s difficult, though, to cut sausages and peppers with a fork in a parking lot. “North Shore Cattle has plastic knives,” said the girl at Starpoint. I figured they owed me after the chop steak.
Dessert got interesting. Gerry Nakashima founded ColdFyyre! [exclamation point his], which makes small-batch ice cream. It’s seriously a niche product, available only at the Kailua Farmers’ Market on alternate Thursdays, made with things like apple bananas which he buys from Na Ono, the same people who sell the corn on the cob.
The resultant ice cream ($3 a scoop) has that little unripe acid tang that sets off apple bananas. While I was thinking how good it was, Nakashima handed me a sample of his “Green Seas” ice cream. “We’re thinking outside the cone on this one,” he said.
What’s in it? Macadamia nuts and sea asparagus. My day was complete.
Sea asparagus isn’t asparagus, though it is a vegetable. It doesn’t grow in the sea, though it thrives close to shore. Its bright green color, its crunchiness and its ability to concentrate marine salts have made sea asparagus a high-end restaurant staple, on everything from salads to sashimi.
The crunch disappears in ice cream, but the tang of sea salt results in a pleasant savory dance on the tongue. Good, though it’s likely to be a tough sell.
Sea asparagus ice cream seems less random when you consider that Nakashima’s booth is next to that of Wenhao Sun, who raises sea asparagus in Kahuku. Sun and I had a pleasant chat, but I was done eating.
After you’ve had sea asparagus ice cream, everything else is just anticlimactic.
The KCC Farmers’ Market
Kapiolani Community College Parking Lot // 4303 Diamond Head Road // Saturdays, 7:30 to 11 a.m. // www.hfbf.org/FarmersMarketKCC.html
The KCC Farmers’ Market is big time, bigger even than the Hilo Farmers’ Market, with more than 70 vendors and elbow-to-elbow with shoppers, like an urban street fair.
But 7:30 Saturday morning? When I inched into the parking lot at 7:35, having left Art After Dark indecently early the night before, a stream of people with ecologically correct bring-your-own shopping bags were already leaving. Have these people never heard of Friday night?
Not only do people get to KCC early, but you have to look presentable. You inevitably encounter people you haven’t seen for ages, people who I’m afraid will go home to their spouses and say, “You’ll never guess who I ran into. He looks awful.”
Here are some things John Heckathorn had to say in past months. Visit our Dining page to read more reviews!
• Cafe Laufer
3565 Waialae Ave., 735-7717
“Café Laufer is on to the trick of eating light and then having dessert,” says John Heckathorn. “Its whole menu … is designed to leave you gazing longingly at the bakery display case.” After eating a cup of hot soup and a salad, finish your meal off with the Coupe Romanoff. This sundae is $11.25 worth of vanilla ice cream, loads of whipped cream and fresh strawberries in a delicious mix of brown sugar and Grand Marnier. Reviewed in our October 2008 issue.
• Ola at Turtle Bay Resort
57-091 Kamehameha Highway,
Heckathorn recommends starting things off at Ola with chef Fred DeAngelo’s rib eye poke, “seasoned with alae salt, togarishi spice mix and a touch of raw cane sugar, then seared rare,” he says. For an entrée, the chicken long rice, with half a chicken roasted with citrus and sage—deboned except for the drummette—sitting atop a soup bowl full of noodles, broth, mushrooms and veggies. If you still have room, try the crème brûlée for dessert. Reviewed in our June 2008 issue.
Sure enough, as I was standing in a long line of mainly Japanese tourists at Pacifi-Kool for a ginger cooler, in the stand next door was my old friend, foodie Marianne Schultz, brandishing a bulb of fennel, its feathery leaves almost in my face.
“I’ll stand in line with you,” said Schultz, relinquishing fennel-buying responsibilities to husband Scott. “Scott won’t stand in line. The whole market has gotten crazy, people aren’t grocery shopping, they’re standing in long lines for something to eat.”
Exactly, I said. It was my intention to eat as much in two-and-a-half hours as I could.
“What have you eaten so far?” asked Schultz. I gave her a quick rundown. Salmon fried rice, which I’d bought from Ohana Seafood for $5, because I thought it was cool that a grandfather and grandson were manning side-by-side woks. The fried rice had green onion and big flakes of skin-on salmon, plus some sort of secret sauce—which perhaps should stay confidential, because it turned out to be overly sweetened teri. Didn’t finish it.
Things got better. “Where else in Hawaii can you get an omelet made with free-range duck eggs?” asked Greg Yee, of a Hauula farm named Blue Lotus. Yee whipped me up a $9 three-egg omelet, the yolks the bright yellow you find with free-range eggs. Duck eggs have more protein than chicken, so they set up a little more firmly than chicken eggs. This was serious eating: melted Fontina, bright, fresh green herbs, mellow grilled onions.
Plus it came with housemade mac-potato salad, brown rice and homemade cucumber kim chee (which was actually much more like namasu). Blue Lotus has a table, with little stools on which to perch. I sat next to a family with three kids eating shave ice. “Mommy, I don’t like this melon flavor.” “Give it to your brother.”
But the most fun, I told Marianne, was Mr. Dango. Mr. Dango himself, Mitsunobu Ohashi, was calling out in Japanese while turning little mochi balls on skewers over a diminutive grill. What’s that? I asked. Mitarashi dango. He handed me a stick for $1.25. Soft fresh mochi, nicely browned, even charred, with a subtle, rich teriyaki glaze. Wonderful.
Marianne did not seem suitably impressed. “That’s nice,” she said when we got our ginger coolers with muddled basil and lemon ($3.25). “What are you going to eat next?”
A kim chee sausage on a bun from Kukui Sausage ($3.50), sort of an incendiary hot dog, real parking lot food because you can keep moving while eating. Then something I never knew you could find on the run: a grilled baby abalone from Big Island Abalone ($7), with garlic butter (the kind out of the Land O’ Lakes tub). Cut into pieces and still on the shell, baby abalone turns out to be great parking-lot food. I couldn’t understand why they weren’t mobbed.
Because mobbed indeed were the Big Wave Tomato booth and the Two Hot Tomatoes fried green tomato booth. Marianne had wandered off in search of her husband, but I ran into David Booth of Events International, who opined that the pizza slices from Big Wave Tomato were the best thing to eat in the entire state.
Alas, the line was too long, and besides, I was filling up. I went in search of dessert, but the throughly outgoing Kaiulani Cowell of Kaiulani Spices had gathered a crowd as she whipped up a batch of curried cranberry fried rice, with lots of fresh green onion and cilantro. For $5, I couldn’t resist.
Finally, I bought a bar of Waialua dark chocolate from Malie Kai ($5). I took a bite and let it fill my mouth with wine-y, smoky cacao flavors as I walked to my car. Portable food indeed.
Haleiwa Farmers’ Market
Highway 83 and Joseph P. Leong Highway // Sundays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. // www.haleiwafarmersmarket.com
Both the Kailua and KCC markets are creations of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation. The Haleiwa Farmers’ Market is different. It bills itself as Oahu’s first completely green farmers’ market. The sign at the entrance says the market is an alcohol-, tobacco- and pet-free zone, although all those things, last I looked, were natural enough.
Still, it’s the only market with a Trash Nazi. A smiling, but firm young woman presided over four bins. The blue one was for the usual recyclables. The one marked “Trash” had an ominous picture of an overflowing landfill. When I went to throw away a plate and what I thought was a plastic fork, she counseled me that at this market those things were made from potato and corn starch and went not in the trash, but in a bin marked “Bio Compostables”—after I first scraped off the food into the bin marked “Pig and Worm Food.” After awhile, I got the hang of it.
The tendency to environmental piety aside, the market has a cool North Shore vibe, certainly more relaxed that the urban bustle of KCC, if only because it doesn’t kick off until 9 a.m.
At that time, there were no crowds, so I could walk right up to the Big Wave Tomato stand and order a $5 slice of pizza. This isn’t exactly pizza, since its crust is so crisped and cracker-y, but the wide slice is dotted with ripe red and yellow tomato slices and a double dose of basil—both in a pesto sauce and with a sprinkling of the fresh herb cut on top, not to mention the melted mozzarella.
Although at KCC the pizza and the fried green tomatoes are in separate booths, here you can get both at the same place—not only a green tomato slice in its warm crunchy panko topping, but also a long, thick slice of zucchini, hot out of the fryer, sprinked with Parmesan ($4).
Since I’d been stuffing myself considerably, this time I thought to bring my wife along. Her mission was to help eat. I cautioned her to save stomach room. “I’m eating all of this pizza, and the tomato,” she said. “David Booth was right; it may be the best food in the state.”
No matter what market you go to, there are many of the same vendors. I let North Shore Cattle Co. make up for their chop steak at Kailua by cooking us up an $8 loco moco, the hamburger patty so thick we had to go back for a corn-starch knife to cut it. North Shore makes remarkable hamburger, full of beef flavor, and tops it with a better than usual gravy. If only they’d left the fried egg yolk a little runny, it would have been perfect.
Time for something lighter. This being the North Shore, there was macrobiotic food, served up by a personable blonde chef named Leslie Ashburn, including a pilaf made of quinoa, “the mother of all grains,” with cranberries and veggies, everything organic, of course ($5).
Then back to it. A $7 quesadilla with chicken, goat cheese and fresh greens, which unfortunately also contained a large quanity of unmelted, shredded, supermarket-style cheese, a surprise since I’d waited 15 minutes for it to emerge.
In fact, I’d gotten so bored waiting, I’d simultaneously ordered a Romeo and Juliet crepe from an equally slow stand called Le Crepe Café—a pleasant enough $7 dessert crepe, with fresh banana and strawberry slices, although the chocolate was Nutella, a commercial spread that extends chocolate with hazelnuts and skim milk and has never really worked for me.
So another dessert was in order: an acai bowl from an outfit called Universal Juice ($5). Then we’d done all the eating we could. “Shoots,” said my wife. “We missed the turkey-tail laulau plate.”
The whole Farmers’ Market thing finally got to us, and we bought bulging bags of fresh stuff. That night, when I tasted my kabocha-eggplant-cherry tomato-long bean-asparagus-etc. stir-fry, I thought, wow, there’s nothing like fresh local produce, cooked right. Maybe I ought to set up a booth and sell this stuff.
John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.