Drivin’ to Drive In
Looking for Hawaii’s culinary history? You can drive right up to it.
The whole drive-in thing kind of snuck up on me.
First, Barack Obama came to the Islands on vacation last August, claiming he wanted to go to Rainbow Drive-In.
He doesn’t mean it, I thought, he’s playing to the hometown crowd. But then it occurred to me, a guy who was a Punahou jock in the ’70s probably consumed his share of mixed plates at Rainbow’s, even if Mariposa and Alan Wong’s are more his speed these days.
Later, I went to the (remarkably well-done) Raiatea Helm concert at the Hawaii Theatre. Afterwards, I ended up at a long table at the back of Like Like Drive Inn, having a post-concert bite with Helm’s extended family, most of them flown over from Molokai.
When you’re on Molokai, apparently, Like Like Drive Inn is where you dream of eating in the big city. They were connoisseurs. They knew the menu cold.
Finally, a friend of mine said he was going to take me to his favorite restaurant, the one he ate at two or three times a week. He picked me up downtown, and we cruised into the heart of Kalihi, to the corner of Dillingham and Waiakamilo Road.
“Here?” I asked, as we pulled into the cramped parking lot of Bob’s Bar-B-Que. “It’s a drive in.”
“Duh,” said my friend.
1366 Dillingham Blvd. // 842-3663 // Monday through Saturday 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday through Saturday until 11 p.m.; Sunday 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. // Free parking, major credit cards
Bob’s was humming. It’s the sort of place where you stand in line to order, time best spent surveying the pictures of food arrayed above the window or trying to work your way through the dozens upon dozens of items on the letter-board menu.
In a quandary about what to order, I did what any sensible person would do and ordered the mixed plate ($7.85). Bob’s is basic—two scoops white rice, a scoop of heavily mayo’d macaroni salad, not a vegetable in sight except the bed of chopped raw cabbage under the mound of teriyaki chicken, kal bi and teri beef.
Bob’s is not a kitchen into which you want to spend a long time staring. But whatever state the grill is in, it does a remarkable job, especially on the teri beef, which comes out almost crispy on the edges.
My friend ordered a hibachi chicken combo, the chicken glistening with a slightly too-sweet barbecue sauce ($7.85). It also included, inexplicably, fried shrimp.
We ate happily under the awning at the remarkably thick wooden slab tables, the veneer and even the graffiti worn away by the ravages of time and weather.
On the window, a hand-lettered sign read El Paso Steak, $9.95. On the way out, I asked the gentleman behind the counter just what an El Paso steak might be.
“A New York steak but bigger,” he said. I had to have one, and it’s the best $10 steak in town, maybe a little gristly and fatty around the margins, but seasoned simply but emphatically (salt, pepper, garlic salt?), cut up pupu style, great grilled flavors. Yay, Bob’s!
3145 Waialae Ave. // 734-3673 // Monday through Saturday 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday until minight; Sunday 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. // Free parking, cash only
After my Bob’s experience, I resolved to spend a month eating at drive ins. Admittedly, drive ins aren’t really drive ins anymore. How I miss Alex Drive In on Kapahulu, where the waitress would bring the mahi sandwich and lime slush to your car.
The remaining drive ins are simply parking lots with walk-up windows, but they are repositories of Hawaii’s culinary history. How could I resist?
I could not resist revisiting St. Louis Drive In, where I used to eat decades ago, because (1) I lived nearby, (2) I could afford it and (3) it stayed open late.
St. Louis seemed exactly the same, if older and grimier. The linoleum at the takeout counter was worn away, its surface elided by thousands of Styrofoam boxes sliding into hungry hands.
If Bob’s in Kalihi is about meat, St. Louis is about fish. I ordered the Japanese plate, which came both regular and deluxe. At $8.50, why not go for the deluxe?
The deluxe was the only plate lunch I’ve ever opened to find, cradled in a lettuce leaf, sashimi. The ahi was cut from the thin end of the fillet, but it was perfectly reasonable sashimi, to go with the two flattened shrimp tempura, the gristly teri beef, the unfortunately cold mochiko chicken.
Even better, because remarkably fresh, was the generous portion of fried ahi belly, served with rice and a small paper cup of salad squiggled with an orange-colored Tropics-style dressing. This was history on a $6.75 plate.
Here are some things John Heckathorn had to say in past months. Visit our Dining page to read more reviews!
• Huli Sue’s BBQ Grill
64-957 Mamalahoa Highway,
Reviewed in our February 2008 issue.
Reviewed in our May 2008 issue.
We went back to the counter to purchase teri saimin, having never heard of it, although we should have figured it would be some (undistinguished) saimin with slices of teri beef. For $2.50, we should not have expected culinary innovation.
As we stood at the counter, my friend exclaimed, “They have Green River!” Green River, a noncarbonated soft drink, is a source of nostalgia for people of a certain age in Hawaii. “We have to order it,” insisted my friend.
I’d never had one. A Green River is green all right, deeply, darkly green, with an overwhelmingly sweet, horribly artificial lime flavor. We took it back to the office and poured it around. Everyone who’d ever had one, said, yes, that’s it. Some expressed a deep appreciation—but no desire for more.
3297 Nimitz Highway // 836-0541 // Open daily 24 hours // Free parking, cash only
Byron’s, with its ’60s “Space Age” roof, is tucked under an overpass near the airport. It’s a survivor. It was one of the first restaurants—the first were Leon’s and Andy’s in Kailua—created by a St. Louis High grad named Andy Wong, who died in 1985.
At its height, Wong’s restaurant empire had grown far beyond drive ins, to include such eateries as Wong’s Okazuya, Chinese Chuckwagon, Seafood Emporium, Byron II Steakhouse, Orson’s Bourbon House, Andrew’s, Fishmonger’s Wife. The only other remaining restaurant is Orson’s Chowder House in Ward Centre.
Like the Wong empire, Byron’s has faded. We ordered at the window, much cluttered in drive in fashion with various impromptu signs, and ate at a booth under a sign that forbade drinking on the property, under nonworking cobwebby ceiling fans.
The kal bi here ($8.25) is not kal bi. It’s an overly sweet teri short rib. “No self-respecting Korean would eat this,” insisted the friend who accompanied me.
The New York steak ($8.75) was such a disappointment—hurriedly thawed, we guessed, gray, totally unseasoned—that we didn’t finish it.
What to get? Just for the fun of it, we’d ordered the kalua pig loco moco, the yolk still soft, the kalua pig in a mound, the whole thing drenched in that standard gravy that seems to get slathered on all loco mocos.
It was runny, soft, nasty goodness, complete with a scoop of macaroni salad tucked on the side. Thinking we’d only have a few bites, we’d ordered a mini ($5.25)—and thoroughly regretted not ordering a full portion.
3158 Monsarrat Ave. // 732-0077 // Daily 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. // Free parking, major credit cards // www.diamondheadmarket.com
“I’m doing drive ins,” I told the friend I was taking to lunch.
“You’re kidding,” she said. “You’re going to take me to a drive in?”
We compromised, heading for the Grill at Diamond Head Market. By the standing definition, the Grill at Diamond Head Market is, in fact, a drive in. It was the former Burgerland. You order at a window, get handed your food through a window, and can eat at one of the few tables scattered about in the sun.
But it’s perhaps a Drive In Nouveau, since it’s owned by the considerably accomplished chef Kelvin Ro, who brought over such items as his Portobello mushroom in balsamic jus.
My drive-in-dubious friend ordered an eggplant and chicken in marinara plate, with not mac but green salad and brown rice ($9.25).
I was not about to lose my resolve, however, and ordered a Hawaii Drive In classic, the teri beef plate ($9.50).
Instead of slathered in a teri sauce after cooking, Diamond Head Market’s teri beef is thoroughly marinated, so it’s tender, full of flavor, able to stand up to teri beef anywhere. It came with a mesclun of chopped lettuce, won bok and assorted greens in a honey-mustard dressing.
However, wanting the full drive-in experience, I ordered a side of mac salad—full of green onion, hard-boiled egg, olives, potatoes and that fake crab called surimi.
I did better than my high-end friend. The grilled eggplant, the tomato ragout, with pesto and feta cheese were flat-out delicious, but the chicken breast was a little tired and dry. She did, however, go nuts on her side of fries, proving that drive ins get to everyone.
Outside of the Green River, I’d been drinking a lot of diet soda with my meals, a large diet soda now being the size of a small bucket. At Diamond Head Market, however, let me recommend the Hawaiian honey lemonade, which actually tastes of lemons and honey.
98-110 Honomanu St., Aiea // 484-1940 // Monday through Friday 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. // Free parking (limited), cash only
That was enough culinary innovation—I wanted to get back to history.
For years, I’ve passed the Forty Niner Restaurant on the way to Pearlridge, each time feeling a pang that I’d never eaten at a place established in 1947 and named for the hopes, I always assumed, that Hawaii would become the 49th state. (It wasn’t. Like the football team, it was named after the prospectors of the California Gold Rush.)
I was, in a sense, too late. The original owners had closed the place in 2006, and it had been painted and cleaned up a little and reopened by new owners. Still, it has that nostalgic look—though, admittedly, it’s actually more of a fountain, with counter and tables, than a drive in.
Still, you had to love the metal chairs with the red Naugahyde upholstery tacked down with round brass-headed tacks.
We loved the place, but the food, many dishes of which are from the original menu, reminded you that food in Hawaii in 1947 was not always terrific.
I’d maintained a no-burger policy through the month. I was doing drive ins, not drive-throughs. But the friend I was with insisted it was heresy to come here and not have a teri burger deluxe. It used to crack me up when I moved to Hawaii that “deluxe” meant your burger came with one slice of tomato, maybe a pickle slice or two and a lonely lettuce leaf. That’s deluxe?
The small burger with a characterless teri sauce disappointed him, though you have to wonder what you could expect for $3.25, french fries $2.75 extra. I was about to say I told you so, when I tasted my bland fried saimin with overbattered, hard and greasy garlic chicken.
“So much for nostalgia,” said my friend.
94-226 Leoku St., Waipahu // 677-4345 // Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., counter service only 2 to 4 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. // www.myhighwayinn.com
While I was hitting historic places, I seized the opportunity to drive to Waipahu. There, Highway Inn was established in 1947 by Seiichi Toguchi, who at the time was just out of a California internment camp and looking for a profession that would feed his seven children.
Of course, it’s no longer really a Highway Inn. In its third location, it’s become more strip mall restaurant, with paneled walls and stacking chairs and tables. Still, it’s got that historic feel to it.
Unlike its 75-item catering menu (“Funeral Menu Available on Request”), the restaurant menu is limited. Our waitress, Edna, strongly urged us to order one of the Hawaiian plates—and to hurry up, because at 2 p.m. we could only order from the counter. “I don’t want you to eat on paper plates,” she insisted.
So it was a laulau combo ($9.25), which despite what it said on the menu, Edna insisted would also come with kalua pig (it did). Plus a beef stew plate ($5.25), which was, as my friend pointed out, exactly like his mother used to make in Hilo—tender beef, potatoes, carrots in mildly tomato-flavored soupy sauce which flowed nicely onto the rice.
The Hawaiian food at Highway Inn is fairly standard—lomi with fresh tomatoes and green onions but little salmon, decent poi, some delicious pipikaula and a thoroughly acceptable laulau, though I missed upwrapping a ti leaf to get the full fragrance of the steamed luau leaves.
I am not sure there isn’t equally good or better Hawaiian food in town, but I have to say Highway Inn is one of the most welcoming places I have ever been in. Edna the waitress felt it was her duty to guide us through the meal. I guess we had townies written all over us, because other staff stopped by, asked if we’d come a long way.
In addition to the autographed pix of semi-celebrities stuck on the wall, Highway Inn had something I’ve never seen in a restaurant—a wall with 100 Polaroids of its steady customers, just pictures from the neighborhood, kids, old people, an ohana feel if I’d ever felt one.
745 Keeaumoku St. // 941-2515 // Daily 24 hours (except the Monday going into the second Tuesday of the month, closed midnight to 5 a.m. // Free parking, cash only
Walking into Like Like Drive Inn at lunch, I realized that it’s one of Honolulu’s unheralded major restaurants. At one booth were the HPD brass, in blue dress uniforms with literal brass shining on their shoulders. In another was a gaggle of radio executives. In the front door wandered a pair of Japanese tourists, still rolling their suitcases, ready for their first meal in exotic Hawaii.
Everyone eats here.
Like Like, though it was totally rebuilt in 1994, was founded by James and Alice Nako in 1953. When our waitress, Gloria, asked us whether we wanted soup or fruit cup with our meals, I realized that at Like Like, it was still 1953. The vegetable soup (canned vegetables) came with those little cellophane packs of saltines, so you can crush the saltines still in the pack and sprinkle them on your soup.
I once asked Ledward Kaapana what he was eating at Like Like Drive Inn when his guitar was stolen from his car. He laughed and said, it was his birthday, he had the rib steak.
How could I not? The rib steak ($18.75) comes on a sizzling platter, covered in grilled onions. It was a reasonably good steak, a little tough, underseasoned, though I’d go for the El Paso steak at Bob’s any day.
Much better, full of flavor, was my companion’s thin, breaded pork cutlet smothered in mushroom gravy ($11). She covered her bets by ordering mashed potatoes and then eating most of the nicely textured, golden french fries that came with my steak.
She ate so many she could not eat the dessert that came with her meal. Gloria had a solution for me. She could bring me two desserts, the custard and the vanilla ice cream. She even brought on a side dish the whipped cream that normally topped the custard, though she didn’t recommend using it. No, no, she explained, “The custard and the ice cream go together perfect.”
“I don’t have any aunts,” said my friend. “Do you think she’d adopt me?”
3308 Kanaina Ave. // 737-0177 // Daily 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. // www.rainbowdrivein.com
Finally, I prevailed upon my wife to accompany me to a drive in. Where? I asked. “Rainbow’s,” she said. “Has to be Rainbow’s. I remember eating there with my family, Sundays after my mom finished the housework.”
Should you think a drive in is a drive in, you should stop by the rainbow neon roof right off Kapahulu Avenue and have a mixed plate.
Rainbow is the classic. Limited menu, everything grilled, everything cheap. The mixed plate comes with a large piece of tender, trimmed teri beef, and both mahimahi and chicken, the chicken trimmed and pounded thin, both breaded in what I take to be seasoned cracker crumbs.
It’s a mound of food, ready in an instant, and it costs $6.75 with the tax already figured in. Jaded as I was with diner food, I found myself tucking away every bite. Even the macaroni salad, enlivened with black pepper, was far better than most.
My wife’s pork cutlet was equally good, heavily breaded and doused local style with gravy. A week later she was still craving another.
Rainbow Drive-In was founded by Seiju “George” Ifuku and his wife, Ayako, in 1961. It remains in the family, which has established a foundation to support community groups and give scholarships to culinary students.
Barack Obama missed out by eating at Mariposa.
John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.