In retrospect, it was the best possible introduction: stumbling into Ono Hawaiian Foods, a hole-in-the-wall on Kapahulu Avenue in Waikiki, after walking from the hotel almost to Diamond Head and back, and ordering the laulau. I wasn’t sure what I was in for except that it involved pork and taro leaves, but we had just seen the white terns of Kapiolani Park and felt like celebrating with something local.
The laulau turned out to be a kind of Polynesian tamale, with an outer wrapping of (inedible) ti leaves surrounding falling-apart-tender pork, taro greens that reminded me of well-done collards, and what appeared to be a hunk of fat but was more likely salted butterfish. Tasty, though. Lomi salmon, pipikaula (dried beef), and tangy day-old poi on the side. And I got to sample kalua pig, which has nothing to do with the liqueur: it’s like Carolina-style pulled pork without the heat, traditionally pork butt cooked in an underground earth oven called an imu. “Kalua” means “baked” or “to bake,” according to my handy Pocket Hawaiian Dictionary.
Traditional South Pacific societies were pork-positive. The islands of Micronesia and Polynesia had a limited inventory of edible land mammals, once you got beyond fruit bat range, and the large flightless birds that the voyagers discovered did not last long. Pigs, though, held up well on long canoe trips and could pretty much fend for themselves after landfall. The descendants of the pigs that the first colonizers brought to Hawaii are genetically close to New Guinean stock, and were probably acquired by the Lapita people, the ancestors of the Polynesians, during early contact with the Papuans some 3,500 years ago.
Clearly pork was still taken seriously in Hawaii. But it wasn’t until a couple of days after that dinner at Ono Foods that I got the point of the plate lunch. A Hawaiian plate lunch consists of two scoops of rice and a scoop of macaroni salad surrounding the kalua pig (AKA kalua pork), or something barbecued or fried; could be adobo, could be Korean shortribs, could be chicken katsu. In this case, at a nondescript drive-in down the road from Waimea on Oahu’s North Shore, it was mahi-mahi, probably not too long out of the Pacific (right across the highway) and done just right.
As Rachel Laudan explains in The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage, a favorite work of sociology-with-recipes, Hawaiian cooks were doing fusion long before that trend was born on the mainland, and not being the least bit self-conscious about it. She calls Local Food a Creole cuisine, the culinary equivalent to the language the islands’ peoples patched together from native Hawaiian, English, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Korean, Filipino. The plate lunch tradition is a global potluck: Japanese deepfrying techniques, Korean marinades, Portuguese sausages, and always the mac salad and the rice. And as vernacular food should be, it’s cheap: that mahi lunch set us back less than five bucks.
Which, allowing for portion size, is close to what you’ll pay for most items at Wikiwiki Hawaiian BBQ, on Shattuck Avenue on the site of a defunct rotisserie chicken operation. If you haven’t noticed, Hawaiian barbecue joints are the latest fast-food phenomenon. Waikiki Barbecue on San Pablo in El Cerrito has been around for something like a year, and there are a couple of chains with multiple franchises all over the East Bay. This is a happy development. I’ve tried a few of them, and while none have supplanted Ono Foods in my affections, none have been really bad either.
Wikiwiki lets you try the laulau and kalua pork as a combo ($8.95)—kind of a pork sampler. Both were acceptable, but I’d go with the kalua pork on points: tender to the point of unctuous, with a smokiness that undoubtedly came from a bottle instead of a pit oven, but was still just about right. You can get it on its own, in either regular (two scoops of rice) or mini (single scoop) portions, $7.25 and $4.75 respectively.
Ron ordered the fried mahi ($6.25 regular, $4.50 mini), which suffered by comparison with our memories of the North Shore—probably pre-breaded, not terrible, but nothing to write home about. She plans to get something barbecued next time, and there are lots of options: short ribs ($6.75/$4.75), chicken ($5.75/$4.25), teriyaki steak ($6.25/$4.75).
For the curious or the hard-core nostalgic, Wikiwiki offers both Spam musubi ($1.75) and locomoco ($5.75), the latter involving a hamburger patty, a fried egg, and brown gravy, over rice. Sides include kimchee and fries. No poi, no poke (Hawaii’s answer to ceviche, usually involving raw tuna, soy sauce, and seaweed), no lomi salmon, no beer—but a full range of Hawaiian Sun fruit drinks.
Décor is minimal. Takeout is available, and they also cater.
It seems like a good place to have within walking distance. Sometimes you just need a dose of the islands, and it can be a long time between Aloha Festivals at the Presidio, or even between Aloha Sundays at the TempleBar. Even without the nostalgia or the rum drinks, Hawaiian grinds (to borrow a Localism) can be deeply satisfying.
Photograph by Jakob Schiller
Cal Hawaii Club members Stephanie Hall, 19, and Brianna Matsuura, 19, await their meal at Wikiwiki Hawaiian Barbeque on Shattuck Avenue. ?