Monday, November 09, 2009

Hawaii 2009 - Meeting the Family and the Poké Party

Hawaii 2009

A few months ago, Jeni received a pleasant surprise in the mail. It was from her grandfather and in the form of a check. It wasn't for her birthday or Christmas, but rather a significant calling. Her grandmother is at a critical point in her aging life and a long overdue visit was not only obligatory but much needed. If we weren't married, she would have probably gone with her family to see the relatives in Hawaii. But being married to her now, I was now an addition to her family. This would be a different and possibly difficult time for everyone in my wife's family, and my first time meeting them. When it comes to Hawaii, many have an overdone perception of what it is. Hawaiian shirts everywhere, piña coladas in an ACTUAL pineapple, oily, tanned people carefully spinning torches of fire, a huge volcano erupting, etc. Thanks to the media, Oahu is pretty much an ugly tourist trap. Until you go with the right people.

The first time I came to Hawaii was a few years back with my good friends. We of course found the best deal we could on Waikiki Beach. Every hotel is either named Beach Front, Sand View, Water Front, etc... and they all sounded promising. We stayed at some place called Beach Comber or something and we enjoyed the beautiful, romantic view of the sunset falling behind a huge gray parking structure above the ubiquitous ABC convenience store. We really never drove around for food but stayed within walking distance. Would it be Cheeseburger Paradise or the unpleasant choices at the International Market food court for dinner? It wasn't until we drove our rental car around the island that we realized how beautiful Hawaii was. It was nice to know that Hawaii was really more than just a view of some fat, hairy guy with burnt red skin in neon green shorts and arm floaties. We had a blast on the trip of course but I think the Waikiki experience really turned us all off. I didn't think I would be going back for a long time.

This time around, I knew it would be more interesting. And more meaningful.

On our first night, we were ready to go to an izakaya after doing research. Instead, we were called over by one of Jeni's aunts for a house dinner. I was kind of bummed because I had my ambitions of eating poké all night long. We arrived, and in the driveway, tables had already been set with all types of take-out food. A few of her cousins were sitting down, and dogs were running around. Shortly after getting a warm welcoming from her relatives, we were handed beers and urged to sit back and take in the beautiful weather. They had local island music playing in the background and I just looked at everyone. It was very... comforting. This is exactly what I wanted to do – nothing. I didn't even miss the hairy white guy with burnt red skin in neon green shorts and arm floaties.

Hawaii 2009

Hawaii 2009

Hawaii 2009

Two hour laters, I felt like I had gotten to know everyone pretty well and simply felt welcomed. The food was nothing to write home about but it brought everyone together a very pleasant evening of jolly-juice-induced fun.

However the next day would prove to be off on the other side of the emotional spectrum. I can see in Jeni's eyes that she didn't want to see her Grandmother in her condition. On their last visit, she didn't even remember Jeni or her brother. We arrived at her grandparent's house on the east side of the island and met her relatives. I could see from the screen door her grandmother's hospital bed facing the opposite direction and prepared to be there for my wife. I looked back and saw that Jeni was getting a little nervous and reached for her hand.

Hawaii 2009

We let her father and brother step forward first to greet the bedridden mother/grandmother and I could see some slight discomfort even in her father who hasn't seen her for years. Her grandmother didn't even recognize her own son. This was going to be hard.

Hawaii 2009

It was now our turn and Jeni said hello and kissed her on the cheek. And she just stared at Jeni with a cold confused look. She had no idea who Jeni was. Jeni's eyes welled up and immediately sat down. I introduced myself and not surprisingly, she said:

Grandma: "I don't know you!"
We all laughed.
Me: "That's ok. I'm Jeni's husband, nice to meet you."
Grandma: "Sorry I don't know you!"

It took a good 15-20 minutes of small talk amongst everyone before we could clear up the uncomfortable silence. We started eating some food and with most of Jeni's family there and grandparents in full view, I think everyone cheered up. Jeni and her brother didn't look at their grandmother much but I knew they were happy to be there. Her grandfather was so happy on his armchair, sipping on his coke can. It was nice.

About an hour into it, Grandma suddenly exclaimed, "Alvin!" She realized that her son was there and that he had brought his children and a random Chinese guy. Her father got up and smiled, saying "Hi Mom, it's me Alvin."

When we decided to leave, Jeni went over to her grandmother to say goodbye. I'll never forget what they said:

Jeni: "Bye grandma."
Grandmother: "Bye! I'm sorry I'm in bed. Next time you come back, I will be up and walking."
Jeni: "Okay, we'll go dancing ok?"
Grandmother: "Haha. Yes, dancing!"

As we left the house, Jeni started to cry and I told her that whether or not this would be the last visit, she made her laugh for that one moment and graced her with family presence. And that's what's important. Jeni and I hope to visit her once more.

But for Jeni and me, you might be able to guess what one of our favorite things to do, if not the main reason for traveling, is to find the most palatable of food and share our experiences with you. Aside from an emotional yet enlightening visit with her family, we had a separate agenda to make the whole trip worthwhile. Time to tuck the napkins in your shirt!

Hawaii 2009

Waiola's Shaved Ice
I've never been into shaved ice – not Taiwanese, Korean or Hawaiian. But the Chinese-owned Waiola Store made me change my mind as Jeni and I fought over this cup of shaved ice. On my last visit, we stopped by Matsumoto's and it wasn't memorable. Is it better engineering on the ice shaver or a better grade of multi-colored high fructose corn syrup? Whatever it was, it was so nice to sit on a bench on a beautiful day and paint the tongue/lips different colors. Her dad told us that this is what they used to do as kids - walk here barefooted for some tasty stuff.

Hawaii 2009

Hawaii 2009

Hawaii 2009

You pick your ice cream flavor, toppings and flavored syrup. Voila, this is Hawaiian shaved ice.

Hawaii 2009

Driving Around the Island
Life exists outside of Waikiki Beach. Should you decide to drive around the island, it's a good idea to buy a plate lunch for a spontaneous picnic along the beaches/shore. We stopped over at this place called Diamond Head Market & Grill, known for their delicious blueberry scones and plate lunches. I had to have my Portuguese sausage and eggs for breakfast – something even McDonald's offers, which isn't bad at all for $4.

Hawaii 2009

Hawaii 2009

We drove around stopping whenever someone wanted to check out a view. I brought my Holga camera and snapped the scenery.

Hawaii 2009

Hawaii 2009

Hawaii 2009

Hawaii 2009

Hawaii 2009

Before we even embarked on this trip to Hawaii, I would tell Jeni just how much I missed real poke. What is poke? It's a traditional Hawaiian dish that involves mixing raw seafood with seaweed, soy sauce, salt, scallions, onions, kukui nut and sesame oil. I heard that traditional Hawaiian poke is made with alaea salt (red clay salt) and seaweed. The Japanese introduced the soy sauce and sesame oil version. And up until this trip, I had NO IDEA just how many types of poke there were. And so here begins another one of my comparison postings so that you don't have to scramble all over the internet looking for the top five places. I could not have done this without the help of Hawaii-based Reid of Ono Kine Grindz and San Diego's Kirk of Mmm-Yoso. Poké party!!!

Hawaii 2009

Yama's Fish Market
2332 Young Street
Honolulu, HI 96826
(808) 941-9994

Our first stop was Yama's Fish Market straight out of the airport. Everyone was in the mood for lau lau, lomi lomi and of course, poke.

Hawaii 2009

The lau lau was moist and steamed beautifully in the banana leaf wrapper. A bit on the salty side but nothing rice couldn't balance out.

Hawaii 2009

Mmm, my first bowl of ahi tuna poke in 3 years. The tuna was cut into nice cubes and had a thicker seaweed known as limu seaweed. Most versions have the skinnier red seaweed known as ogo seaweed. Limu is by far better with its crunchy texture. I devoured this bowl so fast that I got a strange look from my father-in-law haha.

Hawaii 2009

Fort Ruger Market
3585 Alohae Avenue
Honolulu, HI 96816
(808) 737-4531

This was mentioned a lot by locals so we had to try this out. We were a bit disappointed because of the price and freshness of it. Poke on average is $11-13/lb, I believe they were $17/lb! And not to mention that it was pre-mixed and a bit soggy. The tuna had a 2-day old stench to it. I would go back here though to try it once more. All restaurants have bad days unless you're Chili's or Outback Steakhouse.

Hawaii 2009

Hawaii 2009

Hawaii 2009

Ono Seafood
747 Kapahulu Avenue Apt. 4
Honolulu, HI 96816
(808) 732-4806

Apartment 4? What the. Sure enough, if you didn't know you were looking for a little fish market in an apartment complex, you may be missing what I think to be the 2nd best place we tried out of 7-8 places. To avoid getting clowned on by my FIL on my poke addiction, we kept day 1 at two poke places. The VERY next morning at 9 am when they opened, I was the first customer.

Hawaii 2009

I was happy to know that not only did Ono Seafood offer poke, they had special treats like smoked octopus (tako), smoked marlin and tuna jerky that I had not tried before. I sampled the smoked tako which tasted very similar to Chinese cuttlefish jerky, a fobby favorite of my childhood. So good. We both loved it and considered buying the entire stock. But at $5 a pack, not very affordable.

Hawaii 2009

At 9 am, nothing sounded better than the ahi tuna breakfast. Beautiful cuts of ahi tuna are mixed right on the spot and served over HOT RICE. This was simply divine and another dish that made Jeni and I act like hyenas over. Not to mention that this is good and spicy. The next time I'm here, I'm bringing my own fried eggs to eat along with this. GO HERE. We came here twice.

Hawaii 2009

Foodland Supermarket
2939 Harding Avenue
Honolulu, HI 96816
(808) 734-6303

No matter how hungry I am, I cannot stomach deli food from Ralph's, Albertson's, Von's or Pavilion's. The food is not fresh and chilled into a rubbery state. The fried chicken and mac n' cheese may look tempting but they aren't, so don't bother. When I heard that Foodland had poke, we thought about it. Since we had to pick up some picnicking goods for our island drive, we stopped by anyway. And man, I was in HEAVEN – it was like a candy store. They had a whole section called the Poke Corner, or something like that. Everything looked so clean and fresh and the prices were very good. Jeni's friends and relatives said they usually just go here to buy poke.

Hawaii 2009
Hawaii 2009
We bought the lightly-blanched octopus poke and I was very happy with it. Flavored and cooked beautifully.

Hawaii 2009

And here is the ahi tuna poke, which did not disappoint me. For consistency and value, come to Foodland, the land of poke.

Hawaii 2009

Tamura's Fine Wines and Liquors
3496 Waialae Avenue
Honolulu, HI 96816
(808) 735-7100

I only came here for a routine beer stop since they have a great selection of craft beers and wine. I didn't expect much from their poke deli and usually, when you go in to a place with no expectations, you get slapped with a reward.

Hawaii 2009

For those worried about MSG, they don't use it at all.

Hawaii 2009

I drove back quickly to our classy hotel with the view of the parking structure and busted out the two containers of poke: octopus and ahi tuna/wasabi. Both were fantastic. In the octopus poke, I could taste small sea salt crystals which were good. The octopus was blanched even better than Foodland's and the seaweed had maximum crunch. Loved it.

Hawaii 2009

For fun, I decided to try the ahi tuna/wasabi flavored poke. I really like punishing my nostrils with wasabi and this had a very strong kick. My nosehairs were on fire but this was simply divine. I wasn't sure what kind of pickled vegetable was mixed into this... reminded me of Mexican cactus (nopales). I give Tamura's 1st place.

Hawaii 2009

Alicia's Market
267 Mokauea Street
Honolulu, HI 96819
(808) 841-1921

It was our last day and by now I'm teeming with mercury. I could be a lamer version of a comic book hero that uses oceanic powers to eliminate villains and seduce women. My FIL has given up on me and declared me CRAZY. He probably questioned Jeni on her decision to spend our lives together. So with one last request, we ended up at Alicia's Market, a local favorite.

Conveniently located next to a correctional facility, inmates on the loose now have a tasty place to rob. This is a real mom & pop market and full of goodies as you can see below.

Hawaii 2009

Hawaii 2009
This place has way more variety than Foodland for sure. I saw poke made with oysters, abalone, mussels, shrimp, squid, mermaids, etc. They had it all and it all looked very fresh. After a tasting, we stuck with the basic ahi tuna poke and it wasn't bad at all. Only problem with this place was that it was far from where we were staying – it's close to the airport.

Hawaii 2009

Hawaii 2009
Leonard's Bakery
933 Kapahulu Avenue
Honolulu, HI 96816
(808) 737-5591

Leonard's is known for their portuguese fried donut known as malasadas., which are sugar-coated caloried grenades. My FIL requested this before going back to LA because he had enjoyed eating here since he was a kid.

Hawaii 2009

Hawaii 2009

Malasadas are served hot and are really delicious. It was my first time eating it and I loved it.

Hawaii 2009
With every bite, my FIL let out a grunt of satisfaction. He looked like a kid eating it. Beware, this place is a tour bus stop and can promise a mean wait.

Hawaii 2009

Romy's Prawn & Shrimp
56-781 Kamehameha Highway (North Shore)
Kahuku, HI 96731
(808) 232-2202

To really complete the island drive, you've got to stop for roadside shrimp vendors. Jeni and her brother had never eaten at Romy's or Giovani's so we stopped by. With a good 50+ people lingering around the Romy shrimp shack, seems like they are doing something right. But at nearly $13 for 8-10 garlic shrimp and rice, I think it's pricey. It is good but I would have rather continued my Poke Party.

Hawaii 2009

Hawaii 2009

Hawaii 2009
What was once a typical vacation destination for most people has now become an actual home away from home for me since I married Jeni. Everyone was super cool and really made us feel at home. I felt this time around that I had done Hawaii the right away. No volcanoes, hairy people-watching or fire shows performed by oily tanned people. And I hope the next time you go to Hawaii, rent a car and drive out to where people aren't for a picnic. Maybe even do your own Poke Party. Thanks for reading.


Jana said...

great entry... you brought tears to my eyes in two ways... the touching family story and pictures of ahi poke... i will only eat poke with limu... to me it's not poke if there's no limu in it!! have you tried opihi? fantastic... although i think it's hard to find now and if you do find it, it's super expensive...


My heart goes out to you Jeni.

Boyfriend lived in Oahu for a few years and came back loving soy sauce and spam in his macaroni salad and believing in Pele, still can't figure out how that happened.

I always leave your blog hungary, even when I just ate, still can't figure out how that happens.

Anonymous said...

Hm...time to go back and visit my inlaws...

Tricerapops said...

Dude! so bummed fort ruger disappointed - it's my go-to when i'm in oahu. tamura's looks FANTASTIC though...

e d b m said...

Jana, thank you for stopping by. I am with you on the limu – I actually can't live without it. Opihi... is that a fish dish? It sounds familiar.

ABF, soy sauce, spam IN macaroni salad? That's incestual superfusion – it's like putting chicago hot dogs on a chicago deep dish pizza. High five to your BF.

JustJENN, in-laws vs. poke... always a major debate.

Tricerapops, Jeni just told me that Fort Rugers was her favorite as well but they changed ownership according to her family. Apparently the owner believes in 2-day old fish at $17/lb. Aye.

weezermonkey said...

I hate when your blog makes me teary. I shake my fist at you, Dylan.

Reid said...

Glad you enjoyed the poke and smoked taco at Ono. It is hard to find if you don't know where to look as it is a major hole-in-the-wall.

I haven't been to Fort Ruger Market, but I kind of heard that the standard there has dropped over the years. If I want poke, I normally go to Foodland, which is close to where I live and has decent poke.

Hope you get to come back soon and sample more.

Opihi is great. You can make poke out of it as well. The texture is similar to that of a raw clam.

Daily Gluttony said...

this post made me so homesick for hawaii, and it ain't even home! it just feels so "right" whenever i go--i love it there. and you are so right about getting away from waikiki. unfortunately, that's where 95% of the hotels are, so a rental car is a must!

btw, last time we went, we bought a dozen malasadas at leonards before going snorkeling, ate 6 right after getting out of the water, and the other 6 later that afternoon. so good but so gross.

Jana said...

opihis are hawaiian limpets... they can be found attached to rocks and you have to use a screwdriver to pry them off... i think right now they go for $30-40 per pound!

Salty Lass said...

I just stumbled upon your blog for the first time. Your photography is mouth-watering.

My boyfriend and I share a similar quest for poke when visiting the islands. We just returned from a trip to Kauai. For the first time, the island, and our visit, meant something different: it was family, grandma, and the thought of permanency. Unassuming, exhilarating, unique, and yet so far away.

We're back at home [in Seattle] now, but your post still resonates with me.

- Janna

KirkK said...

Man am I homesick..... I do know that no matter how much poke you got, I don't think it was enough! Thansk for the mention in this wonderful post.

Sandy said...

We were in Oahu in July, and tried Giovannis on the north side of the island. The couple that shared a table with us had poke from a local store that was the opposite direction of where we were going.

I got some poke from a Foodland store in Honolulu, too. I'll have to hit some of these places on my next trip.

e d b m said...

WeezerM, ha. Well my intent is not to make anyone cry, no matter what the situation is. I just prefer to tell a true story over a restaurant review sometimes.

Reid, can you bring me some smoked tako next time you come back to LA? Like a costco-sized package. I'm with you on Foodland, great prices and great quality. I think I want to spend more time at Alicia's trying the various types of poke.

DG, now that this is an 'extension of home', I have a lot to look forward to. Although the relatives couldn't figure out why I was so into eating so much poke. But hey, they don't get great tacos from trucks/stands like we do. Re: malasadas, that is too much! I ate one and I was good to go.

Jana, shall I buy a screwdriver next time and go snorkeling for opihis? Is this a tidepool treat?

Salty Lass, thank you for visiting. How was the poke in Kauai? Yeah, I love knowing that I have an extended family there. At least in Seattle, you can get some really fresh oysters!

KirkK, haha if I told my FIL that I didn't eat enough poke he'd give up on me haha. Thank you for your food finds/advice as usual.

Michael said...

After reading your latest post, I feel like I just went on a mini vacation to Hawaii. Thanks for the quick getaway. I enjoyed the stories and especially your pictures. Now I'm hungry....

sarah j. gim said...


Jana said...

haha! more like aqua socks and great balance... they're found on rocks where waves crash into them=o) btw, what kind of camera do you use to document your findings? the photos are astounding!

The Guilty Carnivore said...

Very bittersweet and heartwarming, and delicious as always.

EatTravelEat said...

What a touching story and so MUCH poke! I'm amazed at how much poke you saw and got to try. I don't think I would have been able to eat that much poke even if my visit was for a month...

boody said...

Geez Dylan, I got really sad and teary-eyed at first, but now I'm ok after seeing those food pictures. haha.

P.S. CONGRATS on the you know what!!!! (your photo biz) I likey the website and the photos, of course. You and Jeni are inspiring.

Marti said...

Dude, I don't know you, Jeni, FIL or the rest of the family, but I LIKE YA!

If I ever get back to HI, I am taking this blog entry as a guide. It was great.

Hope the grandmother hangs in there.

rick said...

wow, it's funny, we hit quite a few of the same spots you and jeni did when we went in april, really uncanny. we had so much poke from ono i think we actually overdosed, though after reliving it through your post, i'm craving it again :)

lets go grub soon, i'm down for anywhere.

Christine said...

Usually I'm just a silent reader of Jeni's and your blogs, but this post was really touching. It's hard when your childhood slips away like that. Glad you two made the most of it, though.

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