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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
You pick your ice cream flavor, toppings and flavored syrup. Voila, this is Hawaiian shaved ice.
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.
We drove around stopping whenever someone wanted to check out a view. I brought my Holga camera and snapped the scenery.
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!!!
Yama's Fish Market
2332 Young Street
Honolulu, HI 96826
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.
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.
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.
Fort Ruger Market
3585 Alohae Avenue
Honolulu, HI 96816
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.
747 Kapahulu Avenue Apt. 4
Honolulu, HI 96816
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.
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.
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.
2939 Harding Avenue
Honolulu, HI 96816
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.
We bought the lightly-blanched octopus poke and I was very happy with it. Flavored and cooked beautifully.
And here is the ahi tuna poke, which did not disappoint me. For consistency and value, come to Foodland, the land of poke.
Tamura's Fine Wines and Liquors
3496 Waialae Avenue
Honolulu, HI 96816
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.
For those worried about MSG, they don't use it at all.
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.
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.
267 Mokauea Street
Honolulu, HI 96819
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.
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.
933 Kapahulu Avenue
Honolulu, HI 96816
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.
Malasadas are served hot and are really delicious. It was my first time eating it and I loved it.
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.
Romy's Prawn & Shrimp
56-781 Kamehameha Highway (North Shore)
Kahuku, HI 96731
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.
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.