Monday, April 2, 2012

Mixed Plate: Tastes of a Journey and Local Bites to Cure Hawaii Blues

I meant to post the Hawaii-goodness sooner, but you know how it goes after you take some time off: the plunge back into the work week, battling an insistent cold likely picked up from the gazillion germs shared on the plane... you know, life. It's all the stuff that happens in that long space of time called Not on Vacation, which after a while, reminds you that you need more Being on Vacation time. Can anyone say "Hamster in a Wheel?" Bah, that's just the work week talking! Well, here's all the ono kine grindz that's fit to blog, plus my new outlet for when I'm feeling the craving for local flavorLet the Hawaii Hot Tub Time Machine begin!

Pineapple in bloom -- who knew it could look like this? - Photo by Wasabi Prime
I spent the first part of my trip in Kaneohe, on the island of Oahu. Most of Wasabi Mom's family is on this island, so I get to spend a couple of days hanging out with aunts, uncles and cousins. I love it. It's nice and relaxing. I get to see how big my cousins' children are, get a slice of local politics, and of course getting caught up on what everyone's up to. And "what everyone's up to" of course means, "x-number of days until the next visit to Las Vegas." My family isn't the only ones obsessed with The Ninth Island -- anyone familiar with real Hawaii-livin' knows it's all about doing the waltz with Lady Luck and hoping you come home Big Winnahz. The one thing I've learned about traveling is that it's a very personal thing. Magazine covers showing off far-off exotic lands in East Asia or the urbane sparkle of Paris are showing that because it's what they think that you think you should be seeing. And they're not wrong. But no one's going to die of cultural malnutrition if you don't hike to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro and try to Foursquare it like a d-bag. I go to Hawaii for the thing that surpasses its beaches, volcanoes and rainforested vistas -- the ohana of family. And oh yeah... dessert.

The best views in town - natural flora and fauna... and baked goods - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Hawaii has amazing bakers, both professionals and home cooks. I'd like to believe it just feeds into this mentality of celebrating the sweetness of life because in the Aloha State, people are so happy-go-lucky! It really does take me a day or two, just slipping into that rhythm of mellow Hawaii-normalcy, which is probably better for your health, at least until someone brings out the dessert tray. I got a chance to sample one of the award-winning cupcakes from Honolulu's Hokulani Bake Shop. They had just won on an episode of Food Network's Cupcake Wars, which had aired less than a week before I came. They were understandably on Cloud 9, selling out fast, but my cousin Deven was quick on the draw, getting a box of their signature sweets and their coveted award-winning flavor, a chocolate cupcake with vanilla frosting, topped with a Port wine reduction and a preserved cherry. The original version on the show actually had a bit of cow's tongue on it; it was treated like how you've seen some add bacon to a cupcake. Don't ask me, the Cupcake Wars show seems to take sociopathic pleasure in making their bakers use bizarre stuff as a challenge. They had one where sardines were an option. What is wrong with you? Do you secretly hate cupcakes? Because that's a surefire way of ruining one's sweet tooth for like, ever!

But sweeter times won out, and I did enjoy Hokulani's goods and very glad they were victorious in Cable TV-Land. Their cake consistency is fluffy, really light; it's different from the heavier cake consistencies that the Seattle area cupcakeries lean towards. Hokulani's consistency that's very in-tune with Hawaii cakes -- fluffy and airy. Chantilly cakes, chocolate Dobosh/Dobash -- these are all signature cakes you always find in Hawaii bakeries and they're really delicate and spongey. I'm sure it was a result of living in a hot, humid place where you don't want your sweets to weigh you down. If you do want something truly rich, hop a few islands over to the Big Island of Hawaii and visit E-Claire's Bakery, in Hilo. E-Claire's is right next to the Hilo Library, perfect for walking to after trying to teach my mom how to use the internet and learning how overwhelming modern technology is. We admired the lovely cakes, but erred on the side of restraint and picked out a couple of their perfectly-sized mini eclairs. They're about the length of your palm, but with a punch of richness, since it's a split pastry filled with thick, chilled Bavarian cream, and the top is covered in chocolate ganache. Much like the Hawaii-style of creampuffs, the filling isn't light and fluffy,  it's more like a thick mousse or pudding. Oddly, the baked cakes are light as air, but the cream fillings are heavy like a stone -- go figure. I wasn't complaining because the eclairs of E-Claire's were lovely and I was glad we got the minis to-go, I'd probably have eaten like five more of 'em. *burp*

The only volcano you ever want to enjoy, one filled with melted chocolate - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Even when I was wandering the lava fields, marveling at Mother Nature's majestic power and the awesome might of Madame Pele... I was thinking of dessert. I rode shotgun with my friend and old UofA pal, Lauren King, who writes for the Virginian Pilot and is an awesome person. This was her first visit to Hawaii and she very wisely chose The Big Island to explore. We of course went to Volcanoes National Park, which pretty much takes the whole day to get a basic exploration of it. If you want more details about the park, I have a much bigger post here, from an earlier trip. On this trip, we did our exploring and finished off our adventure back in Hilo, at the fabulous Hilo Bay Cafe. Tasty ahi tuna poke, cold Kona Brewery beers and sweet, sweet molten chocolate cake in the shape of a volcano. We didn't just explore a volcanic natural wonder... we ate one, too!

Hawaii loves pink food, you should know this - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I arrived on the Big Island on 3/3, which is traditionally Girl's Day or Hina-Matsuri in Japan, if you're up on your obscure international celebrations. It's not so obscure in Hawaii or anywhere that has a fairly large Japanese-origin population. A springtime festival meant to celebrate young girls and bestow blessings for a happy future, it's generally marked by the decoration of special ceremonial dolls depicting the imperial family and eating girly-looking mochi. While living in California, on Girl's Day, we all brought our ceremonial doll collections into school and could wear our kimonos. It was fun. Girly Halloween with toys we're not supposed to touch. It wasn't until I moved to Yee-Haw Arizona that I realized how totally weird I was and nobody did that kind of crazy thing in Red Blooded America-ville. Lesson learned. But being in Hilo on Girl's Day, I had a lovely tray of fresh mochi from Two Ladies Kitchen waiting for me. And it was my favorite kind -- simple, no filling, with pretty colors! Their amazing shop gets featured on TV or articles because they do the real-deal for traditional mochi making. And they make these beautiful fresh whole strawberry-filled mochi cakes, but it's seasonal, so just keep an eye out for those if you happen to be in their shop.

Beyond Girl's Day, there is a surprising amount of pink food to be had. I had some fresh mochi from KTA, the local grocery store, which should honestly be the model for all local grocery stores. KTA sells a lot of locally-made products, in particular, the cute little wedges of pink Chi Chi Mochi (sweet milk rice cake) made by Gladys Harada. She's an amazing cook -- she makes the mochi for KTA as well as for local fundraisers, all in her home. She also makes her own strawberry-vanilla ice milk, which is like the Maui-style guri-guri ice cream. Normally it's not my favorite, but her secret recipe is perfect; not too sweet, just right. She made a special batch for us when she came over for dinner -- Gladys is also one of my dad's classmates and there was much discussion over their next high school reunion. In Vegas, of course. Welcome to the city of Hilo -- everyone's either related and/or went to school together. It's just that kind of town.

Shopping the market for hooker soap and sending some Aloha home - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Of course I went to the farmers market, and after admiring all the fresh tropical goods, I went for my usual stops, getting some Kau coffee (Kau is the new Kona, don't you know?) and the Filthy Farmgirl folks, who always have labels that make me L-O-L. I bought an armload of coffee and soaps, which could have been roughly stuffed into my carry-on bag without prompting the ire of any TSA worker, but I opted to do my usual Hawaiian Suitcase and mail everything home in a handy-dandy USPS box. Even the US Postal Service has some serious Hawaii Love, as they have special boxes just for Da Islands. They know everyone has to ship stuff Priority Mail if you want something sent without spending a month on a barge.

It's spectacular, but it's no Spam Musubi - Photos by Wasabi Prime
 I'm always sad to leave. And it's not because I'll miss spectacular waterfalls and incredible ocean views. Like I said before about travel being a personal experience, I go to paradise for personal things that will likely never appear on any Top Ten Lists. I looked forward to every morning taking a walk through the neighborhood with my mother. I loved sitting in a crowded living room with all my family, having dinner and having our typical "couch family portrait." I even appreciated seeing the high price of gas being offset by a Vienna Sausage supersale at Longs. It sounds so mundane, but it centers me. And having a locomoco lunch that my dad cooked for us is pretty awesome.

The everyday views of Hawaii that I love best. Maybe not the gas prices or the bugs - Photos by Wasabi Prime
So of course I return to Washington with a Hawaii Hangover, a yearning for simple pleasures, the familiar sound of Pidgin, and that kind of home-cooked flavor that's an umami unlike any other. What's a Hawaii-bereft, katonk girl to do?! I was so glad to have found The Box on Wheels. Adding another patch to a delicious quilt of food trucks in the Seattle area, The Box is like a trip to Hawaii without spending all your frequent flyer miles. They make stops all over the Eastside; check their Facebook page for the most updated schedule. Chef and owner Reis Llaneza is not only from Hawaii, but born in Hilo -- super-duper awesomeness. He makes fantastic food with local Hawaii roots and a nod to the Northwest's love of mixing flavors and super-fresh ingredients.

The Box's Chicken Karaage - so ono kine! - Photo by Wasabi Prime
I don't have to say much, because The Box's food will speak for itself. It's just wicked tasty, or "some good!" if you were from Maui. Chicken Karaage - crispy, sweet with a little spice: so ono! Newest menu item, Kalbi Kushiyaki, with marinated beef skewers and their house made sunomono pickles: plenty ono! Their pork hum bao, one is smoky shreds of kalua and the other is a sweet, rich slab of pork belly: ridiculously ono! Really wonderful food and I'm just super happy to see local Hawaii folks who can bring the cuisine style to the Mainland and get more people to really dig into Island-style grindz. True, it's not exactly like what someone else would make at such-and-such a spot on this particular island, but that's the point, people are innovating with food all the time, and these dishes are perfect for the crowds here wanting something different and really flavorful. It's something unique -- not all Hawaii and not all Washington; the perfect blend of both places, and it all tastes like Home.

Find the Box on Wheels. Eat lots of yummy food. Repeat as necessary - Photos by Wasabi Prime


  1. Just so you know...I literally licked the computer screen. From top down. And went back to lick the karage photo once more. DELISH!

  2. Ok, I'm drooling now and itching for a return visit to Hawaii. Guess I'll have to travel to the Eastside until that itch can be scratched ;)

  3. I want to find the BOX NOW!!! :)


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