We’ve been fortunate enough to visit numerous tropical regions around the world, but If Joanne had to name her absolute favorite, it would, hands down, be Hawaii. Unlike so many other places, it’s hardly ever too hot or humid here. Squalor is easily avoided. And most areas are perfectly safe.
As another winter approaches, a fair number of Minnesotans will seek refuge in Hawaii, so I thought that it might be helpful to share some of our Pacific island favorites in the coming weeks and months.
I’ve already posted about MAMA’S FISH HOUSE on MAUI; definitely check it out.
This time we’ll talk about WAIKIKI and one of our absolute favorites: ALAN WONG’S, opened in 1995. It’s not located on glitzy Waikiki Beach, but rather a few blocks inland on the 5th floor of a undistinguished building in a semi-marginal neighborhood on King Street. Don’t worry. It’s safe. Take a taxi.
ZAGAT rates Alan Wong’s a 4.8 (that’s really high) and trumpets it as “the dining highlight of the island.”
A James Beard Award winner, Alan Wong is widely credited (along with Roy Yamaguchi) as the founder of Hawaiian regional cuisine – notable for the way it incorporates the islands’ diverse ethnic cultures, freshly farmed ingredients, and the bounty of the Pacific Ocean.
You’ll definitely need a reservation here – which I strongly suggest you make through your hotel concierge, as they have more clout than an individual in nailing a tough reservation. If you can, secure a table on the Lanai, where Joanne and I have frequently seen rainbows through the large windows.
Do indulge in one of their playful and exotic cocktails. They’ll “raise an eyebrow” and bring a smile to your face.
On a single visit you’ll never be able to sample the full array of creative starters offered, so let me highlight a few that we’ve enjoyed.
First is the Whole Poached Tomato Salad, featuring a peeled, lightly poached tomato atop crunchy cucumbers (an ideal textural counterpoint). The “zinger” in this dish is the pool of Li Hing Mui Sauce. No doubt you’re asking, “What the HELL is Li Hing Mui sauce?”
My question as well. First of all, it’s really unusual. I loved it. Others may not. It’s at once sweet, sour, salty, and a tiny bit funky with the flavors of fermented dried plums. We liked it so much that we purchased a couple bags of the plums at a roadside market to bring home.
Not to be outdone, the Soup & Sandwich is a skyrocket among the appetizers. Nothing like school lunch or diner fare, it’s one part Yellow Tomato Soup, and the other part Red Tomato Soup, served up in a 10 oz. “bird bath” martini glass, on top of which is a miniature flat top-griddled sandwich. On a recent visit, it combined foie gras, Kalua pig, and fresh mozzarella between two slices of buttery Hawaiian bread.
My favorite appetizer is the Duck Nachos with Avocado Salsa. It’s good and so unusual, in fact, that I notified Restaurant Business magazine about it. My note got published and subsequently I received a warm letter from Alan Wong thanking me. That was nice.
God, there are so many stars on this menu. One more: “Poke Pines” made with ahi tuna, avocado, and wasabi wrapped in semi-shredded, deep-fried crispy wontons and garnished with a bright red leaf of amaranth.
The main courses are equally inventive and witty. If there are at least two of you, try Da Bag, which arrives at your table looking like a giant bag of Jiffy Pop Popcorn. Your server punctures the foil bag and, as the steam escapes, carefully opens it to reveal a mélange of buttery steamed clams, bacon bits and porky shards of Kalua Pig.
Okay, so now you ask, “What the hell is Kalua Pig?”
It’s a Hawaiian original that you’ll always see at a luau (that is, if you really want to put up with the luau. I sure as hell don’t).
What distinguishes this dish is its unique preparation. In the morning, the chefs dig a pit and line it with large rocks, on top of which wood is piled and set afire – followed by wet banana leaves. Then comes the pig: simply seasoned with Hawaiian red salt and garlic…spatchcocked…and placed over the banana leaves. More wet banana leaves follow and the whole thing gets covered by a soaking wet tarp – on top of which more rocks are piled. They become white-hot.
Eleven hours later, the pig is ready to eat. It’s smoky, fatty and utterly delicious. Check out the images.
I’d be careless not to mention the Lamb Chops at Alan Wong’s. They’re crusted with pistachios, macadamia nuts and coconut. Likewise, the twice-cooked, soy-braised shortribs, served with gingered shrimp on the side, always impress. You’ll also find two Pacific seafood treasures here. First is Ginger-Crusted Onaga with Sweet Corn Kernels resting in a Miso Sauce with Black Sesame Seeds, garnished with sweet, sweet corn shoots. The other house specialty is a nori-wrapped tempura Ahi Tuna with pickled ginger on a pool of creamy wasabi sesame sauce.
And from time to time…not always…you’ll find the “Loco Moco” – Hawaii’s gift to heart disease.
The classic version of Loco Moco is a gut bomb. It begins with a one-pound patty of fried ground beef, dressed with a gravy made from pan drippings, along with chopped Maui onions and mushrooms (some recipes add bourbon to the gravy). This concoction is set on top of a cup of white rice and layered with a heaping scoop of pulled Kalua Pig. The whole grotesque stack is topped with a fried egg. In a nod to healthy eating, the dish usually comes with a pile of Macaroni Salad.
By the way, slabs of SPAM are frequently substituted for the burger patty in this dish, though more often the Spam is simply added to the party.
I’ve been tempted to order the Loco Moco at various joints around the island, but that might mean passing up Alan Wong’s incredible and unique interpretation of his Loco Moco, consisting of Fresh Water Eel, Panko Crusted Onaga, Shitake Mushrooms, and a Half Lobster Tail basted in soy sauce and mirin and finally garnished with a poached quail egg.
Desserts vary, but the showstopper for me is the life-sized Chocolate “Coconut Shell” crusted with shredded toasted coconut, filled with Hupia Coconut Sorbet, and surrounded by fresh tropical fruits.
So here’s my advice: Avoid the unwashed throngs of tourists lining the buffets at the major hotels’ luaus. Head to ALAN WONG’s instead. Trust me, I know what I’m talking about!