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!



The Joys of Roy’s

It was probably 20 years ago that I visited ROY’S Hawaiian restaurant in Waikiki. And being my first trip to Hawaii, it was my first experience with real – and really great – Pacific Rim cuisine. Prior to that, my “Hawaiian” dining had been limited to TRADER VIC’S, DON THE BEACH COMBER and our own WAIKIKI ROOM at the Nicollet Hotel – frequently pre-made and “scooped and plopped” on the plate.

So when I discovered dishes freshly made to order from pristine local ingredients (before that was fashionable), beautifully plated and often witty, I had entered an entirely new Hawaiian culinary world. So every time I returned to Hawaii, I didn’t miss a chance to visit Roy’s.

Dinner started with a small bowl of salted edamame beans followed by Blackened Tuna….virtually raw (I swear that the tuna was so fresh that it was swimming earlier that day). We continued by sharing a Deep Fried Dragon Roll – a nice counterpoint between soft and crunch. Ginger Chicken Potstickers were just as we had remembered them years ago.

It should come as no surprise that Roy’s excelled. After all, the founder is Roy Yamaguchi….CIA grad from Hyde Park Culinary school and James Beard Award winner. One of his signature dishes, a favorite of Joanne’s, is Misoyaki Butterfish – moist and perfectly prepared ($37). Out of my respect for gluttony, I opted for the Duroc Pork Chop with braised apples and crusted with blue cheese ($39).

Roy built the company to number more than thirty restaurants both in Hawaii and here in the mainland, and then around the year 2000 sold the continental U.S. locations to BLOOMIN’ BRANDS, owner of OUTBACK STEAKHOUSE, CARRABA’S, BONEFISH GRILL and some APPLEBEE’S. I can remember being concerned about that sale. Could a fine dining concept be effectively operated by a casual dining culture? I still wonder about that.

I never gave the mainland restaurants a try and as time went by, the publicity and trade rags seemed to mention them less and less, and it appeared to me that they were fading into restaurant limbo.

Time passes and two years ago we were in Maui and our daughter and her husband decided to give ROY’S a try at Kanapali in Maui. They returned with RAVE REVIEWS. So the next night Joanne and I decided to give ‘em a try as well, probably after a ten year hiatus. And as jaded as we probably were at that time, we came home thoroughly impressed. Roy’s still had all of the attributes that we so fondly remembered – polite, professional artful plating and flavor profiles…and that touch of whimsy that I love.

Let’s return to the sale of the company several years ago.

When I complimented the manager at Kanapali on our dinner, he informed me that Roy retained control of all the restaurants in Hawaii. It made sense, not only because the food was great, but the whole operation had a feel of being very well-tended and loved.

Fast forward to three weeks ago when we were in Naples, Florida. Mainland ROY’S was not our first choice, but all of the “GEEZER TABLES” at our preferred restaurants were fully booked by 6:00 PM and Roy’s had a table available on the patio for the six of us. Now I suspect that you are thinking I’m going to trash the place. I’m not. It was actually pretty good – which was something of a surprise since by this time the restaurant was an additional step removed from Roy Yamaguchi. Bloomin’ Brands off-loaded its franchises to an Applebee’s operator from Texas. I can only imagine how much money it ultimately lost on the deal.

Still, many of the signature dishes from Roy’s Hawaiian outpost were featured on the Naples menu. Szechuan Spiced Baby Back Ribs were there as well as the Macadamia Crusted Mahi Mahi and a $44 Seafood Sampler with salmon, swordfish, mahi mahi and tuna (I often worry about “samplers” – wondering if they’re just leftovers or scraps, but this was good). Our grandson had a great burger, and the desserts were all tasty, especially the Banana Crisp and the Molten Chocolate Cake.

Here’s my takeaway. Roy’s on the mainland does a decent ¬– even good – job with the food. Service is professional. Does it seem a bit more formulaic than Roy’s in Hawaii? Yes. But our experience at the Hawaiian location was special. Very special.

Finally we shared a traditional Hawaiian dish that we should have avoided…just because it’s famous: THE LOCO MOCO. It gives new meaning to the term GUTBUSTER, starting with a bowl of white rice….topped with two half pound burger patties (sometimes SPAM or MEATLOAF )…..heavily napped with brown gravy and garnished with two fried eggs. The weight? I’d say about three pounds.

It’s named after a Spanish teenager from a local sports club who apparently was sort of crazy, thus the first name LOCO. MOCO is a bit more mysterious as I’m told that the Spanish translation is BOOGER!!!

Would you eat a dish called CRAZY BOOGER? We did, so you don’t have to.

Oh, and here’s a goofy thing. A few weeks ago I touted another restaurant in Honolulu called MORIMOTO, only to discover that it suddenly closed at the end of the year.

I’m on a streak: Roy’s in Naples closed up a week after we were there!!!!

W.T.F…….I mean really…. W.T.F. ???????


Tiki Time

With the days getting shorter and the temperature crisper, I start thinking about winter getaways – especially Hawaii.

I read that in the Maori culture in the South Pacific, Tiki was the first man, created by the deity Tumatauenga or Tane. Reflecting that mythology, tiki (lower case) is a wooden or stone carving in humanoid form.

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