As soon as I stepped off the airplane, I took a deep breath, relishing in that sweet Hawaiian air, the scent transporting me back to what feels like a lifetime ago. The last time I was here was about 6 or 7 years ago. I was still in undergrad, I was in a different relationship, and I had barely even begun to scratch the surface of my love affair with food.
When I arrived, it was almost 11pm on a Friday. It had just recently rained, and it even sprinkled a bit as we drove. The damp cool air was a blanket welcoming me back to one of my homes. As I rode the 15 minutes to where I would be staying, I chuckled inwardly when we got onto the H-1 freeway, one of Hawaii’s three interstate highways (take a moment to think about that statement), smiled at the Likelike (pronounced LEE-keh LEE-keh) Highway sign, and struggled to remember which exits I would take most often. I knew that the first few days would involve a bombardment of memories, just like these on the short drive from the airport, and I couldn’t wait.
Hawaii was the first place I lived after graduating high school (literally — my mom, stepdad, and I moved less than a week after graduation). I lived here for four, very formative, years. I often say that it was the best stepping stone to living on the mainland. Oahu is bigger than Guam, has a freeway (!!), but the Pacific Island culture in Hawaii is very similar to what I was familiar with growing up on Guam. Even though the radio stations also played island reggae, and everyone wore shorts with slippers (AKA zoris/flipflops/thongs), and the people looked like the people on Guam, and the climate was almost identical, I was still in an unfamiliar place with no friends or family other than my parents.
What I ended up clinging to most for its familiarity was the food. Although red rice and kelaguen aren’t part of everyday food in Hawaii, there are enough foods in common that it was easy to forgive. The love of white rice and liberal use of soy sauce in dishes were probably the most apparent connections. And, of course, their reverence for SPAM also made things easier. Other than a few cravings for red rice and kelaguen, I don’t really recall being homesick for Guamanian/Chamorro food. I didn’t realize this until years later, looking back at the kinds of food that I grew up with, the kinds of food I consider to be comfort food.
So as not to be completely overwhelmed by the flood of memories and nostalgia on my first day back, I decided to take it a bit slow. I walked to the Ala Moana Center with the hope of purchasing some slippers (because why on earth would I buy them in Boston… in February?). On my way there, I had to step into the 7-11 just to see this:
Living on a meager college student income, I frequented the 7-11 to get musubi or manapua or even pork hash for lunch or to tide me over before working at the university stadium. Musubi and manapua/siopao remain two of my favorite snacks.
When I arrived at the Ala Moana, I headed right for the food court. It was just as overwhelming as I had remembered. More than 10, possibly 15 vendors line the perimeter, with about 5 or so kiosk vendors offering items ranging from boba/bubble tea to Greek gyros to ramen noodles and sushi. I had no idea what I wanted to eat, and ended up deciding on getting something from Poi Bowl, the only vendor serving Hawaiian plate lunches. After all, plate lunch is what brings me to Hawaii. Knowing that the regular plates would be way too much food for me, I opted for the beef curry, all rice (versus one scoop of rice and one scoop of macaroni salad), with an Aloha brand passion-orange juice. Though the food wasn’t exactly anything to write home about, it was still comforting and left me sated.
On my second day, I had plans to meet with Olivia, a very dear friend that I hadn’t seen since leaving Guam. We went out for brunch to The Original Pancake House (after deciding against Eggs n’ Things, which had a 45 minute wait). The food was tasty, the company was even better. Again, the food wasn’t worth much more than a mention, and I am just easing myself back into being in Hawaii.
Monday is the start of the work week, and so too was it the real start of my research. After whetting my appetite with a couple of Leonard’s malasadas for breakfast (only because Champion Bakery is apparently closed on Mondays), I went to Kaka’ako Kitchen with my friend Sunny’s mom (“Auntie”) and grandma, who were excellent food tour guides and entertainment. However, to let the malasadas settle a bit, Auntie took me to various grocery stores that had plate lunch places inside or vendors that sold bento boxes. We went to a Japanese-owned market called Don Quijote (I know. Awesome.), as well as a Korean market, and Japanese chain, Marukai. With the plethora of fresh fish, I remembered why I loved living in Hawaii, and why Boston kind of sucks. Oh, well.
Before heading to Kaka’ako Kitchen, we made a pitstop at Lin’s Hawaiian Snacks, a crackseed store Auntie highly recommended. Considering I had some snacks to purchase anyway for the lovely people who donated to my Indiegogo Campaign and elected to get the perks with “local snacks,” I thought it would be a perfect time to cross that off my list. This is just one side of the store:
Needless to say, I definitely crossed that off my list.
Kaka’ako Kitchen is a plate lunch place, but with a more modern lean. I was hoping to start out with something a bit more old-fashioned, but I wasn’t exactly disappointed. Being an avid fan of anything kalua pig flavored (hold the cabbage, though, please), I opted for the Hawai’ian BBQ Kalua Pork Sandwich, which is “local style kalua pork tossed with [their] Island barbecue sauce, topped with pineapple salsa and crispy fried onions, with coleslaw on a taro bun.” While I declined the coleslaw and did not receive any crispy fried onions (oh, well), the sandwich was definitely satisfying.
Auntie got the Spinach Salad with Crispy Calamari, which had a delightful sweet chili vinaigrette, and Grandma got their Reuben Sandwich with a side of macaroni salad.
For a refreshing after-lunch treat, we got shave ice from Waiola Shave Ice. I usually get something like strawberry and lemon with li hing mui powder, but today I decided to get something different, especially after seeing this on the menu:
Going out for lunch just this one day has been exhausting and filling! I may need to recruit more people to help me with my research so I don’t gain 50 pounds. Any takers?
Oh, and if you were wondering, yes, I did buy some slippers at Ala Moana the other day. Just one more part of reacquainting myself with beautiful Hawaii. Sexy, huh? Next step: work on that tan.