An all-star lineup of luau picks for Mother's Day

Dave Reardon, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
·11 min read

May 5—Wow, no laulau. No kalua pig either. And no lomi salmon, no chicken long rice.

How can you have a Hawaiian food all-star plate without those standards ?

Easy. With a lot of help from friends and family, we've created a fantasy feast to celebrate Mother's Day—not by replicating the same-old, same-old, but by hitting up various Oahu eateries for more distinctive favorites to bring together for a great meal.

At a luau, I'm one of those guys with lots of little cups of poi, collected from people who don't want theirs (maybe bartered for my haupia ). I try to practice to-each-their-own, so eat all the rice you want with your laulau ... especially when it means I get more poi.

When my mom was hapai with me she couldn't get enough raw fish, and she says my favorite foods as a baby were poi and dry aku.

Then we moved.

From the time I was 3 until 15, we lived all over the continent. This was the 1960s and'70s, so we had rare access to anything to eat that even pretended to be Hawaiian—to the point that my siblings and I didn't know the difference between Hawaii food and Hawaiian food.

In 1974, one of my football teammates in San Jose was a part-Hawaiian kid, too.

"Yeah, I love Hawaiian food, " he said. "Saimin, sushi, all that stuff !"

My eyes lit up. "Me too !"

When I told my mom about that exchange, she just shook her head the same way she did when we were served sweet-sour pork at a Disney World "luau." Even us kids knew that wasn't Hawaiian food.

Still, it was obvious we'd been away too long. In the past nearly 50 years, I've more than made up for lost time. But I can't be too snobby about defining "real " Hawaiian food. Where do you draw the line, anyway ... or when ?

When the first people arrived in Hawaii more than 1, 500 years ago there was little to eat. Even taro was imported from the Marquesas Islands, and ulu was "survival food " for the long ocean journey. Then taro roots and breadfruit trees were planted here, Hawaiian historian Mark 'Umi Perkins said.

"There was barely anything edible. Just what the tides brought or the winds blew in, a few ferns, " Perkins said.

That means no laulau, no kalua pig, no lomi salmon, no chicken long rice.

Usually, the difference between what is "local " and what is "Hawaiian " is clear to kamaaina. But good luck finding consensus regarding food.

"Authenticity means different things to different people, " says Haili's Hawaiian Foods owner Lorraine Alo. "And that's OK."

NAAU Haili's Hawaiian Foods, 760 Palani Ave., 735-8019 There's a notion, promoted by reality TV, that it takes guts to eat guts. But many people grew up without the luxury of considering offal as awful. It's what they had, and if there was a fear factor it was of going hungry or getting lickins.

My mother and godmother were raised in Kalihi during the Great Depression and World War II. Back then they were Elva and Sandra Ho, sisters a year apart in a huge family. My grandfather, Henry, worked at a grocery store, and they always had enough to eat. My grandmother, Ellen, taught them (and later, me ) that Hawaiians could turn almost any part of an animal into something delicious.

Naau is among favorites of my mom and auntie. Mine, too.

It's made from pork intestine, and takes a lot of time and effort to clean. Some people can't get past the idea of eating any part of a digestive tract. I never knew what the fuss was because when stewed there's no bad smell, and these chitterlings are the main ingredient of a tasty and nutritious (because of the taro leaves ) soup.

Naau isn't served at all Hawaiian restaurants, but it's always been available at Haili's ($5.95 /half pound ), and is far from their most "challenging " item. You can also get loko (organ meat combination ) or ake (raw beef liver ). For some Hawaiians, these are delicacies on par with opihi (which Haili's also has ).

Haili's was founded by Rachel and Peter Haili in 1948 and was one of the first places where you could buy fresh poke.

Full disclosure : Some of the kids in the Haili family had the same babysitter that I did as an infant, my grandma, Ellen Ho. Their mom and five aunties all worked in the family business, which at the time was at the Ala Moana Farmers Market. It became a restaurant in Kapa ­hulu in 2007. One of the sisters, Lorraine, is the owner now, taking the baton from another sister, Rachel, in 2012.

That connection to my family is just part of why Haili's is my favorite place for Hawaiian food. Another is any visitor can find something they'll like on the menu, even if it's a kalua pig wrap or shoyu chicken plate lunch ... and if they're adventurous there are lots of other ono things to try.

SQUID LUAU Laverne's Lunch Wagon and Catering, Waikele Shopping Center parking lot, 551-8214 Most people as experienced as my mother know what they like, and it doesn't change much. Since she loves pastele stew, a few months ago I got her some from Laverne's because it's near her house.

She enjoyed the pastele, and I agree it is yummy. But the real revelation was Laverne's squid luau : "Look at how big these chunks are !"

I was as surprised as Mom. Before this, every time I'd had squid luau, the pieces of squid were microscopic.

But Laverne's squid luau ($11.75 plate, $7.95 side portion ) doesn't just ace the eyeball test. Those humongous pieces mean you get to actually chew and taste the squid.

And here's why the luau itself is the best : Too often, I'm forced to drown squid luau in nioi (chile pepper water ) because it's just way too sweet, made with so much coconut milk that it makes me think they added sugar. Laverne's doesn't have that problem, and I can add just a couple drops of chile pepper water to complement the other flavors, like it's supposed to.

Laverne's is in a row of trucks that also includes shave ice and Leonard's malasadas. There's always lots of parking, and the service is consistently excellent.

It's now a regular stop on the way to Mom's.

FRESH POI Waiahole Poi Factory, 48-140 Kamehameha Highway, 239-2222 There was a time when I'd happily make a 60-mile round trip for poi. That was 25 years ago when I lived on the continent.

It takes some prodding now, with at least three places where I can get it within walking distance.

But enough trusted sources told me the finest poi from an Oahu restaurant is on the North Shore. Plus, there was a bonus : On the way I could stop at the home of Daniel Anthony, Mr. Paiai, and get some of the hard-to-find concentrated poi base that you can do all kinds of fun and delicious things with (like steam it and mash it with sweet potato ). Anthony ships paiai worldwide from manaai.com for $25 a pound.

Back to Waiahole (and I will be back, soon ): It lived up to the hype. I agree with my cousin Mariellen Jones.

"It is the best, by far. It's so fresh and creamy, " says Mariellen, who is lucky to live in Kaneohe. "You know what I really like about them ? If you can't get there until late afternoon, they still have. Even though they're so busy, they never run out. The lines are long, but it goes fast. Just talk story with the people in line and the time goes fast."

Poi is $8 a pound, or $2 for a 4-ounce side. The typical plates are $9.80 or $12 for combos.

"Fresh and creamy " could be WPF's motto, since that's also an apt description of its signature dessert, Sweet Lady of Waiahole, made of kulolo and haupia ice cream ($4.50 one scoop, $6 two ). It's guaranteed to get you humming.

If you'd rather not wait in line, order ahead at. Even if you're driving from town the poi will be fresh when you get there.

PIPIKAULA AND SMOKED PORK Highway Inn Kakaako, 680 Ala Moana Blvd., 954-4955 Pipikaula originated out of necessity. Paniolos needed a portable, tasty protein source for long stints out on the range and dried beef was perfect. That's why some people call it Hawaiian beef jerky.

Or, they used to.

No two versions of pipikaula are the same. It does indeed resemble jerky at some restaurants, or even pastrami when tender and flavored with chiles.

"Pipikaula " translates to "beef rope " in Hawaiian, reflecting the chewy texture of original versions. Few people need to eat while riding a horse these days, and the pipikaula tent now seems to cover any dried beef dish—sometimes not so dry and served up hot.

Highway Inn's saucy combo ($14.95 ) with smoked pork, onions and peppers is like a deluxe version of another local favorite, chop steak. This is one Hawaiian food I would rather eat with rice than poi.

The longtime favorite pipikaula of many is served at Helena's Hawaiian Foods. It resembles kalbi, but the juicy pieces are thicker than the Korean short ribs.

"Helena's is almost like a steak, " my friend Tim Lee says. He suggests soaking it in chile pepper water for five minutes. "If you try it this way, and chase it with a slice of raw onion, it will broke your mouth and change your life."

I've had Helena's pipikaula many times. Highway Inn's is my current No. 1, but I'll definitely give Tim's variation a shot.

WHITE CRAB POKE Select Foodland stores, at the poke counter What a thing, this place called the internet.

Two minutes after reading a supposedly big-time chef's warnings that it's very dangerous and "just about impossible to eat a raw crab, " I'm watching a video of a guy in Hawaii doing exactly that, and saying, "Look, the bugga leg still jittering."

Of course you can eat raw crab and live to tell the tale.

Maybe the conflicting information is because there are hundreds of kinds of crabs, and the ones many people are familiar with taste better and are easier to eat when cooked (to them, anyway ).

Although I've never consumed one right off the reef like braddah in the video, I have had raw aama crab nearly as fresh. Yes, it is delicious.

I love all kinds of raw seafood. I'm also a fan of convenience, and that's why my fishing and crabbing is done at Foodland.

This local grocery chain has long been famous for poke—even before some of its stores became gourmet supermarkets with restaurants and bars. Not all locations carry all the poke items, so it's best to call ahead. I found mine ($7.49 per pound ) at Kahala Mkt. by Foodland, across Waialae Avenue from Kahala Mall (732-2440 ). Another option is to order for delivery at $28.99 per 4 pounds from foodland.com.

The crab at Foodland is the white swimmer variety. They make for good eating because they're small enough that you won't break your teeth on the shells, and big enough so there's enough meat to make it worth the effort and mess. The flavor is sweet and salty but not overpowering.

Inamona (roasted and chopped kukui nuts ) is the key ingredient of the light sauce—and is the element that makes this raw crab distinctly Hawaiian.

HONORABLE MENTIONS Here are some other contenders that were hard to leave off our Top 5 :—Alicia's Market : Mike Cherry, the former local sports and newscaster from Maui, misses Alicia's something fierce. "I like New Hampshire, " he says. "But you can't get their ahi belly here."—Young's Fish Market : Everyone seems to have a different favorite for laulau, but Young's has a strong following. The elusive butterfish variety is available twice a week.—Fresh Catch : A great variety of poke is served here, including lomi oio, the scraped bonefish paste that can be hard to find.—People's Cafe : The kalua pig is excellent, almost imu quality.—Mud Hen Water : A dish of buttered ulu combines the flavors of black bean, cilantro and butter on the versatile canvas of breadfruit.------You can do this, too : Assemble all these plates for your own luau, if you're willing to drive all around the island. Just remember the first rule of Hawaiian food : "As available." Order ahead if you want the best and freshest items. Most of these places do lots of catering, and as we get closer to masks-off, parties-on, they will get busier.------