Rent a car and take a drive along the highways of Honolulu and there you'll find some traditional Hawaiian dishes, wonderful bakeries and poke stores! There's one of the most iconic Hawaiian restaurants, a no frills but great thrills bakery that locals love and superbly fresh takes on poke bowls. Comes hit the road with me!
Driving in Hawaii has its own indioscyncracies. The most obvious challenge for Australians is that they drive on the other side of the road but Hawaiians are generally very polite drivers. The highways are clearly marked (and since some of them have 10-12 lanes, they'd need to be) and the speed limit? Well that doesn't seem to bother the drivers one little bit. That's just a guide.
Mr NQN are I are off to visit one of the most historic eateries in Oahu but before that we are off to get some breakfast. We are both terribly late risers so breakfast or more aptly named brunch is at Kamemehana Bakery (also known as Kam Bakery) in the City Square Shopping Center or strip mall. This beloved bakery has wonderful baked goods at incredible prices. There are rows of cinnamon rolls slathered with frosting, cinnamon donuts with cream cheese frosting, sweet bread, pineapple upside down cakes and sticky buns. Service is really lovely here and they take time to explain what's popular.
I am here to buy one of their poi donuts. Poi or taro is the flavour of this round, holeless donut, similar to a malasada. These have a crackle glaze around them and they use pounded taro root in their poi malasadas. They are soft, spongy and a little chewy and Mr NQN is smitten with them. The poi donut is gone before I can even say...well poi.
Their banana bread is also said to be excellent so we order some of that. It's moist, fresh and delicious needing no butter slathered on top to be palatable.
When I was buying the items the girl behind the counter asks "Is that all?". But then a cake catches my eye. It looks unlike any other roll I've seen before. This is a poi roll filled with a taro black sugar filling , topped with chantilly and chopped walnuts. Chantilly in Hawaii is different from chantilly cream in Australia and the UK. Here it is a sweet mixture of butter, eggs, sugar and evaporated milk and is shelf stable and sweet and a touch salty. I'm a little besotted by this cake and it's buttery sweet and saltiness. It reminds me of something you would get at an Asian bakery although I haven't seen this before.
We strap ourselves back in and take a drive to our next destination. An LED sign on the highway says, "Pedestrians are not targets, drive carefully." "Wait what?" I say to Mr NQN who has also seen the sign.
20 minutes later we arrive at Tanioka's Seafoods and Catering in Waipahu. This too is in a strip mall and once I swing open the doors I see a huge line of people snaking through the shop. The shop counter starts with the poke on the left, you just tell the staff which poke you want and they'll get it for you and then you go to the bento half of the counter where the hot foods are available including poke topped tater tots along with a range of pre-made bentos.
I opt for the ahi tempura bowl, one of their most popular items which is served in a rectangular takeaway container. The sushi rice is excellent and on top is the tempura chopped up and mixed along with the ahi tuna poke so that you get a really lovely textural contrast along with some teriyaki sauce for flavour. For some vegetables I also bought a quarter of a pound of seasoned lotus root which was crunchy and very tasty. I also tried the ahi patty which a lot of people love - this cooked tuna patty was ok but honestly I didn't see what the fuss was all about.
After some hiking and sightseeing we end up back on the highway, speeding towards the same area that Tanioka's poke was located but on the opposite side. The Highway Inn was so named because it is located just off the highway.
There are three Highway Inns on Oahu but the one at Waipahu is the original one that was founded in 1947 on Farrington Highway. It is one of the oldest family run restaurants on Oahu. Seiichi Toguchi was born in 1914 in Hawai‘i but was raised in Okinawa, Japan. At the age of 14 he returned to Hawaii and worked jobs as a a dishwasher at the old City Café where he met Nancy Toguchi and the two married. He learned how to cook Hawaiian food and was promoted to cook’s apprentice. However with the timing of World War II in 1941, the Toguchis and their three children were interned in Arkansas and California.
Seiichi worked in the mess halls of the Japanese Internment Camps, and began to perfect his American style cooking. At the end of 1946, the family returned to Hawai‘i. After a couple of failed attempts to support the family he eventually decided to make use of his skills cooking. The original Highway Inn on Farrington Highway was quickly a success with customers queuing outside the store. In 1960 they moved to Depot Road below the old Waipahu Sugar Mill and in 1984 the restaurant settled in its current location on Leoku Street in 1984.
As we drive up to it there's Polynesian music playing in the car park that really sets the scene. Service is really friendly and the Waipahu location is a bit more spacious than the one at Kaka'ako and is decked out in a plantation style. The huge menu has a range of traditional Hawaiian food with Polynesian influences. There are also other Hawaiian dishes like Loco Moco, Japanese favourites like Mochiko chicken and yakisoba or luscious breakfasts like pancakes covered in haupia (coconut pudding) sauce.
We wanted to try some of the Hawaiian dishes like squid luau and Kalua pig. The best option for this is the Tasting Platter with pork which has lau lau (taro leaves with pork), kālua pig, chicken long rice, poi, lomi salmon, ‘uala (sweet potato), squid lū‘au, and a square of haupia coconut pudding for dessert.
The laulau is stuffed with pork that has a wonderfully juicy texture. The taro leaves are not meant to be eaten as they're mainly used to seal in the juices (although we did try them, they were tasty and slightly bitter).
We also try the kalua pork which has a lovely smoky quality and is hand shredded. The lomi salmon has finely diced tomato and salmon while the chicken long rice is a noodle soup (long rice means noodles). My favourite is the squid luau with heart shaped taro leaves chopped and simmered until soft. Then onions, squid, seasonings and coconut are cooked together with the soft taro leaves. It's delicious with some rice and hot sauce. The purple sweet potato is also very sweet and sugary and the haupia pudding is a nice sweet treat for the end. The poi is a staple in traditional Hawaiian cuisine and is pureed and mashed taro.
When our friendly waiter brings us our bill you can pay using the QR code on the receipt, a clever way of expediting your meal. After that we hit the highway like so many have before us in search of new adventures.
So tell me Dear Reader, how often do you rent a car when you go travelling? Have you done so in Hawaii?
All food in this post was independently paid for. NQN was a guest of Hawaii Tourism Oceania and flew to Hawaii as a guest of Hawaiian Airlines but all opinions remain her own.
Hawaiian Airlines service from Australia - www.HawaiianAirlines.com.au