Eating like a local in Oahu, Hawaii
Posted on February 19, 2013 by Janice
On a recent trip to Hawaii, where there’s no shortage of good food, and where there is tons of fusion, I had the opportunity to be introduced to some delightful grindz (the Hawaiian word for food). Two particular outings left a mark on me.The first place was in the North Shore of Oahu, in Kahuku to be precise. Oahu’s North Shore is famous for its food trucks, especially the shrimp trucks. As the shrimp trucks grew in popularity, among locals and tourists alike, several shrimp shacks began to establish themselves along the highway. These locations are ideal for simple, flavoursome lunches when road tripping in Oahu.
As part of a guided tour, our designated stop was Fumi’s Shrimp Stop. This canteen has a shrimp farm in the back, where it literally produces most of the food it serves. There’s also a separate window that sells corn on the cob and shaved ice, in true Hawaiian style.
The menu at Fumi’s, like most shrimp stops in Oahu, is pretty simple. There are eight different flavour combinations for the way you want your shrimp cooked. Served on Styrofoam containers for take-away orders, they all include two scoops of white rice, a green salad, and a few pieces of fresh pineapple. Other places serve macaroni salad to complement the shrimp, but at Fumi’s, the white rice is perfect for soaking up the sauce from the shrimp.
Juicy, plump, meaty, and sweet. The shrimp options at Fumi’s are: original, butter garlic, lemon pepper, hot & spicy, coconut, tempura, spicy garlic, salt & pepper, ginger, and boiled shrimp with tartare sauce.
I tasted the spicy garlic, the ginger shrimp, and the cold, boiled shrimp – all the better to be able to measure the sweetness of the shrimp in their truest form. The spicy garlic wasn’t very spicy; however, the chunks of chopped garlic, combined with the warm shrimp and the fluffy white rice made this dish very tender. The ginger shrimp plate was sensational. Perhaps not the most typical choice, but seeing as half the kitchen staff were Chinese, and one of them recommended that flavour based on Cantonese cooking, I couldn’t help myself. Slivered ginger, tossed with garlic and butter, drenched a dozen or so pieces of shrimp beautifully.
Both dishes were fabulously messy, as you have to peel the shells off of the sauce covered shrimp as you go. Keeping the shell on the shrimp enhances the sauce and helps with the meat texture, creating a more delicate flavour. There are a couple of non-shrimp options such as chicken katsu, fried cod, and pork chops for those not in a crustacean mood.
Being a stop along the highway, Fumi’s, like the rest of the famed Shrimp Truck stops, is not fancy. The seating area is made up of long tables to be shared among guests. It is unpretentious dining, and it serves a purpose: to refuel and enjoy fresh, local produce. Aside from the kiosk where the food is sold and cooked, there are bathrooms and hand-washing facilities (which are essential because, no matter how cautious you are during shrimp gobbling, your hands will get messy peeling the prawns).
The view is pleasant, the food is cooked a-la-minute, the shrimp are plump, and the portions generous. Despite the distance from Waikiki or Downtown Honolulu, Fumi’s is worth a visit, especially if touring Oahu and driving through Kahuku and the North Shore. Informal, inexpensive, fresh, and full of flavour. A great option to eat like the locals do.
The pā mea ʻai or plate lunch is an essential part of Hawaiian cuisine. Once the plantations began to slow down, and workers transitioned into construction sites, plate lunches were served by lunch wagons. Eventually, those services turned into holes in the wall, small, stand-alone plate lunch restaurants, and finally franchises. With that in mind, I was eager to sample some ‘ono’ (delicious) Hawaiian fare.
I stepped into People’s Café due to sheer luck. Two other recommended locations were closed due to the holidays; it was a fortunate turn of events. People’s Café serves traditional Hawaiian food as well as Filipino cuisine, which is not uncommon, especially in downtown Honolulu. The restaurant has just been refurbished. It is simple, the booths and chairs are covered in bright yellow upholstery, the walls are yellow and white, and the décor includes some fairy lights and small floral centrepieces on each table. The owners take pride in the establishment, and that’s pretty much all that matters in a no-fuss place like People’s Café.
I ordered two combination plates, which gave me a vast variety of traditional food to sample. Each combination featured a main and a number of small dishes to complement the tray of food placed in front of me.
The two stars of the evening were the main feature selections of each combination plate: the kalua pig and the laulau. I had read about both – I was seriously interested in the laulau, being a fan of all foods steamed, wrapped, and infused in leaves. The slow-cooking method behind these two dishes are what gives them their peculiar charm. The meat is broken down and tender, in both cases, and the results soft and succulent. They aren’t complex dishes with intense flavours, in fact, quite the contrary. The magic happens in the imu, or in the oven. The Kalua pig consists of just salt and liquid smoke, yet this pulled pork dish is a standout.
Laulau consists of pieces of salted butterfish and either pork, beef or chicken (in this case pork belly) wrapped in taro leaves. The packed laulau is then covered in ti leaves to be placed in the oven, or steamed on the stove. The taro leaves encase the meat with a thick, green layer, which, once served, creates a soft coating and adds to the magic of the whole dish. The leaves are mild in flavour, but the texture enhances the entire dish. The sensation of cutting through them, and getting to the meat; eating forkfuls of the combined steamed leaves and soft pieces of fish and pork belly, is astounding.
One is given the option of steamed rice or poi as the starchy, side dish in any plate combo. I chose one of each. I knew some rice would pair nicely with the pulled pork and the gravy from the beef stew, however, I also asked for poi because I was curious about it. Made out of taro, this accompaniment was a new experience for me. I didn’t mind it, but I was unsure about how to combine it with the rest of the dishes, or how to eat wit with the meat. The flavour is quite neutral; most locals add salt or sugar, depending on their preference. Aesthetically, it isn’t too appealing – it looks like a purple grey soup. Texturally, it is like thick glue, and I guess it takes more exposure to the dish to appreciate it. It is gooey and at times stringy. Sometimes eaten with a spoon, other times swirled around with a fork. Odd? Yes, certainly for the unaccustomed palate. Complicated? Perhaps a little, but quintessentially Hawaiian, and a must-try nonetheless.
The beef stew was hardy, and generous. The lomi lomi salmon was a small portion, and it tasted similar to a simple salsa or pico de gallo with some additional small cubes of fish. The kimchee (pickled cabbage) was tangy and spicy, and surprisingly complementary to all the textures and slow-cooked flavours on the tray full of food. The teriyaki shortribs were small and sweet, and the slice of haupia, a traditional coconut milk based Hawaiian dessert, was a nice touch to end the meal with.
At People’s Café, one can also order from the à la carte menu, which is a smart way to complement the combination plates. From the market price items such as ahi poke, teriyaki butterfish, to the Hawaiian staples of kalua pig, tripe stew, loco moco (a hamburger steak served with gravy and a fried egg over rice), to Filipino specials such as pork adobo and pig’s feet soup.
There was also chicken long rice and oxtail soups, teriyaki shortribs, beef stir fry, garlic shrimp, pipikaula or jerk beef, and corned beef with cabbage or onions. The options are multiple, the combinations endless, and the cost is very economical.
People’s Café staff members are friendly, the restaurant is run by a family, and the recipes have been handed down through generations. The overall experience was ideal, for the time, the place, and the rainy weather. If I ever had a long-lost Hawaiian relative, this would be their kitchen, and I’d have stepped into it to comfortably sit down for a warm, charming meal.
From spicy shrimp to smokey kalua pig, Oahu truly is covered in ‘ono grindz’. Fumi’s Shrimp Stop and People’s Café had me constantly saying ‘mahalo’, giving thanks, for the fun experience and the good food.
Fumi’s Kahuku Shrimp
55-740 Kamehameha Highway
Tel: +1 808 232 8881
1310 Pali Highway
Tel: +1 808 521-5552