Just a few weeks ago, we went on an adventure of a lifetime to Hawaii! 🙂
Raymund, Leina, Marco and I spent four & a half days on a mission to gather as much inspiration as possible. Our goal was to capture that intangible Aloha spirit that moves mysteriously through everything and everyone in paradise and bring it back home to revitalize the restaurant experiences we offer in Manila.
Since this was primarily a research trip, I realized the best way I could share this story was through the format of a restaurant experience. Every restaurant sells its food, service and ambience. But only few restaurants also consciously sell their story—the story behind its food, cuisine, and culture.
With an appetite for the unexpected and Mustangs with full tanks of adventure, we took to the Hawaiian shores and listened for the sound of the intangible Aloha. This half of the story will cover our food trip findings.
GOING LOCAL: Authentic Hawaiian Food
Our first act of business was to try authentic Hawaiian food. We went to Ono Hawaiian Foods on Kapahulu Ave, Honolulu, a road we’d later frequent for more fresh cuisine. This humble family-owned establishment is practically an institution. It’s rarely without a queue of people waiting to be seated.
In terms of flavor, Hawaiian dishes are more balanced and weigh much less on extremes as compared to Filipino food, though there are similarities. I myself love my flavors extreme so sometimes my taste buds were left hanging, but I appreciated the simplicity of Hawaiian food.
The experience reminded us that food will always taste better with a mind open to new ways and flavors. And what’s great about Ono Hawaiian Foods is that you get to taste a bit of all the “main” authentic foods in one feast.
Just down the street is another must-try, Ono Seafood Products, Inc., which lives up to its promise of serving the best poke in Honolulu. Straightforward counter service and a fancy-free store, they serve 8 variations of poke bowls in takeaway styros, plus grocery-style goods. Take your pick between Ahi Shoyu, Spicy Ahi, Miso Tako, and more.
This unassuming hole in the wall won us over with the sheer freshness of its ingredients. The ahi (tuna) poke was so fresh it was practically ruby red in color and its texture was like smooth, soft jello.
BURGERS DONE RIGHT: Teddy’s Bigger Burgers, Hawaii
Apart from spying on the local food, we also came to catch up with Ted Tsakiris of Teddy’s Bigger Burgers, the Manila franchise of which is under our company’s care. After tasting the original burgers, I now understand the hype around this loved Hawaiian diner: it doesn’t try to go wild with innovating burgers and fries. Instead, it focuses on getting That Perfect Burger done right. As is always the case with good food, you just know when it’s been prepared the way it ought to be, and that commitment to consistency is what makes it great.
If you haven’t had the chance to try Teddy’s yet, you should run to Greenbelt 3 and get your fix! We’re transforming our diner into a more tiki-inspired experience soon.
BRINGING JOHNNY HOME: Kahuku Town Shrimp Trucks
The next up on our food immersion was to eat at Kahuku town’s famous shrimp trucks. Set up along Kamehameha Highway up on Oahu Island’s North Shore, these shrimp trucks served as the inspiration behind our restaurant (and my baby brand) back home: Johnny Kahuku’s Hawaiian Shrimphouse!
It was already evening by the time we hit Kahuku, so we were only able to try one of the trucks, Fumi’s. It was both surreal and amusing to experience what influenced Johnny Kahuku’s, mostly because it was just as no-frills and humble as the other local establishments we tried.
For the final verdict, the shrimps were savory but I would have to say that our very own Johnny Kahuku shrimp trucks take the prize when it comes to elevating the original flavors and the overall presentation. (Hehe)
TIKI BARS: In Search of The Perfect Tiki Cocktails
To cap off each day, we’d go tiki bar hopping! The nightlife in Waikiki was equal parts low key and kitschy, and fulfilled exactly what I expected it to be. From my experience, tiki bars are loosey-goosey places which don’t take things too seriously, and encourage you to do the same. The art and furniture are often mismatched, and yet it feels just right. The lighting is low and neon, the vibe mellow but also high energy.
The tiki menus ranged from classics to a few experimental stuff, but generally, I feel their magic also lies in where you’re drinking them. Of course, the alcohol used is often the gamechanger, but island touches like adding a little umbrella or a fresh orchid also make all the difference. I’m no cocktail expert, but what I appreciated most were the cocktails that balanced sweetness with unusual fruity tones left me tipsy-thinking that this is what paradise should taste like.
GOOD OL’ FAVORITES: Shacks, Diners, and Steakhouses
When it comes to food (and everything else), the people of Hawaii seem to be quite a nostalgic bunch. They still have diners from the 50’s and when it comes to vintage, they truly are the Real Thing. There’s also much to be said about the Asian and American flavors that influence their food, from the way it’s prepared, to the way the dishes are named, and how you’re supposed to eat them.
After trying places both casual and upscale, what I can say is there’s a lot of history, nostalgia, and honest-to-goodness flavor that goes into the way the locals prepare their food. They also know how to pull off simple things like flavored shaved ice and fresh smoothies, while staying true to their vibrant past and culture.
My main takeaway from our Hawaiian food trip is that good food is always simple. It’s the kind of simple goodness you’ll recognize when you taste it. Good food doesn’t try too hard to win you over, it doesn’t hide behind fanciness. It can be a simple dish like a burger, but if it’s done right, it makes an impact. Freshness and flavor as guiding fundamentals will always win, and Hawaiian cuisine gets that.
When in Hawaii, expect to be pleasantly surprised by the genuineness in their food. They know how to bring you back to basics, but they’ll also show you how they shake things up. With so much influence from Polynesian, American, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Filipino and even Portuguese culture, their food is proof that paradise comes in different flavors.
If you know how to “listen” with your taste buds, Hawaii will tell you its diverse and colorful story with every bite. 🙂
EDIT: Check out part 2 of my travel diary here!