I'm just back from a few cool, windy days in Oahu, my first Hawaiian trip since my parents splurged on a Maui family vacation when I was in high school. While the weather would have been problematic if I'd planned to sun and stand-up paddleboard, a constant drizzle didn't disrupt my museums-and-food itinerary. I happily toured Pearl Harbor, the Bishop Museum (if you're headed there before month's end, don't miss the Alfred Shaheen exhibit) and the Polynesian Cultural Center in the rain. But, even better, I ate my fill of dishes unique to the islands. Here, my five favorite bites from a well-fed trip.
A quick caveat: Since I've never before visited Oahu, I stuck mostly to the classics when designing my eating schedule. If you've spent any amount of time in Hawaii, you're likely familiar with the restaurants listed here - and can probably suggest a few more stops for my next trip.
1. Pipikaula short ribs, Helena's Hawaiian Food
The extraordinarily kind man who offered to share his table when he heard a server say I'd have to wait 30 minutes to dine alone seemed to patronize Helena's primarily for its chili pepper water, which he sloshed on his kalua pig, watercress and rice. "I usually finish the bottle," he confided. Helena's homemade chili pepper water - served in Aloha Gold bottles, which deluded me into thinking I could stock up on the stellar stuff at any grocery store - is a zingy mix of Hawaiian chiles, vinegar, water and salt.
But the terrific pipikaula short ribs at Helena's, a 67-year old institution which was named an America's Classic by the James Beard Foundation back in 2000, don't need any tweaking. Pipikaula is commonly described as Hawaiian beef jerky, yet Helena's version of the dish isn't leathery or tough. The meat's heavily marinated before being hung over the stove to dry, so it's still tender when fried up for an order: Each crisped piece rings with the earthy flavors of soy and salt.
And, just like in Texas, the beef's served with raw onions, which is where the chili pepper water again comes into play. I'm not sure if it's the sanctioned system at Helena's, but spritzing the ribbons of white Maui onions with chili pepper water and dragging them through the accompanying saucer of red salt created a fine textural counterbalance to the shortribs' righteous chew.
2. Ahi shoyu, Nico's Pier 38 Market
I'd planned to breakfast at Nico's, since the fresh fish specialist is as convenient to rental car row as the marina at which its suppliers dock. But nothing on the breakfast menu could compete with the poke samples offered at the cashier's stand; I bailed on the sit-down restaurant and purchased raw fish at Nico's adjoining seafood counter, including kimchi shrimp, aku limu and a phenomenal ahi shoyu, tuna soaked in just enough soy and sesame oil to underscore its oceanic meatiness.
3. Li-hing malasada, Leonard's Bakery
Now synonymous with malasadas, the rich Portuguese yeast doughnuts which have become an Hawaiian staple, Leonard's Bakery didn't start serving the treats until its tenth year of business. The pastries were introduced in 1962 in conjunction with Shrove Tuesday, today observed across the islands as Malasada Day. I celebrated the holiday at Leonard's with a sugar malasada, cinnamon malasada and li-hing malasada. (The bakery's also introduced filled varieties, but I felt I should keep my order traditional for Malasada Day. Upon sampling the puffy pastries, I realized there was plenty of room for custard or coconut cream.)
Malasadas are rounder, eggier and airier than traditional doughnuts: Their sweetness and consistency are reminiscent of their northern cousins, paczki, which inspire equally long Fat Tuesday lines across the Midwest. But there's nothing the least bit Slavic about a generous sprinkling of salty dried plum cut with sugar. While the powder's typically reserved for fruits, I loved how the tartness sparred with the warm butteriness of the underlying malasada. Judging from online reviews, not every eater appreciates the clashing flavors, but I'm a sucker for salted sweets.
4. Wet li-hing mui, Crack Seed Store
Since I so enjoyed li-hing on my malasada, I figured I might also like to eat li-hing straight. Stores selling crack seed, or Chinese preserved fruits, were once prevalent in Honolulu. But many of the corner shops have closed, forcing snack fans to buy honey mango, sour cherries and li-hing peaches from glitzy mall outlets.
The Crack Seed Store is a holdover from the mom-and-pop era. The tiny store's crammed with glass jars of dried delicacies, all of which are available to sample. When I told the owner I was seeking something sour, he asked, "How sour? Squinting sour?" We finally settled on the standard li-hing mui, an alluring weave of salt and tang soaked in syrup. Although I ate it straight from the plastic bag, I imagine the treat would do well over ice cream.
5. Avocados, Waialua
When we checked into our North Shore rental, our host kindly invited us to a neighborhood potluck supper, featuring a pork shoulder he'd been cooking all day. When I asked if we could bring anything, he suggested a salad, which sent us scrambling for produce.
Fortunately, even in Oahu's tiniest towns, incredibly fresh fruits and vegetables are easy to find. Seattle's resident Oahu expert Myra Kohn had advised me to eat local avocados on my trip, so I bought a bunch of them, along with corn, green onions and cherry tomatoes, which are year-round crops in Hawaii. I finished the salad with local sea salt flavored with chile peppers. While the results were delicious, a splash of Helena's chili pepper water probably wouldn't have hurt.
Honorable mentions: Tofu jelly, Sushi Izakaya Gayu; Garlic shrimp, Giovanni's Shrimp Truck; Taro rolls, Polynesian Cultural Center; Tropical Itch cocktail, House Without a Key; Homemade coconut peanut butter-and-banana sandwich, Waialua Bakery