Although I went to Oahu last month armed with restaurant suggestions collected from friends, Chowhound, Twitter and slightly dated magazines, it never hurts to ask the locals where they like to eat. So I put the question to a fellow I encountered at Helena's Hawaiian Food, assuming he'd steer me to another bastion of island cookery. Instead, he suggested a Cantonese restaurant in a Waikiki strip mall.
"They have $10.99 lobster," he raved.
The deal at Fook Yuen isn't especially unique: In Honolulu, shellfish fans can order up cheap Maine lobster at Lobster King (where my husband and I repaired after realizing we couldn't afford to eat our fill at the estimable Sushi Izakaya Gaku), Won Kee Restaurant, or a perpetually bustling Red Lobster location.
"It's insanely popular," confirms Andy Reagan, executive sous chef at Morimoto Waikiki.
Morimoto's capitalized on the lobster craze with a one-and-a-quarter pound lobster seasoned with garam masala and served with lemon crème fraiche. The $49 dish heads a list of entrees which also includes a lobster and Dungeness crab stew.
Although the shellfish are presented as naturalized citizens of Hawaii - Kona Cold Lobsters, a distributorship on the Big Island, imports live north Atlantic lobsters and releases them for a swim in cold Hawaiian seawater before harvest - Reagan admits Morimoto's "keahole lobsters" are Polynesians in name only. He doesn't understand why a visitor from the mainland would order a roasted Maine lobster instead of Pacific octopus sashimi.
"For tourists, it makes not a lot of sense, because I'd want to eat what's from the island," says Reagan, who sells lobster to vacationers and locals in almost equal measure.
It's unclear why an island blessed with easy access to a bounty of scad, tuna, bonito and threadfish has become obsessed with a creature fished more than 6000 miles away. "We're not specifically promoting Maine lobster in Hawaii," says Marianne LaCroix, acting director of the Maine Lobster Council. LaCroix isn't ruffled by lobster's success - "I'm only guessing here, but Maine lobster is just wildly appealing," she offers - but, when pressed, ventures the island-wide fixation could reflect Hawaii's longstanding status as a tourist destination.
Lobster has been associated with luxury since the late 19th century, when lobstermen started shipping their catch west by refrigerated train car. The accompanying surge in demand wiped some lobster beds clean, driving up the per pound price. "If you are a gourmet, you like lobster," decreed a 1917 Iowa newspaper account of how Delmonico's came to serve its legendary lobster Newberg, sauced with butter, cognac, sherry and cream.
To many Americans, lobster is synonymous with splurging, which is the essence of a classy tropical vacation. Hawaii's first fancy resorts likely felt compelled to serve dishes such as the "brochetta of lobster and pork tenderloin" at The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel which in 1965 impressed a visiting Craig Claiborne.
For Hawaiians, "it's something different," Reagan says.
There are spiny lobsters in the reefs around Hawaii, but their population was devastated by overfishing. Since the federally-mandated closure of the commercial fishery in 2000, spiny lobsters are only available to recreational fishermen who obey a strict set of regulations.
China has traditionally imported its rock lobsters from Australia, but LaCroix says eaters there are gradually starting to prefer Maine lobsters and their meaty claws, a fondness which might have something to do with Hawaii's excitement. According to the latest census, one in 10 residents of Oahu claims Chinese ancestry.
"It's a fairly new market, but definitely growing," she says.