Honolulu is littered with fancy restaurants, where dishes like sea urchin-garnished jumbo shrimp are a fixture on 12-course tasting menus. It also has its share of breathtakingly expensive sushi spots. Those are not the kind of places that appeal to chef Roy Choi.
As I sit with Choi over dinner in a Waikiki tonkatsu parlor, contemplating a $30 sliver of Japanese fried pork, we are talking about Spam musubi: rectangular bricks of vinegared rice stuffed with pink, glistening slabs of the lunch meat, then wrapped in seaweed. Spam musubi is a crucial totem of what Hawaiians call “local food,” the shotgun marriage of Polynesian ingredients, Asian flavors and American specialties that you find at drive-ins, bowling-alley coffee shops, lunch trucks, mall food courts—pretty much anywhere the regulars tend to outnumber the tourists. Spam musubi is quintessential gas-station food—you see it in a cooler in the back, near the Red Bull and the Coors Lite.
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I think we should try the musubi at He’eia Pier General Store & Deli, which was just reopened and has been getting good notices for its reinvented lunch specials made with organic, island-grown ingredients, or at least at Iyasume, where musubi is the specialty of the house. Choi thinks we need to go down the street to a 7-Eleven. I’m not sure I agree with him, but I admire his style.
Even if you think you know everything about chef culture, Choi is that other guy—his gaze intense, his Lakers cap skewed, his sartorial style somewhere between skate-punk, Koreatown dandy and East L.A. veterano. Born in Korea, he grew up shuttling among Los Angeles neighborhoods with his scholarly dad and restaurateur mom, who always managed to prepare multicourse Korean breakfasts no matter how many hours she worked. He was the speaker of his class at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and spent a decade as an executive chef at grand hotels.
Choi first came to prominence when he left the mainstream food world to start Kogi, the Korean taco truck that not only jump-started the national food-truck craze but also the rush to elevated street food. He logged time at Le Bernardin, but he cooks like a dude as obsessed with carne asada picnics as he is with his mother’s kimchi. Instead of expanding his Kogi franchise, he’s opened a series of inspired places: the rice-bowl spot Chego, the Hawaii-inspired A-Frame and the small-plates-style restaurant Sunny Spot, loosely based on Jamaican roadside dives. He has an intimate knowledge of Koreatown in Los Angeles, and he was an F&W Best New Chef in 2010, but his favorite destination is neither Paris nor Korea but Hawaii, which he first got to know as an adolescent dumped off for a summer at an aunt’s house in Honolulu. He has visited almost every year of his adult life. It’s where Choi feels at home, and where he finds inspiration for everything from his restaurants to his upcoming book, Spaghetti Junction: Riding Shotgun with an L.A. Chef. “I translate Hawaii as a place where people make sure I’m having a great time, eating terrific food, without any expectation of anything in return,” Choi told me. “It’s a place for people to be happy. It sounds corny, but in Hawaii, it’s not; it’s uncorny.”
Honolulu is a multiethnic city where currently fashionable things, like Asian-inflected European cooking, are as likely to show up in a construction worker’s lunch box as in a tourist’s four-star dinner. Supermarket staples like chuck steak, flown in from the mainland, cost almost as much as great local tuna. And the line dividing canned lunch meat from spectacular local shellfish is occasionally finer than one might wish.
In the Honolulu calculus that splits food into what is eaten with a plastic fork and everything else, it is clear which side of the plate-lunch divide Choi stands on. Deprive him of malasadas, shave ice or laulau (taro-wrapped pork), and he is an unhappy chef indeed.
So the next morning finds us in a rented car, creeping through morning traffic, on our way to the first of three breakfasts: the beginning of a hundred-thousand-calorie journey around Oahu that will fuel Choi for the rest of the year.
We pull into the parking lot of Leonard’s, a cramped bakery that’s the home of Hawaii’s best-known malasadas: slightly sweetened beignets, best eaten scorchingly hot, dusted with granulated sugar. The line inside is endless, snaking back on itself, slowed by customers who take forever to decide among the hundreds of pastries in the long glass bakery cases, even though they inevitably end up with malasadas.
“The karma’s coming back to me,” says Choi, whose trucks generally inspire even longer waits.
We eat leaning against the wall outside. A bus full of Japanese tourists pulls into the lot. Each of them takes pictures of the vintage neon. Tour guides distribute malasadas, one each, daintily folded in napkins. The Japanese do not look thrilled.
We double back to the Rainbow Drive-In, draped with banners proclaiming its 50th anniversary. It’s a fast-food place with outdoor tables and a cantilevered shade—a famous center of “local food.” We order far too much: a teriyaki plate, chili rice and something called long rice, which is thin, slippery glass noodles cooked in chicken broth. We also try the local-food specialty loco moco: an enormous plateau of rice topped with a well-done hamburger patty, drenched in a viscous, dark-brown goo and topped with a fried egg.
“This isn’t delicious,” says Choi. “Or, rather, this is a different kind of delicious. When you come out of the ocean after surfing all day, loco moco is the best thing you ever tasted.”
We stand in another line at Helena’s Hawaiian Food, often said to serve the best plate lunches in Honolulu, where Choi is treated like a movie star by a California newscaster who frequents Kogi and I am drawn into an argument about the best hand-pulled noodles in the San Gabriel Valley. In the world of plate lunches, Helena’s is stunning: a profoundly smoky version of the traditional luau dish pipikaula, made from short ribs that have been dried on racks in the kitchen; fried butterfish collar; tripe stew with homemade chile pepper water; squid cooked down with taro leaves; and lomi salmon, which is like a mild salsa with cubed fish tossed in with the tomatoes. For dessert, there are jiggly cubes of haupia pudding, made with coconut cream. We are happy, and we are full.
But five minutes later, we are at the Shimazu Store, a battered storefront a mile or so down the street, for the first of many cracks at Hawaii’s famous shave ice, a kind of giant, fluffy snow cone flavored with homemade syrup that seems to be an obsession of Choi’s: guava, lilikoi (passion fruit), lychee, milky green tea, durian. Shave ice is always found in a storefront a little out of the way, and it’s always served in portions far too big for one person to get through before the ice collapses over your hand with a splash. The pavement for blocks around each store is stained with dead shave ice and weeping children. I finally talk Choi into going back to the hotel for a nap.
Dinner that night is at Side Street Inn, a 20-year-old bar in an alley. Side Street is kind of a prototype of the modern izakaya that has been popping up in large American cities for the last couple of years, an aggressively multicultural house of big eats that just happen to be served on shared platters, lubricated by oceans of beer. Choi has been coming here for years. We are greeted effusively by owner-chef Colin Nishida.
“People keep asking me for my pork chop recipe,” he says. “It is very short—garlic salt, flour and cornstarch, that’s it.”
“I thought I tasted Lawry’s salt,” says Choi.
“Nah, although I love the stuff.”
“No egg wash?”
“Why the hell would I do that?”
Ninety minutes later, we’ve gone through enormous platters of Japanese fried chicken, kimchi fried rice and sweet-sticky baby back ribs with a thick hoisin glaze that Choi adores. He has also come to agree with Nishida about the crunchy fried pork chops: Why the hell would he use egg wash?
Outside of Honolulu, which resembles a typical midsize American city in a lot of ways, Oahu is a not-immense place where the great American road trip quickly runs out of road. Among other things, I wanted to taste the definitive version of a local specialty, huli huli chicken. I found it within an hour of leaving the hotel, in the parking lot of a Malama Market, where Ray’s Kiawe Broiled Chicken truck sets up on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. I had imagined a guy cooking out of a van, but the grill was as long as a semitrailer, shaded by a dented tin roof, heaped with fuming kiawe charcoal over which spun 30 to 40 chickens threaded onto special rotating spits. Choi finds Dino, the owner’s son; he tells us the chickens go from raw to cooked in just 25 minutes. But he has to keep a lot going at once in case a tour bus drops by, an event that’s both lucrative and unpredictable.
Down the street, Matsumoto Shave Ice—home of the most famous version in the world—is totally set up for the tourist trade, an old grocery channeled for the sale of dripping ice cones and T-shirts. Choi is recognized by a Kogi fan from Oakland, a young Filipina in the area for a friend’s wedding, who pumps us for information on restaurants both in Honolulu and back in California. The rainbow shave ice, we all agree, is grainy and second-rate.
We continue driving around the island, stopping to admire the beach at Banzai Pipeline, familiar from a thousand televised surf competitions but as flat as a pond at this time of year. We fly past a gaudily painted truck promising Korean tacos and end up at Giovanni’s, beyond the local shrimp farms, a heavily graffitied truck that doesn’t look as if it has ever moved from this spot. It’s outfitted with a huge dining area shaded by a metal roof. Giovanni’s is famous for its garlic shrimp, and the scent of chopped garlic surrounds the truck like a cloud. The menu, such as it is, is painted on a surfboard, but there’s no reason to get anything but as many garlic shrimp as you can hold; firm, sweet and swimming in scented oil.
I make Choi drive back to Shogunai Tacos, the Asian truck we’d seen earlier. The Japanese taco, wrapped in a flour tortilla, isn’t completely horrible—the fistful of braised pork and crumbles of nori make it taste a bit like yakisoba, rendered in taco form—but the Korean taco is dreadful, seasoned with rank kimchi and clumps of orange cheese. Choi’s face contorts.
“You’re kind of responsible for this, dude,” I say.
“I probably am,” he says. “And I’m not sure what to think.”
Jonathan Gold, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, reviews restaurants for the Los Angeles Times.