Could Hawaiian be the next gastro-craze? Certainly the timing is right. Barack Obama is Hawaiian-born and vacations there, as urban surfers here are seen ferrying their boards on the subway, intent on plying the great waves of Rockaway. Big-print tropical shirts and colorful cocktails seem to be making a comeback. What’s next, leis? In addition, city diners have lately become obsessed with a broad range of Asian cuisines, and what is Hawaiian cooking but Asian fusion of the most natural sort, featuring Japanese, Polynesian, Chinese, Korean, native Hawaiian, and Philippine elements wedded to continental American and Portuguese.
But like Philippine cooking with its white vinegar, pig blood, and strong fish sauce, Hawaiian food presents certain stumbling blocks to general acceptance. Cherished raw materials run to canned Spam, chopped cabbage, and the funky fermented taro porridge called poi. Mayo is used by the bucketful — especially in the side that no Hawaiian meal is complete without: macaroni salad. Though it’s a dish that Hawaii shares in common with the corner New York deli, could we really learn to love it as much as Hawaiians do?
Of course there’s pineapple, too, but Hawaiian food is generally low on vegetables and fruit-challenged, since many such ingredients have to be imported from the mainland at elevated cost. Like the rest of the United States, Hawaii became gastronomically aware of itself in the 90s, when its own band of celebrity chefs — including Sam Choy, George Mavrothalassitis, Alan Wong, Peter Merriman, Philippe Padovani, and Roy Yamaguchi — published The New Cuisine of Hawaii, which drew the world’s attention to the island’s culinary riches.
In fact, New York’s current Hawaiian fad traces its roots to Yamaguchi’s restaurant Roy’s, an establishment that originated on the Big Island and debuted a branch in the Financial District in 2006. Roy Yamaguchi was born in Japan of a Hawaiian father and Okinawan mother, and his menu included a martini made with pineapple-infused vodka, lobster lo mein, ahi poke (a classic Hawaiian raw fish salad), crab tempura wrapped in kobe beef, and macadamia-crusted mahi mahi, emphasizing the seafood aspects of Hawaiian cooking. The restaurant closed in 2009.
Just as Roy’s was shutting down, another harbinger appeared on Fulton Street near the Seaport. L & L Hawaiian Barbecue almost seemed too good to be true, a full-blown branch of a fast food empire that specialized in island commonplaces such as Spam musubi (a maki roll), kalua pork barbecue (with the meat flown in from Honolulu), chicken katsu, and loco moco (two hamburger patties with fried eggs and mushroom gravy), washed down with Lilikoi passion fruit soda. And all at bargain prices. The massive platters came with the conventional two scoops of rice and one of mayo-drenched macaroni salad. Alas, L & L vanished in 2014, but it had already whetted our appetite for future Hawaiian establishments.
Here are four restaurants (including one with two branches) that represent the current state of Hawaiian food in New York, 5,000 miles from its source.
Hawaiian transplant Crystalyn Costa opened Williamsburg’s Onomea in September 2013, naming it after a bay on the Big Island. The interior has the vibe of a cocktail lounge, and presents the Hawaiian menu like Honolulu bar food. There’s a delicate musubi roll treating Spam almost as a precious substance, and decent shredded pork kalua barbecue, mixing in swatches of steamed cabbage with the meat, which is not quite as smoky as L & L’s once was. All entrees come with white rice and a scoop of macaroni salad, and shoyu chicken — a pair of drumsticks marinated in sweet soy sauce and roasted — is one of the best choices. (For an extra $2 you get Spam fried rice instead of white rice, well worth the extra charge.) 84 Havemeyer St., 347-844-9559
The name means "gift" or "reward" in Hawaiian, and looking like neighborhood Chinese carryouts, the two branches of Makana ably represent the fast food aspects of Hawaiian fare. The musubi rolls are not the dainty articles you find elsewhere, but big can-width slices of Spam flopped over the rice like passed-out drunks, reminding you that this is perfect hangover food. In a similar vein is the traditional loco moco platter: Here an ample hamburger patty drenched in dark mushroom gravy, sided with rice and macaroni salad, with a gooey egg on top. But best of all was a dish that constituted a sort of Hawaiian poutine, dubbed loaded fries: a huge stack of french fries gobbed with pulled kalua pork and yellow cheese, sprinkled with green onions and sesame seeds. 2245 1st Ave, (212) 996-3534; 161 W 106th St, (212) 678-4569
Since Roy’s demise, the city hasn’t seen an upmarket take on Hawaiian food until the recent appearance of Noreetuh, which means "playground" in Korean. The place looks like any other East Village bistro, but with a discreet island painting here and there. The musubi roll makes use of corned beef rather than Spam, with a few peanuts mediating between the rice and pink meat for a nice crunch. Spam does make an appearance elsewhere on the menu, concealed in homemade tortelloni mired in a poached egg with goji berries. Kalua pork is present, too, inside a pair of fritters. Vernacular Hawaiian cuisine has been fussed-over, sometimes to good effect, as in the thick tripe sauce from which tubular rice cakes sprout at odd angles, leading a friend to observe, "But, you know, rice cakes make anything good." 128 1st Ave, (646) 892-3050
The sushi-and-ramen parlor Suzume didn’t start out as Hawaiian when it opened two years ago, but it ended up that way. The place is co-owned by Michael Briones, a native Hawaiian of Filipino descent. Now in addition to sushi and ramen, half of the menu hails from the 50th state. The musubi benefits from the sushi maker’s art, and the raw seafood salad called poke has been reconfigured as a hand roll. Most Hawaiian of all is a fried chicken bowl featuring chicken katsu (a breaded cutlet originally from Japan), a runny egg, rice, and a salad flaunting chunks of pineapple. Utilizing Philippine-style chicken adobo, pickled shallots, and Napa cabbage, tacos also have an island flair, like something you might get at a beach shack in Waikiki. Surf’s up! 545 Lorimer St, Brooklyn, (718) 486-0200
A couple more opportunities to explore Hawaiian in New York, at least in a small way: At Bushwick’s King Noodle (1045 Flushing Ave, Brooklyn, 718-456-6543), you can get a very nice serving of green-onion-flecked Spam fried rice and other snacks with a pan-Asian flair, Hawaiian or not. In the Spring 2013 issue of Lucky Peach, Christina Tosi provided a recipe for malasadas, a Portuguese contribution to island cuisine that translates, "badly baked." These yeast-risen doughnuts with no hole come paved with cinnamon and granulated sugar. While we’ve never seen them for sale at a Momofuku Milk Bar, we can always hope. Finally, half the pizza parlors in town offer a so-called Hawaiian slice topped with pineapple and ham. But do they sell these sort of pies in Honolulu? According to Sarah DiGregorio, the answer is no: The pizza was invented by Sam Panopoulos in 1962 at his Satellite Restaurant in Chatham, Ontario, and the pie is not popular in Hawaii, where Italian-style pizza toppings are preferred.