2000s Archive

Real Hawaiian

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The menus of Wong’s restaurants reference Hirabara about as often as they do all of Hawaii’s other farmers put together, and Wong’s new Hawai’i Regional Cuisine Marketplace, a sort of island Dean & DeLuca in a corner of Honolulu’s most prominent department store, features a display of Hirabara lettuces that looks as perfect as a Dürer woodcut. The two are so close that Hirabara renamed the rural road for his friend; the farm’s official address is 1 Wong Way.

In the sleepy mid-afternoon, the long tables in the shed are draped with cloths, sprinkled with fresh orchids, punctuated with spiky fresh pineapples and bowls of tropical fruit. Carved monkeywood bowls overflow with poke, with the salmon-spiked tomato relish called lomilomi, with the luau leaves stewed down with squid. Trays buckle under their loads of steaming kalua pig: juicy, shredded roast pork that tastes more than a little like the best North Carolina barbecue. Somebody presses a Bud Lite into my hand, and I notice that the guys at the front of the room who had been desultorily setting up their amplifiers for the past hour have -finally started to play. The grill is lighted. A bowl of salty, dried ’ahi is passed around. And suddenly Wong is there, barbecuing venison over a hot flame, crisping pepper-black slabs of the chewy Hawaiian dried beef called pipikaula on the grill, supervising the long rice. Some more of his high school friends, who have flown over from Oahu for the luau, commandeer the table closest to Wong and practically inhale the meat off of passing platters. Pipikaula is easy to come by in Hawaii, but this pipikaula—dense, peppery, intensely smoky—is extraordinary, more like great pastrami than like the desiccated beef jerky that usually goes by that name. I ask Wong, who lived in New York for a while, whether he’d ever tried pipikaula on rye, and he smiled.

If you’ve ever attended a tourist luau at a Waikiki Beach hotel, you may think you know the drill (leis, Mai Tais, hulas, Samoan fire knife dancers). But a proper luau, like a proper bouillabaisse or a proper paella, is an ultimate expression of community through food, an event less about spectacle or -immoderate feasting—or even the aspects of Hawaiian spirituality that underpin it—than about the hundred small parts that make up the splen-did whole on this beautiful, soggy piece of the world.

Everywhere I turn this afternoon, I hear the Hawaiian word mana, which refers to the spiritual power associated with a particular piece of land.

The people at the luau are the same people who worked so hard putting on the luau; the hula dancers are the men and women you were drinking beer with five minutes earlier. (You may think you admire the grace of young Hawaiian girls who sway in Tahitian grass skirts, but the elegance of their movements has nothing on Buzzy. Even when he drags you up to the front of the room and makes you try out the moves to the Hukilau.) And hosing down the tables afterward, a little buzzed on cheap beer—or Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir—seems as much a part of the luau as the poi.

“We all have real families,” Pam says, scraping a plate. “But this is like our family of choice.”

Wong’s World Box

“The thing you’ve got to understand about Alan Wong,” says his friend Kurt Hirabara, “is that he’s a very local guy. He’s a mixture of Hawaiian, Chinese, and Japanese, and he grew up eating all this stuff. He’s not like those haole making swordfish with papaya– macadamia-nut glaze. It’s like his palate was bioengineered for this food. Nothing he does is contrived; the food is inside of him. And when you combine the classical training he received in three years at Lutèce with a superb local palate, you’re going to get great food. Great local food.”

How can you not love a chef whose most popular dishes include deep-fried sashimi on a stick, steamed clams in foil that come to the table looking like a giant serving of Jiffy Pop, and an astonishingly delicious grilled cheese sandwich stuffed with kalua pig and served with a Martini glass of chilled yellow and red tomato soups?

Wong can—and does—braise a veal shank or pan-roast a lobster with the best of them, but you get the feeling that what resonates most deeply with him is less the refined cooking of swank French restaurants than the oxtail soups, the loco mocos, and the teriyaki-mix plates of the Honolulu drive-ins and bowling alleys that nourished him when he was a kid. Wong’s secret is simple: He cooks like a guy who likes to eat.

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