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2000s Archive

Real Hawaiian

Originally Published February 2000
Forget grass skirts—when Alan Wong throws a luau, he focuses on food and friends

There may be a prettier acre than Kurt and Pam Hirabara’s up-country farm on the island of Hawaii, where the damp, mounded earth and skeins of perfect lettuces glow like backlighted jade on a wet afternoon. But when the sun comes out and the mist melts away, and through a break in the clouds suddenly looms the enormous, brooding mass of Mauna Kea, the loftiest volcano in the world, it’s hard to imagine where that prettier acre might be.

Three hours before chef Alan Wong’s luau at Hirabara Farms, a party celebrating the relationship between the chef and the army of Big Island growers who supply the Honolulu restaurant that has been called the best in Hawaii, the tin roof of the Hirabaras’ long packing shed thrums with rain, and the thin, sweet voice of the late singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole slices through the moist mountain air. Wong’s kitchen manager, Jeff Nakasone, trims purply ropes of venison into medallions for the barbecue, and pastry chef Mark Okumura slaps frosting on a stack of coconut cakes as high as a small man. Lance Kosaka, who is the leader at Wong’s Honolulu kitchen, arranges marinated raw crabs in a big carved wooden bowl. Mel Arellano, one of Wong’s colleagues from culinary school and something of a luau specialist, reaches into a crate and fishes out a small, lemon-yellow guava.

“I’ve got to eat me one of them suckas,” he says, and he pops the fruit into a pants pocket.

I nibble on opihi, pricey marinated limpets harvested in Maui, and try to gather in the scene. Two of Wong’s younger sisters stir a big pot of the gingery cellophane-noodle dish called chicken long rice; Buzzy Histo, a local kumu hula—hula teacher—crops orchids, exotic lilies, and birds-of--paradise brought over from the farmers market in Hilo. A cheerful neighbor, Donna Higuchi, squeezes poi from plastic bags into a huge bowl, kneading water into the purple goo with vigorous, squishing strokes until the mass becomes fluid enough to spoon into little paper cups. She giggles as she works.

“Some people like poi sour,” she says. “I like it frrrr-rresh. Although most people would say I’m not really a poi eater. I like it best with milk and sugar—it’s really good that way.”

Her friend stops measuring water into the poi and wrinkles her nose. “Don’t listen to Donna,” she says. “You try your poi with lomilomi salmon.”

At the other end of the shed, on a stove so new that bits of packing grease still adhere to it, Steven Ariel, the chef at Wong’s new Pineapple Room, simmers young taro leaves into a thick, coconut-flavored gumbo so identified with the celebration that the ceremonial feast takes its name from the Hawaiian word for the leaf: luau. Pam Hirabara tucks dark squares of sugary taro pudding and pale squares of the coconut custard haupia into little serving boats fashioned from folded leaves. Even Wong’s mother is pitching in—she’s up to her elbows in a big mound of diced ’ahi, mixing the slippery mound of raw fish with the stringy seaweed and ground kukui nut that will transform it into a superior version of the Hawaiian dish poke, a briny, slightly gritty relish perhaps second only to sushi in the pantheon of the world’s great raw-fish preparations.

Everyone is here, in fact, but Alan Wong himself. He is still cooking at a wine tasting down on the coast, a twisting half-hour drive down the volcano’s steep slope from misty Waimea. He is not there to prevent his mother from scrawling “I Taught Alan Wong Everything He Knows” on a blank spot on the packing shed walls.

“Alan always says that his mom is a much better cook than he is,” says Pam. “But the thing is, she thinks so, too.”

Hirabara Farms has a special place in the universe of Alan Wong. Wong and Kurt Hirabara were childhood friends in Oahu, and it was Wong’s advocacy of fresh, local produce that helped former soil scientist Hirabara establish his farm a couple of years ago. Hirabara’s first farm, a few acres within sight of the occasional lava fountains of the extremely active Pu’u O’o vent, near Hilo, was a disaster: When the wind blew the wrong way, sulfuric-acid–rich “vog,” or volcanic smog, would blow over his fields, burning the crops and blistering the paint on Hirabara’s new Chevy pickup. (This is an agricultural problem that never seems to come up in Iowa.) His second farm, chiseled out of expensive residential land above Waimea, has worked out much better: The volcano that rises above it is extinct.

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.

And to anybody sated with the sedate tropicalisms of Waikiki hotel cooking, the food at Alan Wong’s, which occupies the third floor of an office building in an obscure Honolulu business district, has to come as a revelation: salmon with risotto tricked out to resemble yet transcend the green tea and rice porridge that is a staple of Japanese-Hawaiian home cooking; California rolls made with hot lobster mousse where you’d expect to find the rice; a traditional Cobb salad plumped out with fresh soybeans; an elevated version of the grilled huli huli–spiced chicken whose smoke perfumes local Lions Club cookouts; a luau-themed Caesar salad with kalua pig, puréed taro leaf, and a poi vinaigrette. (Wong employs the flavors of the Hawaiian kitchen—kalua pig and taro, luau leaf and lomilomi salmon—with the abandon of Italian chefs using olive oil and garlic.)

Wong’s new Pineapple Room, a sleekly modern restaurant on the third floor of the Liberty House department store, in the Ala Moana shopping center, is even more explicitly Hawaiian, with a menu powered by bento boxes, poi cups, kalua-pig blts, and huli huli–spiced chicken pizzas with macadamia pesto. A lunchtime reservation at The Pineapple Room may be the toughest seat in town.

But where the restaurant shines the brightest is at breakfast, when Wong—and his chef Steven Ariel—really play with their food: eggs “Benedict” with a cake of kalua pig–taro hash substituting for the muffin and a luau-leaf hollandaise; biscuits and gravy inflected with five-spice powder and topped with roast duck; oatmeal surrounded by a moat of miso soup, which tastes better than you can imagine. Wong even takes on the loco moco—a fearsome drive-in concoction of hamburger, fried rice, eggs over easy, and 40-weight brown gravy—and elegantly reconstructs it with a Thai-inspired shrimp patty, a lemongrass-flavored black bean purée, and a single fried quail egg. Spectacular. The Pineapple Room’s multicourse breakfast degustation is Hawaii’s answer to breakfast at Brennan’s in New Orleans, and nobody serious about food should visit Honolulu without trying it at least once.

Wong’s Hawai’i Regional Cuisine Marketplace takes up nearly half a floor directly above The Pineapple Room, a gleaming agora that includes classic pastries and artisanal French breads, T-shirts, and Wong’s line of sauces, as well as Hawaiian-raised meats and prepared local foods that include things like kalua pig and beef poi stew. The aisle of Hawaii-grown produce—including Kurt Hirabara’s lettuces, Sunrise tomatoes, and Best Farms’s incredible volcano-grown cantaloupes—is as startlingly beautiful as anything in the jewelry cases downstairs. Buy a $1 cup of poha, Big Island gooseberries that taste like Technicolor plums, to snack on while you explore the rest of the store.

Alan Wong’s Restaurant, 1857 South King Street, Honolulu, Tel. (808) 949-2526

The Pineapple Room, Liberty House at Ala Moana, 3rd floor, Honolulu, Tel. (808) 945-8881

Hawai’i Regional Cuisine Marketplace, Liberty House at Ala Moana, 4th floor, Honolulu, Tel. (808) 945-8888