Lately Hawaii has been on my mind. And I can’t really pinpoint why. In the past, I’ve really had no desire to visit our 50th State. Despite its obvious attractions, I have always been content to travel to the much closer, more exotic (in my mind) Caribbean than the Hawaiian Islands. Still Hawaii has been on my radar as a place I really should get to at some point in my life.
The closest I’ve come to Hawaii was a few years ago when a screenplay I wrote won a “Gold Kahuna” award at the Honolulu Film Festival. I had to admit, being considered a Kahuna in anything was quite an honor and the festival organizers said there would be a presentation. There was, however, a stipulation. I would have to travel 5,000 miles at my own expense to accept it personally. Even a Kahuna has his limitations and I decided to accept the award via email.
Now I find myself with an itch to see the Islands. Maybe the cold winter finally caught up to me and images of green, lush, volcanic hills, waterfalls, crystal blue waters, and swaying palms has brought on the itch. Maybe that HGTV show Hawaii Life, which I’ve come to watch regularly has enticed me. Or maybe it’s because there is a cuisine particular to Hawaii that I have never tried. I’ve never been to India, Thailand, or Brazil for that matter, yet I have had their food here in New York. But Hawaiian food? Never. New York, it seems, is a Hawaiian food free zone.
Driving up First Avenue in East Harlem,( also known as Spanish Harlem, also known as El Barrio), not long ago, I noticed a sign for a restaurant called Makana that advertised Japanese and Hawaiian BBQ. Here, finally was a chance to lose my Hawaiian food virginity. I looked forward to my first time and despite my Kahuna credentials, hoped the experience would be a gentle one.
I went into the tiny, take-out mostly, restaurant not knowing what to expect and really not expecting much. The majority of the menu featured Japanese staples including a very long sushi list. I skipped past them and paid attention to the items with asterisks next to them including Hawaiian BBQ beef, fried mahi mahi (“Hawaii’s favorite fish”), Kalua pork (“Another Hawaiian favorite,”) and “Loco Moco”, hamburger patties with a fried egg and covered with “special” brown gray(“A local Island favorite!”) It was the food with the asterisks I wanted.
I started with the Hawaiian bbq chicken; chunks of boneless chicken thighs heavily marinated in a sweet soy sauce. The chicken came with sides of salad, cabbage, macaroni salad, and rice with a layer of the same sweet sauce under it. While I ate, I noticed that there was something called “spam musabi;” soy marinated spam wrapped in seaweed, kind of like spam sushi, listed up on the illustrated menu behind the counter. I was tempted, but thought that when and if I ever get to Hawaii, that’s when I’ll take a chance on spam musabi.
Next I sampled the Kalua pork, pieces of tender, smoky shredded pork mixed with cabbage and lightly seasoned with that sweet soy sauce. I know pork is big in Spanish Harlem and have had my share of lechon including the addictive portions served at Lechonera La Isla ( see Lechonera Encanto). But this pork was different and had me fantasizing of a big pig slow cooked underground, Luau-style.
The bbq beef fried noodles, called fried saimin, were described as “Japanese-style” on the menu, but I never had anything like this at a Japanese restaurant before. The noodles, I thought, were more like thin, Chinese noodles—the sauce again of the sweet soy variety, the beef, thin round slices marinated in the same sauce. I knew the sauce was redundant to all of the dishes I sampled, but I wasn’t complaining. It was what I was coming to identify with whatever this thing called Hawaiian food was.
In the appetizers section of the menu, I noticed ahi poke offered. I’ve never had poke, ahi or otherwise, but I thought it better, like the spam, that I wait until I’m in Honolulu, Maui, or the Big Island and the tuna is fresh out of the warm Pacific waters before I try it. But then again that might be a very long wait.
2245 1st Avenue