I’m in this surf shop in Honolulu buying t-shirts when I start to feel a little hungry so I ask the two Gidgets working there where I should go for dinner, telling them I don’t want any fancy tourist place, but someplace simple. And local. A place, maybe, where they eat all the time.
“Oh, I know!” says Gidget One. “There’s a Subway a block away.”
No, I tell her. Not a Subway. “Someplace with Hawaiian food. But not a tourist joint.”
Gidget Two says, “Pizza Hut across the street has a Hawaiian pizza.”
Screw it. So I did what I usually do. I just started walking. Away from Waikiki. Past Kapiolani Park and the zoo, up Kapahulu Avenue, looking for someplace, anyplace that looked half way interesting.
There were a couple of sushi places that looked promising but I wasn’t really in a sushi mood. So I just kept going. Past a barbecue place that would have been a contender if it hadn’t been closed (I’m a sucker for barbecue). Until I came to this total hole-in-the-wall joint called Ono Hawaiian Foods.
photos by David Lansing
The place was cramped and crowded (though it was only 5:30) but I got lucky because a couple had just finished their meal when I walked in. So I grabbed their spot. The place was fascinating. The walls were plastered in headshots of mostly forgotten Hawaiian performers and beauty queens as well as stuff like a poster for “The Ultimate Honolulu Event,” a concert back in the 80s by Sammy, Liza, and Frank “in person at the Blaisdell Arena.”
On one side of me were three Japanese women taking photos of each other as well as every dish brought to the table by a waiter wearing a soiled Honolulu fish canning baseball cap. On the other side were a couple of GenX backpackers, the guy wearing a rainbow tie-dyed Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young concert t-shirt.
Basically, unless you ordered ala carte, it appeared there were only three choices at Ono (which is Hawaiian for “delicious”): the Chicken Long Rice Plate, the Laulau Plate, or the Kalua Pig Plate (you could also get a combo plate but that just seemed like cheating).
Still thinking about the barbecue place I’d passed that had been closed, I went for the kalua pork which also came with some pipikaula, a sort of Hawaiian beef jerky, lomi salmon, and either rice or poi. Had to go with the poi. Aunty brought my food, dished up in old melamine bowls and plates, out of the kitchen on a cafeteria tray. It felt a little bit like being back in junior high school.
I asked her if I could get a beer. “No beer,” she said, “only Pepsi.”
“Okay,” I told her, “I’ll take a Coke.”
“No Coke. Only Pepsi.”
Frankly, I’m not crazy about poi but, as you know, I have this philosophy which is Wherever you are, you have to eat the goat. The goat in Honolulu is poi. Despite the name of the restaurant, the purple-gray poi served at Ono was not delicious. It left my tongue feeling kind of tingly. Like when you were a kid and you’d stick a D battery on your tongue (surely I’m not the only one in the world who used to do that).
Seeing that I had pushed my poi to the side, Aunty came over. “You don’t like my poi?” she said.
Now she was making it personal. It was her poi.
“It’s good,” I lied, “I’m just really not a big poi fan.”
“Ah,” she said, somewhat satisfied. “How long you in Honolulu?”
Two, three weeks, I told her.
She shook her head in discouragement. “Not long enough to learn to like poi,” she said, walking away.
She came back a few minutes later with a bowl of haupia, a type of coconut pudding. “On the house,” she said, sliding it across the Formica table at me.
I thanked her and dug in. It was worse than the poi. But I ate it all anyway. Just so Aunty wouldn’t bring anything else out to the table.