I first fell for Poke in – where else – Hawaii and haven’t had it since our trip there several years ago. So I was pleased to see a story this week in the NYTimes about the new Poke places popping up in Manhattan. Some of the Poke is a little too orange and creamy for my taste – k raw salmon slathered with orange midwestern salad dressing (but is actually chile aoili and quite good. spicy too.)
The kind I really fell for in Hawaii is red chunks of raw ahi tuna in a sesame oil/ salty soy sauce (the japanese version, Shoyu) with maybe some shredded carrots or seaweed or avocado.)
I first spotted it in the Big Island (see photo above!) when a hipster surfer guy staying at our bed & breakfast was eating some from a plastic takeaway carton. Had to try it – and it was delicious. Then I found it in odd places, including a little hole-in-the-wall natural foods place (Ruffage) restaurant off Waikiki Beach in Honululu; a very upscale version at the elegant Alan Wong’s (Obama’s favorite Honolulu restaurant) and then on the side of a two-lane highway, being sold out of the back of a parked white pickup by a guy with two Styrofoam coolers full of the stuff. I lived to tell the tale (I was a little concerned about food poisoning but it was delicious.) Short of another trip to Hawaii (some day, I hope!), I’ll now look for it in NYC. – best spot according to the NYTimes is Sons of Thunder in Murray Hill.
Wandering around Honolulu’s Chinatown in January 2011, I chanced upon an amazingly good Chinese BBQ (known in Chinese as Char siu, meat seasoned with five spice, honey and other things that turn the outside skin or meat bright red) at a hole in the wall aptly named Char Siu House (photo below), with a small counter and butcher’s block and maybe three card tables for people who want to eat in rather than carry out (like me.) I had some delicious pork, moist, full of flavor, crispy red skin. As I was eating, a food tour suddenly arrived and the guide noted that this was the Honolulu’s best Chinese BBQ place, or some such.
With this memory in mind, I finally tried New Le’s BBQ here in Des Moines (photo above)- in what passes for a Chinese ,or more accurately, an Asian, neighborhood – on Second Avenue. (The street has a popular Asian market, Double Dragon, that I go to every once in awhile for hard-to-find-elsewhere items and just because it’s an interesting place full of unfamiliar foods. There’s also a few Thai and Vietnamese Po restaurants.) Le’s has been around for years and an Asian friend recommended it. But it looked so uninviting from the outside that I passed it by – until yesterday. I was surprised to find it was far more cheerful inside. Instead of a drab butcher shop, I found a slightly less drab restaurant with lots of empty tables (midday on a Saturday), a lit-up display on the wall of the Chinese entrees available and a case full of bbq-ed meat that left little to the imagination (still-intact ducks with spindly necks and heads, dangling from hooks, looking like they’d been flattened by a steam-roller; a pigs head). I ordered some duck, pork and ribs – and we tried them last night. The red crispy ribs were best – moist well-seasoned meat, tasty-edible skin. The pork was first runner up – moist meat with a smokey flavor but lots of fat and crispy skin that wasn’t as edible as it looked. Even more of the same with the duck. Oh well.
Okay, I’m reviving this post – which I didn’t get far in writing almost a year ago (I made it only to the title – oops). But the point I was thinking of making was about guidebooks – and I’ve written one (about Iowa) and contributed to several others, including the New York Times 36 Hours America guide. In my lost youth, I prided myself in NOT using a guidebook (or carrying a camera …how stupid was that). I was a traveler, not a tourist – god forbid. I didn’t want someone else telling me where to go, what to see, where to eat, where to stay – I wanted to just drift into situations where these choices would be self-evident or evolve. And often they did – sometimes better than others (there was that time in Turkey when I ended up sleeping in a tent in a field outside Kushadashi with five male carpet salesmen and an Australian girl – not good.) The idea was to have adventures and be adventuresome, to figure it out on my own.
Well thirty years later, my thinking has – surprise, surprise – changed. If anything I’ve become too dependent on guidebooks when planning my trips and when I’m on those trips. Seems I can hardly wander around a neighborhood in Hawaii or Peru or Milwaukee without clutching a guidebooks and referring to it frequently. Although I risk over dependence on guidebooks (and more often travel stories I rip out of the newspaper – or find online), they’ve also steered me to some pretty great places (as was the case with the Lonely Planet Discover Peru guide). That said, I found the Rough Guide to Hawaii a useful source for the standard stuff – and beyond, for dense knowledgeable detail on various places, last January when we went to the Big Island and Oahu. But I was increasingly put off by the guide’s surprisingly kill-joy tone. Here we were traveling in one of the most astonishingly beautiful places in the world and the guidebook was moaning or issuing warnings about one thing or another. It was subtle but it was there and had a cumulative effect. I wish I could offer an example to illustrate what I’m talking about but I haven’t looked at the guide in a long time and can’t remember exact passages any more. Yes, I look to guidebooks for warnings and things to avoid and safety considerations. But I do remember that I felt like telling the writer – “Enough already. Lighten up babe!”
When we weren’t distracted by the presence of Elton John at the table next to us during a recent dinner at a Honolulu restaurant, we chatted with an older couple sitting next to us who are natives – and I asked them where some of the scenes from The Descendants had been filmed in town. They mentioned a neighborhood a little north of where we were eating. Weeks later, a handy newspaper article offered more specifics which is good to know for our next visit to Hawaii, when I’d like to go to Kauai. The film locations on that island include: the Tahiti Nui bar in Hanalei; the St. Regis in Princeville, Kipu Rance and Hanalei Bay.
The same article mentioned the film locations for The Help and darned if I haven’t been to one of those locations – Clarksdale, Mississippi. It also was filmed in another Mississippi Delta town that I think I’ve also been to: Greenwood and another town I’d like to go to Jackson and its historic Belhaven neighborhood.
Ear plugs have become a necessity when I travel. During our trip to Hawaii, I used them:
1) During the first two nights at a farm B&B with a very loud rooster
2) During our second two nights at another rural B&B with tree frogs – and an occasionally beeping smoke detector
3) During our stay in Honolulu where we were 16 floors above what apparently was the garage pick up – so we heard all kinds of noises from the loud beeps of a truck in reverse to the huge bangs of dumpsters being dropped back to earth.
Woke up to snow on the ground, blowing snow, and cold temps here in Iowa. At least it was sunny. But made me think fondly about our recent trip to Hawaii and what we liked best:
Best Hawaiian specialty food: poke, Lau Lau (Pork Wrapped in Taro or Ti Leaves) and malasadas.
(Worst Hawaiian specialty food): Loco Moco
Best Meal: Alan Wong’s (Honolulu); Allen’s Table (Waimea, Big Island); Side Street Inn (Honolulu); Char Sui House (Honolulu’s Chinatown)
Best Star Sighting: Elton John and entourage at Alan Wong’s!
Worst meal: Kilauea Lodge dinner (breakfast much better)
Best place for a drink: La Mariana sailing club
Best Beach: 69 Beach near Hapuna Beach on Kona side of big island; Hanauma Bay near Honolulu
Worst beach: wasn’t one
Best Tourist attraction: Doris Duke’s Shangra La (Honolulu)
Best national park/monument: National Volcano Park and City of Refuge (big island)