I noticed that I have been craving comfort foods in the past week; I understand that’s normal when you’re sick. My comfort foods go back to the plain dishes of my simple Czech and German upbringing: mashed potatoes, roasted chicken, boiled potatoes, meatloaf, riced potatoes, soups, potato salad – the kind of food you could get at a local diner in the past. We have diners here too, but they aren’t the same as the ones of my youth.
When Dianne, Mitch and I went to Volcano last month, we stopped at one of Hilo’s local diners. Sitting at the counter, we had a front row view of the preparations. Even after living here for a year, it was an eye opener.
The typical plate lunch served at noon has one meat dish (often Spam or pork) with potato salad or rice, and macaroni salad as the two sides. But this was 10 am and breakfast time. None-the-less, we saw one breakfast plate with a side of macaroni salad smothered with gravy, another with a mega-omelet mounded with two scoops of rice and a scoop of mac salad, and every plate of pancakes came with two scoops of butter plopped onto it. It made me a bit queasy. But I really shrunk away from a green salad on which we saw a waitress pour more than a half cup of creamy dressing, probably destined for someone who thought she was ordering a calorie-smart dish.
I felt somewhat superior ordering two fried eggs with a side of cottage cheese as a substitute for the hash browns, and two pieces of pineapple as a substitute for the pancakes that were supposed to come as sides. But then I spoiled it by eating a piece of Mitch’s waffle with samplings of the restaurant’s famous coconut, lilikoi, and guava syrups – a veritable lava flow of syrups. I felt better when Dianne reminded me that calories don’t count if you eat them off someone else’s plate or eat them in the dark. If I want to adopt a Hawaiian diet, I better do it after sunset, as these calories would otherwise pack a wallop. Despite the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables all year long, the typical Hawaiian diet doesn’t contain much of either.
One dish I’ve only seen in Hawai’i is Loco Moco. It originated at the Café 100 in Hilo and was designed to fill up those who work hard. That doesn’t keep the rest of us from chowing them down with gusto. It’s a big scoop of rice with a hamburger on top, all smothered in beef gravy, then crowned with a fried egg. I confess to loving them, though I don’t get them often because I worry about possible MSG in the gravy. Café 100 still makes the best Loco Moco.
Most local diners have expanded on this simple Loco Moco idea to include chicken, pork cutlet, fish, you name it. The Hawaiian Style Café in Waimea has my favorite name and description: the Internet Loco: Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, and Spam on rice, an egg, and gravy. People who live here love Spam.
In general, I try to stay away from diners, as it’s hard to eat healthy while dining there. But when I go, it is to the Hawaiian Style Café. We’ve been going there since we were tourists. They have the usual diner dishes on the menu: country fried chicken, pork cutlets, biscuits and gravy, even lamb sometimes on the specials.
The breakfast menu includes the usual eggs, omelets, and pancake – singular, as you can only eat one. They serve on mega-plates and make sure you don’t leave hungry. Faye and I stopped in a few weeks ago while attempting some quality Mother-Daughter Time. The pancake we shared was twice as big as her head. (She made me crop off her head, so you can’t really see the comparison, but trust me.) And her French Toast came with a twist: it was made with Hawaiian Sweet Bread. Actually, this delicacy originated with the Portuguese plantation workers baking in stone hearth ovens, but it’s become so ubiquitous on the islands that the name has morphed to Hawaiian Sweet Bread.
It is this Hawaiian-immigrant twist on food that intrigues me most and is the specialty of the Hawaiian Style Café. Regular menu items include Korean chicken, Pulehu ribs, Korean pork, Kalbi pork, Oxtail soup, and Portuguese sausage. Of course a diner often has beef stew on the menu. This diner also has tripe stew and stew luau (taro leaves with chunks of pork in a savory broth) on the menu every day. Specials I’ve seen include pork blood sausage, haupia pancakes, Lomi salmon, and banana mac nut pancakes.
Hawai’i’s melting pot is a cooking pot, based first on home-cooked comfort food. If you visit Hawai’i and eat only at Subway, Outback Steakhouse, or Bubba Gump, you are missing a huge part of the experience. But be prepared to work off the extra calories, unless all you are consuming is mango, papaya, oranges, starfruit, rambutan, durian, and wax apples. Forks up and eat!
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