(Originally appearing on food blog Wasabi Prime, March 28, 2011)
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Don’t go chasing waterfalls… The hip hop trio of TLC clearly never visited Hawaii. This song is bogus! Contrary to their advice, you should chase waterfalls. Because they’re quite pretty. And chase other adventures when visiting the island of Hawai’i because you know what? It’s a great excuse to have a big, delicious meal to reward your adventuresome stomach — I mean spirit. (If you’ve never heard of TLC or the song Waterfalls, I feel ooooooooold.)
Who doesn’t love a stunning tropical pastoral? Rainbow Falls at Wailuku River State Park is such a beautiful spot, and have been visiting it since I was a kid. Plus it’s a picturesque waterfall worth exploring that’s literally right in the heart of Hilo on the island of Hawaii, which means you can spend some energy taking a good walk around the area to get your appetite going for a big, delicious meal at Hilo Bay Cafe. This visit to the Cafe was a first for me! I’d never gone before, and was joined by fellow food blogger and artist, Devany Vickery-Davidson, who writes the Aloha-tastic My Hawaiian Home. She’s a great source for island events and restaurants, and had delicious recommendations for Hilo Bay Cafe’s menu, composed by Chef Joshua Ketner, who crafts beautiful dishes composed of the fresh produce from local growers on the island, as well as products produced by neighborhing islands. They source organic produce where they can, and the menu changes regularly based on seasonal items.
We ordered several wonderful things, thanks to Devany’s keen palate — their carpaccio of paper-thin local beef drizzled with oil, fried capers and radish microgreens; a layered roasted eggplant parmesan custard with rosemary bread; fresh ono (aka, wahoo, a local fish) and hearts of palm ceviche with purple Alii/Okinawan sweet potato chips; and a mushroom wellington filled with roasted portobello mushrooms, gorgonzola and red peppers served on whipped potatoes and asparagus. Devany had raved about their jalapeno martinis, which was a lovely mix of fire and ice, with the slow heat of spice that lingers between the salty brine of blue cheese-stuffed olives and the refreshing cool of vodka. This is a popular drink that’s usually made with Ocean Vodka – a locally made spirit at a distillery in Maui — but it’s so popular, that people literally drank all the Ocean away! But the cocktail is just as dandy with my favorite, Grey Goose.
I have to say the carpaccio was my favorite — it’s not something I get to indulge in very often, and the local beef is outstanding. Tender, delicate beef flavor, with the rawness allowing for sharpness of the capers and other elements to balance everything very nicely. I enjoyed all the dishes, which had that element of freshness that you just can’t fake. If you get a chance to visit, just order from their specials menu to get whatever’s right off the tree, vine or fish hook.
If you want to venture out into the area where restaurants like Hilo Bay Cafe gets lot of the fresh produce, drive out near the Hamakua Coast area, north of Hilo. The inland region is hilly with a lot of farmland, with a stunning view of the ocean along the coastal drive. And yes, there’s waterfalls! Plan a stop to see Akaka Falls near Homomu, another really beautiful tropical vista. You’ll get a chance to see a lot of the native plants and rainforest setting, which is a dramatic comparison to the farming areas, giving you a sense of how the land has been transformed. Akaka Falls is much higher waterfall than Rainbow Falls; there’s paved steps that wind their way to various lookout points. It’s an easy enough walk, but don’t worry, there’s plenty of steps to build up your appetite for a new food adventure!
Of course I enjoy going to my favorite local-style eating places when I’m in the Hilo area. Nori’s Saimin and Snackshop is my Thursday lunch spot for getting my saimin fix — I say Thursdays because that’s the day my parents are always there. If you are ever in Hilo and want to see Wasabi Mom and Wasabi Dad in their natural food habitat, Thursdays are it! We also visited the Imiloa Astronomy Center Cafe, the restaurant that’s on the side of the center. It’s like the hidden food gem for lunch and dinner, as who would think of heading to a planetarium for a nice sit-down meal? They have a regular buffet, but one of my favorite things is their Taiwanese-style beef noodle soup. But probably my favorite meal is the one that proves food tastes better outside. Call in your bento order first thing in the morning to the old Kawamoto Store in downtown Hilo on Kilauea Avenue. It’s an okazuya-style bento shop, which is to say, Japanese comfort food, primarily from Okinawa. Spam musubi, nori-wrapped fried chicken, fried cutlets of pork tonkatsu, housemade kamaboko fish cakes — all the local favorites that have been tweaked for Hawaii tastes, like the availability of bright red hotdogs from Maui. Simple, inexpensive, humble food that are all delicious when eaten outdoors, sitting along the rock wall overlooking Hilo Bay, near Coconut Island. I do this at least once during every visit with my family, and it’s always at the top of my eating/sightseeing list of recommendations!
Another winning combination of sight-seeing/tummy-filling island adventure would be to chase down some lava in Kalapana and make a stop in Pahoa to visit Kaleo’s Bar and Grill for dinner. This is the perfect combo of off-the-beaten-trail sightseeing and the reward of ono kine grindz after a long day. (I know, I keep saying this phrase – ono is Hawai’ian for ”good” or “tasty” and yes, it’s also the name of the fish, which was deliciously named, and well, “kine” and “grindz” is just Pidgin, which you can probably suss out for yourself.)
Kilauea was super-active while I was visiting, and the Kalapana lava flow in the Puna district is one place to literally see where man meets magma. It’s not really a typical place to visit; it’s just a public road, at the end of Route 130, which comes to a pretty abrupt halt as there’s old, cooled lava that’s blocked the rest of the way. This area has houses with people living off the grid (no running water or electricity) in houses that are in the direct path of active lava flows when Pele decides she wants to stir things up. You’re shaking your head, saying, “Why, why, WHY would you live in such a treacherous place?” Well, the ocean view is stunning to say the least, and it’s a wide open space straight out of a Martian landscape, composed of old lava flows made wrinkled and rippled with serpentine cooling patterns, and odd sprouts of ferns peeking from every crack. From what you can see of the homes, they’re all equipped with the combination of solar and wind power, plus gas-powered generators, and there are rainwater catchment systems on all the houses. You get a bit of a contact high of the exhilaration of relying so heavily on nature’s conditions and living in such proximity to its destructive path, especially when you see remnants of homes that the lava did end up claiming. Don’t think this is like Pompeii — the lava does flow through here, but it’s slow and the people who have chosen to live in this area are ever-vigilant and know when to allow their home to be consumed by Pele. You can drive your car out and park alongside the highway — definitely bring flashlights, as remember, no streetlamps — and at sundown, you can see the lava on the not-too-distant hills. They come out like reddish orange stars in a night sky as dusk settles.
You may feel invigorated with hunger after staring into the brute force of the Earth’s core. Well, I know I was feeling a bit peckish. On the way back from Kalapana, you should drop by Kaleo’s Bar and Grill in the center of Pahoa. The town of Pahoa is totally what I envision when I think of Hawai’i. No sandy beaches or deep valleys carpeted in rainforests. Maybe it’s from spending many summers in upcountry Maui, in little towns like Makawao, but I love the one-road main streets lined with old clapboard buildings, gravel parking lots in back, and the off-the-beaten-trail atmosphere of little towns. Although Kaleo’s isn’t totally hidden, as they’ve been awarded a Silver Hale Aina Award by Honolulu Magazine, so clearly, this Island Find is Island Found.
Kaleo’s gets busy. You wouldn’t think such a little town would have so many people, but I’m fairly certain they all show up here for dinner. But that’s a good sign of good food. Get reservations if you’ve got a group of people, but they do have a small bar area with open seating if you’re just looking to drop in for a short spell. The food is sort of the Hawai’ian fusion cuisine that’s very popular, preparing traditional native dishes in unique ways like wontons filled with kalua pork, but always relying on the strength of local, fresh ingredients. I had the Kaleo’s Lemon Chicken, whch prepared chicken breasts with local spinach and goat cheese, in a lemon caper sauce. Flavorful take on a chicken Florentine-style dish, with the citrus of the lemon and sauteed spinach keeping the dish bright to balance the creaminess of the goat cheese. Their poke was prepared with big chunks of ahi and the addition of avocado chunks, which I really liked. I’m used to the more small-chop, traditional style of poke, and the use of ogo (seaweed), but their version had a sesame dressing and had a lighter flavor, letting the ingredients’ natural flavor shine through. Save room for dessert — their lilikoi cheesecake is fantastic, and probably my favorite of what I tried that night. Passionfruit, despite its romantic name, is kind of a funky fruit. I wouldn’t call it totally sweet, as its got a complex flavor that’s strikingly aromatic, but almost a rounded bitterness to it. I didn’t realize what a great pairing lilikoi and creamy cheese makes. It sort of perfectly represents a lot of this Hawai’ian/Western fusion cuisine, taking ingredients that in their native menus would probably never have been put together, but in the natural fusion culture of Hawai’i, these delicious combinations become possible.
When I get a chance to return to Kaleo’s, I think I’d like to try something off their Local Favorites part of the menu, which had things like kalua pork and cabbage (my dinnermates said it was really good), and kal bi ribs. I did indulge in a frosty beverage that The Dude would totally abide by — beer from Kona Brewing Company. And I did also have a beer from the local Hilo brewery, Mehana. Both are great breweries and I’d like to explore them further on another trip, but I have to say their already good beers somehow taste extra good in Hawai’i.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR & PHOTOGRAPHER:
Denise Sakaki is a freelance writer, photographer and the creator of the food blog, Wasabi Prime. Living in Washington State, she has had her work appear in Serious Eats, Drink Me Magazine, 425 Magazine and Honest Cooking Magazine.