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FoodTrek: A Historic Feast of Kona by Land

Posted on August 26, 2011

(Originally appearing on food blog Wasabi Prime, March 30, 2011)

* NOTE: This content and photos relating to this piece is released for promotional purposes only and is protected under the Creative Commons license; please contact the author directly for questions regarding the republishing or redistribution of any or all material. wasabiprime@hotmail.com or dsakaki@denisesakaki.com

Photo Courtesy of Denise Sasaki

They say travel nourishes the soul, of which I totally agree. I also think travel should nourish the appetite, as all that wandering about can build up a monster hunger. Continuing my journey around the island of Hawai’i, I had the opportunity to satisfy both a hunger for history as well as local eats while on the journey across the island.

I’m as much of a planner as the next OCD-Planner-a-holic, but one of the nice things about driving around is the chance to just stop if something catches your eye. Driving around the island, from the eastern city of Hilo to the western side of Kona, you have the chance to experience the variety of climates across this one island. You watch the lush rainforest turn into the hilly agriculture-rich hills around the area of Waimea, and then the sun seems to get a little more intense, the greens turn to earthen reds and browns, and before you know it, you’re in the arid, volcanic rocky terrain that surrounds the western Kailua-Kona side of the island.

On the way to Kona, you drive along the Kohala Coast, the birthplace of the Native Hawaiian leader King Kamehameha the Great — the legendary chief who rose to power against much adversity, and through decades of war with the different tribes throughout the islands, his leadership brought peace and unification to the Native Hawaiians. One of the most significant cultural and historic places is Puukohola Heiau, a protected national park along the Kohala Coast, on the way towards Kona. A heiau is a Native Hawaiian term for a temple or holy place; there are several heiaus throughout the islands, having different significance according to why they were built. The importance of Pu’ukohola Heiau is that it was the offering to the war god, Ku, fulfilling a prophesy that would lead its builder to bring unity to the islands. A kind of sacred hollaback to the divine, letting them know someone is taking up the call to make a fractured people whole again. The shrine is composed of heavy lava stones, but despite the area being flush with lava rock, Ku is a war god with high standards — this particular shrine of stones had to be built using the lava rock turned smooth by the waves of the sea. These ocean-smoothed stones could never touch the ground where they came from before being built up on the hill many miles away – no small feat — but Kamehameha was great at delegating, so he had his warriors make a human chain to move each stone by hand to their final place at the temple. This served multiple purposes — along with fulfilling the prophecy to build the temple, it helped Kamehameha’s warriors develop a sense of teamwork, and it was a hella-wicked workout for the men who became his great champions who fought alongside him to unite the people of Hawaii. The story of Kamehameha the Great is an epic one, woven with myth and fact, with elements of Arthurian and Biblical aspects, and the story is one of the most beloved in Hawaii. When visiting these islands, make it a point to visit at least one of the historic cultural sites, as it’s a tribute of thanks to people who helped built this chain of islands into the place it is now, and much of that cultural spirit has endured through the centuries.

As mentioned before, exploring the history of a place can lead to both cultural appreciation and an annoyingly loud rumble in one’s tummy.  The way one heeds the call of the divine, one must answer the equally compelling gurgle of a stomach. On the way to Kohala,  there was a lunch break in the misty hills of Waimea, in the city of Kamuela. In a little strip mall called the Parker Ranch Center, you’ll find Village Burger, one of the best hidden hamburger gems on the island, and it’ll leave you with a craving that will make you catch the next flight back to the Big Island. You’ll see the Parker family name listed in a lot of places on Hawaii, due to the fact that the Parker Ranch takes up a large portion of the island. The family has been a major agricultural landowner in Hawaii since the 1800s, with their legacy continuing to the present-day, keeping the farming community strong on the island. Along with produce farms, cattle ranches are all over the area. Village Burger takes full advantage of this wealth of local ingredients, elevating the comforting hamburger to a gloriously delicious statement that sings the praises of supporting local farmers and ranchers.

Village Burger chef and owner, Edwin Goto, was on-hand to pose for a photo and present a tasty argument for why people should support local ingredients. Not that anyone really needs convincing, but the flavor of their Hawai’ian Red Veal Burger, made with the tender, delicate flavor of veal (yes, a wee baby cow) or the vegetarian-friendly Hamakua Mushroom Burger, piled high with locally grown, flavorful Alii and shiitake mushrooms, are compelling arguments against anyone even daring to consider a quick trip to the drive-thru at some national burger chain. Each burger is cooked to order, with options to add caramelized onions to enhance toppings like tomato marmalade or a miso mayonnaise. Natural flavors of the burger itself, whether it’s the rich Wagyu Kobe-style burger, or their subtle veal are paired beautifully with their choice toppings, letting flavors compliment but not eclipse one another. Chef Goto’s background as an executive chef at luxe hotels like the Lodge at Koele on the island of Lanai brought him recognition and a James Beard nomination, and where some would parlay such success into a high-end, high-profile restaurant, Chef Goto takes his finely-tuned craft for flavor and shares it with everyone, offering the familiarity and comfort of a burger that’s blessed with incredible freshness that evangelize the message of regional eating. Village Burger is as much about good food as it is educating its patrons, listing where the ingredients come from and emphasizing that these are meals truly of the island, supporting local farmers. Even if it’s a little bit of a drive, cowboy-up and ’round up the posse towards Kamuela to have one of the most delicious lessons in locavore eating – and don’t forget to get a delicious milkshake made with local ice cream and swirls of local strawberries grown right in the area.

Driving all day, stopping for history and hamburgers, you eventually make your way to the coastal city of Kailua-Kona. The main center of the city is the ocean-facing stretch of Alii Drive, running along the rocky shore. It’s a mix of restaurants, hotels and retail shops, but you never lose sight of the history of this historic city by the sea. You’ll likely notice Mokuaikaua Church, its tall pointed spire sticking up against all the other rooftops of the city. The first Christian church to be built in Hawai’i in the 1800s, its construction is unique, as it was one of the first to use Western building techniques like mortar in the construction of its walls. Traditional native building techniques use the careful stacking of lava rocks, fitting each stone perfectly to let gravity and friction keep the structures sound. The church’s construction used the black lava rock, but mixed a unique mortar made up of the local coral, creating a stark white contrast that filled the seams between each stone. As you walk by the church, look closely and you’ll see the bits of coral and shell mixed in between the lava stones. Other standout historic sites along Ali’i Drive is the Hulihee Palace, the historic home for Hawaiian royalty, built around the same era as the church, signifying a new Western influence in the islands. The palace holds a collection of artifacts of that Victorian era, when British explorers were developing trade relationships with the Native Hawaiians. You see that influence in old portraits of Hawaiian royalty wearing Victorian clothing, and of course in the Hawaiian flag itself, which bears the Union Jack in its design. It’s a reminder that the history of Hawaii is incredibly complex, spanning several continents and reflecting influences from many nations.

It’s certainly a lot to ponder, and it provides quite a bit of food for thought. But of course you can’t ignore the fact that you’re in a tropical paradise. After learning about a legendary king who fought to unite his people, and world-weary explorers who discovered this lush chain of Eden-like islands (ok, technically it’s an archipelago), you deserve a sunset dinner to watch the day slip away into the colorful depths of the sea. If you’ve been to Kona before, you’ve probably heard of Huggo’s, a longtime favorite restaurant that’s been around since the 1960s. It’s right along Alii Drive, offering their more formal dining at Huggo’s and then next door is their casual bar, Huggo’s on the Rocks, which is more of a relaxed hangout spot to listen to live music. I remember coming to Kona before and my aunt would tell me how Huggo’s used to be known as the place where they’d throw bits of raw chicken into the surf right below the restaurant and the eels would come out for the tasty treats. Weirdly awesome, right? It was just oddball trivia that the restaurant was known for, and on this visit, they said they still do it from time to time. While I kept an eye out on the crashing surf, I sadly didn’t see eels, but given the delicious dinner I was about to enjoy, I felt like hey, if one of us is going to have a tasty meal, better Wasabi than Unagi, right?
I tried out their new prix fixe dinner menu, offering three courses for a fixed price for around $40. I’m a fan of restaurants who put together these menus because like a lot of people, I’m plagued with indecision, and in most cases, these menus reflect the strengths of a restaurant and shows off their favorite ingredients. Given the freshness and availability of items from land and sea, Huggo’s hit a home run with that particular day’s fresh catch, a seared swordfish seasoned with spicy sichimi togarashi, a Japanese blend of ground pepper and chili designed to give food a little kick of heat, set atop a creamy puree of purple alii or Okinawan sweet potatoes, and a rich sauce of lemongrass haupia, sort of like a citrus-infused coconut sauce. Delicious and elegant, it was flavored with island culinary influences and I swear it tasted that much more amazing with a view of the sun turning a volcanic blood-red before setting right into the ocean. Their dessert was especially rich, offering a macadamia nut take on pecan pie. It was a slice of pure sugar-rush heaven, with the rich, slightly savory peanut butter-like filling of the pie topped with toasted macadamia nuts. The vanilla ice cream was a nice foil to the pie, and despite saying, “I couldn’t eat another bite,” it was really hard not to just fit one.. more… little… bite. When I’m eating in the land of Aloha, I just can’t stop enjoying every morsel. Which is why I was probably compelled by the threat of cellulite to take regular jogs up and down Ali’i Drive every day I was there. That ice cream isn’t going to exercise itself away. *burp*

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.

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