Breakfast in the resorts
There were a couple of breakfasts at the resorts we stayed at worth mentioning. Our first day in Hawaii was spent at Waikoloa Beach Resort, north of Kailua-Kona. This was a pleasantly gentle introduction to the Aloha spirit: lagoon-style pools and hot tubs with historic lava fish ponds, leading out to a scenic beach and bathwater-warm ocean with nary a ripple on the water. Torches at night, lots of families, huge Hawaiian-style BBQ ribs that night at their in-house restaurant, everyone saying aloha to you—you get the picture.
The next morning, the in-house place had a huge breakfast buffet. There was a separate room for just this purpose, walled in by glass and attended to by white-jacketed omelet chefs. We were tempted, but decided to order off the menu to avoid getting bloated before snorkeling. I had a meticulously arranged trio of macadamia nut pancakes, french toast, and waffles. We ate outside, at a table under an umbrella, the myna birds edging in for crumbs, and the cool ocean breeze against freshly showered faces. It was nice. But, after communing with nature—our morning was spent snorkeling with no less than five different sea turtles—the vibe of the place seemed different, the air now heavy with stoic Midwesterners staying with aging parents. It was a clear sign we need to move on and get camping.
The other experience I’ll mention was at the end of our vacation. Kristi had to get back to San Francisco, but I stayed at the Fairmont Orchid for a 5-day conference, and for most of those days, we got a buffet breakfast outside the hotel ballroom where the talks were held. I was very impressed with the spread, actually. Fresh-baked cinnamon buns, fresh-squeezed guava nectar, and long filets of fresh pineapple. One thing I hadn’t seen before in a buffet was muesli with the milk already added. It had lots of dried fruit and stayed intact very well. After a while, the novelty of macadamia nut pancakes and guava jam at every meal started to wear thin, but it was still very good.
On my last day in Hawaii, I decided to treat myself and ordered a room service breakfast. Ah, luxury.
For the rest of the day after our Waikoloa stay, it rained. After exchanging our rental car, and crawling along for two hours in horrible Kona traffic, we were working our way down to a camping spot south of Kona. The bright spot in the day was late in the afternoon, at Super J's Authentic Hawaiian Food, a roadside place (found thanks to Yelp) that had plate lunches. It was basically a big garage-like structure with a kitchen. We seemed to be interrupting a regular family meal, but they insisted we join them, and were obviously used to having such visitors. Kristi and I were each given a styrofoam box. It contained some taro leaf-wrapped pork, macaroni salad, tomato salsa, and my first poi, flavorless purple goop made from mashed taro. "Different, huh?" our Hawaiian hostess and family matriarch said. "Just try a little with everything." I did, and it started to grow on me, I guess. The texture of the poi and the added starch gave something extra to each dish, although I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was exactly. They also offered us some of what they were eating -- a beef and taro leaf dish served on rice that tasted a bit like grape leaves.
By the time we got to our beach camp at Ho’okena, it really started storming. We were supposed to be camping our way around the island in counterclockwise fashion, but this did not bode well for our plans. The weather on the Hilo side of the island, where we were heading, called for rain every day for the next four days. After some brief thoughts of leaving, we ended up waiting out the storm and camping.
Malasadas and Kona coffee
After a stormy night camping at Ho’okena beach, we were both eager to drive back up to Kona and make a day of it. Kristi’s main goal was to rent a surf board and hit the Kona beaches, reef breaks known for some of the best surfing on the Big Island. Before reaching the surf shop, we decided to check out a little bakery we saw the day before (called Mapela’s) that advertised hot malasadas, the Portuguese-style donut that we had heard about in the guide books. The big Hawaiian kid at the counter was super friendly, and his accomplice in the back sold us on a six-pack of malasadas, saying, “They’re full of whole wheat, and lots of nutritious things.” Only until I bit into the still-warm malasada did I know what he meant. The texture was dense and grainy for a donut, almost nutty, with whole grain. These rectangular donuts did not have holes, but were lightly fried and covered in white sugar. Delicious!
We also got some carrot cake (incredibly moist and flavorful) and Kona coffee, which had a bold flavor and a natural sweetness. (“Did you put sugar in this?” I asked Kristi. She hadn’t.) By the way, for those complaining about the high price of Kona coffee on the mainland, let me say that I think it’s completely justified, both by the quality of the product, and the fact that it is truly scarce. We circled the entire island and it’s really not that big. There are only a few places on the coast that Kona coffee can be grown, so I’m just glad it exists.
Local fruits and nuts
The morning before our surfing excursion in Kona, we stopped at a local grocery store and stocked up on Hawaiian-themed snackables: a bag of Mauna Loa macadamia nuts (this lasted the entire trip), a whole pineapple, cans of lilikoi (passion fruit) and guava fruit juice, a six-pack of pale ale from Kona Brewing Co, milk, granola and a cooler with ice that we could keep in our car. This ended up being a great idea, because most of these things lasted the whole trip, perfect for car camping.
By New Years’ Eve, we were camping near the southern tip of the island, at an isolated park with an amazing black sand beach. As the sun went down, and a pair of feral cats began their nightly rounds, we busted out the pineapple. Having been to Kauai, Kristi knew how good the local produce could be, but I was agog. This was the juiciest and sweetest pineapple I’ve ever had, and we both couldn’t stop eating it. At the halfway point, we both looked at each other, and said, what the heck, let’s eat this whole thing. Not recommended. As we plunged ahead, all the fibrous material in the flesh would get stuck in our teeth. Then near the end, my lips started to burn, and the gums by my molars were on fire. This sensation lasted all night. Needless to say, we had our fill of pineapple for the rest of the trip. Later we did some research into this phenomenon, and it turns out that pineapple contains a proteolytic enzyme called bromelain that can be used, among other things, as a meat tenderizer!
A few days later, we stocked up on local fruit at a farmer’s market on the west side of the island. Back at camp, Kristi showed me the proper way to eat several of these fruits. The lilikoi (passion fruit) look like small squishy lemons, but when cut open are filled with juicy seed sacs. My impulse was to try and separate the juicy part of the seed sac from the seed, but this proved exceedingly difficult. Smashing the seed sacs and drinking the juice by squeezing the rind like a stress toy was only slightly more effective. One can see why this fruit is best enjoyed in the juice form.
A lilikoi, pre-surgery.
Surgical inspection of a bisected lilkoi reveals delicious but inaccessible seed sacs.
Surgical inspection of a bisected lilkoi reveals delicious but inaccessible seed sacs.
Carving and eating a papaya was more gratifying. Kristi dished out the seeds from the center, so we could spoon out and eat the remaining flesh. This is really good sprinkled with a little lime juice. We also bought a bouquet of teeny tiny bananas that (I think) were called “strawberry bananas”. These had a slightly more acidic taste and pink color than your standard Chiquita. Great for snacking.
The Loco Moco
One thing we had heard about was a famous local dish called a “Loco Moco”. At its most basic, it’s a hamburger patty on rice with gravy, topped with an egg. I was duly intrigued. The woman at Super J’s recommended a place called Ken’s House of Pancakes as a good place to eat in Hilo. Their motto is “Ono grinds, 24 hours a day”. In Hawaiian pidgin, ono is good-tasting, and grinds is food (like “eats”, deriving from the act of masticating, or grinding, food). Ken’s menu had a whole page devoted to variations on the Loco Moco, so it was not a hard decision to go.
Ken’s House of Pancakes was a delight. It had the standard family-restaurant layout of booths, a long diner counter, pie refrigerator, and thermos of coffee at each table, ready to go. The walls were plastered with the photos of famous Hawaiians, and the waitstaff displayed an acumen and wisdom reserved only for the upper echelons of career waitresses. There were more than a few couples with both young children and accompanying grandparents, taking advantage of the late afternoon for a family meal during the holiday break.
After eyeing a bowl at a neighboring table, Kristi and I quickly ordered the Saimin soup as a starter. This was a delicious homemade noodle soup made with their ‘house’ shrimp broth, pork, egg and fish cake. Just from the soup alone, we felt we had really lucked out to find such a great place. While we were eating the soup, someone in the kitchen rang a loud bell, after which came a chorus of shouts—“SUMO!” Ken’s apparently has “sumo”-sized portions of many of their dishes, and someone had ordered one. (For example, a Loco Moco made with 6 scoops of rice, 2 hamburger patties, and 3 eggs. Oof!)
The Loco Moco arrived, and it was splendiferous. The egg was just a bit runny, and oozed nicely over the patty and gravy. The overall effect in my mouth was to suggest an amalgamation of several breakfast classics—steak and eggs, biscuits and gravy, grits (the rice)—but it was wholly unique. Highly recommended. Also, it was a huge helping. I quickly realized I was going to have to prioritize, and made it my goal to finish the meat and eggs at the expense of the rice. So it goes. Kristi got an order of mahi mahi fish and chips that was also excellent.
For the uninitiated, shave ice is like a “sno-cone”, only much, much, much better. The two times I had shave ice on the island, here’s how it went. First they shave the ice right there, heaping mountains of it onto a plastic container somewhere between a cone and a bowl. The container has a big wide lip so you wont miss anything. Then they drown the whole thing in colorful, artificially-flavored syrups. And I mean they totally drench the thing, to dangerous levels, in up to three flavors of your choosing. They have the standard fake flavors, like cherry and orange and lime, but they also have flavors like passion fruit, guava, papaya and lychee.
They hand it to you speared with two large straws that have little scoops on the ends, so you can alternatively suck out the melty goodness and spoon out the rest. Now, if you’re wise to it, there is also the option of adding a scoop of ice cream to the bottom of the dish. For my money this is the only way to go. Before long, your shave ice slurping experience goes from an icy cool-off, to a savory ice cream treat.
It's hard to see, but the ice is being shaved from a large cylinder. On the right is a menagerie of exotic syrups.