Sunday, December 19, 2010

Good Eats: Helena's Hawaiian Food

One of the "open secrets" in Honolulu is Helena's Hawaiian Food, winner of the James Beard Foundation Award for "Regional Classics" in 2000.  Helen Chock opened her restaurant in 1946 as a way to make a living and pay for her children's school.  She started the restaurant at her mother's urging after Helen's brother closed his restaurant.  Start-up costs were small, since she already had kitchen equipment on hand.  The place is called "Helena's" instead of "Helen's" because it sounded more Hawaiian and Hawaiian food is their specialty.

View Larger Map Helena's is at 1240 North School Street, Honolulu, HI 96734

Helena's Hawaiian Food is open from Tuesday to Friday from 10:30 am to 7:30 pm.  Cash only, no credit cards, no reservations, and no alcohol.  The restaurant's current location in Kalihi is just down the street from it's original site.  The restaurant relocated because Helen's lease on the old space ran out.  This is a good stop for lunch or an dinner after coming back from the Dole Plantation or the Arizona Memorial (or the USS Missouri, USS Bowfin, or the Pacific Aviation Museum).  

You might call this a hole-in-the-wall, because the restaurant only has enough room for 12 tables.  Though small in size, this place is big on taste.  When they first opened, the menu included breakfast and Chinese food as well as Hawaiian dishes.  After a while, they did away with breakfast and Chinese food, instead focusing on Hawaiian lunch and dinner.  That's Helen's daughter, Elaine, working behind the counter.  Her son, Craig Katsuyoshi, is the current owner and chef.  Helen herself passed away in 2007, but the family keeps the Hawaiian-style, home cooking alive and well.      

The Wall of Fame
If this place looks familiar, you might have seen it on the Travel Channel's Man vs. Food with Adam Richman.  Though Helena's doesn't have a food challenge, it was featured as one of the best places to eat.

The clip is the whole first half of the episode, so fast forward to 6:45 mark and see how they make one of their signature dishes, pikikalua ribs.  What are pipikaulua ribs?  Pipikaula is Hawaiian for "beef string", two beef strips tied together with string and hung to dry.  The beef is salted or brined before drying, which produces a soft jerky with lots of flavor.  In modern days, the ribs are also marinated or seasoned, then char broiled or fried (in this case fried) before serving.  

For newcomers, the waitress will recommend Menu Item D.  Item D has a little bit of everything:  pipikaula short ribs, lomi salmon, kaulua pork, laua squid, two scoops of rice, slice raw onions, Maui sea salt, and  haupia.  The presentation is simple and unpretentious as it is tasty.

That bowl of green is the laua squid.  It looks like creamed spinach, but it's actually taro leaves boiled in water, then simmered for at least an hour.  After simmering, coconut milk is added giving it a light, sweet flavor.  The squid here is tender, warm, and not chewy: meaning the cook knows what he's doing.

To the left of the squid is their signature dish: pipikaula ribs.  The ribs are tougher than most spare ribs, but sink your teeth in them and they are flavorful.  The outside is slightly crunchy, but the inside is tender and juicy with hints of teriyaki sauce.  

The bowl of red cubes in back of the pipikaula ribs is the lomi salmon.  Usually called lomi-lomi salmon, it is a Hawaiian dish of cubed raw, fresh and salted salmon with diced tomatoes and sweet Maui or green onions.  Lomi-lomi means "to massage" in Hawaiian and is the method of preparation of the salmon.  The salmon is massaged by hand to dice (or shred) it with other ingredients.   

To the right of the lomi salmon is the kalua pork.  Kalua pork was traditionally cooked in an underground oven with hot lava rocks and left to steam all day.  This is rarely done today and kalua refers to the flavor of the tender, slow-cooked pork.The pork has a hearty, home-cooked taste to it with a slight salty and tangy flavor.  

The small dish of pinkish-red is sea salt.  It is meant for the onion slices.  The onions slices are pressed into the sea salt and eaten raw.  A nice side of vegetables to go with their signature dish.  And after the main course, there is dessert.  
The white cubes are the dessert, which is haupia.  Haupia is coconut pudding and was traditionally made by heating coconut milk with ground Polynesian Arrowroot or pia.  Since Arrowroot is difficult to get, cornstarch is often substituted.  Though haupia is a pudding, it has the consistency of jello and is served like jello in cubes.  The haupia is sweet, but not too sweet and is a nice finish to a good meal.    

Just a word of warning, it can get busy here around lunch time.  They do take-out, so you can call ahead for your order.  The ala-carte items are affordable and this place could be considered a cheap eat as well as a good eat.  Check the menu (try the fried Butterfish [cod] collars and laulau) for items and prices.  Enjoy!

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