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Helena's Hawaiian Food


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#1 skchai

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Posted 08 July 2004 - 09:07 AM

Helena's Hawaiian Food
1249 N. School St.
Honolulu HI
808 845-8044

Sorry for the long wait between reports - it's been a pretty busy last couple weeks. But here we are again.

Open since 1946, Helena's Hawaiian Food one of the oldest restaurant in Hawai`i that is still owned by the family that founded it. The most extraordinary thing about Helena's, however, is the fact that owner Helen Chock has been there nearly every single day from its founding until today. Even now, at age 87, Mrs. Chock is still omnipresent at the counter, and is still responsible for much of the food coming out of the kitchen. Now that has got to be some kind of record.

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Of course, in order to stick around for that long, Helena's has had to serve up some very good food, particularly since it competes against many Hawaiian restaurants and luau productions with very similar menus. Indeed, the food is good enough to attract national attention - in 2000, Helena's won the "Regional Classic" award from the James Beard foundation.

But we must digress first to consider the concept of "Hawaiian Food", which can appear a little complicated to outsiders. Unlike "California Cuisine" or for that matter "Iowan Food", it doesn't refer in a broad sense to food being eaten in or associated with the state of Hawai`i, which tends to go her under the alternative label "Local Food". Local food is dominated by Asian and Western influences, ranging from the ubiquitous plate lunch with two scoops of rice to the self-consciously inventive Hawaiian Regional Cuisine.

Hawaiian food, on the other hand, refers to foods associated with the foods of the Kanaka Ma`olinative Hawaiians, just as the term "Hawaiian" refers not so much to the residents of the state as the members of the ethnic group descended from the original inhabitants of the islands. Even here, however, there is more to the concept than meets the eye, since the Native Hawaiian food is itself a moving target, absorbing a wide variety of influences from the outside world since first contact with the West in the late 18th century. Moreover, obviously, native Hawaiians do eat quite a bit of "local food" as well as all the other cuisines available in the state, so the boundaries between Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian food become harder to maintain.

In practice, the working definition of Hawaiian food seems to center around dishes that were included within the everyday and luau menu of elite Native Hawaiians at around the turn of the 20th century, as well as direct descendants from those dishes. Hence certain dishes like lomi salmon and chicken long rice, while they include ingredients that were not available in the islands prior to outside contact, are freely accepted as exemplary representatives of Hawaiian cuisine because they have been eaten by Native Hawaiians for more than a century. Other dishes that have been included more recently in the canon of Hawaiian cuisine, such as shoyu poke and pulehu shortribs, were probably not eaten a hundred years ago, but are direct adaptations of dishes that were commonplace at the time.

Anyway, end of digression. If anyone wants, to talk more about this subject, we've had a thread on it a while ago - "Real" Hawaiian Food: What qualifies?.

The first thing you notice when you walk into Helena's is how truly friendly the ambience is. Most of the customers seem to be regulars, and people are constantly walking up and down the aisles to talk to Mrs. Chock and her staff or to people at other tables. If there's no open table available (which is often the case), there's no formal waiting list, you're just welcome to hang around whereever you feel like, talking story, until something opens up.

The menu is more or less completely ala carte. You order a starch (poi or rice), then pick from a long list of small plate items, most priced in the $2.75-3.75 range. Generally, you'll want more than one item per person, but not much more unless you're very hungry, so overall you get eat your fill quite cheaply given the quality of the food.

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Moving clockwise from the upper left hand corner, we have:
  • pa`akai `alaea - coarse-grained sea salt tinged with red volcanic soil. See this thread for more information.
  • shortribs pipikaula style. These are based upon shortribs that have been brined and seasoned, then hung up to dry before being broiled over high heat (pulehu).
  • kalua pig - the luau food par excellence, the Hawaiian version of pulled pork, originally cooked in an underground oven (imu).
  • haupia - a starch-thickened coconut pudding, cut in squares, that is the invariable dessert at luaus.
  • squid luau - squid cooked in a sauce featuring pureed luau (taro) leaf and coconut milk.
  • poi. - the (in)famous traditional Hawaiian staple made from fermented mashed taro root thinned with water. Helena's version is relatively mild and unsour.
  • fried butterfish collar - name describes it all.
  • lomi salmon (center) - raw salted salmon, mixed with diced tomatoes, green onions.
The two bottles flanking the haupia contain soy sauce and chili pepper water.

Here are some closeups of the entrees:

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The shortribs pipikaula style are one of Helena's trademark dishes. You can see rows of the ribs hanging laundry-style in the open kitchen. Pipikaula is the traditional Hawaiian jerky, though it tends to be moister and thicker than American jerky, somewhat more like South African biltong. The use of shortribs, and the way they are cut, on the other hand, seem to reflect the influence of Korean kalbi.
Whatever the origin, they are a great experience - chewy, salty, crusty, concentrated meat.

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Helena's version of kalua pig is steam-cooked in a true imu (underground earth oven), though the oven itself is off-premises. Thus it has the smoky, briny taste that is distinctive to imu cooking, in which spent embers, red-hot stones, and seaweed all contribute to the taste of the final product, and the sealed oven ensures its moistness.

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The squid luau is extremely creamy and comforting. No brief blanching here; the greens are cooked to the point of falling apart, and mixed with large amounts of extremely rich coconut milk. The chewy bits of squid offer an pleasant textural contrast. Chicken is another food that is also given the leaf-and-coconut treatment.

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The lomi salmon here is full of goodies, adding sweet Maui onions, ogo seaweed, and small cubes one additional kind of raw fish (ahi?) to the salted salmon / tomato / green onion mix. Refreshing.

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The butterfish collar is another one of Helena's specialties. Like Japanese cuisine, Hawaiian cuisine has a real appreciation for the sweetness of the meat in the collar area of the fish. Eating the collar involves a lot of poking and nibbling to get at each small morsel around the bones, but it's worth the effort. Butterfish collar is also available boiled, either plain, in stew gray, or with watercress.

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Helena's only disruption in business was in 2001, when they moved from their old North King St. address to their new haunts on N. School St. The new location is close to Bishop Museum, in a small strip mall across from Mitsu-ken's Okazuya and ajoining Mitsuba's Okazuya. The parking here is pretty minimal, so you may sometimes have to wait a while for spots to open up, or find street parking somehwere in the vicinity.

Sun-Ki Chai
http://www2.hawaii.edu/~sunki/

Former Hawaii Forum Host


#2 rlivings

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Posted 12 July 2004 - 02:45 PM

Everything looks delicious skchai.....well except the squid luau :)

#3 wesza

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Posted 12 July 2004 - 09:37 PM

Everything looks delicious skchai.....well except the squid luau :)

Helena's Squid Luau is something everyone in my family feels is their favorite.

Whenever any friend or acquaintance is returning from a visit to Honolulu my daughter contrives anyway reasonable to have them return to Seattle with a Gallon of the Squid Luau in exchange for 2 way airport drop off and pick up from Seattle.

As soon as she knows the date and flight they are returning on her friends in Honolulu will order the Luau from Helene's ahead of time and pick it and bring to her friend just before they depart to the Airport.

No one goes to that much trouble for something that doesn't taste better then just good. Man thats pretty , "Squid Luau", there's none better anywhere.

Irwin :biggrin:
I don't say that I do. But don't let it get around that I don't.

#4 rlivings

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Posted 13 July 2004 - 02:35 PM

sorry, im not much of a squid person.....maybe i'll try it someday.

#5 tryska

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Posted 14 July 2004 - 07:01 AM

so the brown hot-chocolate looking stuff is the poi then?

cool pics!

#6 skchai

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Posted 15 July 2004 - 05:04 AM

Whenever any friend or acquaintance is returning from a visit to Honolulu my daughter contrives anyway reasonable to have them return to Seattle with a Gallon of the Squid Luau in exchange for 2 way airport drop off and pick up from Seattle.

A gallon of squid luau! Wesza, that should last a long time - of give you enough to put on your own luau. Hopefully the folks at airport security don't think that its some kind of WMD component and confiscate it.

Rlivings, I guess luau leaf (and squid) is an acquired taste, but I guarantee you that Helena's version will go down real easy. . .

Tryska, yes, the brown goop is poi. Anyone who expects it to taste like chocolate, however, will be in for a bit of a surprise. The usual description of the taste (by its enemies) is "library paste", but I don't think that's remotely accurate either (though I haven't eaten a lot of library paste recently easier). It plays the role of the starch component of the meal, but because it has that slight sourness, it's an excellent foil to the rich and often heavy meat dishes.

Sun-Ki Chai
http://www2.hawaii.edu/~sunki/

Former Hawaii Forum Host


#7 wesza

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Posted 15 July 2004 - 12:51 PM

Sun-Ki:

The anticipation for the "Squd Luau" at my daughters house is very special, with Hinode Rice, her own Salted Salmon, Day Old Poi, Pippikalua, Short Ribs Huli Huli. Pork with Chinese Cabbage, Chicken and Pork Luau it's her version of a Hawaiian Dinner. I'm fortunate to be invited. It's worth the 100 Mile Round Trip.

With her family and a few friends the Gallon is generally 3/4's finished at the meal. and she eats the rest quickly, then starts coveting it again until next time. She's attempted preparing her own "Squd Luau", but to her it's never as good as "Helena's", even when we lived in Honolulu, or she visits she always tries it everywhere else, but to her it's the best.

Irwin
I don't say that I do. But don't let it get around that I don't.

#8 FoodZealot

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Posted 20 July 2004 - 09:01 PM

Wow. Sorry I'm late to this thread. Looks onolicious!

#9 jschyun

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Posted 21 July 2004 - 12:58 PM

am i crazy or does that squid luau look a lot like saag paneer?
I love cold Dinty Moore beef stew. It is like dog food! And I am like a dog.
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#10 skchai

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Posted 21 July 2004 - 01:25 PM

Joan, you can say that it's similar, but with the following substitutions:


Saag Paneer -> Squid Luau

spinach (usually) -> taro leaf
yoghurt or cream (sometimes) -> coconut milk
spices -> no spices
paneer -> squid (the paneer of the sea?)


So the bottom line is. . . you're crazy :)

BTW, glad that there's so much interest in the squid luau - it's one of the dishes in the luau cannon that's been somewhat forgotten in recent times (Wezsa and his family aside). You can often go to an otherwise great Hawaiian dinner and not be served any "luau" (the dish, not the meal) whatsoever. Another great thing about squid luau is that is part of a family of greens n' coconut dishes that span across Polynesia. . . So it helps in some small way to solidify the pan-Polynesian identity???

Sun-Ki Chai
http://www2.hawaii.edu/~sunki/

Former Hawaii Forum Host