1249 N. School St.
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.
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.
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.
Here are some closeups of the entrees:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.