One of the things that I’ve been really looking forward to on our vacation in O’ahu was recommended by a friend, called the “Hole in the Wall Food Tour”. I was sold on the idea of being carted around sampling some of the island’s best “cheap eats”, which can be easily overlooked on a stay at an exotic tropical vacation. Jen and I had a bit of difficulty finding the exact pickup location of our tour, navigating the massive parking garage from our directions of the Ala Moana Center to the Ala Moana Hotel with just a few minutes before the start of the tour, but managed to hop on our bus just before the departure time and nothing but seconds to spare. We hopped on our tour bus, a large, black, luxury Mercedes Benz people mover, was already filled with the eight other tourists, along with our guides Matthew and Keira, proprietors of the Hawaii Food Tours company. Matthew’s pedigree includes a long career from an apprentice to an executive chef in LA, as a personal chef to celebs, and as the food and restaurant critic for the Star Advertiser, Hawaii’s largest daily newspaper. It would prove to be the exceptional resumé that really added the depth of knowledge and love for food that made our tour something beyond the ordinary.
Our first stop off was the Royal Kitchen, a small where we were treated to the baked manapua. The recipe takes the traditional baken Hawaiian sweet bun, and fills it with ingredients of your choosing. I opted for the savory Cha Siu (chinese barbecue pork), while Jen ordered the super sweet Black Sugar filling. I’ve had these types of buns at various dim sum locations back on the mainland, but none as piping hot fresh or delicious as the one I had here. I made short work of my bun and made googly eyes at Jen’s as she enjoyed each bite of hers, giving me the evil eye for quietly calculating how I could get it away from her hands.
As we loitered about in front of the restaurant, Matthew and Keira peppered us with tidbits of history and trivia, giving some color and personality to the area and time understand that the island has a rich history that doesn’t simply revolve around leis, luaus, and dolphins. So there. Suck it, dolphins.
Before we left, a short Chinese woman (are there really any other kind?) came running out with a styrofoam box and thrust it upon Matthew with a string of inaudible words, to which he thanked her, and presented to us with a box of sliced, roasted Chinese barbecue pork. If there’s any meat that can beat out bacon for me, it’s this stuff. I had many childhood summers in Hong Kong plowing through pounds upon pounds of this stuff, and to this day I start making prehistoric grunting noises of delight whenever I come across a particularly good serving of it. While Royal Kitchen is definitely known more for their baked manapuas, they’re no slouches when it comes to their pork.
Our next stop on the tour was Liliha Bakery, such a historic landmark of O’ahu that it was even used as the backdrop for one of the scenes from ABC’s television show Lost (the diner in Season 2 where Kate had a flashback of meeting with her Mom).
The crown jewel of Liliha Bakery is their Coco Puff pastry – a round pastry shell nearly bursting and overfilled with a chocolate pudding, and topped with a supersweet chantilly frosting. Another dish in the tour where I nearly devoured the food whole, and jealously eyeing Jen’s food. The tension was palpable. She silently cursed me and I relented, leaving to enjoy her food in peace. These things are meant to be eaten without hesitation. The flaky pastry was already on its way to a soggy disintegration as we ate them outside the restaurant, and I doubt they’d make it all the way back to our hotel room, whether due to the nature of the pastry, or me getting my grubby hands all over them to shove them into my mouth.
Our next stop was where we’d spend a majority of our time on the tour, Honolulu’s Chinatown, which I credit to being much more of a real Chinatown than DC’s Chinatown has even proven to being. The streets are lined with diminutive shops and open air markets hawking fresh seafood and plentiful, inexpensive produce. If you’re going to be in Oahu for a significant amount of time, this is the place to do all your shopping and avoid the “sticker shock” of imported produce from major supermarkets on the island.
We were given a behind the scenes look at the Ying Leong Look Funn Factory, a dying industry of hand made noodle factories. The process is amazing, watching sheets on sheets on sheets of noodles get steamed and hand folded, then served delicious strips coated in sauce and fixin’s. Seeing things like this always interest and amaze me, the will the dedication of masters of older generations tenaciously holding onto their craft doing things the old fashioned way, things that shouldn’t be forgotten entirely, but are, all in the name of modernization. I’m a sucker for nostalgia not of my own.
We sampled three varieties, the shrimp & spring onion, pork & spring onion, and plain, along with a heaping portion of Korean BBQ chicken from Jackey’s Kitchen in the Maunakea Marketplace. The Marketplace was filled with tons of vendors of shops hawking fresh, exotic fruits and vegetables of all kinds. After a 20 minute shopping spree, it was back to sampling the foods that Keira had gone off order and bring back to us, a circle of foodies intently listening to Matthew describe each food and awaiting our turn to get our sample, all the while blocking out curious locals looking to possibly grab a free sample of their own.
The first tray being filled with “Half Moons”, or steamed dumplings filled diced vegetables and meat in a gelatinous wrapper and served with a sweet dipping sauce, while Jen was served a deep fried banana coated in a sticky caramel sauce.
Next up, a Hawaiian specialty – a small bucket of Ahi Poke (pronounced pokey), tender chunks of raw tuna served in seasonings, along with Spam Matsuba, or spam sushi, another island favorite meat. We also were treated to two varieties of Hawaiian Gold pineapple, one sprinkled with a salty sweet li hing powder, and the second, plain, which was just as great on its own.
The last tray, a serving of apple bananas, a variety of bananas that are ripe only when the skin looks bruised, beaten, and way past its prime. Deceptive, no? The flesh of the banana was actually perfectly ripe, and not in the slightest bit mushy, with a distinct taste that I could only describe as a cleaner tasting banana. Along with those were a plate of Coconut Tarts from the Rainbow Tea Stop in Chinatown. The tarts were good, but surprisingly, I enjoyed the bananas a good deal more.
To wrap things up before moving out and visiting other shops, we had a Keira cocktail – a cold lychee-pineapple-vodka smoothie, with just a hint of li ning powder. BAM! I passed on the vodka, knowing that I would have landed flat on my face just a few steps away if I had indulged.
Our last stop was off to Leonard’s Bakery for a box full of malasadas. These infamous deep fried treats are akin to donuts in their appearance, but with a light, fluffy texture when they’re fresh, and sprinkled with a(n) (un)healthy dose of sugar. The bakery also offers an cinnamon sugar variant, along with custard filled ones as well. The custard fillings change throughout the year, and flavors include macadamia, pineapple, banana, mango, guava, and lilikoi, a flavor that’s not unwholly like passionfruit.
There were several other places we visited on our food tour, entirely too many for me to mention and not make this into a full out novella. The experience was without a doubt unique and enjoyable, not only for the food, but for the energetic and pleasing nature of our guides, Matthew and Keira. If you’re visiting in Oahu, I definitely recommend taking a trip around Honolulu with them.
Visit the Hawaii Food Tours website here.
- Beachlovin’ Brünos
- Adventurous Palettes
Not Recommended For:
- Salty Sheilas
- Hangry Harriets
- Zone Dieters
- Steak’n'Potato Joes