(Niceville, Florida; Apr. 29, 2018) Long ago when I was much younger my grandparents would meet us at the Honolulu airport. Grandma always had a lei she’d present each of us, and, if my Aunty Kiki and Uncle Tony were there too, Aunty Kiki would also have lei for my brother and I—usually one made of candy strung together. After the hugs and inevitable comments about how much my brother and I had grown, we’d pile into Grandpa and Grandma’s car and trundle off into the Hawaiian evening…
…Straight to Leonard’s Bakery on Kapahulu Street in Honolulu before driving across the island to my grandparents’ home in Lanikai. The smell of the best hot malasadas in Hawaii has never left my memory, nor how awful it was being a little kid and having to wait while smelling those delectable treats in a box that was so very close…yet so very far away…
If you’re not familiar with a malasada, the best example I can give are those sugar donuts you find in a good Chinese buffet…but ramp up the size at least twice and the “wow!” factor by a hundred.
Today only my grandmother and cousin Anthony (Uncle Tony and Aunty Kiki’s son) are still alive. Anthony is 80, and, being developmentally disabled, has needed extended care his whole life. Mom, Pop, and I picked him up on April 14 to have lunch and spend the day together. Of course, part of that day included the obligatory stop to get hot malasadas at Leonard’s. I’d forgotten about the line out the door ; it took Pop and I about five or six minutes to get our turn at the counter. Most people in Leonard’s are locals; this is one of those places tourists rarely find, but really ought to if they want to experience some true local flavor.
I admit it helps having family on the island. We do enjoy the more familiar and famous spots most tourists know of, like the downtown Honolulu restaurants near Waikiki and the Ala Moana Shopping Center. But having Pop around meant we got to experience a lot of local flavor most people miss.
Leonard’s makes the best malasadas on island, but for hot cross buns and Long Johns, go to the Liliha Bakery (“Li-LEE-ha”). They have two locations now. The first and older branch is on North Kuakini Street and the newer branch is on Nimitz Highway. The newer branch on Nimitz is more of an upscale, fine bistro. The older location on Kuakini Street—that’s where you go if you want to feel the true local Hawaiian vibe. Take a number and wait your turn while trying to control your wallet; the delicious avalanche of pastries behind the glass will tempt you to far overspend your budget!!!!
Of course, pastries aren’t the entire island dining experience.
Rainbow Drive-In was founded by Seiju “George” Ifuku and his wife, Ayako. George was an Army cook, and he used his experience when they opened Rainbow in 1961 on Kanaina Avenue in Honolulu. It’s still there, right where it was when my dad ate there as a young man. It’s facade hasn’t changed at all; a rainbow-painted marquis with the name eatery’s name in big white letters. It’s a Hawaiian drive-in, not the type most Americans are familiar with. Unlike, say, a Sonic, at island drive-ins you park your car and get out to order. These are open-air places; you can eat there enjoying the Hawaiian day, or get your food to go. Try their bar-b-q beef—it’s pretty righteous. I recommend taking your food to Kapiolani Park. You’ll eat in the shadow of Diamond Head amongst giant banyan trees and some very energetic birds.
If you get over to Kailua on the windward side, look for a small, hole-in-the-wall establishment called Ohana Bar-B-Q on Kainehe Street. Ohana is a Korean bar-b-q joint, and you’ll really get a taste of local eating and the small, family-run diners you tend to find in Asia. They feature teriyaki (or “teri,”) beef, pork, or chicken; meat or fish jun (thin-sliced beef or fish dipped in egg batter and fried); fried man doo (vegetable-filled dumplings like pot stickers,) long rice (long, crystal-clear noodles served cold) and the best macaroni salad I’ve had in a very long time! Like any small place, be patient. But the food is worth it.
Finally, if you want to go upscale but stay local while also getting a taste of the Hawai’i of yesteryear, spend an evening at the La Mariana Sailing Club on Sand Island Access Road in Honolulu. A private sailing club, La Mariana has maintained itself as a classic tiki-bar establishment. Open air, lots of wooden tiki carvings around, and a water view that makes you feel it’s 1935 again.
If you go on Sunday or Wednesday nights, you’ll hear an amazingly talented local group called Taste of Harmony. This quartet of men produce and perform all their own music in studio, so you are hearing them play when they put on the recordings as they sing. They cover all the classics from the 1950s through the 1970s, and their range is unbelievable. They even do a very grand imitation of the great Louis Armstrong himself. (These remarkable performers are available for hire if you have a private event needing classy and classic music, so look them up if you’ve got a potential gig.)
You can dress as formally or as informally as you like at La Mariana; that’s the joy of a Hawaiian night. It’s up to you. One night my folks and I were there with my grandparents’ old friends, and we were all in sport coats, upscale Hawaiian shirts, and dresses. My folks and I went a second night and were in T-shirts and jeans. Both times we fit right in. Make a reservation, and go to La Mariana. Get a mai tai, try the seafood trio, and let Taste of Harmony wow your ears with their soothingly energetic sounds!
Do some research and find out where the locals go to eat. Whether you want fine dining in one of the last true tiki bars in Honolulu, or the best teri beef in the Pacific over in Kailua, get away from the tourist spots. Go, experience some true local flavor!
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Leonard’s Bakery: https://www.leonardshawaii.com/home/
Liliha Bakery: http://www.lilihabakery.com/
Rainbow Drive-In: http://rainbowdrivein.com/
Ohana Bar-B-Q’s online menu: https://www.zmenu.com/ohana-bbq-kailua-online-menu/
La Mariana Sailing Club: http://www.lamarianasailingclub.com/
Taste of Harmony’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Taste-Of-Harmony-359291934239650/
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