Being that I was born and raised in Hawaii, I often find myself pining for a luau spread of comfort dishes from my childhood. Feeling particularly homesick for the flavors of home, I recently went out searching for foods from Hawaii in the East Bay.
I was surprised to find that the East Bay has quite a few places that specialize or carry food from the region, although at first glance, I mostly came across eateries serving the classic aloha staple, the BBQ plate lunch. But after digging a little deeper, I discovered some traditional dishes and pupus (small bites or appetizers) that bring together a truer range of Hawaii regional cuisine, which is in itself a mixture of foods and influences from Polynesia, Japan, Korea, China, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Portugal.
From traditional meals served at luaus to a fusion of recipes brought to the table by immigrants during the Plantation era, here are the three spots to get a quick fix of aloha.
TOKYO FISH MARKET
Tokyo Fish Market is truly a one-stop shop for all your Hawaiian food needs. Here, you’ll find taro chips, Hurricane popcorn, cans of Hawaiian Sun juices, chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, as well as Hawaiian salts, rubs, and teriyaki and charsiu (BBQ pork) marinades to make your own Hawaiian BBQ at home. In the frozen section, there’s a potluck-spread of “made in Hawaii” favorites like saimin, kamaboko (fish cake), manapua (BBQ pork buns), Portuguese sausage, Zippy’s chili (Hawaii’s homemade chili), lau lau (taro leaf, pork and salted butterfish wrapped in ti leaf), Kalua pig (slow-roasted pork) and last but not least, poi (mashed taro), a hard-to-find specialty in the Bay Area.
But what stands out most is the market’s poke bar. Poke is all the rage these days, but Tokyo Fish’s selection is the closest to what you’ll find in a local market in Hawaii. Displayed in a refrigerated glass cooler, Tokyo Fish offers a fresh assortment of seafood, pre-mixed with a handful of ingredients and sold by weight in clear pint-sized containers. If you’re looking to spice up your poke or plate lunch, be sure to grab a bottle of Hawaiian Chili Water, a spicy condiment made with chilis, garlic and vinegar. Tokyo Fish Market is at 1220 San Pablo Ave. (between Gilman and Harrison), Berkeley.
WIKIWIKI HAWAIIAN BBQ
Wikiwiki Hawaiian BBQ stays true to it name (wikiwiki means fast or quickly in Hawaiian) with its brisk order-at-the-counter service. Its spacious, casual setting has a steady stream of regulars — workers on lunch break, group of old friends catching up and solo diners reading the newspaper — getting their fix of Hawaiian flavor.
Wikiwiki is one of the few spots in the East Bay that serves saimin, the Islander’s noodle soup, made in a clear salty broth with egg noodles and topped with slices of Spam and green onions. Wikiwiki’s lau lau is flown in from Hawaii and its Kalua pig is slow cooked for hours on site to achieve a smoky and tender meat. Order the two dishes as a combination plate lunch, served with two scoops of white rice and a scoop of macaroni salad, for a perfect balance of smokiness and earthiness. Don’t forget to grab a fizzy carbonated drink from Wikiwiki’s self-serve soda fountain or a can of Hawaiian Sun juice to wash it all down. Wikiwiki Hawaiian BBQ is at 2417 Shattuck Ave. (between Channing and Haste), Berkeley.
KATALINA’S ISLAND GRILL AND GROCERY
Katalina’s Island Grill and Grocery is a small no-frills, family-run business in Hayward offering home-style Tongan comfort dishes, cooked in small batches and served from a steam table. Although Tonga is geographically miles away from Hawaii, as Polynesians, they share similar cultures and dishes to Hawaiian islanders.
One common dish in particular is Katalina’s lu pulu (similar to Hawaii’s lau lau), made with your choice of corned beef or lamb, and enveloped in coconut milk and taro leaves. The sweet and savory flavors of the meat and taro leaves are locked in by sealing the mixture in foil before cooking. Another favorite is the lu kapa pulu, a dish reminiscent to Hawaii’s squid luau. Katalina’s version mixes corned beef and spinach, stewed in coconut milk until it’s the consistency of creamed spinach. Don’t miss the teriyaki-basted turkey tail, which is slow-cooked and fall-off-the-bone barbecue. To offset all that rich, meaty goodness, Katalina’s serves large chunks of steamed taro and sweet potato as a side. Leave room for dessert, such as a slice of Katalina’s pie filled with subtly sweet stewed pineapples and topped with whipped cream. Katalina’s Island Grill is at 821 Sycamore Ave. (near Mission), Hayward.
Feeling inspired to get familiar with the foods from Hawaii? Here are some dishes commonly eaten in Hawaii, plus where to get them in the East Bay.
A glossary of common foods from Hawaii
BBQ meat (entree) – Various cuts of chicken or beef that are marinated in a sweet and salty soy sauce-base with fresh ginger and garlic, and cooked on a grill.
Get it at: Hula Wok BBQ, Ohana Hawaiian BBQ, Ono Hawaiian BBQ, Wiki Wiki Hawaiian, Hawaiian Grill Express, Hangten Boiler, Lava Pit Hawaiian Grill, L&L Hawaiian BBQ, Wikiwiki / Waikiki Hawaiian BBQ (El Cerrito)
Chicken katsu (entree) – The Hawaiian version of Japanese tonkatsu. A panko-breaded, deep-fried chicken cutlet sliced in thin strips and accompanied with katsu sauce, a sweet, thick and dark sauce made of soy sauce, ketchup, Worcestershire and seasonings.
Get it at: Ohana Hawaiian BBQ, Ono Hawaiian BBQ, Wiki Wiki Hawaiian, Hawaiian Grill Express, Hangten Boiler, Lava Pit Hawaiian Grill, L&L Hawaiian BBQ, Wikiwiki / Waikiki Hawaiian BBQ (El Cerrito)
Haupia (dessert) – A gelatinous coconut milk dessert served at luaus and most Hawaiian eateries. Traditionally, haupia is cut into bite-sized cubes and served chilled.
Get it at: Ono Hawaiian BBQ, Tokyo Fish Market
Hawaiian chili water (condiment) – A popular Hawaiian condiment made of water infused with red chilis, garlic, a dash of white vinegar and Hawaiian salt.
Get it at: Tokyo Fish Market
Kalua pig (entree) – The word kalua in Hawaii refers to a cooking method using an imu (underground oven) for roasting a whole pig at a luau. Since not every business or homeowner has the space for an imu, this dish can be made by slow-roasting pork butt or shoulder in an indoor oven, with Hawaiian salt and liquid smoke.
Get it at: Wiki Wiki Hawaiian, Hangten Boiler, Ono Hawaiian BBQ, Ohana Hawaiian BBQ, Hawaiian Grill Express, Lava Pit Hawaiian Grill, L&L Hawaiian BBQ, Wikiwiki / Waikiki Hawaiian BBQ (El Cerrito)
Lau lau (entree) – A stuffing made up of luau (taro) leaves, chunks of meat (typically pork) and butterfish wrapped in ti leaves. The package is steamed for hours until the components inside are broken down and tender. The exterior ti leaves impart flavor, but are inedible.
Get it at: Wiki Wiki Hawaiian, Katalina’s Island Grill and Grocery, Tokyo Fish Market, Berkeley Bowl, Diablo Oriental Foods, Hawaiian Grill Express, Wikiwiki / Waikiki Hawaiian BBQ (El Cerrito)
Loco moco (entree) – A sloppy and indulgent dish, consisting of two scoops of white rice topped with a hamburger patty, fried eggs and brown gravy.
Get it at: Wiki Wiki Hawaiian, Hangten Boiler, Ohana Hawaiian BBQ, Hawaiian Grill Express, L&L Hawaiian BBQ, Wikiwiki / Waikiki Hawaiian BBQ (El Cerrito)
Luau (entree) – A luau refers to a feast of traditional Hawaiian dishes accompanied by hula entertainment and music. But it is also associated with a dish called squid luau, made of luau (taro) leaves and squid that’s slow cooked with coconut milk and salt. Think creamed spinach with a savory seafood element mixed in.
Get it at: Katalina’s Island Grill and Grocery
Malasada (dessert) – Hawaii’s favorite fried sweet treat. Introduced by the Portuguese during the Plantation era, this fluffy round donut (without a hole) is the size of a tennis ball and is lightly dusted with sugar.
Get it at: Hawaiian Grill Express, Wikiwiki / Waikiki Hawaiian BBQ (El Cerrito), Hula Wok BBQ
Poi (pupu) – Some say it’s bland, other say it’s too sour, but whatever you think of poi, one thing is for sure, it’s good for you! Made from taro root that’s baked or steamed, then mashed with water until it’s a thick, goopy consistency, poi is rich in nutrients and is a healthier starch option than rice.
Get it at: Tokyo Fish Market, Berkeley Bowl, Diablo Oriental Foods
Hawaii-style poke (pupu) – The word poke in the Hawaiian language means to slice or cut into pieces. These days, poke is recognized as a pre-marinated raw or cooked seafood salad. There are a ton of variations but Hawaii’s style of making poke is simply cutting fresh seafood, like raw, cubed ahi tuna, and mixing with Hawaiian sea salt, ogo (seaweed), Maui onion, green onions, kukui nut, shoyu, sesame oil and sesame seeds.
Get it at: Tokyo Fish Market
Portuguese sausage (pupu or entree) – Portuguese sausage is smoky and salty, typically sliced, fried and served over eggs and rice. The sausage is also used to make Portuguese bean soup, a chunky tomato-based soup.
Get it at: Wiki Wiki Hawaiian, Tokyo Fish Market, Berkeley Bowl, Silva bakery, Diablo Oriental Foods, L&L Hawaiian BBQ
Saimin (entree) – A noodle soup made with thin, stringy egg noodles in a clear, salty broth and topped with anything from kamaboko (fishcake), tamago (egg), green onions, pork dumplings, Spam or char siu pork.
Get it at: Wiki Wiki Hawaiian, Wikiwiki / Waikiki Hawaiian BBQ, Hula Wok BBQ, Tokyo Fish Market, Berkeley Bowl, L&L Hawaiian BBQ
Spam musubi (pupu) – Pan-fried sliced Spam atop a block of rice and wrapped with nori (roasted seaweed). Often, Spam musubi is brushed with a sweet soy glaze.
Get it at: Berkeley Bowl, Hangten Boiler, Neptunes, Ohana Hawaiian BBQ, Ono Hawaiian BBQ, Wiki Wiki Hawaiian, Poke Koma, Hawaiian Grill Express, Lava Pit Hawaiian Grill, L&L Hawaiian BBQ
Shave ice (dessert) – A dessert made with snow-like shavings of ice (not crushed) served in a paper cone or cup and flavored with fruit syrups.
Get it at: Poke Koma
Grace Suh was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawai’i and worked in the fashion industry for eight years in New York before making her way back west to Oakland, where she is a freelance prop stylist. Her recent styling work includes East Bay Express, Wired and The National Magazine. When she’s not styling a shoot, she is educating customers about Japanese sake at Umami Mart and working on travel projects and guides with her partner for their newly launched travel lifestyle business, Highlights Travel Co.