Thursday, April 5, 2012

Helena's Hawaiian Food

Yes, their walls can feel a little bit littered with accolades and television appearances. And yes, this place can get packed with obnoxious, imposing, tourists (like me). But a trip to Helena's Hawaiian Food is well worth the wait. And honestly, who cares what surrounds you when you're eating such delicious food. Especially when nothing on the menu reaches six bucks.

I always hesitate to use the word "authentic." Something about the word makes me cringe a little bit. Because, really, who am I to say whether something tastes authentic unless we're talking about Korean, and maybe Japanese, food? I guess my aversion to the word comes from the way I've heard people use it to describe insanely unauthentic Korean and Japanese food. "Oooo! This kimchi tastes so authentic!" No, that kimchi tastes like it came from a factory and was packed in a pool of sugar and preservatives. "I love how authentic that uni tastes!" No, that uni is not authentic. Fresh, maybe. But not authentic.

I shouldn't be so harsh, really. And maybe I'm just saying these things because I've been reading and watching too much Anthony Bourdain. I know I've said the same thing about food I'm unfamiliar with. "Yeah, their saag paneer tastes especially authentic." "That dim sum place has really authentic food."

Yeah, I shouldn't dock people for getting excited about tastes or sensations from a different part of the world. It still kills me once in a while though.

That said, if there's ever a place on Oahu to serve no-frills, and, I'm saying it, authentic Hawaiian food, Helena's is it. And when I say authentic, I don't just mean that the food was darn tasty. The food reaches down your esophagus and clenches its fist around your soul. At the very least, you can taste the soulful lineage of a family that has worked hard to share what they grew up eating. The food here has a taste that's never subjected itself to updates and change. It's just always been consistently delicious for a long freaking time. I suppose there is a time and place to use the word.

My friends and I started our feast with a plate occupied by both appetizer and dessert. We saved the dessert for later, but jumped right into the side of raw onions and Hawaiian pink sea salt.

Don't shy away from using a ton of salt. It's the only way to fully appreciate the sharply refreshing white onions. And no, we didn't have to pay for the onions and salt.

And then, as if I had just jumped into a time warp, all of our food was on our table. I started things off with a good spoonful of Poi. I figured that any place known for its true Hawaiian flavors should probably have a good vat of poi that even anti-poiple can enjoy. My spoonful had a beautiful, viscous consistency, similar to a well-thickened batch of pancake batter, and coated my tongue with the strong, earthy yet sweet flavor of taro. As with most poi, I can't really have more than a spoonful, but the small bowl was worth having to intermittently spoon throughout the meal.

Next up was a bowl of Luau Squid. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect when I ordered this. I mean, I was basically expecting grilled squid or something, not a bowl of what looked like a saag paneer. But the fragrant smell of coconut milk told me that there was more to this bowl than meets the eye. Like everything else at Helena's, the "luau," a beautiful mixture of taro leaf, coconut milk, and sugar, is made fresh every day and is paired with your choice of either chicken or squid. Our server suggested the squid, though I can imagine the chicken rendition being just as good. Each bite was creamy, hearty, and sweet, perfectly balanced with every comforting spoonful of the stuff.

The Luau Squid had some stiff competition, especially when it came to the Short Ribs Pipikaula Style. Imagine your favorite plate of Korean short ribs. Relatively thin slices of sweet, juicy, and slightly-charred meat. Pretty darn good. Now imagine those thin slices multiplied in thickness by a factor of ten. Pretty freaking amazing. In flavor, these ribs were not so different from a typical Korean marinade. But apparently, making pipikaula style short ribs includes drying the marinated beef under the Hawaiian sun for a few hours. And I want to say that the drying process helps to feature the meat more than the marinade, without losing those signature hints of soy sauce, garlic, and sugar. Big chunks of fat welcome.

The Kalua Pig & Cabbage was unfortunately my least favorite of the bunch, but only because it was too salty for my taste. I can imagine quite a few friends who would devour this dish for its saltiness. The actual pig and cabbage combo was great. The pork melted in my mouth, with only a few dry bites in the bowl.

My second favorite of the night was the Laulau, or pork wrapped in taro leaves. The actual leaves were tender enough to down like a handful of boiled spinach, and the unique earthiness of the leaves was great. The innards of this dish were the best of a laulau I've ever had. I know I said the Luau Pig melted in my mouth, but this actually melted like butter. Overall, the dish was rich without being too heavy and had just enough texture to avoid passing as baby food. It was that delicious and that tender.

The table was pretty ready to call it a night, but the waitress said that if we had to try one more thing, it would have to be the Fried Butterfish Collar. She said the broiled butterfish collar is good, but nothing beats the fried version. And lordie am I glad we got this.

Now, I know the Laulau's pork melted like butter, but this butterfish actually melted like, well, butterfish. The fried exterior and bits of skin added just the right amount of saltiness and texture and opened up to an outrageously juicy and tender interior. The meat even tasted a little bit sweet. I ate this dish slowly, flake by flake of fish meat, with nearly zero effort from my fork and my tongue. So, so good, and by far my favorite of the night.

We finished our meal with the Haupia we set aside. Light, refreshing, pleasantly gelatinous, and rich with coconut flavor. Nowhere near too sweet, but a completely satisfying way to end the meal.

Sure, there's nothing unexpected here. The menu is blatantly predictable of a family-run restaurant. Helena's just does it better.

As we stumbled back into the warm, Hawaiian night, I reflected on yet another day of delicious eats and indulgent lazing in the sun. Helena's left us completely full, but not full enough to pass up a few drinks on the beach. So we did. Just another day in paradise.

Hope to see you again soon, Hawaii.

Helena's Hawaiian Food
1240 N School St
Honolulu, HI 96817
(808) 845-8044

GET: Short Ribs Pipikaula Style; Luau Squid; Laulau; Fried Butterfish Collar.


  1. POIPLE. It's just so meaningful. And so amusing to say. I am five years old. Can we go visit Cho when he's in Hawaii next year for his intern year????

  2. That was my take-away from this post, too. Poiple. I'm going to say it again: poiple. Maybe the best pun yet on Tang and Bolster.


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