I've never really been able to get a half decent lau lau in my time on the mainland and I've tried quite a few. This dish of pork and salted fatty fish wrapped in luau (taro) leaves packaged in ti leaves and steamed for hours seems simple, but here away from home, it ain't. First off, almost every version I've had on the mainland is minus the salted butterfish. Second, many use spinach, though I've seen taro leaves at many Polynesian markets and even 99 Ranch Market a couple of times.
Needless to say, it's one of things that I always mean to get when I go home, from either of my two favorites, Ono Hawaiian Food in my old neighborhood, or Helena's which I understand has moved (and has also won a James Beard award!). Since my In-Laws live all the out in Ewa Beach, finding the time to check out either place when it's not packed to the gills is quite a challenge, one that has gotten the better of me during my last two trips home.
Also, during that time, I'd heard about Highway Inn in Waipahu...which sounded really familiar. I even saw the bit on DDD. During one of our visits, I asked my MIL's former co-worker Melissa, a life long Ewa Beach resident, about the place....and suddenly realized that I'd eaten at the old location on Waipahu Depot Road, near the old sugar mill. Excited, I asked her about the food and was simply met with...."well, it's ok..." Not exactly a seal of approval, but man I wanted some Lau Lau.
One of the items that folks seemed to be talking about at Highway inn is the Pipikaula, traditionally salted dried beef. The father of a friend on mine used to make a mean version using drying the beef in his front yard in his akule box. Naturally, much of it used to disappear into thin air.......
So the Missus ordered the Pipikaula ($5.45) and a side of rice.
Man, this was kinda tasteless and fairly bland in addition to being sinewy. The version I like at Ono's is more traditional, but not hard like jerky, with a salty flavor that a friend of mine from New York always says tastes like corned beef. The version from Helena's is, I believe made from shortribs and have a real beefy flavor and isn't nearly as tough as this.
Of course I ordered the Lau Lau combo ($10.65):
The lomi salmon wasn't my favorite, almost all tomato, too salty. It also lacked a good pungency, which is usually provided with some onion. I usually love mixing my lomi salmon with poi....but not today....
I thought the lau lau, though a bit small inside was pretty good, if a bit too fatty.
I love the flavor of luau leaves used on the lau lau; they have a slight bitter taste with a mild sweetness to them, much like collard greens. and when they've been absorbing some of the juices of fatty pork and the savory fish, it's heaven with a dash of chili pepper water which wakes everything up. The pork was fine and I appreciated the flavor the salt butterfish added to the lau lau.
I'm still longing for Helena's or Ono though......
The service was friendly, very local. Folks I know grumble about the portion to price ratio, but I had no complaints. Won't be having that pipikaula anytime soon though.
94-226 Leoku Street
Waipahu, HI 96797
Funny, writing this brought back memories of my favorite lau lau. And it couldn't be bought from any restaurant or store. When I was in High School I worked in a restaurant. One of the manager's was a Hawaiian-Chinese woman who took me under her wings and taught me the ropes. She could be really tough and took no prisoners...in fact, her nieces and nephews used to call her "Auntie Titta". But she was also the type of person who, if she liked you, would go to the ends of the Earth for you. Once a year, the family, most of whom lived in Waianae would get together and have an all day (and most of the night) party at Pokai Bay. Now Waianae back then wasn't the most welcoming place for a skinny, shark-bait, 112 pound Japanese kid from Kaimuki.....but man did that family welcome me! And they had this huge round thingy that looked like a large metal float that had been made into a makeshift steamer.........and they made the best, bombucha, lau lau I'd ever had. It was so good that I easily ate two...then, I stopped myself not wanting to be a bad guest. But someone realized that I still looked hungry and gave me another, then another....until I had consumed five! From that day on they always asked her, "hey, Titta, where's your skinny Japanese son...you know, the one who can really eat!" And as long as I knew her, I was always invited to the family luau......