Don’t mess

Or maybe it’s a gay bar…or a biker bar…or…oh, who cares.

Lumahai

Lumahai

I heard from some locals that The Noodle House was the way to go.

“You want Saimin?” they said.  “Go to The Noodle House.”

IMG_2756I definitely wanted Saimin, but what I got was more than a bowl full of noodles.  First off, Saimin deserves much more than a footcard so I will describe it here.  Saimin is the Hawaiian gourmet version of ramen noodles.  It’s just like the language here (pigeon) – a nice combination of everyone who originally mixed together to create something new and totally delicious.  It has a little Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and Hawaiian all mixed up in a bowl full of broth.

A different beach view

A different beach view

Technically speaking (because I can admit that the above description lacked a lot of technicality) it is a big ceramic bowl of delicious dashi, crammed full of wheat egg noodles, green onions, bok choy, pork-filled dumplings, fish cakes, wonton crisps, a hard-boiled egg and, in my case, because I love to pretend I’m vegetarian, tofu.  My dining companion had some juicy hunks of pork in place of my big chucks of tofu.

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As Sara says, “This is so much better than Ramen.”

IMG_2326aJust like in the noodle houses that pepper the streets of Chinatown in Philadelphia, a plate of condiments arrived with our ludicrously large vats of soup.  The condiments are usually shoyu (soy sauce), hot mustard sauce, Sriracha (a hot chili sauce) and some other tasty flavorings.  If you are unfamiliar with Asian soups, it can be an intimidating delivery to the table.  At times like this I like to remember a sweet little Arabic saying that my foodie friend, Leen taught me: “Eat whatever thou likest, but dress as others do” (wise words, especially when in the very fashionable Dubai).

IMG_2871aThe Saimin is eaten using a combo of chopsticks and an Asian soup spoon.  It’s not as tricky as it sounds, I promise.  The chopsticks grab the big hunks of meat and dumplings and the spoon follows closely behind to scoop it all up and add some dashi to the savory mix.  It is comfort food at its best.

IMG_2104As I sit on my stool and sip on one of the strongest Mai Tai’s ever placed on a bar I realize that the room is nearly empty.  Sure tourism may be down a bit due to the recession and the layout is a little funky and could use some updating, but this is damn good Saimin in the heart of one of Kauai’s busiest towns.  It’s prime dinnertime.

“What was this before The Noodle House?”  I inquire reaching into the depths of my easily distracted brain for an inkling of a story I’m sure I’ve heard.

“It was a biker bar,” Darren responds as he slurps soup from the spoon.

“And before that?” I ask turning to our doting bartender.

“Gay bar,” she says.

“Gay bar,” I repeat.  “Gay bar then biker bar then Noodle House?”

Silence.

Is it the previous bar’s reputation that keeps diners at bay?

Sort of.

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Nature on art

In the next four minutes I get two versions of the same small town story.

First, the bartender tells a tale of a much-loved local biker who came into the bar one night, as he did most nights.  He had one drink, left on his bike and his night ended in a fatal crash.  The bikers stopped coming.  The locals stopped coming.  The owners changed the name, menu and the establishment.  The bikers never came back.  The locals never came back.

Doesn’t make much sense until Darren fills in a couple holes after the bartender goes to the kitchen to check on an order.

The local story is that the much-loved biker had much more than one drink and left the bar thoroughly intoxicated.  The fatal crash ensued.  The rumor is that the owners never took responsibility for their part in this fateful night.  The bikers didn’t like that.  They stopped coming.  The locals stopped coming.  The owners changed the name, menu and the establishment.  The bikers never came back.  The locals never came back.

A rockstar in the making

A Hawaiian rockstar in the making

Bikers are loyal people.  When I was growing up, my dad and my aunt were friends with a Harley gang.  My cousins and I would spend weekends hanging out with bikers, riding motorcycles and listening to crazy stories over cases of cheap beer.  (Let’s clear that up – we weren’t drinking the beer – the bikers were.)  People with names like Chickenthroat and Sarg’ would tell us on a regular basis that if anyone bothered us we were to let them know so they could take care of them for us.  They were loyal to my dad and for that they would do anything to protect “us kids.”

“Ain’t no one gonna’ give yous kids no trouble,” We would hear on a regular basis.

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I glance around and see patrons at only one of the twenty or so tables scattered around the room.  As I lean in for another heaping chopstick-spoonful of deliciousness I hope that The Noodle House might one day recover from giving the wrong kids some trouble.

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Where’s the pork?

A plate lunch may seem like a strange choice for a semi-vegetarian foodie, but…well, there’s no but.

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As a Temple student, I am well versed in the art of ordering lunch from a truck – after all that is where the best food on campus comes from.  You can get Chinese food, a gyro, a hoagie, a slice of pizza and most recently warm cookies right from the back of a truck.  Everything served to you in (environmentally-unfriendly Styrofoam) take away containers.

So the idea of eating a plate lunch from a truck on the side of the road in Hanalei (my new favorite place thanks mostly to the picturesque nature of the little beach town and the over-abundance of cute surfers to look at) was comforting.

IMG_2379A plate lunch is a quintessential Hawaiian dish.  Typically it includes some type of meat, two scoops of rice and macaroni salad (or “mac salad” as it is better know here).  The meat can be chicken or beef, but more popularly pork.  Apparently, it used to consist of white dog as well.  Not black dog, not brown dog.  Only white dogs.  Don’t worry Lassie, that tradition is long gone.

TJ, my willing local surf instructor/tour guide and constant source of entertainment, took me to sample the mixed plate lunch, which consists of the above and then some.  At the Hanalei Taro Juice Co. that means a $9.00 Styrofoam container of all the best foods served at a luau.

“Gone all out Hawaiian now girl.”  TJ says with a satisfied smile.  “This is all-guns-blazing Hawaiian style right here.”

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IMG_2382We order at the truck, wait until the steaming-hot, fat-laden plates are passed through the window to our hands and sit down at the picnic table to indulge.   TJ gives me a tour of the cuisine as I not-so-delicately shove it into my mouth.

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Let’s start with the vegetarian friendly pieces of this schmorgasboard.  A scoop of sticky white rice is accompanied by the traditional mac salad, but the Hanalei Juice Co. is kind enough to grate some taro into the mayonnaise-y mix.  Next is a container of poi – a slimy purple paste the color and consistency of pureed black beans, but tasting more like a starch in its purest form.  Poi is mashed taro and water and is scooped out with two or three fingers rather than utilizing something silly like a spoon.  Despite its bland flavor, it’s an acquired taste.  Hence the $0.50 poi sample option for the skeptical.  The vegetarian portion of the meal is rounded out with a bite-sized piece of taro mochi – very similar to the Japanese desert, but with…surprise…more taro.

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IMG_2641A culinary bridge between the plants and the pigs is a small plastic cup of rosy-red lomi-lomi salmon.  It has the consistency of salsa, but no spicy jolt joining the diced tomatoes, onions and tiny bites salted salmon.

As I dig into the two heaping piles of steaming hot fatty pork sitting in front of me I hear someone order a Polynesian Papaya smoothie.  I wonder if I will remember how to eat healthy again after I finish devouring Wilbur and his brother.  The pork laulau is pig wrapped first in a taro leaves and then a ti leaf and finally steamed.  The meat takes on the flavor of the tropical leaves and is left juicy and tender.  The kalua pig, on the other hand…or maybe it’s the very same hand…comes from the traditional underground smoked pig.  You know the one that is a dead giveaway of a luau.  Essentially it’s Hawaiian pulled pork, but without all the fancy sauce dragging the pork flavor down.

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My fingers scoop some lavender paste from the bowl of poi on my left as I dig past the taro leaves to get into the succulent pork laulau.  Damn, I guess vegetarianism will have to wait another day.

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