“My god,” my wife says, a satisfied smile lighting up her face. “How are we going to finish all this food?
“Where are the vegetables?” I ask, but I already know what the answer is.
These are the questions we invariably ask each other after ordering mixed plate lunches at Keneke’s, our favorite place to eat in the sleepy beach town of Waimanalo, on the windward side of Oahu.
Let’s get one thing straight right away: Keneke’s is unique. And I don’t mean their menu, which resembles other meat-and-starch restaurants around Oahu. No, what I mean are the ubiquitous religious messages. I’m sure some people appreciate them, and the owner, a member of the “Fear God Powerlifting Team,” probably thinks he’s spreading the Good Word by spray painting biblical passages over his walls, but it could also be fairly described as off-putting. For those of you who’d prefer not to eat in a cave-like room spray painted with religious messages, you’ll be happy to learn that you have the option to sit outside…though the sun is intense and you may end up sweating into your food. Personally, I don’t mind the environment. Unique comes in many forms, and at least no one here will try to convert you.
After studying the many choices on Keneke’s menu, we decide to go for two mixed lunch plates. I’m not sure why we do this, because only a giant, or a half-starving sumo wrestler, has any chance of putting a mixed plate away. My wife chooses kalua pork and mahi-mahi while I go for pork adobo and saba. (To my chagrin, they ran out of laulau five minutes before we arrived.) Each plate comes with two generous lumps of steamed rice and a bulbous mound of macaroni salad. (By the way, since when do a few carrot slivers and mayonnaise make macaroni a “salad”?) Kalua pork, thick and stringy pulled pork with chunks of dark red meat in it, is a Hawaiian dish traditionally cooked in an imu, or underground oven, using heated rocks and a covering of banana leaves, vegetation, and soil. Keneke’s doesn’t use an imu, but their kalua pork still manages to be delicious. It’s salty, as expected, but also has an underlying sweetness to it, and it’s so tender you hardly have to chew it. The thin strips of mahi-mahi (Hawaiian for dolphin fish, though I’m not sure what kind of white fish was actually used) were nicely browned but without much flavor. Good thing they threw in a juicy lemon wedge.
The saba (Japanese for mackerel) was equal to my experience with it in other places: rather oily, but with a strong, sweet fish flavor, especially in the grilled skin along the bottom. The pork adobo, which is pork marinated in a Filipino-style soy-based sauce, was, like the kalua pork, very tender. The fat on the edges added to the meat’s softness and reminded me of the tender, fatty pork one finds in some Japanese stews like buta kakuni. The pork taste was stronger than that of kalua pork, but it wasn’t at all overwhelming.
No one in their right mind can accuse Keneke’s of being stingy with its portions, and this holds true not only with its main dishes but also with its sides of steamed rice and macaroni salad, which all plate lunches include. I was actually impressed by the quality of the steamed rice, but the macaroni was slathered with mayonnaise and hard to get down. If you’re a huge fan of starch, you’ll love this.
My one wish, which I know will never come true–but I can’t help mentioning it anyway–is that something crunchy and green be added, if not to promote healthier eating then simply as a contrast to all the tender meat and starch. True, there’s a hint of julienned carrot in the macaroni, but my guess is that Keneke’s goes through a single carrot a day.
Keneke’s serves a wide variety of lunch plates and sandwiches, and its menu is eclectic enough to represent an impressive assortment of Island food cultures: Portuguese (pork gisantes), Filipino (pork adobo), Japanese (teriyaki beef and chicken, shoyu chicken, chicken katsu, and saba), Korean (kalbi), and Hawaiian (laulau and kalua pig). And, for just $1.50, they have what must surely be Hawaii’s cheapest hamburgers. Keneke’s also offers a few items specifically for breakfast, such as loco moco (with two eggs and three hamburger patties, it’s perfect if you’re gunning for a heart attack), breakfast sandwiches, meat or cheese omelets, french toast, and breakfast combinations. Keneke’s also enjoys a solid reputation for its shaved ice (18 flavors) and ice cream.
Another plus about Keneke’s is its location, which, despite being a little off the beaten track, is surrounded by some of Oahu’s most beautiful and uncrowded beaches. Keneke’s is a great choice if you’re planning to spend all day at the beach. A single mixed plate would be more than enough for two people, and at a mere $7 that’s a pretty good deal.
My wife is poking me with her fork, trying to inspire me to finish all this food. God (or His “Powerlifting Team”) help me.
Keneke’s (www.kenekes.net) is located at 41-857 Kalanianaole Highway in Waimanalo. Call (808) 259-9811 for take out orders and catering.
Monday-Sunday: 9:30 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.