Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Helena's Hawaiian Foods

I’ve been eating a lot of heavy food lately, something I attribute to having had guests in town for nearly ten days, which meant eating out a lot, drinking more alcohol than I normally do, and putting an arctic freeze on my exercise regimen. (Our guests left two days ago, and it still hasn’t thawed out.) And last night, when we should have eaten something light and healthy, I decided to try out a new recipe I saw in Gourmet for a Monte Cubano sandwich. Talk about heavy. After soaking the sandwich in an egg batter, I took the remainder of the yellowy liquid, fried it up, and had an omelet later with my wife. Thank god we had a salad with it. At least that way I could feel less guilty for today’s high calorie binge.

Actually, truth be told, I don’t feel guilty at all. I’m pretty pleased with myself, in fact. Today I went to Helena’s Hawaiian Foods for lunch and ordered well beyond all good dietary sense. Let me begin by saying that Helena’s menu doesn’t list a single vegetable, not unless you count the small amount of watercress that comes with two of their dishes. No, wait – I take that back. Kalua pig comes with cabbage…

In any case, Helena’s is a small restaurant of about a dozen tables, with very little parking in front, very little to recommend it from outside, but some of the greatest Hawaiian food you can get anywhere on Oahu – and some of the friendliest service, too. And I’m hardly the only one who knows this. In 2000, Helena’s was recognized as a “Regional Classic” by the James Beard Foundation, an award that’s part of what Time magazine calls “the Oscars of the food world.” It’s located in Kalihi, a working class, immigrant neighborhood that’s probably my favorite food community on the island. The restaurant has been around since 1946, when Helen Chock opened it. She passed away in 2007, but her grandson, Craig Katsuyoshi, now runs the place. The restaurant displays original Jean Charlot lithographs on its walls, as well as paintings and photographs by other well-known local artists.

I got to Helena’s early for lunch, at about eleven a.m. Even then, five of the tables inside were taken, and two other parties followed me through the door. I had a long look at the menu, and one of the women working there convinced me to order what she said were their three signature dishes: fried butterfish collar, short ribs (pipikaula style), and luau squid.

As soon as I got home, I placed all of my food on one plate and took photos. I was too hungry to realize that the photos came out blurry, but at the time this didn’t seem worth checking on.

I was most intrigued by the luau squid, which looked a lot like creamed spinach, or saag paneer, or possibly old moss skimmed from the surface of a swamp. It was a dark olive green, thick as mud, with an almost fibrous element to it when scooped out of the container I was given. Mixed in with it were small, chewy pieces of squid. Most surprisingly, however, was the almost overpoweringly sweet, fragrant smell of coconut milk. What made for the swampy green color? Cooked down luau (taro) leaves, which are mixed in with other ingredients and simmered for a long time. Despite the sweet aroma of the squid luau, I was still a little wary of it. But my first bite dispelled my wariness, and I had one of those revelatory moments that happens sometimes when your initial taste of a new food, particularly when it looks like something you could make sturdy pottery from, completely wins you over. It was absolutely delicious, though also quite rich. The coconut flavor was subtler than my first smell of the dish led me to believe, and the squid mixed in was tender – I only wish there had been more.

As for the pipikaula short ribs, which are prepared by marinating and smoking the meat, they were quite good as well. They had a fair bit of fat in them, and I really had to use my front teeth to cut the pieces, which were a satisfying half-inch thick, down to size. The outer part was cooked well enough to be slightly crunchy, almost like a casing, and the flavor came out fully in the meat and juices.

I ate the fried butterfish collar like I might eat fried chicken: with my hands. It had a deliciously crispy skin, and the meat, though buttery with fat, was appetizingly white and melted in my mouth. There were about three bites in each of the three pieces in my order, with much nibbling of the bones and skin afterward. The fried butterfish collar went great with the other dishes, though I should have eaten this and the pipikaula short ribs with poi, for dipping. Ah…next time.

Helena’s offers four different set menus, combining two or three main dishes with poi or rice, but I ordered a la carte. Other delectable items include kalua pig (cooked in an imu), laulau, tripe or beef stew, beef with watercress, chicken or squid luau, long rice chicken, pipikaula short ribs, lomi salmon, lomi or poke (ahi), opihi (limpets), fried butterfish collar, boiled butterfish collar, fried ahi, and, for dessert, haupia (firm coconut pudding). It’s all quite affordable, too – the a la carte items all sell for between $3.05 (kalua pig) and $5.50 (boiled butterfish collar with watercress).

It’s a shame that Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern never had a chance to come to Helena’s when they taped their food and travel shows on Oahu. I get the feeling that the family who owns and runs the restaurant isn’t the least bit bothered, but Helena’s feels more authentic than Ono’s, more down-home…and to me, at least, the food is better, too.

Helena’s is open from Tuesday through Friday from 10:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m. You can order ahead for takeout at (808) 845-8044. Their address is 1240 N. School St.

Stumble Upon Toolbar


  1. I would love some real Hawaiian food right now - sound great!

  2. I woke up this morning to find 4" of snow on the ground and then sat down to read about incredible food in Hawai'i. You are a sadist disguised as a friendly food blogger. 8-)

    I dare anyone to feel the slightest bit guilty about eating Helena's food - I could swim in the luau squid as I am not bothered by its appearance. My mother was assigned to the Philippine Consulate in Oahu but when we visited, we ended up on the Tourist Route, so we never experienced these local gems. She's back home so I'm not sure when we'll get the chance again. Sigh.

  3. 5 Star Foodie: Ah, I hope you get the chance to eat Hawaiian food one of these days! I wonder if Helena's James Beard Foundation Award qualifies in any way as 5 star fare? That may justify a trip to Hawaii!

    Tangled Noodle: Ohhh, sorry to hear about the snow. Brrr. If it makes you feel any better, I saw snow atop Mt. Kilauea while driving along the Big Island coast. It looked plenty cold up there. That's what I thought, anyway, as I slathered suntan lotion all over my face and arms. :) Hopefully you'll return to Hawaii one day soon and you can swim in the luau squid at Helena's. I'd be more than happy to take you to some of the places I've come across here. Your earlier trip sounds interesting!