Hawaii Hawaiian musings plate lunch reviews

Reinventing Loco Moco

Loco Moco is a classic Hawaiian plate lunch offering that’s made up of hamburger patties smothered with gravy, topped with two eggs and served with rice and mac salad. If you’ve never seen it before, it looks like this:

Loco Moco

We had dinner at Alan Wong’s Restaurant last week, and one of the menu items that jumped out at us was the “Mini Loco Moco” appetizer. The menu describes it as “mochi-crusted unagi meatloaf, sunny-side quail egg, wasabi kabayaki sauce,” and we just had to try it.

Mini Loco Moco
Alan Wong’s “Mini Loco Moco”

Breaking it down, the mochi crust takes the place of the rice, the unagi meatloaf is the hamburger, quail egg replaces the hen egg and the wasabi kabayaki sauce replaces the gravy. It’s a perfect way to bring the loco moco concept into a fine dining setting, and it was excellent.

On the other end of the spectrum is Beard Papa and their Loco Moco Puff. It’s part of the Japanese cream puff chain’s localized Hawaii menu that also includes Breakfast Puffs, Creme Brulee Puffs, eclairs and pita sandwiches. Beard Papa describes their Loco Moco Puff as “two slices of oven-baked meat loaf, a fresh egg, sunny side up, onion-mushroom gravy with a dash of furikake on our signature puff shell,” which is more straightforward than Alan Wong’s. Basically, it’s an open-faced sandwich with the puff serving as the bread.

Loco Moco Puff
Beard Papa’s Loco Moco Puff

The finished product looked good and tasted like loco moco, but the puff really didn’t contribute anything to the dish and would have been fine without it. What was a bit disturbing was watching them assemble it. Without a proper kitchen, all of the cooked elements were microwaved right in front of us, and even then, I’m still not sure how they cooked the egg properly. I guess if you were on the run, this might be decent alternative, but I’d still rather have an Egg McMuffin.

Nothing could ever replace the traditional preparation of loco moco, especially since I love the side benefit of mixing the warm gravy with the cold mac salad. However, I always like to see if classic dishes can be modernized or deconstructed without diluting its essence. While Alan Wong’s radical take on loco moco might look foreign to traditionalists, the end result was delicious, refined, and reminded me of the original.

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Helena’s Hawaiian Foods – Honolulu, HI

When a hole-in-the-wall place like Helena’s Hawaiian Foods wins a James Beard award for outstanding American regional cuisine, you know there’s something special going on over there. In Helena’s case, it’s definitely the pipikaula short ribs and as many of you know, I’m a freak for short ribs. Pipikaula is a Hawaiian version of beef jerky, but this is the first time I’ve seen it made with short ribs. They’re crispy on the outside and tender on the inside and even better if you dip it in the chili pepper water that comes on the side.

Short ribs curing above the oven at Helena's.

Here’s a rundown of the rest of our order, which included familiar Hawaiian standards:

  • kalua pork – good but could have been smokier
  • squid luau – squid content was low but the flavors were spot on. My wife’s friend said this was just like the squid luau she grew up eating.
  • lomi salmon – not normally a fan, but I actually liked Helena’s.
  • chicken long rice – strong ginger flavor, which I liked, but it masks the chicken.
  • beef stew – solid
  • fried butterfish collar – rich and fatty…excellent.
  • poi – Nice purple color, but we don’t like poi. Our friend and her two-year-old daughter loved it, though.
  • haupia – the pipikaula had me in their trance and I forgot to have some! :( My wife liked it and said it was smooth and not watery like some haupias.

Helena’s is an a weird location for out-of-town visitors, but if you can make it over there, the pipikaula short ribs are definitely worth a try. Plus, everyone there is super nice, and they’ll make you feel at home.

Helena’s Hawaiian Foods
1240 N. School Street
Honolulu, HI 96817 map