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Waipahu Eats: First Bite at Highway Inn

I was in the Waipahu area the other day running a business errand and decided to stop by Highway Inn for lunch. Except as is often the case, I didn’t dine-in, but grabbed a plate to go. Since on this first time visit I only have one dish to taste, while being in takeout form for that matter, I’m naming this “First Bite”, as it’s not really enough to be considered a  valid, complete review.

“First Bite” you say? Well yes, and for a reason. See, Highway Inn was recently visited by Guy Fieri and crew of the Food Network’s hit TV series ‘Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives‘, where as you may know, Guy also has another FN show named ‘Guy’s Big Bite’. Here you see like all the spots “Triple-D” visits, Guy’s left his indelible stenciled mug tag at Highway Inn…

Along with that, adding to the many other celebrity-signed photographs gracing the walls within Highway Inn’s dining room, is this autographed “Triple-D” poster…

Yes, Guy, you’ve certainly had a taste of the “Real Deal Hawaiian” (food) at Highway Inn, I must say!

Here’s a look at their aging (very 70’s-ish), yet cozy and relaxed dining room…

Being located where they are on a side street at the west end of Farrington highway in already off-the-beaten path Waipahu town,  I wasn’t expecting to find any tourists in there, which there weren’t at  the time of my visit. Yet I’ve read there are some adventurous, determined visitors who find their way out here.

Getting straight to the grindz, here’s a look at their takeout menu (courtesy of myhighwayinn.com)…

Click images to enlarge menu above and following story below.

Fascinating story.

Now looking back at the menu, while everything sounds really ono, like Peoples Cafe and Helena’s, I have a complaint with Highway Inn’s “Combo Plate” choices. Why can’t they make an option that has ALL the MAIN Luau dishes? Each selection either has this or that, with no option to substitute or customize while staying within a reasonable price range.

In Highway Inn’s case, each one of their Hawaiian food combos leave out the all important (and very cheap to make) Chicken Long Rice, as well as my other favorite, the Squid Luau! I’d happily pay 3 to 5 dollars more for a smaller portion of those two dishes included on the plate. But NO, in order to get ALL THE LUAU GOOD STUFF, you’re looking at forking out over $20 ordering  ala carte.

I asked if I could substitute the Pipikaula for Squid Luau and they told me “no can”.  Well since I can’t “Have it my way at the Highway” (pun intended), I decided on the Lau Lau Combo #3, leaving out  the addition of  Kalua Pig (for $2 more) just as a personal spite of my rant above. lol

Upon opening the bag once I got back to the office, I was pleasantly surprised to find they (very neatly) pack their food for takeout on a “cafeteria style” paper plate covered with foil…

This, in comparison to if it were packaged in those what I think are sterile and “characterless” white foam clamshell containers plate lunches are unfortunately most commonly served on nowadays.

Now for the moment of truth…

In case you’re asking, that small container of liquid on the left is Hawaiian Chili Pepper Water, or as we say, “Chili Peppah’ Watah”. Like it sounds, it’s simply (for the most part) water and vinegar flavored with Hawaiian Chili Peppers, which are VERY HOT!  Think of it as “Hawaiian Tobasco Sauce”.

Chili Pepper Water is mostly popular with “old school folks” who grew up with and are familiar with using it as a condiment, flavoring everything from soups and stews, to meats and fish and even on rice.  It’s becoming more and more rare to find nowadays in the condiment  station at local eateries (even though it’s relatively cheap and easy to make), so glad to see Highway Inn continues the tradition!

Like all Hawaiian food eateries, you can opt for rice or poi. As you know, Poi is very expensive, so I’m sure the owners hope there’s more folks who choose rice over poi, which there probably are. But not me. GOTTA’ BE POI with Hawaiian Food. Gots’da. And I must say, the portion they give with this plate is very generous, and fresh-tasting as well. Certainly enough to go along with the Lau Lau, Lomi Salmon and Pipikaula alongside it.

Now let’s get to the “main event” the lau lau (bottom left on the plate shown above), which we’ll now open up the Ti Leaf wrapper and cut the contents within in half to see what we’ve got…

Here we find a generous chunk of super moist ‘n tender pork, pork belly fat and most crucially, Butterfish. Butterfish! Yay! Putting the “Cha-Ching! This is money town, flavor town!”, as Guy might say, in this Lau Lau fo’ sure! Well, not that I’ve ever heard Guy say that, but it sounds kinda’ like a catch phrase he would use. lol

Here’s another view of the SUPER FATTY (flavorful) Butterfish pieces in the Lau Lau, where you can see the skin practically MELTING off…

Take that buggah, along with a sprinkle of some Hawaiian Salt and “whack ’em with some poi…

Oh yeah. The melts-in-your mouth, perfectly-salted luau (taro) leaves, combined with the also perfectly-salted, melts-in-your-mouth butterfish, melting pork belly fat and pull-apart tender pork meat is a marriage of flavors that as DONE RIGHT here at Highway Inn, is PERFECTION. I’m giving Highway Inn’s Lau Lau a very solid 4 SPAM Musubi, only short of 5 because it was kinda’ on the small side as far as Lau Lau goes. Highway Inn’s take on the dish is certain in contention to win BEST LAU LAU on Oahu.

While I missed having the Chicken Long Rice and Squid Luau (not really missing the Kalua Pig on this occasion), Highway Inn’s Lomi Salmon stepped right up to the palate plate, providing that wonderful briny flavor contrast to the savory Lau Lau…

What’s interesting about their Lomi Salmon is that they chop what looked and tasted like Roma Tomatoes very finely, almost to the point of Salsa consistency. Thankfully there’s an equal balance of distinguishable chunks of salted salmon, so no “lomi tomato” here. Whether it’s Roma or whatever very red tomato they use, it certainly has unique character, yet is still true to the standard of what Lomi Salmon should taste like. Again 4 SPAM Musubi on Highway Inn’s take on Lomi Salmon.

Now let’s sample their Pipikaula…

Highway Inn’s take on it is pan-fried in bite-size pieces, with a semi-dry texture and very light, not very salty brined, semi-beef, semi “what the heck is this meat anyway?” flavor, with only a mild hint of shoyu, if even used at all. I also couldnt’ detect any sweetness, which is good, as Pipikaula that tastes like Teriyaki really misses the point, IMO.

Honestly for me? This could have just as well been overcooked pieces of fried steak if they served this to me not saying what it was. Let’s try dip some Pipikaula in poi and see if that helps…

Eh, it’s OK. No can beat my Big Island Smoke Pork with poi. Not by a MILE. Not by an OCEAN. No Pipikaula can. I tried adding Hawaiian salt to kick it up. Even tried dipping the Pipikaula in the Chili Peppah Watah, but that only could do so much for it.

On that note, I still wish they would have traded me this for a ladleful of Squid Luau, giving Highway Inn’s Pipikaula 1 SPAM Musubi. No can touch Helena’s on that one.

Finally let’s sample da’ Haupia…

Texture-wise, their Haupia is bit on the stiff side, in a good way. While having a distinctive and fresh tasting creamy-sweet coconut flavor. Good stuff! Of course, it’s nice to have this mildly sweet “dessert” if you will to finish after that blast of savory and briny entree items. With that, I’ll give Highway Inn’s Haupia a very satisfying end-of-meal treat 3 SPAM Musubi.

Next door to left of Highway Inn Restaurant under same ownership (obviously) is Highway Inn Seafood Market…

As you’d expect, there’s a huge selection of Poke to choose from here…

There’s also produce and other local specialty foods, which makes Highway Inn very similar to Alicia’s Market in Kalihi Kai, Marujyu Market in Pearl City and Masa & Joyce Okazuya in Kaneohe, where you can do the same Hawaiian food, Poke and local grinds one-stop shopping. Love that!

For a complete review on this blog, I certainly need to return with a group and dine-in for the REAL “Highway Inn restaurant experience”. Just as I still need to do at Helena’s, Ono Hawaiian Food and Haili’s (who just opened a new restaurant on Kapahulu avenue), among a few other Hawaiian food-centric eateries that I have yet to feature here.

I’m really anxious to watch Guy’s take on Hawaiian food from Highway Inn when they air the Hawaii episode of “Triple-D”. Other Oahu eateries he’s visited and taped at include Poke Stop in Mililani, Hank’s Haute Dogs in Kaka’ako, Rainbow Drive-In in Kapahulu, Nico’s at Pier 38 and from an “inside source”, Murphy’s Bar and Grill in downtown Honolulu.

Highway Inn
94-226 Leoku street
Waipahu, Hawaii
Tel. 677-4345

The Tasty Island rating:

(4) Excellent. Worth another visit or purchase. (Winnahz!)*
*The Lau Lau and Lomi Salmon tasted so ono, it dominated my overall impression of their Lau Lau Combo plate.

While we’re in Waipahu and speaking of “old school”, you probably have already heard the news that, after a 30 year absence, Shakey’s Pizza is returning to Hawaii! They’ll be opening their first new location in Waipahu Town Center, which is nearby Highway Inn. Here I snapped a photo of the future site, which is still undergoing construction…

At this stage, it looked like most of the place is done. They were working on what appeared to be granite countertops for the restrooms (each had cutouts for two oval lavatory sinks). You can see Shakey’s from Farrington highway, but if you’re in Waipahu Town Center’s Parking lot, they’re actually kinda’ hidden, where you’ll have to go around the corner of American Savings Bank.

Shakey’s was very popular in Hawaii during its heyday in the 70’s. Dating myself, I have very fond childhood memories of Shakey’s Pizza in Kaneohe, where we’ve celebrated a number of birthday parties and family gatherings. I remember they had long wooden communal bench dining tables, while near the front entrance inside we were treated to a “pizza cooking show”, being able to watch the pizza chef prepare and spin the dough in the air behind a glass window, which of course as keiki, we were asolutely fascinated by. Add to that, an arcade room in back, and plenty of pizza to go around, those were good old times for sure!

Like Farrell’s, I hope the return of Shakey’s Pizza to Hawaii can bring back that magic to the new generation, as well as rekindle the nostalgia for us who remember and cherish their presence here decades ago.

11 thoughts on “Waipahu Eats: First Bite at Highway Inn

  • February 19, 2010 at 7:41 pm

    I’ve never been to Highway Inn, though I know it is my brother’s fav! ooh Shakeys!

  • February 19, 2010 at 7:56 pm

    Now we’re talking! I live just uphill from Highway Inn and it’s been on my must-try list since it won Best Hawaiian in Honolulu Magazine. There’s a Poke Stop right there in Waipahu Town Center. I have fond memories of family outings and a piano player at the Shakey’s in North Hollywood — maybe I can share some of that with my kids here.

  • February 19, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    Good read Pomai. Have always wanted to try Highway Inn whenever I’m passing through. For me, it’s been Young’s Fishmarket, People’s Cafe, and Helena’s when it comes to Hawaiian food. Helena’s pipikaula has been my fave for years.
    Remeber Shakey’s well and especially the one on Keeaumoku Street back in the day. Who can forget good pizza, pitchers of cold draft, and straw hats with banjos playing in the background?

  • February 20, 2010 at 8:46 am

    I remember seeing that episode on Triple D. The lau lau looks awesome! Oh boy, I remember Shakey’s back in the (ahem) days. Mom used to take us there for special occassions. And I still remember my 7th b-day party at the Farrell’s in Waikiki. Ah, good times!

  • February 20, 2010 at 10:05 am

    Carol, I think you might be confusing Triple D with either Man vs. Food (Adam Richman on the Travel Channel) or No Reservations (Bourdain on TC).  Both of whom already aired Hawaii episodes, and both of whom visited a Hawaiian restaurant. MVF’s Adam went to Helena’s and NR’s Bourdain went to Ono Hawaiian Food.  As far as I’m aware of, the Triple D Hawaii episode hasn’t aired yet.

    Paki, glad to hear you enjoyed it. Since you know how Helena’s AWESOME Pipikaula tastes, I think you’ll agree with my assessment of Highway Inn’s take on it. But you really gotta’ try Highway Inn’s lau lau. It isn’t the biggest one out there, but the flavor so far I think is the best I’ve had yet. I’d really have to have Highway Inn’s Lau Lau and Ono’s in a side-by-side comparo to decide which one TASTES better (regardless of size).

    Paki, you know, I was a little kid when Shakey’s was around, so can’t remember the cold beer (lol), but now that you mention it, I kinda’ do remember there being Banjo players. Or at least that type of music played over the PA.

    Kristin, I’ve already blogged Poke Stop in Waipahu. Interestingly, although they’re nearby, Triple D taped their coverage of the place at Poke Stop’s new Mililani location. Probably Chef Guzman wanted the advertising/exposure for that location.

    Next time you’ve got the “onos” for Hawaiian Food, since they’re close by, you HAVE TO TRY HIGHWAY INN!

    Kat, you remember Shakey’s too, huh? Wow, we get some “old futs” around here. lol J/K!




  • February 20, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    Well, that looks pretty good, especially da lau lau. I’m the same way… I’d probably have to pony up for the chicken long rice and squid luau just to complete the plate. Maybe they make those items ala carte/no subs to cover the cost of the poi!

    But the main thing about this thread is that it reminded me to try out the Big Island Smoke Pork, soon. I have some mainlanders coming next month, so maybe I can rock their world with that recipe! Hard to sell ’em on poi, I have NO idea why. Their loss… more for me LOL

  • February 20, 2010 at 10:08 pm

    Hi Pomai, Good read of some good eats. I used to live in Waipahu and know Highway Inn well.

    Shakey’s?! Okay I admit it, I remember those days of watching the guys make the pizza through the glass window. Yes, I’m a “old fut”!

  • March 6, 2010 at 10:51 pm

    Watch Diners, Drive-ins and Dives on Monday, April 5th for their national premier!

  • March 7, 2010 at 5:19 am

    Highway Inn’s food is great, but I wish they had AC. Maybe it was broken the last time I was there.

  • March 7, 2010 at 8:57 am

    Diner A, wow, that sure is a long time from production to air time. That must reflect just how many ‘Diners, Drive-ins and Dives’ this show covers throughout the year. IIRC, the ‘No Reservations’ and ‘Man vs. Food’ Hawaii episodes aired much sooner after production time.

    hapabento, being a Waipahu native with ‘bento’ as your screen name, surely you must have been a regular at Tanioka’s. Their fish cake is one of the best. Great poke too, but they’re kind of expensive now! Regardless, the lines there are always crazy.

    Marcus, I wonder if it’s better when dining in there to order everything ala carte in large or ‘double’ size and share family style.

    Marcus, while mainlanders aren’t strangers to smoked meat, more than likely they’ve never tried it the way it’s prepared here, where it’s marinaded in shoyu, sugar, ginger, garlic and Hawaiian Chili pepper. Can’t beat that. Da’ best!


  • February 16, 2011 at 10:44 pm

    There is a totally new decor, or old.. depending on your ways of wanting to look at it and the air flow is a much better, you should try come around again. Love the review and Ono food they got! Although, doesn’t Helena make Pipikaula Short Ribs? Not just plain ‘ol Pipikaula?


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