We enjoyed a slightly belated birthday celebration for Yours Truly this past week at the new Highway Inn Restaurant in Kaka’ako.
For those of you who haven’t been to Oahu recently, the general Kaka’ako area is quickly becoming the renewed heartbeat of Honolulu due to new development projects by the Howard Hughes Corporation, General Growth and Bishop Estate.
Adding to the excitement in the area is Highway Inn Restaurant, who recently opened in late 2013 in the completely renovated 680 Building on Ala Moana Boulevard, right across the street from what was formerly known as the Gold Bond Building. On the Ewa side (woot-woot!) of the 680 building ground floor space resides none other than Starbucks, who’s been there ever since the building first completed its renovations several years or so ago.
Without going too deep into their history, being they have a great website that explains it all, Highway Inn was established in 1947 by Seiichi Toguchi, who was born in Hawaii, yet raised in OKInawa. Their original restaurant in Waipa-HOO is still there, while the new location in Kaka’ako is now managed by Seiichi-San’s granddaughter Monica.
A bit of irony to that, The Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives show hosted by Guy Fieri had visited and featured Highway Inn’s Waipahu location, and they also visited Hank’s Haute Dogs, which is just a few steps away from Highway Inn’s new Kaka’ako location. So there you go: if you’re a “Triple D” fan, on your next visit to Oahu, make it a point to checkout Highway Inn AND Hank’s Haute Dogs, both at the same time within the same street block!
The restaurant… the res.. Eh, Diner A, get your mug out of the shot, you ham! lol The restaurant is hip, yet casual ‘n cool, literally, as there’s a very efficient AC system in the open ceiling space. It’s also spread out well, not feeling cramped, with very nice tables and solid wood chairs for a premium Hawaiian feel, if you will.
They also have a counter bar that serves draft beer and house wines, with just ONE big screen TV. Which I appreciate, as I get somewhat aggravated going to what’s supposed to be a restaurant, where it seems they’re trying to be more of a sports bar with big screen TVs all over the joint broadcasting random cable TV sporting events. I’m there to eat and have a conversation with my guests, not be distracted. Ya’ know?
Those stools had just become available when I took that shot, however, believe me, this place gets PACKED during the lunch hour rush. We arrived just before noon during the work week, with no reservations, which they DON’T TAKE, and we were put on a waiting list behind 3 other parties. Fortunately it was only about a 12 minute wait for us to be seated. Not bad.
As you see, they have an open kitchen, which is GREAT for a Hawaiian food restaurant, as that’s more of that WONDERFUL SMELL from the cooked Laulau and Kalua Pig that gets wafted throughout the dining room for the total “Luau” experience. Love that! Smells so ono!
Again as you see, their laulau are all steamed the RIGHT WAY, using none other than Ti Leaves to wrap them, which gives it that distinctive “Hawaiian” flavor. Fo’ reals, braddah sistah aunteh cuz!
Dang, I’m hungry again just looking that.
That said, let’s check out the new Highway Inn Kaka’ako menu, which must be noted is slightly different than the Waipa-HOO location, with several exclusive dishes…
As you see, those dishes exclusive to the Kaka’ako location are marked as inspired by Chef Mike Kealoha.
After a reasonable 12 minute wait upon ordering — especially considering how PACKED the place was — our food arrives…
See, the food looked and smelled so ono, they started grinding before I could get photos!
Let’s start our close-up inspection with Diner E’s Smokin’ Moco…
Note, the Hawaiian Chili Pepper Water (the golden colored stuff in the clear bottle) is brought out with the plate lunches, but not left there by default, which I think they should.
A little closer…
The sauce drizzled over the smoke meat stir fry is an Aioli made with the grease dripping from the smoke meat. Brilliant!
While we all appreciated Diner E’s adventurous thinking outside the box (and I really wanted to order that too!), you can’t come to a Hawaiian food restaurant without first trying their namesake dishes, which is what the rest of us did, starting with Diner J’s Laulau Combo…
Diner A ordered the Laulau “Super Combo”, adding Kalua Pig to the spread, while opting for rice instead of Poi…
Finally, Birthday Boy, a.k.a. Diner P (me) ordered the Laulau “Super Combo”, choosing Squid Luau as my second main entree…
OK, right about now you can lick the screen, because I know you wanna’. I am.
Now if you had this absolute luau FEAST sitting in front of you, calling you, enticing you, which dish would you sample first? Da’ Squid Luau? Da’ Lomi Salmon? Or da’ Laulau? That’s what I thought. Let’s hit it…
Bus’ ‘dat suckah’ open fo’ da’ money shot…
According to our server, the Pua’a Laulau (Pua’a is pig) consists of about 80-90% pork to butterfish (black cod) ratio, with a lot of that pork consisting of fat. A GREAT thing for flavor, yet of course not good if you eat too much of. Yet hey, this an occasional treat, so go for it! Let’s sample some, cuz’…
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B-RRRRRRAH! So, so, so, so, so ONO! Seriously, just as I thought of the one at their Waipa-HOO location, this is by far my favorite Laulau, PERIOD. It’s steam-cooked to tender and flavorful perfection, and most importantly seasoned with just the right amount of Hawaiian salt. Laulau just doesn’t get any better than this, save for maybe putting a little more butterfish in it, but that’s just me. For those who don’t like the taste of butterfish, you’ll hardly notice it’s there, as the fatty, buttery tender pork pretty much dominates.
And the generous layer of also tender luau leaves are seasoned perfectly with Hawaiian salt as well. Laulau is really a simple dish to make, ingredients-wise, yet it takes the right cook who knows just how much Hawaiian salt to put in it and how long to steam it to get it right, plus of course preparing the luau leaves properly, which is very important.
Moving along, time for da’ Squid Luau braddah cuz…
I must admit, it’s a little sweeter than I’d like, yet you know what? I still LOVE it. That sweetness in this instance really goes well with the otherwise savory flavor imparted by the squid (tako), which is chopped quite finely, not left in big chunks. Which is great actually, as you get some squid (Tako) in every bite, so it’s not like you’re just eating a “coconut milk luau stew”, if you know what I mean. And the coconut milk flavor is there, yet not overbearing, while the luau leaves are pretty much melted completely, giving it a nice porridge like consistency. In other words, this Squid Luau is again, freekin’ ONO!
Let’s hit da’ Lomi Salmon…
You know da’ rules…
And? Money. So money. I like how they chop the very fresh tomatoes finely, while there’s definitely ample amounts of similarly chopped salted salmon mixed in it (this definitely ain’t no “Lomi Tomato”), with just the right amount of white and green onions, plus it’s again? Salted perfectly. Hit that, followed by a scoop of da’ poi, and da’ suckah is winnahz. Hit the Lomi, go back to da’ squid luau, dip some poi, den hit da laulau again. Repeat. Au-right!
Speaking of poi, as you see, they provide a generous portion, where I actually had some poi left after eating all da’ odda’ stuffs (the other stuff). Which is rare, so you definitely get your money’s worth!
I can’t remember where they said this poi is from, but it was either Waimea Valley or Waiahole, or something like that. I’ll find out later and make the correction here, but it’s not Taro Brand. And it’s consistency is FANTASTIC, being about “1-1/2 finger”, which means its viscosity is about where it will stick to that many fingers, as compared to say 3 or 4 finger poi, or worse yet, “10 fingers, plus one pot” poi (basically poi soup). lol Plus it had some sourness to it, which I like. All I know is, they must be happy when people like Diner A order rice, as you know how expensive poi is, and the poi Highway Inn Kaka’ako serves is as fresh and good as it gets!
Speaking of Diner A, let’s sample his Kalua Pua’a (Kalua Pig)…
And? Again, perfectly seasoned with Hawaiian Salt, and smoke flavor as well. The very small portion I tried was a little on the lean side, however Diner A said he had some (tasty) fatty bits from the gist of it.
And I did ask if they make this in an oven with liquid smoke and Ti Leaf, which is affirmative, as it’s not from an Imu, which is way too much work and impossible to get the required health permits to serve to the public. Still, I believe if you do it right as it’s done here, oven-roasted Kalua Pig can taste mo’ bettah (even better) than an Imu (a Hawaiian earthen underground oven; basically a hole dug in the dirt). 5 Laulau for Highway Inn’s Kalua Pig.
For some reason, Diner A was really impressed with of all things, their rice? He kept GOING OFF on how awesome their plain white rice was, saying it’s “the best rice in a restaurant” he’s had lately. I tried some and was kinda’ like, “OK”. I mean it’s good, but not nearly as good as my poi!
Back to my plate, let’s sample da’ OKInawan Sweet Potato…
And? Again, salt-seasoned perfectly, being ever so subtle,yet you know it’s there, just so it has some savoriness to it, vs. tasting more like a dessert, which is what the Haupia next to it is for. They were also roasted fork tender, yet still had some firmness, which I appreciate. If you order rice instead of poi, the Okinawan Sweet Potato would definitely be a nice stand-in for poi. In fact, they should try make Poi that has Okinawan Sweet Potato puree mixed with it. I bet that’d taste pretty good! Or try do a triple hybrid, mixing those two ingredients, plus Ulu with it. Name it “OkiPoiUlu”. Tee-hee!
Finally for my spread, let’s hit the Haupia…
And? Silky texture and perfect balance of coconut milk and sugar, being not too sweet, not too rancid, but juuuuuus’ right. Ooh, I just had an idea: let’s try make a “savage native” version of Okinawan Sweet Potato Pie, by combining the Haupia with the Oki Sweet Potato…
And? Not bad, actually! I think all it needs is perhaps some condensed milk mixed with coconut syrup drizzled over it, and it would be awesome! Or perhaps wrap them in wontons and deep fry it, served with same said sauce for dippin’. Oh yeah, baby!
Speaking of “oh yeah, baby”, time to dim the light and put on some romantic music, as here we go…
“Bow-chic-a-wow-WOW” indeed! I swear, if this weren’t my first time at this Highway Inn location, I’d SO order this Smokin’ Moco. Diner E’s in it to win it!
He gave me a piece of smoked pork to try, and it was INCREDIBLE. I must admit, as good as the one I make, albeit a little more on the sweeter side. Which is fine, as that really complimented the bell peppers and onions it’s sauteed with. Diner E actually budged from his “Saimin Kaukau” stance and gave their Smokin’ Moco FOUR Spam Musubi, which he rarely dishes out. In fact, I think this was a first!
The single scoop of potato mac salad the Smokin’ Moco was served with was equally stellar, tasting cool and fresh, with just a hint of mustard mixed into the mayo’, and again, seasoned perfectly with salt ‘n fresh crack black, while the macaroni and chunks of potato were nicely tender, yet still firm.
What an incredible Luau FEAST that was. So, SO ONO, all of us polished our plates….
Wrapping it up, we all left Highway Inn practically starstruck over their onolicious Hawaiian grindz, continuously noting how we want to return with family and friends so they can try it. You definitely need to put Highway Inn Kaka’ako on your must-do list. Highly, highly, HIGHLY recommended!
Highway Inn Restaurant
680 Ala Moana Blvd #105
Honolulu, Hawaii 96813
The Tasty Island rating:
(5) Superb. Worthy of repeat visits or purchases. (Broke Da’ Mout’!)
The Tasty Island related links:
• Waipahu Eats: First Bite at Highway Inn
• Kaukau Hawaiian Style at Young’s Fish Market
• People’s Cafe
• Return to Alicia’s Market
• Return to Marujyu Market
•Windward Poi Bowl
• Dry Aku & Poi
• Mixing Poi
• Oven-Roasted Kalua Pig & Cabbage
• Kalua Pig Roasted in a BBQ Grill
• Pressure-Cooked Kalua Pig
• Big Island Smoked Pork