“Eh, wea da grinds stay in Tucson?” Pidgin English, spoken in Hawaii
“Do any restaurants in Tucson serve Hawaiian food?” Standard English translation
Someone asked me, a “local” born and raised on the Big Island of Hawaii, that question a few weeks ago.
Kon Tiki at 4625 E. Broadway, open since 1963, is the oldest Hawaiian-style restaurant in Tucson. Most people know it from the huge tiki gods in the front.
Kon Tiki serves mostly pseudo-Hawaiian food with fancy touristy names like “Monkeys on a Stick” (teriyaki sirloin), “Birds on a Wire” (chicken), “Tiki Burgers,” and exotic drinks from the bar.
The interior is quite Polynesian though – palm trees, thatched rooflike areas, numerous tiki images of Hawaiian gods and generous usage of kapa (Hawaiian bark cloth made from the paper mulberry plant).
One of the amusing things about Kon Tiki is the bathroom labels: Wahine for women and Warrior for men (should be Kane – pronounced kah-nay in Hawaiian).
A more authentic Hawaiian restaurant is Lani’s Luau at 2532 S. Harrison Road – a welcoming place and only a little more than a year old.
The proprietors are Zane and Leilani Dowling, the latter, like me, is originally from the Big Island. She loves to cook and they serve the typical Hawaiian plate lunch – teri chicken, kalua pig, Korean chicken, mahi mahi fish, all with the usual two scoops of rice and potato salad. It’s just like the plate lunch wagon back home.
I love the “luau plate” with kalua pork, laulau, lomilomi salmon, poke fish and chicken long rice. For those of you not too familiar with Hawaiian food, you may want to try something else. But we locals love the luau plate, especially with poi (made from the taro root) when it’s available.
Decorations at Lani’s Luau are a motley arrangement of Hawaiian print curtains, postcards and memorabilia from Hawaii. The music playing is real Hawaiian slack key.
But the authenticity of the food speaks for itself, as Lani even makes haupia (coconut pudding), Spam musubi (a piece of fried Spam wrapped in rice and seaweed), and ice shave (softer than a snow cone).
A third restaurant just opened on March 22 – Northshore Hawaiian Cuisine, 6255 E. Golf Links Road. Jeff Sternitzky and his Honolulu-born wife, Jessica Brown, are serving deli-style plate lunches (lau lau, mahi, beef stew, teri chicken, kalbi) on the weekends.
This sports bar opened in July and is mostly serving cheeseburgers/fries/tacos/chicken wings during the week. I did try their mahi fish plate and some fried rice recently and both were some ono (delicious in Pidgin English).
You can find Hawaiian food products in Tucson at G&L Import Export, 4828 E. 22nd St., and the 17th Street Farmers Market, 840 E. 17th St.
I found some local favorites like “cracked seed” and “sweet li hing mui” at G&L, and Hawaiian salt, guava jelly and taro chips at the 17th Street Market.
But the best store with lots of Hawaiian food items is Sun Oriental Market, 2205 S. Craycroft Road. It has both chicken and pork lau lau, Portuguese sausage, manapua, Aloha shoyu, Hawaiian Sun fruit drinks and even chocolate-covered macadamia nuts.
I almost felt like I was back home. And only this Sun market had frozen poi!
Happy eating, or as we say in Hawaii, “go eat till you’re tired.”
Hawaii native Carolyn Classen, was legislative aide to U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye and a former practicing attorney who now is a community volunteer and Small Claims Court hearing officer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org