If you want to experience authentic native Hawaiian food, as opposed to the fusion of Hawaiian, Portuguese, Chinese and Japanese that is common today, you must eat at Helena's Hawaiian Food. I've been going to Helena's since 1977 and while Helena is sadly gone and the location has changed, the food is exactly the same as it ever was. Absolutely delicious. But don't just take my word for it, Helena's was actually recognized with a James Beard award for outstanding American regional cuisine in 2000.
To say Helena's is an unassuming little place would be an understatement. You eat here, you don't dine. It's the kind of restaurant where they don't clear the tables until customers come in the door. Despite the posters and photographs on the walls, it has zero ambiance with mismatched plastic plates and formica tables. It's all about the food which arrives on small plates that are intended to be shared.
While you may have had kahlua pork before, you need to try it at Helena's where it is cooked the traditional way in an underground oven called an imu. It's smoky and tender, mixed with cabbage and so much better than what you'll find at most places.
Another dish you have to order is lomi lomi salmon. I'm not sure how salmon arrived in Hawaii, because it is not local, but the dish of chopped tomatoes, chiles, onions and salted salmon is a standard Hawaiian dish these days. It's like a juicy salsa with salty bits of fish.
Pipi kaula ribs are another Hawaiian specialty, but one you don't see all that often. Pipi kaula is Hawaiian for "beef string" and it used to be two beef strips were tied together then hung to dry. While the beef is still hung to be dried, today it's also marinated in honey, garlic, soy and sometimes sherry. I don't know Helena's exact recipe, but the chewy ribs are succulent and have the right balance of intense salty and sweet flavors.
You may never have tried poi, but it was a staple of Hawaiian cuisine and it really does taste good with the mostly salty savory dishes. It's mashed and ground taro root, and has the consistency of pudding with a mildly sour taste. You really should try it.
Another dish not to be missed is the butterfish collar. This is similar in texture to hamachi kama you might order in a Japanese restaurant. It is a very rich and oily piece of fish that you really only find in Hawaii.
Other wonderful things to try include laulau, luau squid and chicken long rice (which is actually a kind of noodle not rice). Each order comes with some homemade haupia for the table a bit of onion and Hawaiian red salt. The haupia is a firm cold coconut pudding. It is cool and refreshing and not too sweet. If you end up eating it before the end of the meal, you may need to order more! A meal here will probably cost you under $10.
Helena's Hawaiian Food
1240 N. School St
Other reviews of Helena's:
Ono Kine Grindz
Jay's Strange Blog