I heard about Helena’s a couple of years ago via the Food Network’s “Man vs. Food.” Adam Richman was not participating in an eating challenge there (he took on a crazy, giant pancake feast at Mac 24/7 for that). Rather, he reported a side visit to Helena’s for some of the best beef short ribs on the planet. So, of course, I had to try it out.
Last year my son Mitchell, my mom and I made the pilgrimage to School Street in Honolulu to find this sacred item. After the long exercise of finding a parking spot, then waiting somewhere near an hour to score a table, we settled into a great eating experience that convinced us a trip to Helena’s would become one of our food rituals every time we returned to our beloved Hawaii.
So last week, we held to our commitment. We got super lucky with a parking spot (one of only about 8 in the tiny strip mall that houses this little gold mine of a restaurant) and snatched a table amongst the locals who patronize Helena’s, Tuesday through Friday. Yes, they are closed Saturday through Monday, which would be restaurant suicide anywhere on the Mainland. But these folks don’t need to be open 6 or 7 days a week. Between the always-packed house and a massive take-out business, I think the family likely needs those three days to recoup before they serve the love all over again each week. Whatever their reason, obviously they are doing it right because the restaurant has been going strong for the past 64 years and employed three generations of Helena’s family.
Our standard fare is the Combination Menu “D”:
Kalua Pig – smoky, slow cooked pork mixed with cabbage, this dish is one of my mom’s favorites
Lomi Salmon – diced tomatoes, onions and salmon, with a generous sprinkling of Hawaiian salt (is what my taste buds tell me); its like ceviche without the citrus or sushi with a flare that combines into a bright, salty freshness, oh-so good!
Luau Squid – the top of the taro plant is cooked and puréed with coconut milk, a little like spinach only more earthy in flavor, with lovely bits of squid hiding in all that green goodness. An acquired taste but addictive when you catch on to it.
Pikikaula – Helena’s famous beef short ribs. Her secret? Wish I knew! But I do know that in the preparation process, the ribs are hung from the ceiling above the stove in the restaurant kitchen, like rows of little brown chimes, to cure/dry/marinate? What I really know is how they taste – wonderfully tender, deeply flavorful and so good that we eat every morsel of meat off the bones until they are shiny and smooth.
Tripe Stew – This is not part of the “D” menu. Mitchell just had to try it. He has a very broad palate – even broader than mine – and loves things like beef stomach (tripe), tendon and other such miscellaneous animal parts. So I ventured with him on this one. I’ve had tripe only once. It was an Italian preparation of cooked, marinated tripe strips in oil. I found the texture rather chewy and slippery, the taste slightly sour-ish … and not to my liking. But this stew was delicious! The tripe pieces, cut in little squares and mixed with pieces of potato and carrot, were tender and flavored by the spicy red broth. It proved to be a pretty amazing dish.
Poi or Rice – The combination menus are served with rice or poi (mashed taro root). We ordered rice. None of us have yet developed the taste for poi. We noticed one table of diners sweetened their poi with sugar, so we might give that a try next time. I pass no judgment on this dish. It has been a staple food of the Hawaiian people for eons, and the poi bowl, ritually sacred. Food and culture are inextricably entwined, and no more so than here in the islands, which is one of the reasons experiencing local cuisine is so interesting and such a privilege … besides being delectably good eating.
Laupia – Meals always come with Laupia, a coconut pudding, which has a lightly sweet flavor and a smooth, cool custardy/gelatin-like texture. I think it makes a perfect finish to some serious chowing down.
We love the staff at Helena’s. All are both fast and helpful even amidst the continuous rush of diners. You get the feeling they know that what they serve is dang good, and that they are dang proud to be serving it.
Note the great photo of Helena’s daughter Elaine with my son Mitchell!
Thank you Helena’s for your long service to the stomachs of the local community and for welcoming us visitors with your beautiful, big smiles and abundant aloha!
Visit Helena’s online or in person: http://www.helenashawaiianfood.com
Eat well. Be happy.