Helena’s is all about the genius of native Hawaiian cuisine: an interplay of oceanic and earthy flavors. It is one of the few places to get traditional Hawaiian banquet food without having a whole luau. A meal here can be quick and casual; it won’t be expensive; and it comes free of spectacle.
Lau lau, the most traditional of luau dishes, is butterfish and pork compressed in taro leaves and pit smoked. It is as soft, rich, and complex as pate, and as saline as caviar. Eating the leaves with the meat helps temper the salt, and an occasional bite of rice helps temper the assertive fusion of land and sea.
Kalua pig is smoky and salty like fine Southern barbecue. It comes layered between cabbage leaves that are steamed soft, but remain green and aromatic. The vegetable carries the flavor of rich pork and balances the intensity of the meat.
Squid luau is a dish that must be tried to be believed. It tastes something like coconut creamed spinach with coins of butter-soft squid tentacles floating in it. The x-factor is that it isn’t made with spinach, but with young taro leaves, also known as “luau.” These leaves have a more complex and herbaceous flavor than spinach, and are less sharp-tasting than mustard greens. At first bite, it instantly became one of our new culinary obsessions.
One of the signature dishes is kalbi — cross-cut, or flanken (like those at Korean BBQ) short ribs. These are available at many Hawaiian barbecue restaurants and steakhouses, but Helena’s uses the traditional technique known as pipikaula. This requires air-drying the meat before marinating in soy and cooking. Just as vaqueros of the Southwest developed machaca, paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys) developed this technique for preserving meat. Unlike machaca, kalbi sports such Asian flavors as ginger and soy. The dried ribs are pan-fried in their own fat, creating concentrated beef flavor and a dark crust. The traditional way to enjoy them is with raw onion and coconut jelly known as haupia.
Since the food here is so intensely flavorful, we recommend offsetting it with a bowl of the impressively bland staple, poi. Helena’s poi has a funky quasi- fermented character that makes it a higher caliber of purple paste. Still, it’s hard to imagine enjoying it unless you grew up eating it. Anyway, it’s something you have to try when you come to Hawaii. Maybe after enough trips to Helena’s we will learn to crave it.