Authentic Hawaiian

The man grinned at me from the lounge at Kanaka’s as he expertly strummed a ukulele. He looked like a real kamaaina, an Island local.

I listened to his cheerful notes and took in the dining room. Table coverings with Polynesian tapa cloth designs. Potted tropical plants like my mother once had in a garden. Prints and photographs of beaches where I learned to surf.

I smiled at the memories of sun and sand and my hapless attempts to master the instrument the man played so well. For a moment, I was a boy again in Hawai’i, a kanaka. “Kanaka” means man, person, group or humanity in general. It’s an inclusive sort of word, the perfect name for a restaurant that serves the authentic food of Hawai’i, a state whose people speak more than 50 languages and dialects.

One test of skilled Hawaiian cooking is the quality of fish courses. Kanaka’s chef superbly prepared the ocean’s bounty. Cubes of ahi seared in a forceful soy sauce ($8.95) were so tender they were like tiny pillows on the tongue. Mahi mahi broiled over coals and brushed with a garlic-butter huli sauce ($14.95) was silky without losing firmness.

Lumpia, Filipino spring rolls ($3.95), were also a success. Unlike any I’ve eaten this year, these spring rolls drew out the natural flavors of the fried wrapping and the chopped cabbage filling. A hot chili dipping sauce added bite.

Ginger did the same for the chicken long rice soup ($1.95, $3.95). As a kid, I’d laughingly race to get the incredibly slippery long rice noodles into my mouth before they slid from my fork. It’s nearly impossible to eat this dish with a spoon.

Kanaka’s didn’t disappoint with another childhood favorite, mochi ($1.95). The kitchen mixed just the right amount of honey and powdered sugar with sticky squares of pounded mochi rice. The confection was as I remembered—spongy, gently sweet, with a consistency somewhere between cake and tapioca.

Even the simple small salad ($4.95) was deftly handled. The greens were beautifully arranged, the tomato slice was juicy and the sesame vinaigrette was zesty but not overpowering.

If the meal had comprised only the dishes I’ve described, Kanaka’s would be a four-star establishment. Unfortunately, the restaurant faltered with some core dishes of Hawaiian cooking.

The huli-huli chicken ($11.95) was moist and smoky but not any different from basic rotisserie poultry. The accompanying chili pepper aioli was an unnecessary—and un-Hawaiian—flourish.

I felt the same way about the tartar sauce discovered under a tea leaf after I’d finished the wondrous mahi mahi. Tartar sauce? This condiment would have ruined the delicate flavor of the fish. And the kalua pork ($9.95), an ancient Hawaiian staple famed for its soft texture, was more stringy than tender.

There were some service stumbles as well. A staffer smoked outside the front entrance. Main courses arrived too early. My party received the large check meant for another. But Kanaka’s has only been open about a month, and such errors are easily avoided in the future.

Indeed, despite the missteps, I found the authenticity at Kanaka’s enormously gratifying. No candied pineapples, no plastic leis, no squatting tiki gods, no silly drinks with umbrellas—none of the clichés of Hawaiian dining. No, just an honest commitment to ono kauaku—food prepared in the true spirit of Hawai’i.