We drove an hour north from our house last night, to dine in Hawai’i.
Well, not exactly Hawai’i, but an outpost of Hawai’i, in the most unlikely place: On a quiet Main Street corner in Windsor, a typical small, old-fashioned mid-western town on the plains of northern Colorado. Definitely not a tropical paradise, although inside the clean modern restaurant, you might as well be along Oahu’s North Shore, or somewhere in Kauai.
But Okole Maluna (Bottoms Up) isn’t in the islands. The intimate restaurant is in Windsor.
Erin and I love Hawai’ian food and seek it out in the few places where it’s available in Colorado. Most often, we find ourselves at L&L Hawai’ian Barbecue, a Hawai’i-based fast-food chain with a franchise in the eastern Denver suburb of Aurora. We think it’s a bit pricey for what you get, as well as being entirely too generous with salt on everything they serve (maybe it’s needed in hot humid Hawai’i, but our palates don’t require so much sodium).
We’ve also tried 8 Island Hawai’ian BBQ in Boulder and were disappointed both by the food and the service — especially when the staff made a bog deal of charging us 75 cents extra for a little dollop when we changed our mind on the kind of sauce we wanted on a dish. Come on, that’s like charging for ketchup and mustard!
And more recently, we had a very fine meal for my mom’s birthday at Iwayama Sushi and Da Big Kahuna Bistro, which is as known for its sushi as for its Island vittles.
Iwayama’s fun, and closer. But I’d make the hour drive any day for the Kalua pork at Okole Maluna.
Its deep smoky flavor is tantalizing, and it’s not overly salty (hooray). It’s served with two mounds of rice (for the full portion), a side of creamy Hawai’ian macaroni salad, a little bowl of Lomi Lomi salmon, which is like pico de gallo with bits of salmon mixed in, and a little serving of haupia, a conconut custard.
In fact, overall, Okole Maluna is the best place in the state we’ve found for Hawai’ian food.
We love Hawai’ian cuisine because like its people and society, Hawai’ian food is a multicultural mix of native foods, Asian flavors and American cooking — in the case of Spam, American military cooking. Hawai’i is the world’s single largest consumer of Spam per capita, thanks to the longtime presence of American GIs.
Aside from Spam, you’ll get crazy mixed-up dishes like Loco Moco, a hamburger patty on a mound of rice topped with eggs and brown gravy; or spaghetti topped with chili con carne. Eggs for breakfast might come with Portuguese sausage or the aforementioned Spam instead of bacon or ham.
There are native dishes such as Poi (a squishy grayish-pink mash of taro root) and the distinct Japanese influence of Teriyaki beef or chicken. Kalua Pork, commonly called Kalua Pig, is cooked underground. Lau Lau serves up pork or chicken steamed in taro leaves. And really, Hawai’ian macaroni salad tastes like no other macaroni salad because it’s so creamy and easy to gobble down. (The closest in taste and texture is Japanese style macaroni salad.)
Okole Maluna doesn’t serve all these thins, but what it serves, it cooks wonderfully.
The restaurant was opened by a young couple from Hawai’i, who attended nearby Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Andy and Juliet Higa both grew up in restaurant families — Juliet’s family still operates a restaurant in Kauai. They didn’t start out planning to run a restaurant.
Andy got a degree in human behavior and family development (or something otherwise non-foodie like that). I didn’t get a chance to ask Juliet what she studied. After college, the couple found their Hawai’ian friends left the area and the sense of community was lost.
When they ate one day at a Hawai’ian restaurant in a mountain resort town, they thought they could do it too — only on the front range, in a small-town setting close to CSU and University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, as well as the University of Colorado in Boulder. They hoped to attract the Hawai’ian students at those schools (Andy explains UNC used to have an exchange program with the University of Hawai’i, which led to a lot of young people from the islands coming to Greeley).
Their restaurant has established a loyal clientele — last night when we made our second trip there with Erin’s parents, the place was full of regulars who gave Juliet a hug, or shook Andy’s hand when they left. It was a bit hectic because a wedding party had booked the back half of the room — without them there would have been no problem seating everyone.
And, we got the server who moved at the same speed the whole night whether it was crowded or empty. The other server cranked it up several notches when it got busy, and even Andy and Juliet were out on the floor, delivering food, cleaning tables and taking orders when it was crazed. Not our server, though. She wasn’t bad, just frustratingly nonchalant when she needed to be faster.
The place wasn’t busy the first night we went but that’s because it was a Tuesday and the night of Barack Obama’s inauguration. We’d heard about Okole Maluna and decided to go that night to celebrate Obama’s Hawai’ian childhood roots. We were apparently the only people in Colorado to have this idea.
I had the same meal — the Ali’i Plate ($15.25), which has the large serving of Kalua Pork and two mounds of rice. And, we shared a bowl of Saimin ($8.95) each time, last night among the four of us, the first time between the two of us).
The Saimin is worth a mention because it’s spectacularly good. Readers may remember that Erin and I are ramen fanatics. Saimin is Hawai’ian ramen, and the Saimin at Okole Maluna quenches our jones for noodle. Andy imports the noodles from Hawai’i, and I don’t know what his secret recipe for the dashi, or soup, is, but it’s perfect: Full of flavor without being heavy or greasy or overly salty from soy sauce. he tops the noodles and soup with shreds of green onions and pieces of Spam — yes, you heard it right, no charshiu barbecue pork, just Spam, which adds its own flavor to the broth. The noodles are perfect al dente, and the whole thing is just a dream to down.
So, we may not get there as often as we’d like (wish the restaurant was in Denver!) but it makes it that much more special when do make the trek up to Okole Maluna.
NOTE: If you follow us on Facebook or Twitter, you may notice that we have this in our updates from time to time: #twEATs. That’s called a “hash” and it’s an easy way in Twitter to organize short little posts. You can search for #twEATs in search.twitter.com and see all the live comments we send to Twitter during our meals out, or when we hear something interesting that’s food-related.
But wait, there’s more! Here’s a video Erin and I shot: