To understand Hawaiian barbecue, it’s necessary to discuss the lunch plate first. This is a traditional meal presentation, served throughout the day, consisting of two scoops of sticky rice and a scoop of simple macaroni salad before the serving container is finished off with a generous portion of protein. You’ll find this setup whether you get a barbecue lunch plate from a roadside stand or from one of the open-air restaurants that draws you in because of its fabulous aromas.
Your choice, then, is what meat you want to order. It could be ribs, cut across the bone, or perhaps marinated chicken straight from the grill. My favorite turned out to be Kalua pig roasted in an imu, an underground pit dug perhaps in someone’s backyard or even on the beach.
Sure, we’re a far cry from Texas-style barbecue with its mouthwatering array of smoked meats. It’s far closer to Chinese barbecue, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the Asian influence on island cuisine. But take another bite of that Kalua pig and revel in how the smoke subtly complements the refreshing flavor of fresh pork. It’s that special, whether you eat it by itself, cooked with cabbage or served on a bun with mayo, onion and lettuce.
It’s also simply prepared, which may be why I like it best. There’s no marinade, just roast pork with some salt and the flavor of the ti leaf, which is the green part of the plant that produces the taro root. If you can’t find one of those, then a banana leaf will do.
That’s far cry from the sweet, sticky barbecue sauce used on chicken and beef ribs alike, which you can get a taste of in San Antonio at L+L Hawaiian Grill, 1302 Austin Hwy. Most recipes for this style start with shoyu, a dark soy sauce that has undergone fermentation, before adding sugar, garlic, ginger and onion. You then let the marinade and the meat rest until you’re ready to grill. Throw some buttered pineapple on the grill for a side dish that’s irresistible.
On a recent trip to Maui, I found that barbecue holds fast to tradition, but there are the occasional attempts to broaden it.
At Fat Daddy’s on South Kikei Road, burnt ends and brisket were both on the menu, a tough choice when you’re from Texas. I was expecting something more like what we’d get back home, so I ordered the burnt ends. I certainly got what I ordered, fatty bits of meat with tender strands under a well-done exterior, but I also discovered that the meat had been covered in sauce, which is more of an East Texas style than I was expecting. They were served with truffled mac and cheese and blue cheese coleslaw on the side, both of which are from a barbecue tradition I have yet to discover, though the slaw was excellent.
On the road to Hana, we our driver zipped past a roadside barbecue stand that I would have loved to have visited. He stopped instead a little further down the road at another roadside stand, one that promised Aunty Sandy’s handmade banana bread, which was truly exceptional and featured, no doubt, bananas grown on the nearby plants. But it was the Kalua pig, advertised a little lower on the sign (below “hot dog” even) that caught my attention. One bite of my sandwich was enough to convince my traveling companions to get their own. We were all taken in by the fresh pork flavor with a touch of smoke well balanced by the mayo. It quickly became one of my favorite flavors of the entire trip.
I wanted that flavor again when I stopped by King’s BBQ and Chinese Restaurant, again on South Kihei Road, a couple of days later. It was not to be. Instead, I ordered up a combination of luau pork wrapped in ti leaves and Kalua pig sauteed with cabbage. Both boasted fine flavors; I especially like anything sauteed with cabbage. But it missed the clean, straightforward beauty of that simple pork sandwich from a roadside stand.
It made me remember another lesson from the global barbecue trail: No matter the style of ‘cue you’re talking about, don’t pass up those roadside stands; you’ll never know what culinary treasures you could be missing out on.
John Griffin and Bonnie Walker are authors of “Barbecue Lover’s Texas” (Globe Pequot Press).