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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 30, 2010

These Isle eateries put the 'wow' in laulau

 •  Hawaii eats section

By Mari Taketa
Special to The Advertiser

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Clockwise from top: "Auntie" Vivian Lee, manager of Ono Hawaiian Foods, shows the restaurant's laulau plate, which comes to your table puffed like a balloon. Ono Hawaiian Foods is on Kapahulu Avenue. Ono's also serves squid lu'au, lomi salmon, kalua pig and poi. Marujyu Market offers a giant laulau for $3.75. Yama's Fish Market's laulau is an artistic delight.

DEBORAH BOOKER, MARI TAKETA | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Highway Inn's laulau is on the small side, but flavorful.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Stacy's Laulau & Grinds serves a moist, succulent laulau.

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Earthy leaves cradling gobs of luscious pork, primal goodness steamed in a packet: We do love our laulau, and after this quest for the island's best, we love it even more. From Waipahu to Waiahole, we tasted 15 of these worthy bundles, registering some key discoveries along the way:

• The three most common pitfalls that bring down a laulau are dry leaves/pork, too much salt and not enough leaves.

• Really good laulau doesn't need sides of lomi salmon and poi to shine. Really good laulau is ono enough to gobble up all by itself.

• O'ahu's best laulau is so good, it's redefined our entire lifetime's experience of laulau.

Before you jump on us for not including your favorite, we'll tell you that we only tried pork laulau that either got recommendations specifying it as the best, or that came from the most popular Hawaiian restaurants. And everywhere we went, we sat or stood right there and ate it on the spot, straight out of the steamer or warmer.

Now for our top picks

Honorable mention: Marujyu Market, 98-820 Moanalua Road, 486-1883

This laulau comes out of a Coleman cooler behind the counter. Easily the biggest of our quest, it's so massive we have to prop a quarter on top to show the scale.

Marujyu's laulau ($3.75) has the best leaf-to-pork ratio. Each leaf holds its individual shape, firm enough not to melt into the next and yet not chalky or scratchy. The big piece of butterfish inside is a succulent treat.

Drawbacks: Slightly salty, dry pork; leaves could be more moist; some fibrous stalks left on.

Honorable mention: Yama's Fish Market, 2332 Young St., 941-9994

Yama's gets props for selling the most artful ti leaf packet but minus points for selling no pork-only laulau. You can get your choice of vegetarian, chicken or this chicken-and-pork ($3.65).

The bone-in chicken thigh is dry and flavorless (never mind, we're not about the chicken today), and the laulau is small and skimpy on the leaves. No butterfish. So why is it here?

Yama's leaves melt like fresh, hot spinach, and the pork, seasoned just right, bounces back against the teeth with a good hint of juiciness.

Honorable mention: Fort Ruger Market, 3585 Alohea Ave., 737-4531

Ruger throws takeout laulau straight from the steamer into a plastic bag a nice touch that keeps it from drying out. Eaten on the bench outside, this laulau ($4.50) is generous with the pork though not so much with the leaves. But oh, those leaves glossy and permeated with the taste of good pork fat, and the meat itself is tender, juicy and perfect.

Drawback: Overly fishy, distracting butterfish taste.

No. 4: Highway Inn, 94-226 Leoku St., 677-4345

Smooth, this laulau ($4.20). Slightly on the small side, with some meat chunks tending a little toward dry, but overall smooth leaves with slight tea, slight pork fat flavor, and smooth, well-seasoned meat. Eminently scarfable.

No. 3: Young's Fish Market, 1286 Kalani St., 841-4885

Probably the most recommended laulau in town. A moist bundle ($4.05) with lots of leaves and meat, salted just right, and a nice piece of butterfish. Lots to like about this one, no drawbacks, overall a very good laulau.

No. 2: Stacy's Laulau & Grinds, 675-1755

A traveling show that sets up at the Blaisdell Farmers Market on Wednesday evenings, Mililani Farmers Market on Sundays, and office buildings around town on other days, Stacy's is the only laulau ($3.50) steamed in foil. We open it and, whoa, hot juices are running down the sides and pooling all over.

This is only the second time we've seen so much juice on a laulau, and we know what it means. Right there under the tent we attack with plastic fork, coming up for air long after we've eaten enough for our assessment. Plenty leaves, plenty pork (no butterfish), everything succulent and perfect.

We realize Stacy's 9-year-old daughter is standing on the other side of the counter, watching with her mouth open. "Wow, you were hungry!" she says.

No. 1: Ono Hawaiian Foods, 726 Kapahulu Ave., 737-2275

Ono's has done it for us. Ratcheted laulau for the first time into the lonely pantheon of Hawaiian foods that can be eaten alone, without need of the salty-sweet-creamy-sour rotation of other dishes. Like poke can stand alone. Or really good pipikaula.

Ono's laulau ($5.95) is huge, first, shiny-glossy and wafting steam through all its layers right down to the core of its meat, which is where laulau juices begin. That meat is soft, fatty pork with no discernible added pieces of fat and no butterfish. This is the only laulau we've ever seen that comes to the table plumped up like a balloon, it's so leafy and so full still of its juices.

Cutting through it with our spoon, we can't stop commenting between bites. "Mmm." Chew. "Wow." Swallow. "Meat's perfect." Spoon some more. "Look at the juices." People are starting to stare.

For the record, these were the other laulau we tried, but did not make our lists of favorites: Waiahole Poi Factory, Windward Poi Bowl, Masa & Joyce, Haili's Hawaiian Foods, Helena's Hawaiian Foods, Kapahulu Poi Shop, Fresh Catch, People's Cafe.