I’m on the Big Island doing some volunteer work.
And I’m in foodie hell. I have no kitchen to cook in, very little money for dining out and I’m gaining weight so I shouldn’t eat. But, oh the temptations…
I had to drive today from Kona to Waimea (Kamuela) and on down the Hamakua Coast to Hilo. No indulgence. We’re in a no indulgence zone, I told myself.
But first, the librarians at the Thelma Parker Library had birthday carrot cake that was beyond good. Local girls are taught from small-kid time: Impolite in the extreme to say no. I ate half a slice (a lot for me) and looked longingly at it as I went about my business.
Then, well, I was a block away from my VERY MOST FAVORITE restaurant in Hawaii ever, Merriman’s. And even though Peter Merriman no longer lives or cooks there (he’s based on Maui; I saw him last week and I’ve got a blog built around something he said coming up…), I found out at lunch that it has not lost ONE BIT of its mojo.
I had a beet salad ($10), It’s been done, I know, but not always well and it’s a favorite of mine, with heirloom beets, Nakano tomatoes, Anuhea asparagus, Big Island goat cheese and macadamia nuts. The beets were perfectly roasted (and this sounds easy but I’ve eaten too many butter, crunchy beets to be complacent). The tomatoes were actually ripe and tasted like something; not the calibre of a ripe tomato in a Southern garden in July but pretty punchy for Hawaii. The asparagus was chopped so that it gave you little crunchy hits but never contributed the stringy bitterness that even well-cooked asparagus can. Mac nuts sweet and oily. Drizzles on top of who knows what. Crumbles of cheese. Remember that scene in “The King and I” when the wives re-enact “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and I think there’s a line where they all chant “Happy E-li-zah!” Yeah, well I was “Happy Wan-da!”
The only thing that would have made me happier is if the salad had not been so completely chilled; it muted the flavors. I mentioned it to the waiter who did NOT give me that “who the hell do you think YOU are” look or even that phony “I’ll tell the kitchen” line. He was acknowledged that dishes of this sort often do taste better closer to room temp. (And that’s a topic for another blog.)
For an entree (OK, it was indulgent but darnit, I haven’t been to Merriman’s since before I was married!), I had the special of the day, which was the Merriman’s version of meat jhun. I’m so sorry for you because you’ve you’ve never had meat jhun as it should be done (unless you were in Waimea today). This stuff was so mouth-watering I ate beyond my capacity and then made the waiter promise he would pack up every speck, including the shoyu-sesame sauce. You know how most jhun has this heavy, thickish, eggy coating and is served in a slab wholely uncuttable with the plastic cutlery you get at most Korean takeouts? And the meat is often tough and stringy?
Not here, this beef — local, of course — was sliced as thinly as bologna, sparingly bathed in a truly light batter, fried (but I don’t think fully immersed, deep-fried; possibly pan-fried in a quarter inch of oil) and then — and here’s genious! — cut into bite-size pieces. It had probably previously been marinated because I didn’t even GET to the sauce for the first half-dozen bites. It came with jasmine rice and a tomato salad topped with kim chee ($10).
I liked it so much that, when the next table was pondering choices and wondering what this dish was, I caught their attention, showed them my plate, and shamelessly gushed. (Okay, I’m no longer a paid critic; I can gush if I want to.)
So after that, I stopped at KTA Superstore. I LOVE KTA, best store in the Islands for stocking an amazing range of food styles from all the really broka-da-mout’ local stuff (choke kine poke; dried fish; locally made Japanese-style pickles, etc.) to healthy foods (local hummous, gluten-free products) to “gourmet” items like amazing bakery breads, a very respectable cheese and wine collection. But I stood firm; I’ll be here for two days and all I needed was a little breakfast: I bought yogurt, wheat rolls, some fruit and some Garden of Eatin’ Corn Chips and then got out of the store quick.
Started the drive. Could have turned left and snuck down to Kapa’au where Holy Bakery is (those PIES!). Didn’t. Passed Tex’s. Said no, no malassadas. Glanced with an aching heart at tree after loaded guava tree. Said no, no picking guavas; you can’t make jam in a hotel room (though I once did it in a rented condo — made jam, I mean). Passed the little store just beyond Onomea where my husband and I bought ‘ono plate lunch and whole mac nuts and incredible ripe papaya an’ all kine’ other stuff. No stopping.
And then it appeared: Baker Tom’s. Baker Tom’s is about 9 miles outside of Hilo toward Hamakua on the mauka side. It’s a counter, a chill case, some shelves haphazardly fitted into what was probably the repair bay of an old gas station and Baker Tom, a lanky, T-shirted guy in a soiled apron and a hairnet. I’ve been hearing about Tom and his baked goods for years. People talk about his malassadas the way they talk about the time they ate at Lutece.
I could no longer frame the single syllable “No.” The rented Ford Focus turned right of its own accord. I bought palmiers, which my baker friend considers the ultimate test of a baker. I bought cinnamon malassadas. I bought strawberry cheesecake with a thick chocolate crumb base. I checked my wallet and had to stop.
But here’s how good this guy’s malassadas are: They’re good when they’re cold. They’d been in a warming case but weren’t hot by any means. They’re the size of a baseball mitt. My Portuguese grandmother probably wouldn’t recognize them. My tummy embraced them like the Prodigal Son. And the other dishes were equally good.
Baker Tom (he doesn’t use a last name) said he’s been blogged about before, and it’s helped business. I was happy to give him an additional push. And the ultimate accolade: It was worth the fat and calories!