Of course, I noticed this far too late. It's Saturday night, and I've stopped by Lukoki Hawaiian BBQ, which is currently sharing quarters with the co-owned Pearl Cafe to wait out the recession. Located in the Kohl's parking lot near Target and Walmart in the San Antonio Shopping Center, I imagine they get a lot of foot traffic from hungry shoppers, and right now this cafe seems to be populated entirely by 20-year olds with laptops drinking tapioca pearl tea, most likely enjoying the free WiFi. The word "dude" peppers the air around me.
I realize I am the only person who has ordered food, and it's dinner time. Perhaps the fact that many of the questions I asked the friendly counter staff were difficult for them to answer, such as, "What is laulau?" or, "What is kalua pig?" it might have clued me into the fact that the pearl tea and bagels have become more popular than Hawaiian barbecue in this neighborhood spot.
My pearl tea arrives first, and the service is prompt. For $3.95 I get a large cup filled with at least two inches of black tapioca pearls. The strawberry-peach flavor I ordered, however, looks and tastes exactly like a 7-11 Slurpee. I enjoy a tapioca pearl with every sip and check out the fashion magazines and manga, and then my combo plate, a laulau and kalua pig special for $8.95, arrives.
Laulau is a traditional Hawaiian dish, in which pork (or chicken or fish) is wrapped in luau leaves (usually taro, or ti or banana leaves) and placed in the imu, the luau pit. In the modern kitchen, and on the mainland where luau pits are illegal, laulau is usually made using taro leaves and steamed on the stove with the same ingredients wrapped inside. In both cases, scoops of macaroni salad and rice accompany the dish to make the ubiquitous Hawaiian "plate lunch."
On my plate, I find a dark green mess of steamed leaves, two scoops of rice, and fresh, creamy macaroni salad. When I unwrap my leaves, I find a piece of pork that somehow appeared to be simultaneously dry yet greasy. Further excavation of my leaves reveals a big chunk of fat. The pork has no flavor, and I cover it again with the leaves.
I have high hopes for the kalua pig.The word kalua literally means "to cook in an underground oven," and in the imu, pork and pork fat melt together over smoking koa wood, giving you a perfect, smoky barbecue pork experience. In the modern kitchen, the chefs slow-cook the pork, adding seasonings to get it just right. My Styrofoam cup of pork, laced with what appears to be cabbage, looks promising, and I take a forkful, only to reach for my tea quickly. I taste nothing but salt. I'm wishing I had ordered a gallon of water instead of the pearl tea, and finish off the tasty macaroni salad in record time.
I approach the counter staff, who are friendly and prompt with their service, and I ask them how they meet the challenge of replicating the taste of an imu in the modern kitchen. "What kind of leaves do you use? How do you make your kalua pig?" The counter staff translates for the cook, who shakes his head. "We order the laulau in bulk. The owner has five restaurants, he orders it and I heat it up. And the kalua pig, it's just made on the stove, and my only seasoning is salt."
After that, the friendly cashier tells me, "Don't worry about it." I am promptly waved out the door, and I head off in search of water.
On subsequent visits my friends and I sampled the fried shrimp for $8.25, which were just okay, until we noticed the shrimp were not properly cleaned, and the Hawaiian BBQ Chicken Rice Bowl for $6.75, which tasted more like teriyaki, and the vegetables may have been previously frozen.
There are several other Hawaiian barbecue spots in the area, and I look forward to visiting those. Perhaps, if you are craving the real thing, treat yourself to a tropical vacation in the near future and experience the smoky flavor of koa wood and melting pork fat for yourself. It's worth the plane fare.
Lukoki Hawaiian BBQ (located inside Pearl Cafe)
506 Showers Drive, Suite A
Mountain View, CA 94041
Hours: Monday-Sunday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.