Some things never change, like the soothing rhythm of the ocean, day in and day out, as waves lap against the shores of Oahu. Every visit seems to pick up right where the last left off, as if the whole island had been put on pause in my absence. There’s a timeless quality about the majestic rain forests; the towering mountains and their plunging craters; the flora and fauna buzzing, chirping, and making merry throughout it all. There’s a certain comfort knowing that no matter how long it takes me to return, Hawaii will remain as enchanting a place as the day I first met it.
And yet, in my heart, I know that this is a consolatory lie. Imperceptibly, without conscious intention, everything changes. You can never truly go home again if you’re expecting “home” to align with questionably maintained memories. However, in the case of Honolulu’s evolving food scene, this is a very good thing indeed. One of the newest and most buzzed about establishments to take root in the past six months is Ai Love Nalo, an unassuming outpost on the far-flung coast of Waimanalo. Housed in a former gas station, it would be easy to drive right on by without a second thought, as nothing from the outside hints at the culinary treasures within.
Despite the fact that it’s a considerably trek for city-dwellers, factoring either traffic or bus schedules into the equation, or both if you’re particularly unlucky, it’s a journey always worth taking. Hit Hanauma Bay along the way and make it a day trip; the only way to top those dazzling sights is to follow them with a stellar meal.
Boasting a menu composed of locally-sourced produce and entirely vegan options, you’ll want to take a number of friends for the best experience. Heck, get out there and make some new friends! Join one of the long communal picnic tables out back and introduce yourself; there are no friendlier folks on earth than those living in paradise, as far as I’ve seen.
That said, if there was only one dish to order, it would have to be the Oh WOW Laulau. Wow, indeed! No where else on earth have I found vegan laulau, let alone such a stellar rendition. Traditionally consisting of fatty pork and/or fish steamed in taro leaves, this version eschews the meat in favor of hearty root vegetables, adding creamy coconut into the mix for richness. Not to be overlooked is the Tofu Poke provided on the side, claiming to be spicy but really bearing just enough warmth to taste perfectly balanced. This was easily my personal favorite from the small sampling of dishes provided, but it’s a close call when all the options are so good.
Another front runner is the BBQ Portobello Sandwich. Mushrooms marinated in a bright, smoky barbecue sauce practically sing between two whole wheat buns. Coconut slaw tops off the assemblage with just the right amount of subtle sweetness to contrast the deeply savory flavors within.
Simpler but no less spectacular dishes include the Roasted Veg Platter and Roasted Veg Avocado Sandwich. The way that the vegetables are treated with respect, from the moment they’re harvested from nearby farms to the care taken when they reach the kitchen is evident with every bite. Cooked with care and proffered generously with each serving, even the basics make the trek out here worthwhile. I’m still trying to recreate that impossibly umami gravy offered on the side. It’s one of those things that are so astoundingly, inconceivably delicious, it’s impossible to deconstruct.
Each entree promises an ideal amount of food; satisfying diners without over-stuffing them. That said, you’ll still want to make room for dessert, especially when you see the towering bowls full of Outta This Swirled Soft Serve. Cool, naturally sweet spirals of banana-based soft serve are dressed to the nines with cacao sauce that hardens much like magic shell, granola and coconut flakes tumbling down the mountainous terrain, and fresh fruits that vary based on local availability- Expect papaya always to be in ample supply, based on the thriving papaya trees on premise. Each order is abundant enough to be a considered a full meal in and of itself.
Although it’s foolish to imagine that anything would remain impervious to the inevitable current of change touching all corners of modern life, Ai Love Nalo is one thing I hope will still dazzle in the same place, in the same ways, next time I come back.
Commonly regarded as merely a casual greeting, “Aloha” takes on an entirely different tone when spoken in Hawaii. The Aloha Spirit goes much deeper than surface pleasantries, and isn’t something that can be faked. It has to do with honesty, patience, and sharing, just for starters, which is why I can think of no company more aptly named than Aloha Tofu. Churning out soybean curds since 1950, the operation has always been a family business, focused on using high-quality ingredients while keeping the process as simple as possible. No added preservatives mean that none of the products are exported, meaning that they will always be solely local treasures. Luckily, these gems are easy to plunder, found in any grocery store worth its square footage on the island and of course, directly from their factory in Kalihi.
That’s where I met up with some of the most stunningly kind tofu-tamers imaginable. Although I happened to pick the one weekday where no production was actively taking place, they generously showed me around the storage room and gave me a good lay of the land. After refusing to take my money, I was loaded up with an embarrassment of soybean riches and sent back on my merry way.
Don’t let the brand name fool you- They make much more than just bean curd cakes in that unassuming downtown factory. In addition to okara, soymilk, and konnyaku, their natto could be considered something of a game changer, since almost all commercial varieties are frustratingly pre-seasoned with bonito dashi. Long ago I had given up on enjoying this admittedly polarizing pleasure, but Aloha Tofu’s delightfully slimy little number is 100% vegan, through and through. For the uninitiated, it’s generally a love or hate experience, with little space for ambiguity, although one of the best ways to ease into natto appreciation is with the aid of piping hot miso soup. The warm broth helps dissolve the stringy stickiness, while the miso paste pairs harmoniously with the funky, fermented whole soybean flavor. Even if you’ve found it hard to swallow before, a better brand can make all the difference in the world.
The classic dish recommended by the tofu masters themselves, however, is tofu poke. Their rendition adheres very closely to the traditional fish-based formula, substituting fried tofu cubes for the raw fish; a move that should appease those who can appreciate tofu well enough, but not so much that they care to eat it raw. The finished dish is sold in their brand new eatery, but since I didn’t have a chance to scope out that scene as well, I’m grateful that the full recipe is published on their website. No strings attached, no gimmicks or marketing ploys; just the desire to share their tofu and new ways to enjoy it. Now that’s the Aloha Spirit in action.
Recipe Ever So Slightly Adapted from Aloha Tofu
1 (12-Ounce Package) Deep Fried Tofu, Cut into Bite-Sized Cubes
1 Tomato, Diced
1/4 Cup Coarsely Chopped Ogo Limu*
1 – 2 Scallions, Chopped
1/4 Cup Low Sodium Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil
2 Teaspoons Toasted Sesame Seeds
1 Teaspoon Finely Minced Fresh Ginger
Pinch Crushed Red Pepper Flakes, to Taste
*Substitute with cooked hijiki if unavailable.
Like some of the best dishes, this one couldn’t be simpler to prepare. There’s no big secret here; simply toss the tofu, all of the chopped vegetables, and seasonings together in a large bowl to thoroughly distribute all of the ingredients and coat them with the marinade. Cover and chill for at least 30 minutes before serving, or up to a day. Enjoy cold.
Makes 4 – 6 Side Dish Servings