In 2020, the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa and Hawai’i Pono’ī Coalition worked together to establish September as Hawaiian History Month. Festivities now commence on September 2 in honor of Queen Lili’uokalani’s birthday.
As other American cultural groups lean into monthlong celebrations, this one spotlights the state’s true history with and how Native Hawaiians (or Kānaka Maoli) have contributed.
My family packed up and left our home in Hawai’i 20 years ago. Living 3,000 miles away means we connect with our culture through food. Seattle, of course, has Hawaiian restaurants of all stripes, from fusion-friendly Marination Ma Kai to Ma’ono’s saimin and spam musubi. My family favors a few low-key favorites that reflect our food memories from O’ahu.
I still crave a Zippy’s Chili Frank, and saimin that I would happily consume sweating in the 80-degree, humid weather. But these Seattle-area restaurants will have you feeling like you’re in the Islands, commemorating the Queen.
There are times when I miss my grandpa’s curry beef stew, crave my grandma’s fried noodles. But then I remember Kauai Family Restaurant exists. Located in a three- business strip mall in Georgetown, surrounded by a Chevron and a Starbucks, this hidden gem seats just 42 people in its small dining room, decked with vintage Hawaiian Airlines posters and University of Washington memorabilia. Visit a Hawaii drive-in and you’ll find a similar lineup of kalua pig and lau lau—steamed taro leaves filled with pork and butterfish. The Kauai Family house specialty, Lawai crispy chicken, packs a hint of sweetness. This eatery always takes me back to my grandma’s house.
When I first moved to Seattle, my dad urged me to visit the famous Hawaiian chef’s locally based restaurant chain. The poké here tastes just as it does at home; the seaweed and salty taste of the shoyu version is exactly how I like mine. The chain, which has locations in Seattle and Tacoma, puts its own spin on poké, serving it in bowls, salads, tacos, and even wraps. The shops also sell their wares the traditional way, by the pound, and garnish plates of kalua pig with sides of rice and mac salad. The Sam Choy food trucks, however, operate on a limited menu with some daily specials.
Saimin, Hawai’i’s lighter version of ramen, comes garnished with fishcake, green onions, spam, and slices of scrambled egg. On the side: two pieces of fried shrimp and a barbecue beef stick. My go-to mainland version hides in a Renton office building. Saimin Says serves seven types, including my favorite wonton min—made with pork wontons. If the weather feels a little too warm for soup, this restaurant also has my beloved chili frank, plus mochiko chicken (fried in sweet rice flour), and a pork cutlet with gravy.
Chinatown-International District / Tukwila
In a perfect world, the mainland would have a Foodland, Hawai’i’s go-to local grocery store that also serves fresh poké. The version of raw fish salad at GoPoké comes pretty close to that beloved version. This joint, with locations in Chinatown–International District and Tukwila, offers ahi, salmon, toké (tofu poké), and tako (octopus) in a bowl, in a burrito, or as a roll. Most importantly, these options are also available by the pound, just like at Foodland.
When Seattle gets oddly hot (like this past summer), there is nothing I crave more than a strawberry-banana shave ice with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, topped with mochi balls from Hawai’i’s most iconic shave ice stand, Matsumoto’s. Then I found Mike’s. This family-owned popup will teleport you right to the North Shore. Mike’s also has a take on a strawberry colada, served with haupia cream (coconut pudding) and strawberry purée, atop vanilla ice cream and garnished with coconut strips and mochi.
I grew up eating hamburger steak with an overwhelming, but perfect, amount of onions and gravy; now I head to Tacoma to satisfy those childhood cravings. This walk-up situated along the Ruston Way waterfront, offers an assortment of local foods ranging from different variants of loco mocos to three kinds of musubis: spam, Portuguese sausage, and katsu. Kama’aina also has specialty plate lunches like their “Da Bremerton,” which has barbecue short ribs, garlic chicken, kalua pig, and Portuguese sausage. (The Bremerton location, however, will be closed until October 3.)
When I was younger, I would also ask my parents to get me guava cake for my birthday, even if the drive was an hour away. Now, a Georgetown bakery can make my dreams come true year-round. Located in the same strip mall as Kauai Family Restaurant, Cakes of Paradise makes other traditional Hawaiian desserts like chantilly cake, dobash cake, haupia cake, and long johns to satisfy your sweet tooth after eating a plate lunch.