This post originally appeared in Bill Addison’s newsletter “Notes From a Roving Critic,” a twice-monthly dispatch from Bill’s travels across the country. Subscribe now.
Last August, when four Eater staffers (including me) whirled through America’s 50th state to research our definitive guide to dining in Hawaiʻi, we were all mesmerized by the intricacies expressed in the food culture — the threads of tradition as well as outside influences brought by Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, and Korean immigrants, among others. I kept thinking back in particular to the cooking at Honolulu’s Mud Hen Water, the finest of four restaurants run by Hawaiʻi native Ed Kenney. It landed a slot on our most recent list of America’s essential restaurants.
Much of the menu takes ingenious inspiration from local and Hawaiian dishes (here’s a primer on the differences; I refer back to it continuously). Chicken long rice — a soupy side dish staple on Hawaiian plate lunches made with glassy rice noodles — is reimagined into crisp-creamy croquettes. Pork marinated with soy and garlic and then smoked, often known colloquially in Hawaiʻi as “smoke meat,” subs for cured pork in Kenney’s take on pasta carbonara.
I had been especially obsessed with Kenney’s riff on a steakhouse-style loaded baked potato, but made instead with squat varieties of bananas grown on Molokaʻi. He’d stuffed the fruit with curry butter, bacon, chopped egg, peanuts, and coconut. When I returned to Mud Hen Water last week, it was the first dish I scanned the menu to find. Alas, the farm that supplies the restaurant hadn’t sent a shipment of bananas recently. It pushed me to appreciate other dishes I’d previously overlooked — and there were plenty.
Mud Hen Water will always be the second restaurant to which I send people in Honolulu. First, I’ll nudge you to eat at a classic lunch restaurant for Hawaiian foods, like Helena’s or Highway Inn. Order laulau pork (bundled in taro leaves and steamed), pipikaula (lacquered ribs), and squid lū‘au (chopped squid hidden in pureed taro-leaf stew with coconut milk) with poi and scoops of rice. A meal at Mud Hen Water certainly stands on its own, but when you’ve first experienced some of the traditional foods, it provides the context for cultural allusions on MHW’s menu — like knowing the Star Wars mythology to catch all the Easter eggs scattered throughout The Last Jedi.
The taro plant has been sacred to Hawaiian creation stories and community since the first Polynesians arrived on the islands over 1,000 years ago. Kenney serves taro in several eloquent variations.
Dinner’s first bite should be pa‘i ‘ai, which are custardy cakes made frompounded taro (the same method for making poi) and wrapped in nori sheets. He deconstructs his beef stew, a year-round Hawaiʻi favorite, by grilling the meat and surrounding it with soft chunks of taro; a dollop of aioli stands in for what Kenney calls “Moloka‘i Gravy” — store-bought mayo. The restaurant’s sublime version of squid lū‘au incorporates fresh coconut milk and squid heads into the taro leaves and an unorthodox sprinkling of the Egyptian spice blend dukkah; all these elements give the dish beguiling complexity.
At brunch, Kenney leaves out the heads for the stewed taro leaves he serves under fish (often a‘u ku, or swordfish) and eggs with sunny orange yolks. This was my first time at MHW for brunch, and the cooking was as finessed as at dinner. The parade included pohole, a native, fiddlehead-like fern served in a salad with tomatoes; sissig, Filipino-style pig’s head meat diced and served sizzling in a small skillet with rice; and warm cake doughnuts with coconut-rum icing dripping down the sides.
Other local exemplars — I’m thinking of Koko Head Cafe in Honolulu, and Tin Roof, Mama’s Fish House, and the Mill House on Maui (all on our Hawaiʻi 38) — weave Hawaiian tradition with inventiveness, but Kenney articulates his sense of place in a way that feels exceptionally personal and grounded. After another week of grazing through the state, including two Honolulu game-changers about which I’m writing formal reviews, I can say plainly: Mud Hen Water is my favorite restaurant in Hawaiʻi.
On a radically different topic, I’ll be in Texas for a couple weeks of deep research by the time you read this. I’m hunting for some exemplary restaurants in the Lone Star State’s small towns. Have suggestions? I’m looking out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your roving critic,
P.S. For some dining inspiration on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, please check out the piece I published last week on three standard-bearers of Cantonese cuisine in the Vancouver area.