THE GOCHISO GOURMET: Dining out yesteryear

Once again, we’re entering the Obon season, where we greet and dance with family and friends who have passed on. Of course, it’s also a time of reflection, remembering not just those who have passed on, but also significant events in our past. Since this column is primarily about food, wine and nutrition, it got me thinking about meals I’ve had with my family in the past. Mind you, my parents were working class folks from the ‘burbs who decently provided for the family, so while we weren’t rich by any stretch of the imagination, we did take regular trips to the neighbor islands and even traveled stateside one summer. Dining out was a rarity, as Mom cooked most of our meals, but there are several establishments that the Tatsumoto family frequented.

Kailua Drive-In
Located between Kane‘ohe and Kailua just outside of Maunawili, Kailua Drive-In was a regular stop for our family. Mind you, this wasn’t the type of drive inn that’s featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” It was an outdoor movie theater where the movie was viewed from the confines of your car. What does a movie theater have to do with dining out? Well, you could either purchase your food from the concession stand, or you could pack your own food from home. And since Mom was suspicious of most restaurant food, she always packed a meal for the family. Back in the day, lightweight coolers and freezable gel packs weren’t readily available. Most coolers came in two varieties — metal and very heavy — so ours usually just sat in the patio. Thus, Mom usually made foods that didn’t need a lot of chilling and traveled well. Dinner was packed in empty metal tins, like empty Kjeldsens Butter Cookie tins lined with either wax paper for the musubi or aluminum foil for the okazu.

We always had the Tatsumoto-baseball sized musubi as our main starch. If you could consume more than two, you were a real man! And with these man-sized musubi, you needed okazu! Mom’s favorite was sato-joyu hot dogs (hot dogs cooked in shoyu, sugar and a touch of Tabasco). They had to be those red hot dogs with the casing that snapped. I don’t think she realized that the casings that snapped were likely natural from animal intestines. As a child, I never had Oscar Meyer hot dogs because Mom felt that the pale anemic color of the Oscar Meyer variety looked too “raw,” even if they were fully cooked.

We also usually had Mom’s tuna and egg. It was a simple dish consisting of eggs, canned tuna, shoyu, sugar and green onion cooked the way you would make an omelet. Sometimes we had Mom’s mini teriyaki tofu hamburgers. On other occasions, we had Mom’s “famous” marinated pan-fried meat. I say “famous” because when I mentioned it years later, she initially didn’t even remember making the dish. When she finally remembered it, she said she used rib eye. I remember her using flank steak and slicing cutlet-sized pieces on the bias, then soaking it in various marinades. After the overnight soak, they were dredged in flour or bread crumbs, then pan fried. It’s as good as pan-fried beef gets!

Of course, we also needed something to drink, so Mom usually allowed us to buy soda from the concession stand, and I’d invariably spill my soda in the car. During intermission, we were allowed to visit the concession stand again for a restroom break.This is when Mom purchased her frozen malted milk. I think these frozen goodies are the main reason why we visited Kailua Drive-In so much. Of course, the drive-in did have its drawbacks. I’m not sure who originally decided on the Kailua Drive-In’s location, adjacent to Kawainui Marsh. It’s a marsh, as in a swamp, also known as stagnant water, where mosquitoes breed. And once darkness fell, the mosquito visited the drive-in en masse. You couldn’t roll the car windows up unless you wanted to suffer from slow asphyxiation, especially with five perspiring people in said vehicle. So we lit a coil of mosquito punk. I’m not sure what was worse; the sound of a pesky mosquito hovering around your ear or continually inhaling the smoke from the mosquito punk. Of course, like those transient whiffs of incinerated pyrethrins in the mosquito punk, so too has Kailua Drive-In long vanished. Since 1999, the property has housed the Le Jardin Academy.

Chun Hoon Drive Inn
Way back in the day, our family made occasional treks from Kane‘ohe across the Ko‘olaus to Honolulu to pick up necessities at variety stores, like Longs Drug Store, Gem and Woolworth that weren’t also located on the Windward side of the island. Since it was a major production to get the family packed, along with that treacherous 30-minute drive, the treks were usually a whole day affair for us. Therefore, more often than not, we had an early dinner or late lunch at a drive-in. And mind you, Mom T was very particular in where she would let the family dine. She never let me sample the premade hoagies at Woolworth, less I risk dysentery from cold cuts sitting who-knows-how-long. She also denied my brother and me the delights of Puppy Palace just outside of Times Supermarket in Kailua since it just didn’t look clean enough. We also were forbidden to eat at Windy’s Drive Inn in our own neighborhood, because Mom saw the cook smoking a cigarette in the kitchen while flippin’ burgers. (It didn’t help that the cook had greasy stains all over his clothes.) But she did allow us to go to Chun Hoon Drive Inn. My guess is that she personally interviewed the cook and had the Department of Health perform a thorough inspection before giving it the thumbs up. The family always had the same meal. Mom and Dad ordered the hamburger deluxe. Mom would remove the full slice of raw onion from her burger and place it on Dad’s burger. I always wanted to try a bite of Dad’s hamburger, since that onion slice looked so good, but Mom always nixed that idea, saying something about raw onions being indigestible for children. My sister was still a little pup, so she simply had part of Mom’s burger, or part of the fish burger that they would order for my brother and me. And invariably, I’d usually spill my soda in the car.

I always hoped that Mom had a little more shopping to do at Chun Hoon Supermarket, because if she did, we were allowed to visit the Chun Hoon Drugstore to purchase a pack or two of baseball cards: 10 cents for a pack of 10 cards, plus a stick of chalky bubble gum to boot! But like those baseball cards, Chun Hoon market, drive-inn and drugstore is no more as Walgreens purchased the property years ago.

Haiku Gardens
As long as they were in business, the Tatsumotos celebrated Mother’s Day at Haiku Gardens in Kane‘ohe. I vividly remember that every mother received an orchid corsage on Mother’s Day. The meal was always a buffet, and I really enjoyed their fried chicken. However, I couldn’t totally enjoy the meal because we were only allowed to take a small portion of rice to enjoy with the chicken. Dad’s philosophy was that you could indulge in rice at home for free but since we’re paying for this meal — and it’s all you can eat — just load your plate with items you don’t normally eat at home. But Dad, I like rice with my fried chicken!

And because this was an actual restaurant, we were expected to be on our best behavior. No spilling soda! Except at one particular Mother’s Day, I made comment about our server to my mother. This was back in the day when workers usually stayed at one job so that you would recognize the same servers at every Mother’s Day. One day we had a large male server who was open about his sexuality, complete with a flower behind his ear. After he seated us to return to the kitchen, I asked my mother “Why is the man talking like a lady”? I immediately got the big-eyed stare of horror and embarrassment followed by the “SHHHHH…” I never asked a question like that again. Ever.

Of course, Haiku Gardens restaurant is long gone, replaced by Haleiwa Joe’s restaurant.

Looking Forward
Though these establishments are long gone, there are a lot more dining options that have replaced them. And I continue to find them to create additional food memories. I actually carry a lot of these memories with me. On my waist. When someone asks if I’m putting on weight during my vacation food binges, I say that it’s not fat. It’s food memories. Pointing to the belt line I say, “This is the French Laundry, this part is Incanto, this section is Poggio”…

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at gochisogourmet@yahoo.com.

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