Restaurants

Food with mileage.
Image: Matthew DeKneef

An Unwritten Map to Highway Food

Exploring the uncharted terrain of remote curbside food vendors

The open road of drive-by delicacies (what we’ll affectionately call “highway food”) can consist of anything from a lady selling pickled mango out of her trunk to the guy popping Kettle Korn passenger side. More often than not, we’ll just drive right past these institutions and leave them in the dust as we watch their humble reflections grow faint in our rearviews because really, who’s in the mood for that one little fill-in-the-blank they’re selling?

But after a lazy, dazed ‘n’ confused afternoon spent zoning out on waves and babes at the beach, you might find yourself driving home with the sun blaring down at you during its highest peak, and the sight of a highway food stand will peek out over the horizon to greet you like a Pacific mirage. Most tend to sell one simple specialized something, but whatever it is, at that precisely moody moment, whatever their scribbled cardboard signs prophetically boast from the curb ahead, sounds like perfection. At the unplanned intersection of Desperation Avenue meets Surprise Street, highway food is food that feels fated.

Last weekend, we took a drive out to the North Shore, where many such mini-miracles set up shop. With zero expectations we went to seize these embraceable meals-on-wheels. No Google maps. No web research. No clue what we wanted to eat. Just an empty stomach on a full tank of gas with an iPod jacked with Best Coast tunes and a few hours to kill. This is by no means a comprehensive and/or “Best of…” highway food vendors list. Simply a three-course meal of the more interesting ones we found–or that found us, rather–that Saturday afternoon.

First stop…

BBQ Corn
59-360 Kamehameha Hwy.
Open: Saturdays, 8am–2pm

We approach this stand–a gridiron full of organic corn on the cob–hidden in the parking lot of Sunset Beach Elementary School and overhear its owner use the words “soil,” “Kahuku crops” and “nutrients” in a passing conversation. If learning there’s some invested TLC behind what we’re about to eat isn’t welcoming enough, a booming “Aloha!” from Uncle Woody does it.

Dressed in overalls, a straw hat and tortoise-shell Ray-Bans, Uncle Woody (known at his regular makeshift shop in Hauula as “The Corn Guy” by neighborhood kids) is like a friendlier The Dude and as Coen Brothers fans we’re really excited about it. At $3 each, or two for $5, he offers two barbecue styles with enough flavorful personalities to match: “Island Style,” a clean and simple glaze of butter, sea and garlic salt and black pepper; or the more flavorful “Baja Style,” which is glazed in butter, mayo, lemon lime, Parmesan and Baja seasonings. Using a tip he picked up from the street food of his youth surfing days in Mexico, he grills each cob to a slight burn to bring out a nutty-caramelized quality that naturally adds to its sweet ‘n’ salty properties.

Uncle Woody’s BBQ corn stand is a great introduction to everything we’re looking for in our highway food: simple, familiar produce with character.

Only problem: when we get back in the car, we’re wishing we had something to wash the golden kernels from our teeth…

Fresh Coconuts
59-158 Kamehameha Hwy.
Open: Daily, “Hawaiian time”

See what I mean by “fated.”

Less than a quarter mile away from the BBQ corn stall is another of cold coconuts for $4–$5. On the perimeter of the three-acre family-owned plumeria farm Smokie Acre Blossoms, locals and tourists alike beat the heat with fresh, humongous coconuts cut straight from the palm trees providing shade to this grass shack.

In between sipping on our coconut juice topped with blood orange nectarine slices and, of course, a fresh-picked plumeria flower, the owner insists everyone try complimentary apple bananas and juicy lilikoi on the house. He runs this tiny enterprise with such friendliness you’d think he was running for something big like mayor. Actually, scratch that, he’s way too genuine to be a politician; the guy just has so much country running through his veins, it reminds jaded townies like us that people still do smile regularly around here. Shocker!

Thai Food
66-472 Kamehameha Hwy.
Open: Wed.–Sun., 11am–6pm

At this point, it’s around 2pm and we’re craving “food,” something that’ll hold us over until the evening.

Across the McDonald’s in Haleiwa Town is a gravelly cul-de-sac of food truck options. Of the three stationed there, only one isn’t boasting the ever-popular Kahuku shrimp, so already, Opal Thai Food is the unexpected novelty lunch we rush in line for.

Not familiar with authentic Thai food, the owner Opal makes it a breeze to order. “I don’t know what I want,” I admit. “Do you like spicy food?” he asks. “A little spicy,” I answer vaguely. “But not too spicy!” I add because I’m so helpful like that. “Sweet basil chili,” he says. Sweet basil chili it is!

While the plates at Opal are nothing fancy to look at, when you’re pupils are shrinking into an oblivion from being in the sun all day, presentation isn’t a total priority here. Luckily, flavor is. If my entrée–a simple chicken satay served on jasmine brown rice–is an indication of the rest of the menu, you’re in for generously sized portions, all customizable, for the price of $8–$9. Also, the heat on the plate was at the perfect not-too-hot temperature; whether it was in consideration of the climate could’ve been a coincidence. But after noticing how many people were interacting with Lio, Opal and his wife’s son and lunch wagon mascot, you get the feeling that maybe they just care about their customers a lot here.

Sometimes when it comes to a quick bite, instead of seeking out that snack your body isn’t sure it’s craving, letting the answer reveal itself to you out-of-the-blue can be more rewarding. When you stumble along that out-of-the-blue highway vendor, we suggest you stop…and go.

If you find the time one weekend, then get on the H-1/2/3 and chart out your own personal roadmap to H-Food.