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The Tropics of Spokane 

How Hawaiian cuisine made it to the Inland Northwest and where to find it

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Noel Macapagal, former owner of Raw in downtown Spokane, stands behind the counter of Wave rolling sushi. Despite the ice-caked sidewalks and frozen-fog-coated trees, Macapagal wears shorts and flip-flops. He’s lived permanently in Spokane since 2002, but can’t seem to shed the uniform of his native Hawaii any more than he can shed his cravings for fresh ahi.

As he pats rice onto nori he describes his first years in Spokane.

“[In] my freshman class at Gonzaga, there were 14 [Hawaiians] and that was a record at the time. I mean Spokane in 1990, we would go to the Mustard Seed downtown that was the overarching Asian, Hawaiian anything,” says Macapagal.

Hawaiians living in Spokane often relied on Japanese or other Asian restaurants to satiate their cravings for teriyaki or rice-and-vegetable dishes, but the local Japanese cuisine could provide only one profile found in the multi-flavored cuisine of the Hawaiian Islands.

Portuguese, Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Filipino ingredients and cooking styles were introduced to Hawaii in the 1800s when laborers from those countries arrived to work on pineapple and sugar plantations. Immigrant dishes mingled with local ingredients and the aftereffects are found on modern plates. Rice, eggs and Portuguese sausage are stir-fried for breakfast. Fresh fruit and sugar sweetened the traditional salty bite of Japanese soy sauce. Poke, a Hawaiian take on fish tartare and carpaccio, places raw ahi (or octopus or salmon) amid cabbage seasoned with onion, sea salt, seaweed and a variety of other flavors like wasabi or sesame oil.

During World War II, when fishing was prohibited off the coasts, Hawaiians turned to Spam, a surplus soldier’s ration, to provide their diet with protein. Spam became such an important part of the Hawaiian diet that any authentic Hawaiian restaurant serves dishes like Spam musubi (Spam on rice wrapped in nori) or Spam fried rice. Macapagala says that the litmus test for a real Hawaiian restaurant is whether or not Spam is on the menu.

Spam has been on the Aloha Grill’s menu for more than 15 years. Owner Lori Keegan explains that she purchased the restaurant from “some girls who had it for about seven years and they were Hawaiian. We bought out the recipes and everything from them when we took over.”

Matt Loui, a former member of Hui o Hawaii, Eastern Washington University’s Hawaiian Student Organization recommends the Aloha Grill’s garlic chicken plate. Shaolin Ching, his co-worker at Eastern’s Dining Services and fellow Hawaiian, wishes that more local Pacific Rim restaurants allowed customers to pick and choose side dishes and entrees. Combination plate dining is what she is accustomed to. She, and Loui, are also accustomed to the communal style of dining found back home.

Many Hawaiians, new arrivals and those who have been in the Northwest for years, still gather together for potlucks where they share Kahlua pork and, when the ingredients are available, lau lau, a dish that uses a taro leaf and pork butt.

“Traditionally, we put a little bit of butterfish and salt and pork fat. We wrap it up and then you steam it or slow cook it, traditionally in a pit,” says Ching.

Macapagal says the number of islanders in Spokane increased dramatically by the time he came back in 2002.

“The trek out to the Valley to Hula Hut was one of those things where you’d walk in there and you’re kind of apprehensive and then you’d realize the people behind the counter were locals, Polynesians, and you find out: that’s Uncle Bill from Wahiawa,” says Macapagal.

Though Hula Hut is no longer out in the Valley, and its most recent location on North Division is closed due to property management issues, you can still find the Hut’s huli huli chicken or salmon sold from its cart during Pig Out in the Park. They sell the fare in the traditional Hawaiian style — combination plates that feature different entrees and side dishes. The Aloha Grill does the same and is also open for island-style breakfasts like the Loco Moco (sticky white rice with eggs and ground beef).

For a night out, Wave remains a Hawaiian establishment of choice. Different, hard-to-find traditional Hawaiian dishes like lau lau and poke are rotated into the menu in the middle of winter to, as Macapagal says, “remind people that there is hope.” 

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