The Mile High City doesn't feel particularly tropical, even with September's heat wave, but that doesn’t mean we lack a good selection of Hawaiian foods. You don't have to host a backyard luau or bury a pig in a fire pit to get a taste of the islands. You can find all sorts of goodies, from malasadas to musubi to pork-filled lau lau — and even Spam, that staple of Hawaiian plate lunches. Here are nine treat dishes, including some with Spam, that you can track down at Denver eateries.
Malasadas at Adrift Tiki Bar
218 South Broadway
Nearly every culture has its own take on doughnuts, something that proves true in Hawaii too, where the local doughnut is called a malasada. While these fried beauties pop up all over, they are actually a Portuguese specialty that made a splash on the islands in the late 1800s, when laborers from Madeira and Azores came to Hawaii to work on plantations. Today you can find these sugar-coated, fried dough balls flavored with all sorts of sweet stuff, such as the lilikoi (or passion fruit) caramel that sweetens the brioche doughnut holes at this Broadway tiki bar and restaurant. The malasadas here also get a dose of coconut sugar and macerated strawberries. Pair them with one of many classic tiki drinks, another beach specialty not to be missed.
Manapua at Aloha Hawaiian Barbecue
8623 Washington Street, Thornton
This Thornton joint has plenty of meaty choices, but one of the more unusual Hawaiian offerings is the manapua, a toothsome white pork bun that speaks to the Chinese influence on the islands. A manapua is similar to a char siu bao, the steamed barbecue pork bun you might see on a dim sum cart. When the snack first came to Hawaii, it was peddled by the manapua men, the nineteenth-century version of today's food trucks. The name manapua loosely translates to "delicious pork thing," something you can't deny with each bite.
Chocolate Haupia Pie at The Corner Office
1401 Curtis Street
Each month this downtown restaurant offers a “Where in the World Is Chef” theme, and for September it's all about Hawaii. While you can fill up on pork belly pani popo, sesame wahoo with ginger cashew shrimp, sweet potato and ham hash and tiki drinks, it's the chocolate haupia pie that has us salivating for dessert. Traditional haupia is kind of like flan or a French blancmange, only it's made out of coconut milk and served during luaus. This dish takes the dessert one step further and adds chocolate and a macadamia-nut shortbread for the crust, creating a Pacific Rim take on Boston cream or French silk pie.
Loco Moco at Hashtag
10195 East 29th Drive
Sometimes teenagers do really great things, like coming up with the killer combination of hamburger, rice, gravy and eggs, which in Hawaii is lovingly referred to as "loco moco." As the story goes, the dish came to be in 1949, when Richard and Nancy Inouye, who owned the Lincoln Grill in Hilo, were asked by a group of teens for a new and different platter; over time it became a staple on the islands. At chef Troy Guard's new brunch and breakfast spot in Stapleton, slices of TAG's signature meatloaf are placed on top of kimchi fried rice. Then the dish gets a ladle full of rich mushroom gravy and is crowned with two fried eggs.
Lau Lau at L & L Hawaiian Barbecue
14221 East Cedar Avenue, Aurora
Traditionally lau lau consists of roasted pork wrapped in a luau leaf, also known as taro or kalo, that native Hawaiians harvest and use in cooking. The big green leaves really make this particular dish; like banana-leaf-wrapped foods in other tropical regions, the luau leaf helps keep moisture and flavor in the bundle, and in this case makes for some succulent, aromatic pork. L&L Hawaiian BBQ is a mini-chain that started in Honolulu and has since branched out to the mainland and more than a decade ago came to Aurora. Here you can get a simple version of the dish à la carte as a side or part of the kalua pork combination platter (as pictured above).
Hawaiian Shave Ice from Maui Shave Ice
If you've been to Hawaii, chances are you saw one of the standard block shavers used to scrape giant bars of ice into delicate, almost creamy shavings. On the Maui Shave Ice food truck, owners Scott and Michelle Booth have just such a device to re-create the island dessert, along with all sorts of fun flavors to pour on it. That means you can try classic flavors llike mango, passion fruit, piña colada, pineapple, blue Hawaiian and vanilla or go for something really wacky, like strawberry shortcake or tiger's blood, a combo of passion fruit, orange and guava. Get it topped with edible glitter or a traditional "snow cap" — otherwise known as sweetened condensed milk. Now and through the rest of summer, you can visit the truck at the Colorado Beverage Company (5080 Central Park Boulevard in Stapleton) on the weekends, or follow Maui Shave Ice on social media to find out where it will be parked next.
Spam Musubi at Ohana Island Kitchen
2563 15th Street
Ever since WWII, Spam, that iconic tin of processed pork, has reigned on the Hawaiian Islands. And, thanks to the Japanese culture found there, one of the local folks' favorite ways of eating Spam is to wrap it up like sushi. Dubbed "musubi," this dish comprises sticky rice, a slice of grilled Spam and a strip of nori to tie it all together. At Ohana in LoHi, a fried slab of the processed meat is set between layers of pressed rice, and then the whole thing is blanketed in a sheet of seaweed. It's indeed an easy-to-eat filling snack with a pleasant crackle, thanks to the nori.
The Ultimate Poke Bowl at PokeCity
8101 East Belleview Avenue
The famous poke bowl has wandered far from the beach shacks of Hawaii and can be found all over Denver. This raw fish and rice dish, which first became popular on the islands in the 1970s, started popping up on the mainland about five years ago, and it's only become more popular. One place that specializes in poke bowls is PokeCity, where you can go beyond the classic ahi tuna option and fill your order with shrimp, scallops, salmon or octopus, also called by the Japanese name "tako." That's just the start; in fast-casual style, you get to pick each aspect of your meal, from that aforementioned protein to a rice or salad base to the sauce (yuzu citrus, spicy aioli and sesame shoyu, to name a few) to dried toppings (dried seaweed, fried onion, sesame seed and tempura flake). This means you can get a bowl of brown rice topped with shrimp, green onion, wasabi shoyu, avocado, pineapple and sesame seeds, to name one of dozens of combos.
The Spam Bowl at Sushi Cup
208 East Seventh Avenue
Traditional Hawaiian poke bowls don't generally have as many options as the list at this Capitol Hill eatery, but one thing is certain: Spam definitely is an ingredient Hawaiians are known to love. Get it on a do-it-yourself bowl or stuffed into a "sushi" burrito, or order the Spam Bowl, which also has pineapple, jicama, corn, nori flakes and eel sauce. You can also try one of the many other creations, all with Hawaiian twists that pay homage to poke. That means plenty of tuna options as well as fresh yellowtail, salmon, shrimp and crab salad, all topped with island favorites like yuzu, sweet ponzu sauce and seaweed salad.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.