Once upon a time Hawaii Kai was a popular theme restaurant in New York City. In the internet age its claim to fame is as a shooting location for Martin Scorsese’s infinitely memeable GoodFellas, but it was a staple of the Theater district for thirty plus years. And by all accounts it way beyond your average tiki lounge; it was a tourist trap, post-prom hangout, and dinner theater all rolled up into one. Live music, live hula dancers, and spontaneous conga lines erupting mid-meal, along with a continually evolving selection of kitschy Polynesian trinkets and accessories.
Hawaii Kai Cookbook, by Gene and Roana Schindler, was presumably one of these souvenirs. Gene was a long-time executive chef for Hawaii Kai, and his wife Roana was a culinary instructor. When the restaurant took new management in the late 1970s they took the cookbook with them, with reprints published until the misleading title Hawaiian Cookbook. The recipes and stories in the cookbook reflect the Hawaiian Kai in its heyday, not the Hawaiian people. Readers looking for plate lunch favorites like loco moco or mac salad will come away disappointed. The cuisine in Hawaii Kai Cookbook is a mid-century vision of Polynesian party food: upscale Chinese take out dressed up with tropical fruits and showy boozy cocktails.
Now I have a soft spot in my heart for these sorts of themed restaurants One of my earliest childhood food memories is of the cliff divers at the Casa Bonita in Denver, and I spent late nights in college watching waiters dance on tables at the Beverly Hills Ed DeBevic’s. They were big and loud and crazy and always open late, but outside of the Hard Rock Cafe and maybe a couple of theme park experiences you’ll be hard pressed to find anything like them these days. But no one remembers them for the food (except maybe cocktails): they remember them for the experience and the atmosphere. What’s worse is that entertainment venues don’t need to make good food. No one goes to Chuck E. Cheese for the pizza.
Which is why Hawaii Kai Cookbook is such a pleasant surprise, so long as you temper your expectations. The recipes aren’t authentic or innovative or even particularly original. Outside of a few cocktails it’s not clear that Hawaii Kai had anything resembling a signature dish. Many of the meat dishes are some variant of meat marinated/glazed/dressed with sweetened soy sauce, maybe dressed with pineapple or canned mandarin oranges. There’s an overabundance of canned bean sprouts and water chestnuts, as well as composed salads and casserole-type dishes that seem straight out of a 1970s home kitchen.
But Hawaii Kai Cookbook is fun. Lots of fun. There’s even a whole chapter called “Hawaiian Fun Food”. This is a how-to guide for your own home luau. While the recipes themselves aren’t particularly inventive there is a lot of explanatory effort put into plating and presentation or how to mix and match dishes for large groups. The more extravagant recipes are supplemented with a short “Kamailio”, or “conversation” about the hows and whys or plating and ingredient substitutions. And if you don’t feel up to a big production, the Kamalio will have instructions how to adapt the dish for a simple(r) family dinner. There are also many, many amateurish but weirdly helpful illustrations for plating and preparation to ensure you get it just right.
Baked Orange Coconut Chicken is an apt illustration of Hawaii Kai’s alternate universe Polynesian cuisine. It’s also one of the more accessible recipes, something that can be pulled together on a weeknight or dressed up for fancy company with a little bit of garnish. I’m not an authority on authentic Hawaiian cuisine, but I’m guessing this ain’t it. What we have instead is a baked chicken dish with textures and flavors that are kind of a cross between coconut shrimp and takeout Orange Chicken. It’s not particularly inspired, but it checks a lot of boxes for a savory comfort food. The whole dish centers around frozen concentrated orange juice. It’s the dominant ingredient in the marinade (flavorwise the only ingredient) and the reserved marinade is use both to coat the chicken and for the “gravy”. It makes for a colorful presentation but it’s kind of a one note ingredient. The “good stuff” comes from the coconut crust, which gets brown and toasty like a good macaroon but without being too sweet.
I’ve made a few adjustments to help things along. I’ve used chicken thighs instead of a cut-up fryer: baked white meat invariably turns out bone dry, and there’s not enough fat in the marinade to alter the outcome. Seasoning and pan-searing the chicken before baking gives a nice dose of Maillard-y goodness); the dish as written is surprisingly bland. I’ve also swapped the corn flakes in the coating for panko and a little bit of tempura flour and added some red chili flakes to give the orange sauce some heat. I also strongly recommend having a good Japanese furikake on hand when serving, which will add a little bit more personality than salt and pepper..
But keep your expectations in check; without a bunch of hula dancers and island music it’s still just a baked chicken dish and needs some competent sides to make it a meal. Serve with fresh pineapple and cherry tomatoes, and find a bitter vegetable side dish that can soak up the sauce, like roasted broccolini or braised greens. I also recommend a good quality short-grain rice. Calrose seems to be readily available in American supermarkets but if you can get your hands on Japanese koshihikari it will make a world of difference. Enjoy!
For the marinade:
For pre-searing the chicken
For the coating:
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- 4 eggs
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- ½ cup tempura flour (or wheat flour)
- 1 cup bread crumbs (or panko)
- 2 cups dried, shredded coconut (unsweetened, if available)
For the sauce:
- 2 cups chicken broth
- 2 tsp lemon juice
- 1 tbsp dried red chili flakes
- ¼ cup cornstarch
- 1 cup water
- salt and pepper to taste
- Trim excess skin flaps and fat from chicken thighs. Place in a large bag or container with a tight-fitting lit.
- Thaw orange juice concentrate. Mix with ginger and sea salt and pour over chicken thighs. Cover and refrigerate at least two hours, or overnight, turning occasionally.
- Remove chicken thighs, drain, and reserve the marinade. Pat dry and coat liberally with salt, pepper, and garlic powder.
- 1-2 minutes per side until golden brown, taking care not to break the skin when flipping. Let the chicken thighs cool while you're making the sauce.
- Whisk together the soy sauce, garlic powder, eggs, and half of the marinade (about 1½ cups) in a shallow bowl or container.
- Mix shredded coconut, bread crumbs, and tempura flour in a shallow bowl.
- Grease a 13 x 9 casserole dish. One at a time, submerge chicken thighs in egg-marinade mixture, then dredge thoroughly in coconut mixture and place into the casserole dish. You should be able to squeeze them all in there.
- Bake at 350º F uncovered for 30 minutes, then cover tightly with foil and cook another 30-60 minutes until chicken is cooked through. Remove chicken to a serving platter and cover with foil to keep warm.
- In a small saucepan, mix accumulated pan juices (there may not be very much) with remaining marinade and lemon juice. Bring to a slow boil. Mix cornstarch and water to form a slurry and pour slowly into the pan to thicken, stirring constantly. Lower heat and simmer until sauce reaches desired thickness.
- Garnish with orange slices and/or parsley. Serve over rice with sauce on the side.
Bonus recipe: Los Angeles Times reprint of Hawaiian Kai’s Pork Spare Ribs with Pineapple.