Taste of the Hawaiian Range 2019

by Laurie Higashi

My husband Mark had been a vegetarian for more than 20 years before being lured back to the ‘dark side’ of omnivorism by the siren call of delectable cured meats in preparation for our trip to Italy a few years ago. Since we’re now on the same page dietary-wise, it’s made it much easier (and fun) for us to travel and experience different foods together. When Anne asked if I would represent Living Hilo Style at the Taste of the Hawaiian Range event in Waimea, I was even more grateful that he now appreciates a good steak as much as I do – because I was able to give an emphatic “yes!”

The Taste of the Hawaiian Range is an agricultural festival that began as a companion event to the University of Hawaii Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) Mealani Forage Field Day in 1996. According to the festival’s website, its mission is to “provide a venue for sustainable agricultural education, plus encouragement and support of locally produced ag products.” Over the past twenty-plus years, it has evolved into one of the premier agricultural events on Hawaii Island.

The event is divided into two components: the free Daytime Agriculture Festival and Farm Fair, and the ticketed Evening Taste Gala ($50 pre-sale, $60 at the door). The daytime event is geared towards families and featured educational exhibits and presentations about locally sourced plants and animals. Unfortunately, I had a work commitment during the day so I wasn’t able to attend the daytime portion.

Chefs preparing for the crowds

As part of the media, Mark and I were allowed to enter the Taste Gala a half an hour before the general public. Many of the booths were still in the process of setting up, so not everyone was ready for the early comers. We took advantage of this low traffic time to talk story with some of the chefs.

We enjoyed chatting with Bonita Lao of Laulima Food Patch in Kona. She’s a Waimea native who grew up in the restaurant business, as her parents own Don’s Chinese Kitchen in the Parker Ranch Center. (We even got to meet her mom, who was helping out in the booth.) After culinary school and working at a few restaurants in San Francisco, she now owns and operates Laulima Food Patch – a casual lunch spot specializing in healthy bowls made of locally sourced, house-made ingredients – and her own catering business. We enjoyed her beef top round dish, which used the slice of beef as a wrap, with a filling of rice, egg, and microgreens. We don’t get to Kona that often, but next time we’re there we’ll definitely check out her restaurant.

After a blessing, the doors opened and a flood of people streamed in. The feeding frenzy was on! The fast-paced energy of the now-crowded room made us appreciate our quiet time during the media event even more.

To help attendees navigate the event, every station displayed a green flag, naming the cut of meat, the restaurant, and the chef.

Beef flank sliders from Roy’s Waikoloa Bar & Grill

While some of the cuts were pretty well known (such as beef flank or top round), there were some more exotic offerings, such as feral pork dumplings by sous chef Joey Keomany at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel’s feral pork dumpling tsukemen

The feral pork dumpling was melt-in-your-mouth tender, and was one of my favorite dishes of the evening. The chef said he simmered the pork bones for six days to create the rich and flavorful broth. Westin Hapuna Beach Resort Meridia Restaurant’s offering was beef heart.

Westin Hapuna Meridia’s beef heart satay

As someone who is not a fan of organ meats, I was a bit afraid to try it – but it actually turned out to be pretty mild (and a little chewy). It wasn’t my favorite, but it was still way more palatable than liver or kidney!

I wondered how the chef had come to choose beef heart as his cut of meat, since it probably would not have made the list of Top Fifty Favorite Things People Like to Eat in Restaurants. Westin Hapuna food and beverage director William Lee told me that the chefs and cuts were assigned randomly, but that the chefs all enjoyed the challenge of cooking with ingredients that were outside the standard fare. Cuts like heart and tongue are especially important to find ways to use when you’re trying not to waste any part of the animal.

I realized about two-thirds of the way through the maze of vendors that I probably should have been pacing myself a little better and not finishing every sample if I was going to make it to every booth. I wanted to share a goat birria taco with Mark because I was getting full, but he said it was so good I needed to get my own. He was right – it was one of my favorite dishes of the night.

It came on a handmade ube tortilla and a selection of toppings of your own choosing from the condiment bar. It was very juicy and flavorful, and not at all gamey as I had expected.

By the time we came upon the Hawaii Community College Hilo booths (they had two – a pork one and a dessert one), I was pretty well stuffed. But as a supporter of the HCC Culinary Arts Program and representative of Living Hilo Style, I couldn’t pass up on their offerings.

Their Korean Lettuce Wrap actually turned out to be my favorite thing I ate that night. It was a perfect combination of textures and flavors, with the cool lettuce balancing out the heat from the ssamjang, and the acid of the pickles contributing a sweetness and tang. It looked like a simple dish, but it was surprisingly complex. The HCC students and their instructors, Brian Hirata, and Shawn Sumiki, really knocked it out of the park.

While this was my first experience at Taste of the Hawaiian Range, it certainly won’t be my last. Maybe next year, we’ll remember to save room for dessert. Thanks to Anne and Living Hilo Style for the opportunity!

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