When Aloha Bruce asked me to join a group of bloggers, journalists and tech gurus on a journey to Oahu’s North Shore for tour of its famous shrimp trucks on a recent Friday, it was pointless to try to conceal my enthusiasm. I love being on the North Shore, I love shrimp, and I’ll jump at any chance to ride around in a limousine. I didn’t think it necessary to disclose to Aloha Bruce that I’ve suffered from a mild allergy to shrimp and all creatures shelled since my teens. That was simply an aside, an irrelevant caveat to an otherwise plum gig.
A light drizzle was falling as we left Foodland in Kalihi after a quick stop for provisions. Plenty of water and a six pack of Budweiser American Ale to wash down a glut of delectable arthropods were in order. There were concerned rumblings about a rain-soaked afternoon among my fellow travelers, but they were quelled quickly when a large bottle of Skyy vodka was produced (I don’t think it was touched all day, but something about it being along seemed to vanquish any doubts about the potential of the afternoon).
On the way out to the country, everyone in the limo was tweeting furiously, updating followers on the progress of our unlikely assembly of shrimp-hungry correspondents. Everyone but me, that is. I realized quickly how useful social media are, and how addictive. Bruce began shaking and babbling incoherently when he realized that his “twitter phone” was in a bag in the trunk. I am way behind the times.
The tasting began in Haleiwa, at Macky’s Shrimp truck, the first you’ll encounter upon entering Haleiwa town. Macky, whom none of us had ever met, greeted us as we lumbered out of the limo, beaming under a woven safari hat. “Hello! Welcome to Macky’s!” he sung in a thick Taiwanese accent. “You come for some shrimp?”
Cameras were flashing and rolling as we approached the window. I ordered, predictably, the butter garlic shrimp. It was properly butterflied, as opposed to simply cleaned, which made room for a lot of flavor to soak into the flesh of the shrimp, and into mine. Messy is a foregone conclusion when discussing the experience of dining at a shrimp truck. The garlic shrimp was delicious, the spicy shrimp was appropriately incendiary and flavorful. But my favorite, not just at Macky’s, but at the end of the day, was the lemon pepper shrimp. The meat was yellowed with lemon essence and speckled with colorful pepper flakes. Our driver, Johnny, a chatty fellow behind Ray Ban sunglasses, was rendered mute by mouthfuls of caringly prepared sea goodness.
Our next stop was a sort of warren of lunch wagons settled into a grotto abutting the sugarcane field just beyond the tree line. Of four wagons, two were shrimp trucks. Giovanni’s is an icon among roadside feeding posts, and beside it sits Hono’s, staffed by two smiling ladies that are evidently shy about being photographed. The wait at Giovanni’s was longer than expected, but the shrimp offered was duly scrumptious. Someone ordered a pineapple preparation, and it was met with oohs and ahhs by those who sampled it. I tried Hon’s interpretation of “garlic and butter” and was enrapt by the savory goodness of the pile of minced garlic and pepper that topped the steaming mound of shrimp.
It was at this point in our Shrimp Truck Trek (say that three times fast) that the question of peeling facility came about. If the work involved in getting at what you’re eating exceeds the reward of eating it, it’s a problem. It didn’t happen, as all of the trucks we visited had their merits, but when you have a group of analytical minds assembled for the task of assessing something, not all of the input will be positive.
By the time we reached Aloha Chef on the outskirts of Kahuku it had become clear that each truck offers more or less the same fare. Aloha Chef offered a Salt and Pepper Shrimp that appealed to me in particular after so many flavor infused dishes (or paper plates, really). Aloha Chef keeps the heads on the shrimp, much to the delight of the kids covered in butter, garlic and whatever who were assembled at one of the picnic tables in front of the truck. I was amazed that the operation was operated by only one man, but not surprised that there was a bit of a wait. And the tables were wet with rain.
Fumi’s is only a stone’s throw down Kamehameha Highway towards Kahuku. Their setup is more accommodating, a place to hunker down over a plate of steaming crustaceans even during a downpour. Some of the more erudite foodies among us had salient comments about the preparation of the featured fare, but I was happy to have a clean sink for washing up.
We barked at our driver Johnny to stop at Famous Kahuku Shrimp, although none of us would have objected to pulling the plug and heading for Honolulu. It was a serious, published foodie who made it clear that this was a mission, and that tasting the flavors of the humble, roadside lunch wagon operations was the point. At that point, we were all doing our best to elucidate the relative merits of such establishments, but a gut-full of shrimp will quickly render even the most ardent food fanatic unable.
Our final stop was at the Shrimp Shack, a roadside attraction in Punalu’u somewhere between the Polynesian Cultural Center and Kahana Bay, that has garnered accolades from travel websites publications and television channels. I’ll say only that my contingent of gifted palates found the fare not only unremarkable, but disappointing. There’s no accounting for taste.
The most striking of our Shrimp Truck Trek, for me, was the fact that most of those trucks parked along the roadside in rural Oahu are remarkably similar. All are covered with graffiti, all offer the same interpretations of the same dishes, and all are operated by people with accents not common to residents of the North Shore.
The point is that any stop at a shrimp truck on Oahu’s North Shore is an endeavor worthy of photos, of blogging and of posterity. As a final bit of advice, I’ll suggest bringing your own roll of paper towels and some breath freshener.