The search for the perfect hamburger never ends. Time changes taste and availability. But what would be more appropriate in a place once noted on maps as "The Sandwich Islands"? The name was Capt. James Cook's homage to the English earl who allegedly invented the snack to keep hunger pangs from interrupting a chess match. Hawaii Nei a piece of meat between two slices of bread? Hardly!
Food is one of those cultural touchstones that often befuddle arrivals to Hawaii. There are tales of newcomers practically starving in the old days when faced with the likes of poke, laulau, squid, poi and all the "delicacies" from the Azores, Japan, China, the Philippines and other points east and west.
Eating habits are developed early. That means, for those of us unfortunate enough to have been born elsewhere, food that echoes what came off mom's stove. A breakfast cook once said, "Everyone wants their eggs the same way their mothers made them."
Midwest-conditioned, meat-and-potato tastes required considerable modification before unidentifiable "stuff" and rice at every meal became desirable. Some newcomers never do adapt, even after learning that refusing the offer of food is rude in the extreme.
So tiptoe around island menus. Eat anything that someone else eats but avoid learning just what that "anything" is. In the before days, "anything" included what was being offered as a "hamburger." This was in the days when little went on the meat besides mustard, catsup or mayonnaise. Usually all three at the same time to more effectively camouflage the meat.
Talk to Maui old-timers and you'll hear paeans to Lucy Goo's concoctions at her place up in Wailuku or the ground-round creations at the Maui Country Club. Newcomers found the former exotic, the latter comfortable. Others speak fondly of plate lunches eaten at Cupie's or Sheik's or Yama's - cheap meat smothered in brown gravy that also engulfed the mac salad and rice. Loco moco has to be an acquired taste.
There's a strong suspicion that old-time "hamburger" was a mystery meat. A half-century or so ago, store-bought hamburger was a ground-up hunk of the beef that was left after the butcher carved out the prime cuts. When times are tight, eat everything but the "moo." Creative island cooks could, and did, add pork and even rabbit to the mix.
The perfect hamburger begins with the meat. Maui Cattle Co. has it down pat - good cuts of local, range-fed pipi. At home or at the more discriminating eateries, hamburgers rely on the quality of the meat going on the grill. Once, at a retro diner in Kihei, the cook was complimented on his burger, done to a turn on a classic, sheet-metal grill. The cook, a local guy with a Hawaiian first name, smiled. "I figure if the cow gives its life, I should treat it with respect."
Once the king of cheap eats, the hamburger took on airs on Maui in the 1970s and the price went up, the arrival of national franchise fast-food dispensers notwithstanding. At about the same time McDonald's and Burger King restaurants were built in Kahului, Jon Applegate opened The Gnu Haven in the Queen Ka'ahumanu Center.
The Gnu Haven, in today's Koho's location, was the first place outside the resorts on Maui to offer half-pound, kick-the-crap-out-of-$10 hamburgers. My first experience with one of these deluxe burgers was some months earlier on Oahu at Ferdinand's on Kuhio Avenue. Midwest taste, if finances, satisfied.
In the early 1970s, the only other places on the resident side of the island where my Midwest taste was assuaged was the Harvest Restaurant next to the Woolworth's in the Maui Mall and at Webb Beggs' Gate 21 at the airport.
These days, big, expensive hamburgers are easy to find. The biggest difference seems to be all the junk that's been added to the beef - special sauces, thatches of lettuce, bacon, onion rings, you-name-it. Anything and everything that hides the taste of the meat. Order a salad if you want rabbit food. By way of full disclosure, there are a couple of items that can be added to good effect - cheese, jalapenos and a thick slice of vine-ripened, local tomato.
The best burger is a delightful wedding of cow and cook. Good meat, juicy with just a hint of pink in the middle. The best ones will run you $12 or so, not including tip. If you want more for less, get a hot dog and don't worry about what's in it.
* Ron Youngblood is a retired editor and staff writer for The Maui News. His email address is email@example.com.