Hawaii offers a wide variety of local delicacies that I have been more than happy to discover and savor, and huli huli chicken is one dish that falls in this category. I’m so happy about it that it’s now high up in my list of all-time favorite foods.
What is huli huli chicken? My simple answer would be that it’s Hawaii’s version of barbecued chicken, cooked rotisserie style and flavored with a blend of spices that each joint serving the dish claims to have come from a secret family recipe. Word is, it’s also the kiawe wood used when grilling that gives it its unique smokey taste. But upon a quick Google search, I learn that huli huli chicken is a dish created by Ernest Mogado of Pacific Poultry at a farmer’s gathering in 1955. It was such a hit that it quickly became Hawaii’s favorite fundraiser for schools, softball teams, and hula dance groups – so much better than my elementary school fundraising stint selling gift wrapping paper!
The name huli huli chicken comes from Mogado’s method of cooking: he cooked the chicken in between two grills, which had to be flipped over again and again during the cooking process, hence doubling the word huli, the Hawaiian word for “turn.” Then, huli huli chicken all but disappeared after Morgado asserted his rights to the trademark and started marketing a bottled sauce under his name.
But not to worry, because it disappeared only in name! Many locals still carry on the tradition of cooking huli huli style chicken, and you would be able to spot this happening anywhere you see thick, billowing white smoke from a pop-up tent set up behind a truck with tables and chairs. And, nine times out of ten, you will find a crowd gathering around these tents, because locals are drawn to huli huli chicken like ants to sweet things. While many of these tents frequently change locations, or worse, open and close whenever they wish without any notification, the more established and popular ones have permanent spots and reliable business hours. I’ve only had the opportunity to try these more popular ones, so I am by no means a trusted huli huli chicken source (yet — I aspire to be one as time passes). For what it’s worth, here are my recommendations in Oahu:
My favorite is Ray’s Kiawe Broiled Chicken, open only on weekends at a grocery store’s parking lot in Haleiwa, North Shore. They are different because they serve pineapple coleslaw, which is a nice, refreshing complement to the amazingly juicy barbecued chicken. When I was last here with friends, it was so good that they gobbled up my chicken even though they had said they weren’t hungry. Don’t even get me started with the best part of the chicken: the crispy and oh-so-tasty skin!
People sometimes complain about the cleanliness of the food stand, but I don’t understand – what are they expecting? Ray’s is a cash only, pop up food stand located at a parking lot. Yes, it might appear a little dirty, but in terms of hygienic standards, it is probably not that different than your typical backyard family barbecue.
My second recommendation is Mike’s Kiawe Grilled Chicken. Although I like Ray’s huli huli chicken better than Mike’s, which boasts the endorsement of Chef Guy Fieri, I will be eating Mike’s more often than I will eat Ray’s because it is located closer to my house. Nevertheless, don’t let that statement dissuade you from going to Mike’s; his chicken tastes exponentially better than the average rotisserie chicken, and I would eat it in a heartbeat. Also, the designated eating area at Mike’s is good for large groups, with numerous photo-friendly spots for those who like to document their culinary outings.
Do you have other recommendations for “broke da mouth” huli huli chicken around Oahu? Please do share!
Ray’s Kiawe Broiled Chicken
66-160 Kamehameha Hwy
Haleiwa, HI 96712
Mike’s Kiawe Grilled Chicken
47-525 Kamehameha Hwy
Kaneohe, HI 96744