Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Maui, Part 4, Section C: Don't Forget The Little Guy, A Tale Of Two Islands--Mama Ding's Pasteles

Despite being in the middle of a completely different ocean, just the mere fact of being on a land mass surrounded entirely by water was making my hubby Isaac a wee bit homesick for Puerto Rico. Of course it didn't help the poor guy that the muggy climate was making our clothes stick to us, that we were driving on narrow two lane roads amidst hills covered in lush vegetation, and that the facades of local buildings had blackened over years of basking in humidity...just like in his native island.

I could tell that my better half had been missing home from the moment we got off the plane what with
all the comments about how things he'd been observing on Maui struck a striking resemblance to people, places and things in Puerto Rico. Or was it perhaps that he could feel the presence of his peeps? According to something our wedding photographer told us, maybe there was a droplet of validation to why he'd been yearning so much...apparently, Puerto Rican communities, however small, have sprung up through the decades to work in Maui's sugar industry. He also told us that there was indeed a Puerto Rican restaurant called Mama Ding's Pasteles right over in Kahului.

You can bet that once we got back to the hotel, we made a beeline for the Yellow Pages. We called the restaurant to check their hours and got a recording that the restaurant had been closed for a few weeks but that it would reopen the day before Isaac and I were scheduled to leave the island. Lucky us.

With their address scrawled on a slip of hotel stationery, we drove past warehouses, carpet showrooms, and trucking facilities in a very industrial section of Kahului looking for Mama Ding's when suddenly, we saw its small pink facade sanwiched in between a couple of much larger warehouses. The words "Puerto Rican Special" were painted on the window and when we walked in, a huge Puerto Rican flag mounted to the restaurant's wall greeted us...we knew we were in the right place.

yep, this is the place

Service was extremely friendly from the moment we walked in, but at the same time, we could tell they were a little surprised that a couple of tourists had stopped in. Mama Ding's, a restaurant run by the Caravalho family since 1984, is far from your typical Maui tourist destination, and while Isaac and I aren't the stereotypical tourists donning loud aloha shirts and fanny packs, we don't look like your typical locals either. Nevertheless, the folks at Mama Ding's made us feel like we'd been customers for years. While Isaac was in the back using the restroom, I started shootin' the shit with the young woman behind the counter, part of which included me telling her how we just got married a few days ago and how Isaac was from Puerto Rico and how our photographer told us about this place. To which she responded not by answering to me but rather by excitedly announcing our story to the two gentlemen who were sitting at a nearby table: "Hey, guess what? These guys were just married here and their photographer told them about Mama Ding's! Her husband is from Puerto Rico!!!" To which they responded with "Oh yeah? Allright!" and "Congratulations!" and several questions to Isaac regarding whether or not he spoke Spanish, what part of Puerto Rico he came from and so on and so forth.

Like all other Hawaiian local joints, Mama Ding's serves local-style breakfasts--choices of meats such as Portuguese sausage, Vienna sausages or Spam served with eggs and rice--as well as various plate lunches, saimin, fried rice and sandwiches. What is a little more unusual for your typical Hawaiian eatery, however, is the addition of a few Puerto Rican specialties to the mix. There is a Puerto Rican Breakfast, which like the other breakfasts, gives you a choice of meat with two eggs any style, but is served instead with gandule rice and a pastel, which I'll get into later. There is also an Habichuela Plate, consisting of a Puerto Rican red bean stew served with rice and salad. We went right for the restaurant's most popular menu item and what we came here for--the Puerto Rican Plate.

One of the questions I am most frequently asked about Puerto Rico is "So what is Puerto Rican food like?" And everytime I'm asked, I don't really know how to answer. Living in L.A. where the Puerto Rican restaurant pickings are slim to none, and not having visited Puerto Rico yet, I haven't had much exposure to Puerto Rican food. (And no, Isaac doesn't really cook--or I don't let him, I should say--so I haven't tried Puerto Rican cuisine via that avenue either) I've pretty much only had real Puerto Rican food once when Isaac's grandmother came to visit and cooked for us, and delicious as it was, it was only one meal so I still couldn't come to a conclusion as to what the exact characteristics of Puerto Rican cooking are. Pre-blogging days, we found a place down in Cypress called Senor Big Ed's that serves both Puerto Rican and Mexican food, and both Isaac and I thought it was *eh* not just by Puerto Rican standards but by regular food standards, so that experience basically does not count. I know that there are alot of fried, roasted and stewed meats. I know that rice and beans are served with just about every meal. From what Isaac tells me, I know that Puerto Rican cuisine is spicy, not in a habanero chile kind of way, but rather in a heavily spiced and seasoned kind of way. Which is why on the rare occasions that Isaac cooks, he adds every spice and seasoning in the spice cabinet to the dish making it turn a deep shade of orangey-reddish brown every single time. So yeah, although Mama Ding's didn't have a full menu of Puerto Rican specialties, I was glad that I had yet another chance to sample Puerto Rican cuisine, even if only a couple of items.

I've had pasteles only once or twice before, but to me, they still seem like an old friend. We Chinese have something similar in our cuisine called "joong," in which sticky rice filled with savory meat and other fillings is wrapped in a bamboo leaf and boiled; I've been familiar with Mexican and Cuban tamales for a while now. Pasteles are made in a similar fashion to its cross cultural cousins in that tender pork and green olives are surrounded by a masa made with green bananas, wrapped in a banana leaf and boiled. It always amazes me that the people of our cultures, while being so distant and different from from one another, still manage to come up with similar food preparations. Just goes to show that we're not so different after all--we all have the same needs to survive and feed our families, and hence the need to develop ways in which to do so.

Now I don't have many benchmarks by which to judge Mama Ding's pasteles, but I can say that they were excellent and that they have become a new benchmark by which to judge future pasteles. Its masa of green banana was moist and supple and had a nice mellowness to it which both complimented and enveloped the savory pork filling just enough so that the whole thing formed one nice tight bundle. At the same time, it wasn't so tight and dense that you couldn't put a fork through the damn thing.

isaac's homesickness on a plate

I don't think there is really a difference between an empanadilla and an empanada, so you just have to naturally like empanadillas because really, who doesn't like empanadas? Any fried meat filled treat that you can pick up and eat with your hands is a friend of mine, and the ones at Mama Ding's are no exception. The shell of our empanandillas had the texture and taste of perfectly browned pie crust and contained a nicely spiced shredded pork filling. I will admit, however, that I could taste a faint hint of cilantro or culantro (a cousin of the
evil weed of death that is used frequently in Puerto Rican cooking or so I'm told) in a few bites, so I concentrated on those bites in which I couldn't detect any gag-inducing soapiness and all was good. All of this was served with a slice of chorizo sausage and arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), a popular Puerto Rican rice preparation which I happen to really enjoy. It's one of those dishes that isn't so flavorful that it overpowers everything it's served with , but that tastes just slightly enough of achiote-infused oil that it makes you want more.

Our Puerto Rican Plates also came with a green salad, which would have otherwise been just your typical green salad had it not been for the addition of a little bacalao, or salted cod, and pineapple. Mama's Dings even throws in a canned peach half for dessert--something I've never been all too fond of, but that in this specific occasion, reminded me of stuff my own Grandmother might have done when cooking for us kids, and made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside because Mama Ding's is just that kind of place.

a little bacalao goes a long way

In the corner of the restaurant was a TV and VCR playing home videos of Puerto Rican vacations, and as we were finishing up our meals, one of the gentlemen who we'd spoken with earlier introduced himself to us. With eyes and ears on the TV watching and listening to the people and festive music, Frank Caravalho Jr., one of the family owners, and Isaac began reminiscing about the island they both love and miss. Frank Jr. even pulled a photo album of his family's last trip back to Puerto Rico from behind the counter for us to look at. I may not know much about Puerto Rican food yet, but one thing I do know for sure now is when there is so much pride and love for one's own culture, it will show in the food. I am sure, therefore, that as I get to try more and more of it, I won't be disappointed.

wait, i'm boriqua by association--do i count?

Sadly, Mama Ding's has since closed its doors. Frank Jr. continued to tell us that the restaurant would be closing in just a few weeks so that the Caravalho family could care for his father, Frank Sr., who had been suffering from a form of vascular dementia.
This article from The Maui News implies that it's not clear whether the restaurant will be closed permanently or not but either way, I'm glad I was able to experience the care Mama Ding's gave to its food and its customers. The Caravalho's made us feel like we were guests in their home--and if you think about it, Mama Ding's represents home in many different ways to many different people. A warm mahalo goes out to the Caravalho family for the wonderful meal and hospitality--you are all in my thoughts and I wish you all the best.

Mama Ding's Pasteles
(I know it's closed but here's the info anyway)
255 E. Alamaha St.
Kahului, HI 96732
(808) 877-5796


One Food Guy said...

So sad that a family run place with so much to offer had to close. I got married in Puerto Rico, love the island, the culture, the people, and most importantly, the FOOD! I've only been to parts local to the north east of the Island. I got married in Rio Grande.

My two favorite places to eat in Viejo San Juan are El Jibarito on Calle Sol and La Bombonera on Calle San Francisco. Try the mofongo at El Jibarito and the mallorcas at La Bombonera!

Chubbypanda said...

What a sweet story. I really hate it when a local mom & pop has to close. You really feel a sharp sense of loss once they're gone. Over the years, Cat and I've unfortunately experienced that sinking sensation you get when you walk up to one of your favorite mom & pops and find the doors locked shut and a For Lease sign in the window more than a few times.

- Chubbypanda

Wandering Chopsticks said...

Hi Pam,

I'm delurking to say I loved this story. So warm and personal. There used to be a pretty good Boriquen restaurant on Main Street in Alhambra across from the library. Unfortunately, it closed after only a few months.

themirthmobile said...

great post! i saw daisy make pasteles on daisy cooks! and they looked so delicious. i wonder where to find them in LA...

Kirk said...

Hi Pam - Wow, looks good. It seems that every few months another Mom and Pop place closes down, it's just so very sad. Hopefully, Mama Ding's will be able to reopen in the future.

Monkey McWearingChaps said...

My parents went to Hawaii and all they could talk about when they came home is how it looked like Goa, where they're from! They even got all their Indian fish there...fresh instead of frozen.

elmomonster said...

Aaw. That's too bad that it's closed now. What a fitting tribute and a great story you wrote. By the way, Indonesians call their empananadas pastels, so it makes it more interesting when you showed that Puerto Rican pastel next to an empanada, which as I mentioned, looked like a pastel.

What a crazy world we live in!

Passionate Eater said...

Vive la pigeon peas! I work with two Puerto Rican women who are always bringing me recipes with pigeon peas. They are delicious little balls o' green.

Also, I love it when random strangers spontaneously spout off your business. That lady is cute! By the way Pam, I made an announcement at work about your marriage, and also told my five random people on the BART today about it. ... Hope you don't mind.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to Maui on July 21, 2007. I hope the restaurant is opened. I'm from Orange County, California, and will be visiting with two fellow Puerto Ricans from Brea and Laguna Beach. We saw a PBS special on Puerto Ricans who immigrated to work on plantations on the Hawaiian islands many years ago. We are hoping to be able to taste their specialty plate and compare it to our own and to see if there is still a community of Boricuas there...maybe even get a chance to dance salsa and merengue too!

Anonymous said...

I used to live on Maui, and I was SOOO disappointed to hear that Mama Ding's has closed. Even though I only lived there for a little over a year, I miss the food, especially Mama Ding's, almost as much as I missed home when I was there. lol I'm glad you had a chance to experience that wonderful little place, consider yourself lucky. :)

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