Som and Lindsey Maly have visited Hawaii half a dozen times. They got married on the beach in Maui. They even considered moving there.
They love not only the warmth and the ocean, they also love the energy. Nobody honks their horn or flips the bird in traffic there, they said. Locals walk into the grocery store without shoes.
“I just feel happy, I don’t know how to explain it,” Lindsey said.
Now they’ve brought a little taste of Hawaii home to Madison with the new JAK’s Ohana food cart. JAK's serves blackened shrimp tacos, huli huli chicken and loco moco. “JAK” are the initials of their three children. “Ohana,” as anyone who has watched Disney’s “Lilo and Stitch” knows, means family.
During their Hawaii trips, the Malys reveled in food, poke in the grocery store deli and fish taco trucks on the beach. Back in Wisconsin, Lindsey would entreat Som, who’s a chef, to replicate the dishes.
On their latest trip to Maui, they saw a long line for shaved ice, a Hawaiian snow cone-style dessert. On the 12-hour plane ride home they thought, why not start a Hawaiian food cart?
Som had the chops. He has worked at Holstein Kitchen in Oregon, he was a sous chef at Marigold Kitchen and helped open the Hy-Vee Market Grille in Fitchburg, among other venues. His restaurant resume began with washing dishes and making deliveries for his parents’ Thai restaurant.
JAK’s Ohana is not the first Madison venue to offer Hawaiian-inspired fare. There is poke a-plenty in Madison, including some on the menu at the new Tavernakaya food cart. There’s a new Hawaiian shave ice and ice cream shop in Mount Horeb and another new Hawaiian food cart, LT’S Aloha Wagon. Nationwide, the term “Hawaiian” is popping up on menus with increasing frequency.
Despite this, before trying JAK’s, I knew a big fat nothing about Hawaiian food. Here’s a helpful primer:
Do I have to like Hawaiian pizza to get into Hawaiian food?
No. Hawaiian pizza is super gross. More to the point, it was invented in Canada. (Editor's note: the opinions expressed in this story are the author's own and not shared universally by her colleagues. Especially the Canadian one.)
What is Hawaiian food?
Thank you for asking. There is an important difference between what Hawaiian residents call “local food” and “Hawaiian food.” Strictly speaking, “Hawaiian food” refers to the cuisines that come from the island’s original Polynesian inhabitants, including dishes like kālua pig (cooked in an underground oven), laulau (meat steamed in taro leaves) and poi (mashed taro).
So what’s “local food”?
As Europeans came in the late 1700s and then more and more immigrants arrived in the 19th century to work on the island’s fruit and sugar plantations, they brought their food with them, creating a mash-up of Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Portuguese, Korean (and more) cuisines, or “local food.”
That’s led to dishes including the sushi-like Spam musubi, made with rice, spam and seaweed, manapua, Hawaii’s take on Chinese pork bao, and Portuguese malasadas, or fried doughnuts.
It also led to the “plate lunch,” a ubiquitous meal featuring two scoops of rice, mayo-heavy macaroni salad and meat. (Barack Obama is a fan.) It reportedly started as a bento-like lunch for plantation workers.
That sounds good, should I get it?
YES. Order the huli huli chicken plate ($10) at JAK’s, which comes with jasmine rice, mac salad and plantain chips. Huli huli chicken is traditionally marinated in a sweet, teriyaki-style sauce and grilled. It came on the scene in Hawaii in the 1950s.
JAK’s chicken, marinated in soy sauce, pineapple, brown sugar, ginger, garlic and shallots, changed me. It was so flavorful I did a double-take to make sure it was chicken, not pork.
You can also try JAK’s loco moco. Loco moco is made of rice, hamburger patties, fried eggs and gravy, and, according to the origin story, was created in 1949 in the town of Hilo to satisfy teenagers looking for a quick bite.
It’s sometimes classified as a calorie-dense meal perfect for surfers, and the Malys actually stopped serving it for lunch because it was too heavy. It will reappear when they’re open over dinner hours, they said.
The best sellers at JAK’s are shrimp tacos ($10), which come with spicy blackened shrimp, pickled red cabbage, cool citrus sour cream and sweet pineapple salsa. It's a carefully balanced flavor combination that would make Samin Nosrat proud.
There’s also a shrimp and pineapple curry ($10), huli huli chicken tacos ($9) and a summer salad featuring strawberries, pineapple and candied walnuts ($10) to choose from. In the future, they plan to cycle in more Hawaiian treats like shave ice, Spam musubi, poke and fish tacos.
They’ll put together a website soon, but for now, watch the JAK’s Ohana Facebook page for their location. They plan to be near the Hill Farms state office building on Sheboygan Avenue for lunch every Monday and Thursday, and will alternate Wednesdays at University Research Park and Journey Mental Health Center.