Kona Brewing Company
5629 Kuakini Highway, Kailua-Kona, HI (map);808-329-2739; konabrewingco.com
Pizza style: Greek revival?
The skinny: Great beer, and solid pies.
Price: 10-inch pies, $11; 12-inch pies, $14; 14-inch pies, $16
A vacation on the island of Hawaii (also known as the Big Island) presents something of a paradox for food lovers. If you have access to a kitchen, it’s a dream: sushi-grade ahi tuna for bargain prices at every supermarket, just-picked fruits from roadside stands, and farm fresh vegetables year-round. But restaurants are another story. With money to spend on high-end places in town or at the resorts, there’s no question you can eat very well, but in our experience, good low-end, hole-in-the-wall places are few and far between.
And that goes for pizza, especially. Preparing for our trip, I emailed Albert Grande of Pizzatherapy.com for a Slice-worthy recommendation or two. From his Oahu outpost, Albert has interviewed many of the greats of the pizza world, from Chris Bianco to the late Ed LaDou, for his—highly recommended, IMO—audio series, Legends of Pizza. I figured if anyone knew where good pizza could be found in the Aloha State, he would. He wrote back apologetically to say that he wasn’t that familiar with pizza on the Big Island, and, that, in any case, “Hawaii is not a hot bed of pizza. We’ll take the pizza where we can find it.”
These caveats aside, he did list a few places he thought might be worth trying, one of which was the Kona Brewing Company, in Kailua-Kona, the main city on the west side of the island. Kona Brewing Co. is just down the road from the airport, and—already fans of their excellent beers, especially Big Wave Golden Ale—we figured it would serve as a good place to drown our sorrows before the long flight home last Sunday.
Despite Albert’s warnings, I’m happy to say that the pizza at KBC is actually pretty good. It might not be, as he said of Hawaii pizza generally, up to “New York or Boston standards”, but it’s definitely solid stuff. The pies at KBC are nothing if not nearly perfect versions of a New England-style Greek pie.
They are baked in electric deck ovens on screens rather than in pans, so they are not quite as fried-crisp and oily as a real Greek pie, but they have the general look and feel: thick rims, a generous hand with cheeses and toppings, and a crust with a dense but tender crumb and a crisp, lightly charred underside. It’s not my favorite style of pie by any means, but it’s a well-executed version nonetheless. (Interestingly, the menu claims they put their spent brewing grains in the dough, which sounds like bad news to me. Thankfully, they must not add much, because you’d never guess they were in there otherwise.)
The whole-milk mozzarella cheese pie was bit cheese-heavy, but it is in keeping with the style of pie, and pretty tasty. The sauce is good, but its flavors are hard to discern over the fresh basil and dried oregano that top every pie.
The Parmesan sausage was moist and not greasy, though I’d have preferred it not to be quite so finely crumbled, since I like my meat toppings to have a bit more texture.
We ordered a “wild mushroom” pie, thinking it would be topped with actual, you know, wild mushrooms, or at least exotic farmed ones (with its humid, warm environment, Hawaii is home to more than a few edible mushroom farms). This one, unfortunately, came topped with ho-hum white button and portobello mushrooms, along with roasted red onions, roasted red peppers, and roasted garlic, none of which we were expecting. It wasn’t bad, but we weren’t wild about it either.
The unexpected hit topping of the night at KBC was imu pork. I didn’t expect it to to work, really, but I thought we should have at least one pie with some local flair on it, and in our rush to order quickly lest we miss our flight, I just chose the most Hawaiian-sounding topping on the menu. Also known as kalua pig, Imu pork is whole pig wrapped in banana leaves and—when done in the traditional manner at a luau—roasted in a sand pit until it falls off the bone. I don’t know if KBC cooks their imu pork in a pit, but these succulent morsels of finely-shredded meat were lovely here, like perfectly-cooked pulled pork, minus the smoke, or pork rillettes. (Note to self: put rillettes on pizza next time I fire up the oven.)
In all, our meal at Kona Brewing Company was great, and Albert Grande, you have nothing to apologize for. The beer here is excellent, and the pies are—for their style—better than lots we can find here in Boston. It was hardly the best meal we had on the Big Island, but it sure made our departure from this beautiful island a little less painful.
About the author: Andrew Janjigian day-jobs it as an Associate Editor at Cook's Illustrated Magazine. When he's not dismantling recipes for hire, he's likely baking bread or throwing pies into his WFO. He twits regularly as @wordloaf, and blogs much less regularly at blog.dikaryon.org.