Although there’s no shortage of fusion cuisines in Philadelphia, Hawaiian food (which is fusion by nature) never had a permanent home in this city. That changed earlier this spring when Kiki Aranita and Chris Vacca expanded their fusion food truck business to include a permanent storefront in Rittenhouse Square. Poi Dog Philly started out in Headhouse Square as a food truck serving a variety of foods like Hawaiian plates, Filipino desserts and butter mochi. Now, it finally has a place to call home at 106 S. 21st Street.
While some may classify Poi Dog as “Hawaiian” for convenience, Poi Dog owner Kiki Aranita disagrees a bit with that classification. There is a strong correlation between the ethnically and racially mixed population of Hawaii, Kiki herself and the character of food. In fact, Poi Dog’s name alludes to the history and different cuisines that influence their menu.
“I would say we [Poi Dog] are Hawaiian–ish—not really Hawaiian. Poi Dog means mixed breed or mutt and refers to people and of course, dogs. My own background makes me a poi dog—my great grandparents and grandparents lived and worked on Hawaii's sugarcane plantations [the last of which just closed recently on Maui]. Hawaii's plantations have been responsible for the hybrid cuisine of Hawaii—what we call "local food" and what our restaurant's cuisine is based on—since workers arrived in the islands from China, the Philippines, Japan, Okinawa, Portugal's Azores and so on, bringing their many different cuisines.”
This mix of culture is seen throughout Poi Dog’s menu, which includes Filipino style adobo, poke bowls, mochi and Hawaiian style pig and cabbage. According to Kiki, the most filling items on the menu are the combo lunch plates, which go for about $13 a plate. All plates come with rice and mac salad. The most popular entree is the Mochi Nori Fried Chicken with togarashi–yuzu mayo and the most traditional Hawaiian one is the Kalua Pig & Cabbage. Both of these can be purchased on a platter together for $13. For those looking for a lighter meal, Kiki says that the Spicy Ahi Poke made with fresh ahi is another customer favorite. At a catered event, I had the opportunity to try the Kalua Pig and Cabbage and Chicken Long Rice. These items were savory, comforting and had a great mix of flavors.
While being the first food truck and restaurant in Philly to offer Hawaiian options is definitely an accomplishment and great title to hold, the presence of this restaurant means a lot to the Hawaiian community at Penn. Kaliko Zabala–Moore (C ’19) is from Hawaii, is active in both Hawaii Club and Natives at Penn and says that “[Poi Dog] is a good representation of local food back home. It is also rare to find Hawaiian food on the East Coast and even more rare to find a person from Hawaii doing the cooking.” Poi Dog adds diversity to Philly’s restaurant scene that’s rare to find, but easy to welcome with open arms and hungry stomachs.