HONOKAA — Hundreds of people sink their teeth into malasadas — the hole-free, pillowy Portuguese doughnuts — each day at Tex Drive In. The well-known pit stop on Mamalahoa Highway in Honokaa has been serving their square-shaped confections for almost 50 years.
A piping hot malasada costs a mere $1.30 and for 80 cents more, diners can choose one of 13 fillings. Mango and guava are best sellers, but chocolate and Bavarian crème are also popular.
Cynthia Paninsoro has made thousands and thousands of malasadas from scratch in Tex Drive In’s kitchen for the past 19 years.
“I love to make them,” she said Tuesday while rolling out a huge dough ball on the kitchen counter. “I learned to make malasadas here. On a given day, I make 20 to 25 batches, with six dozen in each.”
The longest term employee joined the restaurant 25 years ago. Tex Drive In’s owner for the past 10 years, Duke Baker, sampled his first malasada there in the 1980s.
“There were places who sold them in Kona but they didn’t melt in your mouth,” he said.
After nearly 50 years in business, Tex Drive In received statewide recognition Nov. 19 at its induction into the Hawaii Restaurant Association (HRA) Hall of Fame at a ceremony in Waikiki. Tex Drive In was the only Big Island recipient.
“We select our honorees by calling out nominations and choose 10 total, with primarily one from the outer islands,” Anne Lee said, chair of Hawaii Restaurant Association’s Hall of Fame committee. “We look for the small mom and pops that are still surviving, like Tex Drive In.”
How it all began
Malasadas first made their way to Hawaii in the late 1870s via Portuguese laborers from Madeira and the Azores who brought their love for the fried dough pastry to the islands while working on plantations.
Tex Drive In’s original owners, Ernest Souza “Tex” Texeira and his wife, Elizabeth, opened the restaurant in 1969.
“They went to the mainland and saw the fast-food stores taking off and brought it back to Hawaii,” Duke said.
A general contractor by trade, Duke and his wife, Shari, bought Tex Drive 10 years ago after learning its second owner, Ada Pulin-Lamme, had put it on the market.
“I have been coming to the islands since the 1950s and Shari and I have lived on the Big Island, off and on, since 1985,” Duke said. “We knew about Tex and I happened to be in my office one day and saw the for sale sign.”
Once they purchased the restaurant, Duke said it took five years to get it back up to speed.
“It was a team effort. We have a great general manager, Trina Augustin. Where we are today is because of her,” he explained. “I’m comfortable running a company. It’s all about your staff and how you treat guests. The employees do a great job and we serve all homemade food.”
Diners who flock to the spot are an even split — about 50 percent tourists and 50 percent locals. Visitors hear about Tex Drive In through friends, tour guides, hotel staff and Yelp reviews.
“It’s often word of mouth. We’re mentioned in a lot of magazines too, like airline publications, Bon Appetit and Sunset magazine,” Duke said.
Last year, in response to a request on Tex Drive In’s Facebook page, more than 150 loyal customers posted the reasons why they love the delicacies for people who had never tried them before. “Life changing,” “Pillows of heavenly goodness,” “Tastes like the sweet moments in childhood,” “To die for! I dream about them!” “Da best donut in the world!,” “One of the top 10 reasons to visit Big Island” and “Edible aloha” were among the answers.
Shannon Karratti, a Hilo resident, stops at Tex Drive In regularly while passing through Honokaa on business to the west side of the island.
“It’s a must get when you come to this side (of the island),” he said Tuesday with a malasada in hand.“They’re moist. I’ve got a dozen — six with sugar and six without — to take with me.”
Customers also stop by when visiting from other Hawaii islands, California, NYC, Australia, Germany and Japan.
“They love Hawaii and this is a part of the tour,” Masakimi Matsuzaki said, a guide with The Nature School who brought a van of a dozen or so Japanese visitors to the restaurant Tuesday morning. “The delicious malasadas are a nice break.”
Famous guests who have gone out of their way to sample the treats are nationally-recognized chefs Rachelle Ray and Emeril Lagasse, famed Native Hawaiian singer-songwriter Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole and Honolulu’s former mayor, among others.
But some of the most loyal customers live nearby.
“Local boys like Ivan, Ronny, Mano and Mr. Honda come twice a day,” Duke said.
The winning recipe, menu
The fried dough confections are made from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day at Tex Drive In.
“I’m still amazed that a malasada brings people from all over to our town, Honokaa,” Augustin said.
On some days, visitors may not make it to the restaurant in time to get their hands on a hot malasada.
“Sometimes we completely run out. I’ve actually delivered some to the airport the next morning for customers who were disappointed to learn we were out, so they could have some before they left the island,” Duke said.
Of the 30 or so employees who work at Tex Drive In, around six exclusively make the malasadas.
“Malasada stands for leftover bread dough,” Duke said. “Our recipe was created by one of Ernest’s original employees.”
The main ingredients are flour, eggs, butter, sugar and yeast. Tex Drive In gives free malasadas to anyone in the service — be it the military, fire or police force.
Those who have visited more than once know that Tex Drive In serves much more than just malasadas. Grass-fed burgers with homemade buns and “ono kine” (delicious local food) are other popular fare.
“California visitors say the burgers are better than at In-N-Out,” Duke said. “We try to support local ranchers and farmers. Leftover malasadas are used for French toast, bread pudding and croutons.”
May the celebration begin
In January, the restaurant’s 50th anniversary will begin.
“We’re thinking of doing monthly surprises to celebrate and a grand finale at the end of the year,” Duke said.
In their extensive gift shop, recently opened by Shari, customers can find a variety of local crafts, clothing and holiday stocking stuffers. For those who want to continue savoring malasadas after they return home, a dry baking mix is available that can be shipped home.
Info or questions: Call 775-0598, go to www.texdriveinhawaii.com or Facebook at www.facebook.com/Tex-Drive-In-Big-Island-Hawaii-106337749394338/ for regular updates