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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Lining up for lunch wagons

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer

Darlene Kanda, in apron, daughter of the original owners, has worked in her family's lunch wagon for more than 20 years.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

Irene Higa's workday begins at midnight.

That's when she starts cooking 275 cups of rice and 20 pounds of beef teriyaki, staples on the menu of her family's lunch wagon at Kewalo Basin.

Her brother already has started cooking and prepping the night before. Her sister and 78-year-old mother join Higa at 1 a.m. to continue making spare ribs, curry stew, spaghetti, meat loaf and shoyu chicken. They cook until about 6:30 a.m., about two hours before their lunch wagon opens for business.

The best part about Higa's midnight clock-in is not having to fight morning traffic from her home in Mililani to the family's commercial kitchen in Kalihi.

But that might be it.

"It's major labor," said Higa, 47, about operating a lunch wagon. "Especially the hours. But you get used to it."

The Kanda Lunch Wagon, affectionately known by regulars as "Kewalo's," has been around for nearly 40 years. Always at Kewalo Basin, always serving the same standard-issue lunch wagon food.

Not much has changed on its menu. They dropped the shrimp tempura and corn dogs and added a few new dishes, but for the most part it hasn't changed since Higa's parents, Seiichi and Yasuko Kanda, took over the business in 1964.

Their reliability — always in the same spot, always serving the same foods — make the lunch wagons so popular in Hawai'i.

About 600 mobile eateries can be found on O'ahu, many of which are lunch wagons, according to the state Department of Health, which issues permits for them.

There's something distinctly local about lunch wagons, though they're not a Hawai'i-only phenom. Mobile food establishments, such as hot-dog stands and coffee carts, litter sidewalks in urban centers on the Mainland.

But in Hawai'i, lunch wagons have become such an identifying part of local culture that many people can't imagine life without them.

"We grew up on lunch wagons," said Harry Okabe, 63, of Manoa, who owns two lunch wagons under the name Hawaii Caterers Inc. "It's a tradition."

He remembers cutting class at McKinley High to grind luncheon meat on rice at a lunch wagon near Kewalo Basin.

His affection toward lunch wagons is why he brought one back to Metcalf Avenue, a block from the University of Hawai'i. It had been the site of many lunch wagons that served students, faculty and staff at the Manoa campus, even when Okabe was a student there.

"We had to keep the tradition up," he said.

Vaimana Conner, a 20-year-old political science major at UH, picked up a mini mahi with rice on his way home from class one Wednesday afternoon. He buys plate lunches here at least twice a week, usually ordering the Hawaiian-plate special.

Like other students, Conner likes the affordability of plate lunches. And it helps that they're convenient.

Menu variety helps Okabe keep his customers coming back. But offering an assortment of dishes, such as pork gisantes and guava chicken, can be expensive. Finding a balance is the key to success.

"Good food, that's the first," Okabe said. "Whatever it is — teri beef, stew, spare ribs, hamburger steak — it has to be really good."

In some locations, lunch wagons have proliferated, adding to the competition. When that's the case, the competitors have been spurred to find ways to set themselves apart from other wagons down the street or around the corner.

That has been the case downtown, where in the last decade, new lunch wagons have popped up allover, parking in metered stalls or on private property near office workers craving something local, fast, and reliable.

Simply Ono, at the Municipal Building, has taken plate lunches to another level, offering a more upscale menu that typically features items such as macadamia-crusted opah, Greek salad, and mahimahi with lemon butter caper sauce.

Not your typical lunch wagon fare. Neither are the menu items at the Aloha Tacos lunch wagon en route to Hale'iwa: It serves tacos and burritos.

Finding that one dish to specialize in has made Giovannis Aloha Shrimp in Ka'a'awa a popular tourist stop on the way to the North Shore. With minimal advertising, the shrimp wagon sells daily about 200 plates of — what else? — shrimp. At $11 a plate, it's remarkably expensive for a plate lunch.

At 1 p.m. on a recent Saturday, more than 40 people crowded picnic tables next to the lunch wagon, waiting for their plates of garlic shrimp and rice. The line didn't dwindle, and people were waiting up to 15 minutes to indulge.

"Our location helps," said manager Alex Viveiros. "But people come for the food. They love the food."

Ashlyn Peru and Jenna Waipa drove all the way from town just to eat the wagon's famous garlic shrimp scampi.

"I had this craving for shrimp," said Waipa, a 16-year-old junior at Kamehameha Schools. "But not just any shrimp. It had to be this garlic shrimp."

The two had just finished taking the SAT at the school that Saturday before making the 45-minute drive to the North Shore. All Waipa could think about during the test was shrimp. They both wish Giovannis would open a wagon closer to town — and closer to them.

"I'd be so stoked, because we wouldn't have to drive all the way out here," Waipa said, cleaning her plate of scampi and garlic rice. "This is my favorite thing to eat."

But sometimes just having the basics is good enough for a lunch wagon to survive.

Tsukenjo Lunch House has been operating its wagon for more than 40 years in Kaka'ako, now near Sports Authority on Ward Avenue. It has remained one of the most popular lunch stops in town, at one time averaging more than 200 plates a day.

With a finicky economy and several moves, the lunch wagon doesn't sell nearly that many plates now.

But Tsukenjo has sustained a loyal customer base that, like Kanda's, has spanned generations.

"They always come back here," said Doris Nabarro, president of the company, which also runs a restaurant on Cooke Street. "It becomes routine to eat here. People like to go where they know you'll be, where they know what they want to eat."