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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, July 4, 2003

Lunch wagon's menu offers pleasant surprises

By Matthew Gray
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

Pu'uwainani's Lunch Wagon
Halekauwila and South streets, in the parking lot.
Weekdays, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.; 286-5388

• • •

Pu'uwainani's Lunch Wagon can be found in the parking lot at Halekauwila and South streets on weekdays. Among its plate-lunch specialties are garlic 'ahi with a sweet wasabi sauce, and crab-stuffed salmon with white wine sauce. Owner Marcos Rebibis formerly worked as a cook at Sansei and Brew Moon restaurants.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Today feels more like Thanksgiving than Independence Day, at least to me. For the first time in four years, the lychee tree in my yard has borne enormous clusters of scarlet orbs, fragrant, floral, aromatic and juicy-sweet.

I'll be preparing refreshing lychee coolers (with gin, my friends, for its medicinal properties), followed by kebabs of lychee, kielbasa and shrimp. We'll toss a few steaks on the barbie, along with chicken, ribs and fish, and we'll finish everything off with — what else? — lychee sorbet.

But when it's time to get back into your daily routine after the holiday, here's an idea for a great and economical place to go.

Husband and wife Marcos Rebibis Jr. and Lendy Rebibis run Pu'uwainani's Lunch Wagon. Pu'uwainani is the middle name of Marcos and Lendy's adorable 4-year-old daughter, Racidy. Her auntie gave her the name, which means "beautiful heart."

Rebibis had a lifelong dream of opening a restaurant, but financially it was out of reach. His experience as a cook at Sansei for a year and a half, and before that, Brew Moon for two years, gave him the confidence he needed to make a go of it on his own. He kept his eyes and ears open, and eventually, last October, an opportunity presented itself in the form of a lunch wagon for sale.

The terms of the sale were sweet: a devoted clientele was built in, and the location was not far from many office and government buildings. Of course, Rebibis could have moved the wagon, but his instincts told him to stay put.

The daily menu is not what you'd expect. When I first heard about what they were cooking, I asked, "You're making all this on a truck?" Yes indeed, they are.

Garlic 'ahi ($5) with a sweet wasabi sauce is the best-selling dish. The flavor is just right, not so garlicky as to scare away vampires. Ditto the garlic mahi and veggies ($5) with sesame oyster sauce.

Crab-stuffed salmon ($5.25) with white-wine sauce sells out almost every day, so make sure you arrive early to score that treat. There's also miso butterfish ($5.50) to round out the selection of fish items.

Rebibis says more fish dishes are coming soon.

Lunches are packed into Styrofoam containers and include two scoops of white or brown rice, in addition to a choice of potato-macaroni salad, tossed green salad (ranch or Italian dressing) or kim chee.

If you're in the mood for something other than fish, try the pork adobo or pork gisantes (each $4.50), true Filipino recipes from Rebibis' grandmother. The adobo tasted just right, perky by way of the added vinegar, spicy with dried chilies and fresh garlic, with a faint whisper of sweetness.

Rebibis mentioned that TV chef Emeril Lagasse is a major influence. He appreciates how Lagasse coaxes flavor out of each ingredient. As far as personality goes, Rebibis reserves the right to "bam!" in his own quiet way.

The menu continues with garlic chicken ($4.75), spaghetti with garlic bread ($4.75), boneless kalbi with teriyaki sauce ($5), and grilled hamburger steak with mushroom gravy ($5).

An off-site kitchen is prep area and launching pad. That's where things are marinated, portioned, mixed and readied for the lunch wagon. "We try to cook as much as we can to order, so the food is fresh and delicious," Rebibis said. "My wife, Lendy, is amazing. So is her younger brother Jarett, and my cousin Marcos, same name as mine. We all work together."

When speaking of his family and his growing business, a thankful Rebibis says, "We are truly blessed."

There are a couple small tables beside the lunch wagon. But most customers enjoy their food back at the office or at a nearby park.

Pu'uwainani's Lunch Wagon is definitely worth checking out.

Reach Matthew Gray at mgray@honoluluadvertiser.com.