Consumer caution of roadside food urged
By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer
They appear on weekends and during the late afternoon along the roadside makeshift food stands offering poke, laulau, pasteles and other delectables. A cozy, homey quality is evident in the handwritten signs and sandwich boards that announce their presence.
"We're talking about people peddling food on highways, usually after work hours, on weekends and on holidays," said Brian Choy, the Health Department's Sanitation Branch program manager.
"And they may be selling things like raw fish, pies, poi, laulau. Usually, most of these people are not licensed by us, which means the food was not made in approved conditions," Choy said. "And they may not be knowledgeable in safe food practices. And people may get sick from eating it.
"Historically, it has always been going on," said Choy, who added that his understaffed branch is not a policing agency and is more interested in working with vendors to make food safe than in shutting down anybody's operation.
"It's just that every so often, we like to remind people to use common sense when they stop by one of these places."
Sandy Papo sometimes sells pickled mango and poke on the Nanakuli-bound side of the road near the HECO power plant at Kahe Point.
"We move around," Papo said. "Everyday is different. Some days are good. Some days, we lose money. We never know. We just take a chance. We only sell poke and pickled mango, so there's no cooking."
Ask most roadside vendors, and they'll tell you they have the necessary permits to operate. It is not required that such permits be displayed, they say.
One Windward coast vendor, who wouldn't give her name, said she prepares her pasteles at a certified kitchen in Kane'ohe.
"We have a license to sell them," she said.
Some roadside vendors aren't required to have a health permit, such as the many fruit stands along Kamehameha Highway on the North Shore.
"I'm not worried about uncut produce," said Choy. "There's nothing wrong with people who sell fresh corn or bananas. Those things are safe. To pick a mango is safe."
William Aila, Wai'anae Boat Harbor master, who frequently attends the daily Honolulu fish auctions, says he never buys from roadside prepared-food operations because he can never be sure what he's getting.
"Some of these guys buy old fish at auction that reputable dealers wouldn't touch," he said. "Sometimes they get it for 10 or 20 cents a pound, cut it up, smother it in sauce and other ingredients and sell it the same as something that costs $2 or $3 a pound.
"They know exactly what they are doing. They set up at high volume times when the Health Department is closed and can't check on them."
George Halas is a veteran food vendor his homemade yellow sign touts everything from hot laulau to poke to dried aku.
Halas' set up is classic: he works out of the back of his silver Ford pickup beneath a large kiawe tree on Kahekili Highway. He has pots, scales, ice chests and steamers.
"I have a lot of repeat customers," said Halas, who said he has been in business in the same place for eight years. "I have never had a complaint from a customer. Not one."
"George makes the best laulau on the island," said Amy Goh, a regular, as she led Chris Hike, a visiting soldier from England, to Halas' truck to order his first-ever plate of hot laulau.
Halas took a pair of tongs and removed a heaping helping of pork wrapped in laulau leaves from an enormous stainless steel pot and placed it on a paper plate loaded with warm rice. He handed it to Hike.
The soldier took a bite, paused briefly to savor the flavor, and offered an impromptu review:
"I'd give it an 8 on a scale of 10," said Hike. "Only because it wasn't served on a china platter. Otherwise, it's fantastic."
Halas said he approves of Choy's periodic public warnings.
"Safety is the most important thing," said Halas, who added that he has worked with Health Department officials in the past. "If one of my customers got sick, I'd be out of business. The whole thing is the food has to be fresh and it has to be hot."
It also helps if it tastes terrific and there is lots of it. Halas scores high on both points, say his customers.
"I come from Honolulu just to get George's pasteles," said regular Tom Hamaski. "Plus, George is so personable. He's always here at the same spot. This is where the people come.
"This is where you find aloha."