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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, November 13, 2003

Bigway serving its last kim chee burger

By Karen Blakeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

Wahiawa's comfort food source for 42 years, Bigway Burger, is packing up the recipe for kim chee burgers and closing its doors on Sunday.

Tony Choi, co-owner of Bigway Burger, and cook Yvonne Pancipanci are serving up some of the Wahiawa restaurant's final meals. The restaurant is closing Sunday.

Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

"I told my 17-year-old daughter, and she started crying," said Jackie Tapia, a Honolulu resident who grew up in Wahiawa.

Tapia said as soon as she heard the restaurant would close she decided it was time to make one more trip to Bigway. That was right after she called family members on the Mainland and told them they'd enjoyed their last Bigway teriyaki plates.

She was enjoying hers yesterday afternoon.

Tony Choi, who owns and operates the landmark restaurant with his brother, Melvyn, and wife, Shirley, said the expiration of Bigway's lease and other factors contributed to the family's decision to sell. It wasn't a popular one, he said.

"I had two ladies today tell me they planned to protest," he said. "They said: You just can't close."

Another customer had said his family had been thinking of nothing but Bigway kim chee burgers since boarding an airplane on the Mainland, and had gone straight to Bigway, instead of his mother's house, after landing on O'ahu.

Choi said many of his customers who grew up in Wahiawa think of Bigway food as the town's own home-cooked meals.

"It's comfort food," he said. "People tell me: I was feeling down so I decided to come here."

Tapia said she thought of the place as home.

"Even the ice is better," she said. "Maybe the way they shave it or — oh, now I'm going to tear up."

Bigway was started by Choi's parents, Smitty and Daisy, in September 1961, when Choi was a high school freshman.

After a few years away for college and a tour of Vietnam, Choi came back to the restaurant, and eventually took it over.

Choi said most of the restaurant's recipes were invented by his mother, and the specially seasoned french fries and sweet-and-sour spare ribs have remained extremely popular.

His father, he said, came up with the idea of the kim chee burger, and that caught on so well that all burgers — including cheese and teriyaki — were offered with kim chee.

Loyalty to a particular noodle company kept the saimin tasting the same since Daisy first prepared it, he said.

The Tamura family of nearby Tamura's Wahiawa Market, Choi said, will continue a food service operation on the Bigway site at 211 Hiwi Place.

They have agreed to take on all of Bigway's employees, Choi said.

But Choi said the sale of the restaurant did not include the use of the Bigway name, and the new owners will not have access to the Choi family recipes.

Bigway is scheduled to close at 10:30 p.m. Sunday, Choi said. After that, he and Shirley plan to take a trip to Denver, and visit their grandchildren.

Things are sort of open after that trip, he said, but the Chois have not ruled out the possibility of opening another restaurant.

Reach Karen Blakeman at 535-2430 or kblakeman@honoluluadvertiser.com.