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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 1, 2005

Southern-style comfort food a find in Kailua

By Helen Wu
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

Janice Dawkins brushes sweet, tangy sauce onto barbecued ribs at Deb's Ribs and Old School Soul Food. The Kailua Beach Center eatery specializes in Southern cooking with all the trimmings. Portions are generous and, on Sundays, accompanied by live blues music.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

Deb's Ribs and Old School Soul Food

Kailua Beach Center

130 Kailua Road, No. 112, Kailua


Restaurant: 262-DEBS (3327)

Delivery: 261-DINE (3463) Prices are slightly higher because of delivery service.

Lunch: 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Mondays

Dinner: 4:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Mondays

Free parking in lot


Debra Hopkins has a good thing going on and, fortunately, she is sharing it with the rest of us. Patrons fuss over the barbecued ribs based on a family recipe served at her modest eatery, Deb's Ribs and Old School Soul Food, at the Kailua Beach Center.

Ribs are indisputably the most popular item on the menu, but there are plenty of other offerings.

Hopkins, better known as Deb, received some fine cooking lessons from her father, Mr. Willie. Her Web site and the label of her barbecue sauce ($7.99 for 80 oz.) sold at the restaurant and at Sam's Club provide a brief and colorful bio. She grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where she learned more than a trick or two in the kitchen. Luckily, Deb was an adept pupil and her establishment now dishes up down-home-style comfort food for O'ahu residents.

Without going into the finer details of barbecue, about which encyclopedia-sized books have been written, Deb describes her wet, barbecued pork ribs as East Coast-style.

A sweet, tangy sauce with a mild peppery kick coats the baby back ribs. On one of its best days, the restaurant went through about 200 pounds of ribs. The baby backs are prepared in two parts — slow-cooked, then grilled. This process produces meat that is succulent with a bit of lacquer-like carmelizing on the outside.

As they go onto a Styrofoam plate, the ribs are brushed again one last time, causing many diners to wear a barbecue sauce-stained grin while eating.

The food at Deb's sits under heat lamps on a hot steam table but doesn't stay there long. I saw customers arrive in a steady stream and continually heard calls from the line staff of "more onion rings" and "more catfish" as they notified the kitchen to cook up another batch of whatever was running low. During the noontime lunch rush and the dinner rush from 5:30 to 6 p.m., the dishes turn over even faster.

Seeing so much comfort food grouped together becomes overwhelming, particularly in Hawai'i where Southern food is somewhat of a specialty due to its sparseness.

Soul food is the kind of eating that is hearty, stick-to-your-ribs and hold-onto-your-belly satisfying. What originally distinguished it in Southern cooking was its use of offal. It was the cuisine developed by African slaves who were given the least sought-after products to use.

They made the best of what they had, transforming scraps into something delicious enough to sustain them physically and spiritually — literally "soul food." Many slaves cooked in white households, creating dishes that eventually became an intrinsic part of Southern cuisine.

I didn't find any chitlins or gizzards at Deb's. Instead, the restaurant serves up standard favorites such as crispy fried chicken ($4 a la carte) and tender, Mississippi-style cornmeal-crusted fried catfish filets ($5.50 a la carte).

An assortment of side dishes is available — most cost $3 for a regular-sized portion a la carte and $4.50 for a large-size. Among the selections are molasses baked beans, deep-dish macaroni and cheese spiced up with flecks of pimiento, sweet candied yams dotted with maraschino cherry bits, chunks of cornmeal-dusted fried okra and hush puppies.

Diners typically order combination plates called "meals" with prices varying depending on the number of non-meat side dishes. With the exception of the barbecued pork sandwich, the meals come with a choice of rice or cheese grits. The least expensive meal costs $6.99 for a choice of chicken that is fried, barbecued or smothered in gravy with one side dish, $8.99 for two sides and $10.99 for three. Filling barbecued rib meals (a slab of four to five rib bones per plate) are $9.99 for one side, $11.99 for two and $13.99 for three.

And don't forget to make room for such incidentals as golden cornbread ($1 each), corn on the cob (75 cents) and dessert ($3 per slice; $12 whole).

Sweets at Deb's are sugary and hefty, but I couldn't imagine eating another thing after the entrees. Still, in Southern cooking, the end of the meal really is the piece de resistance and no meal seems complete without these desserts. Selections change and can include carrot or coconut cake as well as sweet potato pie and peach cobbler made by Deb from scratch.

If you visit Deb's, go in the evening when the full menu is featured. During lunch, only an abbreviated menu of basics is offered, meaning extras such as mac and cheese, hush puppies and cheese grits are unavailable. Sundays at 6 p.m. feature live blues with Dion Scott.

Deb's no-nonsense eatery has two booths inside, but if you don't want to smell like smoke, sit outside at one of the six tables under large umbrellas. Just make sure you can hear the original grooves playing overhead by the likes of Parliament, the Mary Jane Girls and the Gap Band.

Give most people a piece of fried chicken and cornbread and they'll be happy; give them Deb's ribs and they'll be even happier — except they're gonna need extra napkins and wet wipes.

Reach Helen Wu at hwu@honoluluadvertiser.com.