Hukilau's old-time favorites served with aloha
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
By Wanda A. Adams
Lots of restaurants have a policy of greeting you when you enter, and of sending you off with good wishes when you leave.
But at Hukilau Cafe in La'ie, it's not policy: They mean it. When hostess Lehua Makia calls out "Good morning!" the day suddenly begins to seem good. And when waitress Hemaile Enos sends you off with a "You have a good day, now, my dear!," you begin to think maybe you'll do just that.
Lots of restaurants offer local-style breakfast and lunch plates but, in addition to the usual teri-this and hamburger-that, Hukilau Cafe chef-owner Kalani Soren brings back old-time favorites — "the ones that Mom or Auntie or Uncle used to make," he said. (The interview was conducted after I made a couple of stealth visits while on vacation in Malaekahana.) He likes to run chicken hekka or pork tofu as specials, for example. His roast pork is the most popular item on the lunch menu and understandably so — bathed in gravy, it's as rich and melting as you hope it will be, not stringy and overly salty as roast pork often is.
Lots of restaurants have a story, but this one is more circuitous and interesting than most. The building — just north of La'ie, about a block inland of Kamehameha Highway on a side street invisible from the main road — is a couple of generations old and was once owned by the father of the Big Bambucha himself, chef Sam Choy. The senior Choy operated a grocery store there (and a small store full of products catering to South Pacific Islanders, still shares the building with the restaurant). The Choy family used to cater lu'au at nearby Hukilau Beach, which is how Sam got his start in cooking.
After Sam Choy had earned his early reputation at the then Turtle Bay Hilton, he leased part of the building from his dad and, in 1981, founded a little cafe called Sam's Place. He operated the spot for eight years before accepting a position as executive chef at the Kona Hilton and moving his whole family to the Big Island. There, he would leap to fame when the now defunct Sam Choy's Kaloko was discovered by Mainland food media. Few knew that his first free-standing restaurant was back on his home turf in La'ie.
Choy leased the restaurant to someone else for several years and then, in 1993, he sold it to Soren — his calabash cousin (Choy's mom and Soren's are third or fourth cousins who grew up across the street from each other in La'ie).
Soren had attended cooking school briefly, then bummed around from job to job, moving between construction work, roofing and restaurants, with stints at the Halekulani, the old 'Ahi's restaurant and Fortucci's at Kahuku Sugar Mill. Like Choy's, his extended family was into digging 'imu on the weekends and having lu'au.
"Of all the jobs I had, cooking was the closest one to my heart. They always say you gotta love what you do and I really love cooking," Soren said.
Soren checked out the potential competition and found that, at that time, the closest place for breakfast was Rosie's Cantina in Hale'iwa, if you didn't count McDonald's by the Polynesian Cultural Center. He decided to make Hukilau Cafe a breakfast and lunch place and so it has remained.
At first, the backbone of his business was local, but when Columbia Pictures contracted to use his restaurant's name for the eatery featured in the 2003 Adam Sandler-Drew Barrymore picture "50 First Dates," suddenly, the visitors found him. Today, he says, he probably has 75 percent local business if you average it through the year, but during the summer high tourist season, visitors often edge out the regulars. (Plan an early lunch or later breakfast to snag one of the dozen or so tables.)
One thing you notice right away is that the folks at Hukilau Cafe chat with tourists and "other siders" just as much as they talk story with people they've known all their lives. You become a regular real fast: Spend more than a few days in a vacation rental or camping at Malaekahana, and pretty soon they'll have your life story out of you.
When we dropped in around 8 one weekday morning, Enos greeted with good news and bad: "Coffee's hot but no more waffles and the beef stew not ready yet." Auwe! I'd been told by my friend David Goldman, author of "Island Grinds" and a part-time La'ie resident, that the beef stew omelet was not to be missed. It's a breakfast bestseller.
"I try to be humble but I gotta admit, I make a ton of beef stew and it just never ends. People really seem to like it," Soren said.
Another breakfast staple is the Hungry Hawaiian, which my husband ordered: 3 eggs, 2 meats, rice or home fries and toast or delightfully fluffy pancakes. The Portuguese sausage was exceptionally good and the eggs were done as ordered. My fried rice with egg over easy was chock full of ham, char siu, egg, green onion — more goodies than you usually get nowadays. (And the serving was so generous that the next day I refried the leftovers with a side of bacon and made a breakfast for two!) Soren says breakfast is his favorite meal; "I'm a morning person." It shows.
Another day, I ordered takeout (they do a lot of takeout) — a couple of mixed plates and the roast pork. I could have fed five or six people. Nicely flavored grilled mahi was crisp on the outside, tender on the inside. Fork-tender, gingery teri beef was my favorite. But the tempura shrimp was too thickly battered and the chicken katsu was downright dry and stringy. The pork roast made up for it all.
Hukilau Cafe — with a surfboard for a sign, a screen door that slaps open and shut every few minutes and walls covered with celebrity photos, local football schedules and the inevitable "50 First Dates" poster — felt like home about five minutes after we got there. "Yeah," Soren said. "it's an only-in-the-country kind of thing."
Reach Wanda A. Adams at email@example.com.