SOMEWHERE between hobby and obsession falls the mission of the okazuya hunters.
It all began when Donovan Dela Cruz and Jodi Endo Chai went looking for lunch. On this day, it had to be okazu, but the closest place was closed, and it took them a long time to find another.
Somebody oughta publish a guidebook, they said, to make life easier for people like us. Somebody oughta, but nobody had, so the two old friends from Leilehua High School (class of '91 for him; '88 for her) decided to grab the musubi by the corners, so to speak.
Well, the research was sure fun.
In their resolute pursuit of every Oahu okazuya, they ate some of the best local grinds on this island, unearthing priceless finds hidden among the teri plates and fried rice.
At Kitchen Delight in Haleiwa, for instance, they have an occasional special of chicken skin fried into chips; at Caryn's Okazu-ya in Makiki, a runaway favorite is eggplant stuffed with Spam.
"In some ways I think it was the predecessor of Hawaiian Regional Cuisine," Dela Cruz says of okazuya food.
OK, that comment was taken out of context. He's not saying that fried chicken skin gave birth to what Alan Wong serves at the Pineapple Room, but rather that the okazuya is a marker in the heritage of these islands.
We are, after all, what we eat.
"The okazuya is the one thing that links the present to the past and somehow epitomizes local culture," Dela Cruz says.
But, we wax academic and stray from the point.
Dela Cruz and Chai are well on the way to assembling a guide to these very special delicatessens, working title: "Oh, 'Cause You Hungry!" (oh, 'cause you -- okazu -- get it?). So far they have about 40 on their list.
The guide will include all the basics -- locations, hours, prices, menu selections -- but also will note the parking situation (critical with this subject matter), the extent of seating available and when the food normally runs out (also critical in the case of, say, the mochiko chicken at Sakura Japanese Delicatessen in Aiea).
They don't have a publisher yet, but they are optimistic and persistent. Look for the book around holiday time this year.
The two define an okazuya as a deli-type eatery where the food is prepared and laid out so diners can point and pick.
Items are normally sold by the piece and the selection is basically Asian, running from traditional Japanese tempura to Filipino pork giusantes to Chinese chow fun. Customers are steady, local and loyal.
The okazuya's origin, Dela Cruz says, is rooted in plantation days, when women would prepare portable lunches for the single men. Outside of town, most okazuya are found in plantation areas, he says.
"You would never find one in Hawaii Kai or Kapolei."
Okazuya-type delis exist in Japan, but not with a multicultural range of menu items, and not under that name, either. Okazu is a Japanese word referring to food served with rice; ya as a follow-up syllable means store. Okazuya, though, seems to be a local term.
"It's not necessarily representative of the Japanese culture, it's representative of the local culture," Dela Cruz says.
An okazuya may close for the day once the food runs out, close for a couple weeks for an annual family vacation, close forever when the owners reach retirement age with no one to take over.
Gulick Delicatessen, Chai's favorite stop for corned-beef-and-potato hash, is one of those rare places where a second generation has taken over and is looking to expand the business.
Lee Makishi, 26, and his brother Cory, 29, renovated their parents' deli five years ago and attract a stream of customers heavy enough to keep 10 people busy behind the counter at lunchtime.
They've also been adding to the menu, in part to deal with healthier eating habits. Vegetables peak out of serving bins, looking green and freshly stir-fried. Their two newest items: spicy chicken and shrimp tempura musubi, a creation that surely leans in that Hawaii Regional Cuisine direction.
Lee Makishi says the brothers grew up with the prospect of taking over.
"We always knew it was a possibility, but it was never concrete." If they hadn't been willing and able to do so, their parents would have had to sell out by now, Makishi says.
This endangered nature of the okazuya is another reason Dela Cruz and Chai are drawn to the subject matter, but it also complicates matters. Since they started collecting information a year ago, two places have already closed.
Enter the Internet. They plan to have a Website where they'll list updates, and if you have okazu questions and can't wait 'til their book is published, contact them by email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dela Cruz and Chai are very generous about their information, potential book earnings notwithstanding. Dela Cruz, an account executive with Stryker Weiner & Yokota Public Relations, handles publicity for the Oahu Visitor's Bureau and often takes mainland travel writers on okazuya tours as a way of giving them a taste, literally, of the island.
The tours are often a revelation for the visitors, he says, as they discover something we've all known since small-kid time.
"The food is ono, it doesn't cost much and you can eat almost anytime -- breakfast, lunch, dinner."
Chai has a particular, focused interest when it comes to their quest. It's not just the food, it's the packaging. Chai notes all the places that still use cardboard take-out boxes. "It somehow tastes better when you eat it out of the box instead of the styrofoam."
Her second favorite method is a paper plate wrapped in butcher paper.
The cardboard box reminds her of school field trips, when the kids would buy okazu lunches and wrap frozen sodas in aluminum foil.
"By lunchtime the box would be all soggy, because you put your soda in there, too."
Nostalgia. Dela Cruz is a victim, too. "That's why field trips were so special. not just because you went on a field trip -- because you ate okazu."
Take your own okazuya tour, and try these favorites of Donovan Dela Cruz and Jodi Endo Chai:
Caryn's Okazu-ya, Makiki: Spam-stuffed eggplant
Ethel's Grill, Kalihi: Makizushi with hot dog
Fukuya, Moiliili: Sushi
Gulick Delicatessen, Kalihi: Konbu maki, butterfish, hash
K's Bento-Ya: Teriyaki fried chicken
Kabuki Restaurant and Delicatessen, Waimalu: Gobo kimpura
Masa & Joyce, Temple Valley and Kaneohe: Fried rice musubi, poke
Masago's Drive Inn, Waianae: Pork and eggplant
Mitsuba Delicatessen, Kalihi: Hot dog sushi (with ketchup, mustard)
Mitsu-Ken, Kalihi: Garlic chicken
Nuuanu Delicatessen, Chinatown: Fish cake specialties
Naru's Place, Wahiawa: Fried saimin
Royden's Okazuya, Kakaako: Spareribs
Sato's, Waipahu: BBQ sticks
Sekiya's Restaurant and Delicatessen, Kaimuki: Teri chicken, grilled ahi
St. Louis Delicatessen, Kaimuki: Chow fun
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