Wednesday, August 24, 2005

John and Debbie Leong, above, will shut down their cherished Kalihi restaurant on Friday.

The Leong goodbye

Diners enjoy their favorites as
a beloved Hawaiian restaurant
prepares to close its doors

Platitudes are many when a beloved restaurant closes: "It's so sad ..." "All the old places are going away ..."

But with Leong's Hawaiian Cafe, the platitudes come from the gut.

For example, from Rosie Chaudoin, who had surgery for breast cancer just two weeks ago and still moves gingerly. Yet she made it to Leong's Monday for one last visit and overdosed on pipikaula. "When you have surgery, you gotta eat light," Chaudoin said. "But I couldn't resist."

Across the room, Blossom Kua was digging into a final bowl of naau (tripe) stew. "This is the only place -- besides my aunty's -- where I can eat the naau."

Her companion, Kyle Mosley, was slurping down his own large bowl of naau. He already had an empty kalua pig platter in front of him and a bowl of corned beef and onions to the side, awaiting his attention. Kua said she'd been coming to Leong's for decades, since elementary school. Mosley said he'd been coming for "about 30 pounds."

Local chef D.K. Kodama, left, finishes his luau stew, while chef Alan Wong, who has already polished off his stew, works on a bowl of poi at Leong's Cafe in Kalihi. Leong's has been at its North King Street location since 1966.

Debbie shares a laugh with one of her customers.

Leong's closes on Friday, after 55 years of serving Hawaiian comfort food. Owner Debbie Leong says rising rent and a difficult parking situation made the decision for her.

Leong's opened in 1950 on Mokauea Street, the father-daughter project of Henry "Christmas" Young and Lucy Leong. Their specialties: chop steak, pipikaula and luau stew.

When Lucy Leong's son, John, started dating Debbie in the late '60s, a successor was found. Debbie, who at the time could make only Spam and eggs, was coaxed into the kitchen. She never left.

The restaurant moved to the top of North King Street in 1966. When her mother-in-law died in 1997, Debbie inherited. It was her husband's idea.

"I said, 'Are you crazy? You don't know how to cook.' He said, 'No, but you do.' "

Running a restaurant had never been Debbie's career plan. She'd wanted to stay home and raise kids, or, as she put it, become a "domestic engineer."

But she was game. (And she brought up two kids along the way, although neither wants to take over.)

"Now that I'm closing the doors on Friday, I'm going to become a domestic goddess," she says, giving her husband a meaningful look. "No more domestic engineer."

Inside Leong's on Monday, it's hot and it's busy. At one long table against the ewa wall, a group of chefs is doing some serious grinding. Alan Wong is piling lomi ahi into his bowl of poi. "Fish and poi. Fish and poi," he repeats as though it were a mantra. Roy Yamaguchi is spooning up the deep, green luau leaf of his stew. D.K. Kodama of the Sansei restaurants says the beef luau is "just, like, incredible."

Eight-year-old Taylor Leong-Turner helps her grandparents, owners John and Debbie Leong, at the Kalihi restaurant known for delicious Hawaiian food.

Leong's Hawaiian Food in Kalihi has been a long-time favorite among many local chefs and celebrities. Several of them gathered for a last meal on Monday. Posing for a commemorative photo are Emme Tomimbang, left, D.K. Kodama, Hiroshi Fukui, owner Debbie Leong, Chuck Furuya, Colin Nishida, Dean Okimoto, Roy Yamaguchi, owner John Leong and Alan Wong.

Leong's -- unpretentious, simple, no-frills Leong's -- has a bit of an upscale pedigree.

In 1998, Emme Tomimbang put together a "Local Grinds on the Town" television special, taking four top chefs to their favorite local haunts. Jean-Marie Josselin, then of A Pacific Cafe, brought the group to Leong's for the luau stew and pipikaula.

Debbie and John Leong were later invited to serve that stew at the ultra-extravagent Cuisines of the Sun at the Mauna Kea Beach Resort and at Yamaguchi's annual Oahu Farm Bureau benefit dinner. In both cases, they cooked alongside celebrity chefs from around the world.

On Monday, it's time for a last meal. Tomimbang is back, sitting with the chefs and a group of their friends. She's filming a segment for her October television special. When Yamaguchi presents Debbie with a potted orchid, a gift from the group, he has to do it twice, after the camera man is called out of the kitchen to capture the moment.

Debbie takes orders: She's got five luau stew, three pipikaula, three salt meat and watercress, three lomi ahi, four lomi salmon ... but then come the add-ons and it gets confusing, but very soon the food arrives, warm and fragrant in plain plastic bowls.

"Comfort food, so simple," Wong says.

Now, about that luau stew, probably the most famous of Leong's dishes: It's a matter of beef, luau leaf, water and salt. That's it. But it's done perfectly, so the beef is fully tender and the broth is deep and earthy.

And Debbie is not giving up the recipe, so you can all stop asking.

The restaurant business remains in her blood, she says, and she hopes to return to it, some day, some way.

Friday will be chaotic, until closing time at 7:30 p.m. "I'm going to close the doors, clean up, go home, sleep, get up Saturday and go to two weddings."

Her only plan beyond that is a trip to California to visit relatives, "and not think. When I come back, I'll think then."

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