THE FAMILY TREE
On Heeia Kea Pier, the Choys serve plate lunches, and sometimes matzo ball soup
Popo Choy, 83-year-old matriarch of the Choy family, doesn't think it odd that a nice Jewish boy like comedian/actor Adam Sandler sat eating matzo ball soup inside her tiny plate-lunch kitchen at the end of Heeia Kea Pier. He didn't even take the soup out to the battered picnic table outside, overlooking the small marina. He just sat on a stool in the kitchen while the rest of the Choy family milled around, serving lunches or tending to customers in the adjacent tackle shop.
Popo's wow threshold is pretty high when it comes to celebrities. Family lore has it that Redd Foxx had a thing for her when the family restaurant was still in Waikiki. Mohammed Ali, who was then still Cassius Clay, dropped by, along with an assortment of Hollywood types seeking kosher food at a time when there was only one restaurant that served it in Hawaii.
The secret that Sandler found out on that lonely pier way out on the Windward side of Oahu is that the Choys were sort of Hawaii's First Official Chinese Jewish Family. They aren't Jewish, actually, but Kenneth Choy, who was born in China and married Popo (real name: Vera) when she was just 20, looked around and noticed that there were no kosher restaurants in the islands. After working as pipe fitter at Pearl Harbor during World War II and then operating a fish wholesale market, Choy opened a kosher-style deli at Ala Moana Center and called it the Kosher Style Deli just so there'd be no confusion over what it was.
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Sharon Pisciotto is ready for the next order at the Deli at Heeia Kai harbor. Her mother, Vera "Popo" Choy, is the matriarch of the family that has served diners out on the water for decades. They also run a tackle shop and minimart and sell gas to boaters.
In 1964 he changed the name to simply the Deli and moved it to Kalakaua Avenue, where entertainment columnist Eddie Sherman often made mention of it and its glitterati clientele. And when the Choy family tired of the high rents of Waikiki, they moved the Deli again, this time to the end of Heeia Kea Pier, where a contract with the state also put them in the business of gassing up boats and running a tackle shop/minimarket.
"We didn't know gas, but we knew food," says Ernie Choy, Popo's son, who comes the closest to "boss" of the pier business.
"There is no boss," Popo says as she runs the cash register in the store and her daughters, Mimi Mau and Sharon Pisciotto, run the restaurant. There certainly seems to be no boss. The various Choys seem to mill around the cramped quarters without any orders being given, yet lunches come steadily out of the kitchen and through the service window. Customers buying beer or potato chips are rung up by whoever is closest to the cash register. It's not so much that the operation is finely tuned as it is symbiotic, the result of 25 years of a family working together.
Ernie, one of the tallest Chinese men I have ever met, is sort of the genial host of the pier, the guy everyone knows, from the North Shore to Kailua. If you are a boater in Kaneohe Bay, you eventually will find yourself at Heeia Kea Pier filling up on whatever you need to fill up on -- chop steak for you, diesel for your boat, whatever.
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Sharon Pisciotto, left, Mimi Mau, Vera and Ernie Choy are the regular crew of the Deli, although other family members also help keep the business going.
I met Ernie years ago when I brought my daughter to the pier for her first attempt at fishing. Ernie set us up with a bamboo pole, microscopic fishhooks and an entire loaf of white bread so that Sarah and I could make bread balls to lure some of those wily little pier fish. As I recall, my little sweetie became bored while I attempted to attach the tiny hook to the invisible fish line. She emptied the loaf of bread into the water, setting off a feeding frenzy among the fish. That was pretty much the end of our expedition, seeing as how the fish were, well, full.
The pier has not changed that much in the intervening 15 years. The Deli is exactly the same, including the Choys, who have an annoying habit of not aging. Ernie did point out the relatively new $350,000 restroom the state finally put in.
"Six toilets," he says proudly. Although I am not an expert on comfort facilities, it did seem to be a fine example of 21st-century lavatory design.
The other thing that's changed is that there's a full-time state harbor master to handle all the mysterious things that harbor masters handle. Ernie finds himself helping out in that area, too, arranging for someone to go out and help fellow boaters when they become stranded and the like.
The biggest change, however, is the number of tourists that flow through the pier every day, something like 300 souls seeking fun and excitement on the bay.
Four companies handle Japanese tourists, and one caters to Americans. But because all of the tourists' needs are provided on the commercial boats, the vast flow of potential income just shuffles by Ernie's shops and restaurant in wet bathing suits and flip-flops.
"I get the crews," he says. And as if on cue, an "off-duty" crewman from a tourist boat grabs a large beer out of the reach-in refrigerator. Occasionally a wayward tourist will buy a water camera, ice cream bar or beach towel, but for the most part the Deli customers are local.
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Ernie Choy monitors the outdoor dining area at the Deli, scattered with morning customers. Breakfasts are big at the restaurant on Heeia Kea Pier because of all the early-morning boaters and fishermen.
When the Choys moved out to the pier, they knew their days serving cheese blintzes, smoked tongue, gefilte fish, chopped liver and bagels were over.
"We knew kosher wasn't going to work out here at the pier," Ernie says. Except for the day when Sandler, on the Windward side to shoot the movie "50 First Dates," showed up. He came with his buddy, comedian Rob Schneider, another "good Jewish boy," as Ernie puts it.
Sandler was amazed when the Chinese family whipped out a bowl of homemade matzo ball soup just for him. But the change from kosher to chicken cutlets was not that hard.
For such a small operation, it takes a prodigious number of people to keep the enterprise running. Luckily, there is plenty of family to go around.
Along with Popo, Ernie, Mimi and Sharon are Mimi's husband, Bobby; Ernie's teenage sons, Darren and Alton; a niece, Sandy; a flight attendant nephew; and probably a few others I didn't catch. (Kenneth Choy died in 1974 and did not make the move from Waikiki to Heeia Kea Pier.)
On the day I visited, Ernie was placing an order for 1,400 hot dogs for the Iolani School Fair. He graduated from Iolani and his kids go to Iolani, so he volunteers every year to help out. For the last few years he's been in charge of all the food served at the fair, hot dogs being just one item. To fill in for him at the pier, however, his sister Juliana and her husband, both surgical technicians, fly in from the mainland to help mind the store. Team Choy has a deep bench.
When relatives visit from off island, they don't bother to go to any of the Choy homes. Everyone is at the pier.
Which raises the question, How can family members working so closely together for so long not fight?
"We fight all the time," says Sharon, and to prove it starts arguing with Ernie about all the arguments they have. But she says their father made it clear that if they were to be successful as a family business, they had to get along.
"Someone has to show up for work, come hell or high water," Ernie says.
I don't know how high the water is, but on this day there are so many Choys that customers and visiting columnists tend to have to squeeze into the store among them.
As I leave the pier, I think about how cool it is to be able to go back to a place after many years and discover it's just the same. There are a few places in Hawaii like that: Matsumoto's Shave Ice on the North Shore, Fortyniner restaurant in Aiea and the Deli at Heeia Kea Pier. What they all seem to have in common is that they are run by families who, through hell or high water, somehow manage to keep on going.
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