Star-Bulletin Features

Wednesday, January 27, 1999

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Walter Russell, left, holds a tray hot from the oven
as Debra Hopkins unveils the tender, juicy ribs.

Dibs on Deb's Ribs

Deb's Southern Comforts is the winner by
an 11-point spread in the Star-Bulletin's
'We Love Ribs' search for Oahu's best ribs,
just in time for Super Bowl Sunday

Judge says her recipe's as good as Deb's
By Betty Shimabukuro


YOU think you work hard? Allow me to introduce you to Debra Hopkins. It is 3 p.m. on Monday and Hopkins has just arrived for work at her restaurant, Deb's Southern Comforts in Kailua.

She's been shopping and delivering all day. That's after leaving her other job, as a scrub technician assisting in emergency surgeries at Kapiolani Hospital. She got off at 7 a.m., after starting at 10 p.m. Sunday, before which she was back here, serving up plates of food.

"I haven't been to bed in two days," Hopkins says.

The cycle -- restaurant to OR and back (could you choose more stressful occupations?) -- began Friday night, as it has every Friday for six weeks as Hopkins has made a reality of her dream -- to run a soul-food restaurant in paradise.

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Deb's ribs are ready to eat. The recipe is secret, but rib
contest judge Rhonda Harrelle-Scott's shares her recipe
for ribs, soul food style, on the next page.

She couldn't bring more passion to this little eatery. "I could have 10 husbands, I could be in love with 10 men," she says, "and it would be nothing like this."

Hopkins and her manager/best friend Chris Russell along with a small staff, working in an immaculate kitchen tucked inside a sports bar, have built a restaurant with heart. And soul. And ribs.

Info Box Which is the point here. Deb's ribs were judged the winner of the Star-Bulletin's rib taste-off, held in honor of this weekend's Super Bowl, when people tend to eat manly things like ribs.

It was a clear win. Out of a possible 100 points, Deb's ribs scored 80. The next highest was a 69.

"Delicious. Moans and groans," wrote one judge, herself a veteran soul food cook. "Absolutely delicious. These are real ribs! The best."

Deb's ribs are meaty, fall-off-the-bone tender and very, very peppery. Not as saucy as others we tasted, but still very moist with a light tomato-based sauce. They were great warm, at room temperature and cold the next day, straight out of the refrigerator.

Hopkins says she aims for a smooth combination of flavors, "not so it's a loud rock concert in your mouth -- more like a smooth R&B. Roberta Flack, not Led Zeppelin."

Her restaurant opened in mid-December after she searched several months for a commercial kitchen she could afford to lease within reach of Kaneohe Marine Corps Base Hawaii.

"Those guys over there lack what they're so accustomed to on the mainland. The nationality, the color, the race doesn't matter when it comes to soul food. I can get the cowboyest cowboy and he'll recognize chitlins."

Info Box When she learned D'Coys Sports Bar and Grill was looking for someone to take over the grill part of the establishment, she found a home.

The whole endeavor, Hopkins says, is still in its "humble beginnings." She raided her own kitchen to stock the restaurant's and dips into her Kapiolani earnings to cover payroll. "I'm on a shoestring budget and I'm borrowing other people's shoestrings."

She's been fortunate, she says, that the hospital allowed her to cut back to three days a week so she could get the restaurant under way, and that so many church friends volunteered to help her prepare for opening day.

Hopkins arrived in Hawaii just four years ago with her Marine husband. She lived in North Carolina and before that Cleveland, where she learned to cook by watching her father. Now divorced, she has one son, 18-year-old son Jesse, a Hawaii Pacific University student who helps at the restaurant but also works at, ironically, Burger King.

She considers it the greatest compliment when someone tastes her ribs, fried catfish, smothered chicken, black-eyed peas or hushpuppies and says, "This reminds me of my mama's." That's her aim. In fact, she tends to mother her customers. "I stand over them like they're my children -- 'Eat this or I'm gonna call your mama. This is good for you.'"

But back to those ribs. Hopkins won't reveal her recipe, but she does say it takes two hours to fix the Louisiana-cut ribs, steeped in spices and sauce. They're slow-cooked, first wrapped up in the oven, then opened up on the grill.

The key to doing this at home, she says: "Don't burn it."

"You can rob me blind, but don't ruin my food. It hurts my feelings when someone ruins food. I see food as a work of art."

Rib-off statistics

Our rib contest, by the numbers:-- Number of rib candidates: 8. Besides the No. 1-ranked Deb's Southern Comforts, they were Davy Jones Ribs (Waikiki), Big City Diner (Kaimuki), Smokin' Bob Barr-B-Q (Kaneohe), Da Smokehouse (Waikiki), Henry Loui's (Mapunapuna), Dixie Grill (Ward Avenue) and Tony Roma's (several locations). They were selected by our staff and through reader nominations. The ribs were all pork, purchased take-out, served still warm.

bullet Number of judges: 5. Rhonda Harrelle-Scott, an accomplished home cook, considers ribs 'the crown, scepter and ermine-collared cape, the trappings that make a king a king!' (Her own recipe is on Page C-4). Kent Davis was volunteered by his wife, based on the fact that he makes great ribs and knows his stuff. Nadine Kam, restaurant critic, also judged, as did staffers Stephanie Kendrick and Gordon Pang, who are basically serious rib eaters.

bullet Number of possible points: 100. Each judge could award up to 10 points for taste, 10 for texture. Deb's scored 80.

bullet Ribs No. 2 and No. 3: Davy Jones, 69 points ('Lot of meat on the bone,' one judge said. 'Yummy.') and Big City, 66 ('Consistent moist texture. More please.') Scores fell off from there.

bullet Number of major disappointments: 1. Marina Grill in Hawaii Kai was nominated by a woman who said her jaw had been wired shut and she wanted her first solid meal to be Marina's. The restaurant closed late last year.

bullet Number of napkins used: 35, extra large size.



Deb's Southern Comforts

Address:120 Hekili St., Kailua (inside D'Coys Sports Bar and Grill, which is in the Pali Lanes building)

Hours: 5-9 p.m. Sunday, Monday, Thursday; 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday. Closed Tuesdays. Open 10:30 a.m. Super Bowl Sunday.

Rib prices: Gutbuster, $12.99; Slab Gutbuster, $18.99. Both include two side orders. Ala carte, $6.50 (4 bones). Catering also available.

Call: 263-3600

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