The Weekly Eater

Nadine Kam

Want some REAL ribs and catfish? Debra Hopkins has 'em, at Deb's Ribs and Old School Soul Food in Kailua. Here she's holding catfish and mashed potatoes, at left, and BBQ ribs and chicken with deep dish macaroni and cheese.

Life’s a picnic with
surf, sand, summer
and smokin’ BBQ

SUMMERTIME and barbecue go hand in hand, but we can't keep a flame burning all the time. Say it's a Wednesday night, you're working past 7, it's just you and the S.O., not enough company to be lighting a fire under huge racks of ribs -- watcha gonna do about that craving for barbecued pork ribs?

Most have easy access to Tony Roma's, winner of the popular vote for Best Pork at the recent Taste of Honolulu. On the windward side, Bob Barr's Smokin' BBQ is gone, but people seem to drive in from across the island for Kevin Two Boots' pressure-cooked Honey BBQ Baby Back Ribs. Now Kev's about to get some competition, because Deb's back in town.

It was five years ago that the Star-Bulletin discovered Debra Hopkins toiling in anonymity in D'Coys Sports Bar and Grill in the Pali Lanes bowling alley, a business within a business within a business that was not all that easy to find. But after she took top honors in our newspaper-sponsored rib contest, the word was out.

Two years ago she started marketing ribs and sauce via Sam's Club, with plans to start a chain of stand-alone restaurants, and for the first she's come home to Kailua, timing her debut close to the Fourth of July when it might be treason to put anything other than such all-American, G-rated family fare as corn on the cob, 'tato salad and chicken fried steak on the table. And, of course, dem bones.

DEB'S RIBS new take-out location is at the Kailua Beach Center, within easy access to those left hungry after a day at the beach. (It won't do to eat first, swim later, which is not only unsafe but can be unsightly.)

Try to show up early because they've been running out of the more popular side dishes before closing time at 8:30 p.m.

The menu is straightforward. Eight entree meats. Sixteen sides. All sitting in stainless steel compartments so you can point to the desired selections, mixing and matching to your opu's content. Sides run $2.50 (small) and $4.50 (large), but you can save a penny to a dollar by ordering one of Deb's Meals with a choice of one to three side orders.

But forget all that for now. Just think catfish-fried chicken-ribs. The entire menu revolves around this trio, and I'm always open to catfish ($5.50 to $11.99) because only a handful of places serve it. Here, it's simply seasoned, rolled in a thin layer of grainy corn meal, then deep-fried to create a sunny yellow, crackly, brittle crust. There's no more to this simple dish than a dollop of tartar sauce served on the side.

Okra is given the same cornmeal and deep-fry treatment and is my second choice as a side. No. 1 would be the collard greens flavored with ham hocks, and somewhere in the hierarchy would be baked beans. Candied yams might as well be listed as a dessert along with sweet potato pie and peach cobbler. It's a little early for the yams -- which taste like an autumn confection with its spicy, aromatic combination of raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves -- but then my most wicked friends love to taunt that if it's mid-summer, Christmas is just around the corner. Evil.

BUT IT'S the ribs ($8.50 half rack; $10.99 to $14.99 as a meal, $16.50 full slab) people come for, and Hopkins learned how to make 'em from her late father Willie L. Hopkins, who grew up in South Carolina. When the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, their home became barbecue central for neighbors who wanted a taste of the South.

These days Deb slow-cooks her babyback ribs with a flame-grilled finish to add the last burst of flavor, resulting with pork ribs that come closer to back-yard style than any other commercial specimen in town.

Her sauce seems to hail more from Elvis country than South Carolina -- a sweet tomato-based sauce with a touch of cayenne or other fiery source. It's painted on thick and red, guaranteed to leave dabs of unwanted rouge everywhere.

A week after opening her landlords at Kaneohe Ranch are telling her she's outgrown her little hole in the wall, and yes, there's barely enough room to move behind the counters, and the rush keeps her running an hour past closing time some nights, but Hopkins doesn't seem to be running out of steam. She's still looking ahead.

"I want to be like L&L, the L&L of soul food," she said.

Deb's Ribs

130 Kailua Road #112 / 262-DEBS (3327)

Food Star Star Star

Service Star Star

Ambience Star Star 1/2

Value Star Star Star Star

Hours: 3:30 to 8:30 p.m. Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and 3:30 to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Cost: About $18 to $25 for two

See some past restaurant reviews in the
Columnists section.

Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants:

very good, exceeds expectations;
below average.

To recommend a restaurant, write: The Weekly Eater, P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, Hawaii 96802. Or send e-mail to


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