Beyond lau lau

By Jackie M. Young

POSTED: Wednesday, January 07, 2009

People's Cafe
1310 Pali Highway; 536-5789
Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays

  The dish: Salt Meat with Watercress is “;very popular, especially with the guys,”; according to waitress Judy Ventura, sister of the owner. Its alternate, Teri Ahi with Watercress, is “;more for the girls.”; Also on the menu are Plain Salt Butterfish with Watercress and Teri Butterfish with Watercress.

To prepare the salt meat, beef ribs are marinated two to three days with Hawaiian rock salt, then boiled 90 minutes, until tender. Fresh watercress is added to the hot beef broth as it's served. The result is a tasty beef soup with a slight Chinese tang.

“;All our watercress dishes are popular, everyday food,”; said Judy.

The restaurant: 33-year-old Thomas Ventura is the fourth owner of the long-established eatery. He bought it from his older brother Dondy in 2005, when Dondy moved to Las Vegas. In turn, Dondy had taken over ownership in 2003 from second owner Kiyoshi Nakasone and his daughters, who ran the downtown restaurant for 35 years. Both Thomas and Dondy started as cooks for the Nakasones.

Thomas comes from a large, extended family of 16 children (his father married twice), originally from Laoag City in the northern Philippines. He came to Hawaii in 1992 when he was 17 to join the rest of his family here.

His first job was at Jack in the Box in Kalihi, then at the Pagoda Hotel as a cook. Within a year, Dondy had him cooking at People's Cafe for the Nakasones. “;I learned all my Hawaiian cooking from Dondy and the Nakasones,”; Thomas said. “;We've kept the same menu as the Nakasones had it when they were here. And we still continue to have many longtime customers, even from as far away as Makaha.”;

What does he like best about the restaurant business? “;You never get hungry.”;

  Highway Inn
94-226 Leoku St., Waipahu; 677-4345
Open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays

  The dish: “;My grandfather created Wet (Soft) Pipikaula for 'older' people,”; said Monica Toguchi, daughter of owner Bobby Toguchi. “;Older customers sometimes had a difficult time biting into the 'dry' pipikaula, so he made that dish specifically with them in mind. The other reason it is called 'wet' is because there's somewhat of a gravy to this dish. Every now and then we have customers who specifically order rice with 'wet/soft pipi' gravy over it.”;

“;Pipi”; in Hawaiian means “;beef”; and “;kaula”; means “;rope”; or “;string”; (it's normally dried in long strips). Wet Pipikaula is chunky, and the beef is oven-cooked rather than dried. Seasoned with salt, soy sauce and sugar, it takes about two hours to prepare and cook, but it's well worth it: The result is a very tender, flavorful meat dish.

The restaurant: The complex history of Highway Inn spans more than 60 years and three generations, to original owners Seiichi and Sachiko (Nancy) Toguchi. Born in Hawaii, but raised in Okinawa, Seiichi returned to Hawaii at age 14 and started working as a dishwasher at the old City Cafe in Honolulu. He was quickly promoted to cook's apprentice (”;that's also where he met my grandmother, who was a waitress there,”; noted Monica).

Although he learned Hawaiian cooking at City Cafe, “;it's a standing joke in my family that the federal government financed my grandfather's training in American cooking, because they made him work in the mess hall at the Japanese internment camp in Tulelake, Calif., during World War II,”; Monica said.

In 1947, Seiichi opened Highway Inn (so-named because it was on Farrington Highway—it moved in 1960 near the old Arakawa's on Waipahu Depot Road, and then to Leoku Street in 1984).

When Seiichi retired in 1979, son Bobby took over; when Bobby had a stroke in 2003, Monica, 36, her sisters Regina, 30, and later Kinu, 29, all came back from school and travel to help manage the family business.

“;My father added our fish market next door and started our catering division in 2000,”; said Monica. “;Our challenge now is how to maintain the business through future years.”;

  Young's Fish Market
City Square Shopping Center, 1286 Kalani St., Kalihi; 841-4885
Open 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. weekdays; 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays

  The dish: “;About a year ago, Wen Hao (president of Marine Agrifuture), brought me some samples of a new aquatic plant they were growing in partnership with the Kahuku shrimp farm, called sea asparagus,”; explained owner Alan Young. “;I tried different ways of cooking it—putting it in poke, pickling it, etc. This salad is the best result I got and is my own recipe.”;

Sea Asparagus Salad (not on the menu, but in the takeout display case) is a scrumptious concoction of raw sea asparagus, dried shrimp, tomatoes, Maui onions, green onions and sesame seed oil. It's similar in taste to lomi salmon, but more crunchy and fresh-tasting.

According to Hao, this new, miniature plant (looks like tiny asparagus) has been in development for about eight years, since his days working at the University of Hawaii. “;I formed the company to address the current food crisis of limited arable land and global warming. Sea asparagus is grown exclusively in salty or ocean water,”; said Hao.

The restaurant: Another long-standing family business, Young's Fish Market was originally what its name implied: a store that sold fish. Then Alan's father, Wilfred, started selling Chinese groceries and preserved seeds in order to offset the slow times of the fishing season. Later, he started to cook Chinese dishes. A friend suggested cooking some Hawaiian food, and one thing led to another until Young's evolved into the self-serve Hawaiian/Chinese restaurant and fish specialty store it is now.

Wilfred and Charlotte Young started the business in 1951 on Liliha Street, next to Jane's Fountain (”;This was more of a manufacturing plant,”; Alan noted. “;There was no sit-down area”;). Wilfred came to Honolulu from San Francisco as a boy, and worked in the Chinatown fishmarkets, as well as at Pearl Harbor Naval Supply Center; Charlotte came from Kauai.

The Liliha plant stayed open until 2003, but the Youngs also ran a second branch in the Chun-Hoon Shopping Plaza (now the Nuuanu Shopping Plaza) from 1956 to 1983, then a store in the Kapalama Shopping Center in 1984. In 2000, the Kapalama store moved across Dillingham Boulevard to its present location in City Square.

Alan and his sister Barbara bought the business from their dad in 1979, but Barbara died four years ago, so Alan's looking to his son Daniel, 22, to carry the business into the third generation. “;I've never forced any of my children to work in the business, though,”; said Alan, “;so it'll be up to Daniel if he wants to take over.”;

On the Net:
For Jackie M. Young's previous restaurant explorations:

» Beyond pho—

» Beyond kalbi—

» Beyond pad thai—

» Beyond adobo—

» Beyond buritos—

» Beyond curry—





        Seiichi Toguchi worked at the old City Cafe in Honolulu, later opening Highway Inn in Waipahu. This article originally stated that Highway Inn opened in the City Cafe location. Also, Toguchi's granddaughter, Kinu, is 29. Her age was given as 35.