Haili's looking for a new home


POSTED: Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Haili sisters' sentiments are so heartfelt when they talk about their family business, Haili's Hawaiian Foods, that you wonder whether that earnest affection seeps into their laulau or smoothes out the smokiness of their kalua pig, just right.

For 59 years Haili's held court at the Ward Farmer's Market, formerly the Ala Moana Fish Market. But in March the family was informed that its lease would not be renewed; come August, the entire farmer's market space will house Marukai.

“;It was a surprise,”; says Rachel Haili, namesake of their mother and head of the family operation.

Though she smiles and nods in agreement as her sister Lorraine Haili Alo talks of looking forward and new opportunities, there is a sadness in Rachel's eyes that belies her sunny demeanor. It's a look she shares with Lorraine and another sister, Donna Haili Pang.

Lorraine admits it hasn't been easy.

“;For me it's very emotional,”; she says, also with a smile. “;I was born and raised here. There's a sadness but there's opportunity, too. When one door closes, another opens.”;

The sisters are sitting around an outdoor table shaded by a bright red umbrella in a pretty, grassy corner nook of the Ward Centers parking lot across from Ward Theaters. It's the home of their new incarnation of Haili's — a spanking new, 30-foot, fully equipped lunch wagon.

The shiny white wagon is adorned with colorful, larger-than-life images of the items that make Haili's legendary: squid luau, chicken long rice, poi, haupia, lomi salmon and an especially gigantic laulau. The wagon blends in nicely with the space, itself decorated with a pretty, landscaped garden. Altogether, it's a cheery sight.

“;We wanted to change the image of the lunch wagon, turn it into something more upscale,”; says Lorraine.

“;The first thing I thought when I visualized this was, 'Oh, in a parking lot?'”; says Donna. “;But now that it's here, I'm amazed and satisfied. So I said, 'Thanks, Mom,' because my mom ran a blue lunch wagon at Kapiolani Community College in the '70's, under a big tree in a dusty parking lot. She was retired and wanted something to keep herself busy.”;

THIS LUNCH WAGON offers up classic Haili's plates such as the combo with kalua pig, laulau (pork or chicken), lomi salmon, haupia and poke ($10); pulehu steak and chicken long rice ($9); and beef or tripe stew ($7). All come with either poi or rice. And, in the spirit of moving forward, it also includes a new menu featuring wraps filled with ahi, kalua pig or pulehu steak topped with homemade mango salsa ($7); Hawaiian-style hot dogs dressed with pineapple and kim chee ($5); and a new dessert, Banana ala Haili's: grilled bananas, vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce and crushed macadamia nuts ($4).

Until the end of the month, the sisters will operate Haili's two sites. Regular customers can partake of the full menu at the farmer's market; after that the lunch wagon will offer its abbreviated menu. Haili's catering will continue to offer the full menu. The search for a new permanent site has already begun.

Rachel says its important to the family that they continue to offer food in the Ward area throughout the transition.

“;This keeps us in touch with our customers,”; she says.

Not all Haili's regulars know about the move. Ikaika Soares, a truck driver from Waialua, was taken aback by the news.

“;I've been coming here since I was a child, with my grandfather. It's like eating food at home,”; he says.

Soares is relieved the lunch wagon will keep Haili's lunches available. “;I like everything,”; he says.

Lorraine sees potential in their parking-lot restaurant.

“;I kinda like this. I hope it'll take off,”; she says with a laugh. “;Customers ask, 'Can you bring one to our side?' It's one consideration.”;

For now the sisters are hoping to turn their outdoor space into a “;backyard luau.”; They're seeking musicians or halau interested in performing on weekends.

“;Come jam and hang out,”; urges Rachel.

PART OF WHAT the Hailis are trying to preserve is an authentic Hawaii experience. When their parents started the business in the 1950s, the area catered to the fishing industry.

“;At Kewalo Basin they used to unload aku boats,”; Rachel reminisces. “;There was an ice house, the tuna packers, and the fish markets didn't even carry produce. It was all fresh fish, meat and pork.”;

Back then the Haili operation was literally a family affair.

“;We made laulau in our garage. We would all be in a line. Everyone was either putting meat on leaves or wrapping,”; recalls Lorraine.

And while the business has grown beyond the family garage, some aspects of the operation still remain the same.

“;For the squid luau, Mom would boil what the fishermen brought. We still do it the same way she cooked. We don't have any automated boiler pots or equipment like that. We're still using regular steamer pots, cooking the old-fashioned way,”; Lorraine says.

Customers come from far and wide for the squid luau and ake (raw beef liver), traditional Hawaiian fare almost impossible to find on restaurant menus today. Joe Kahiapo drives in from Mililani whenever he has a hankering for ake or, as was recently the case, he's getting ready to visit his brother in Florida.

“;He craves the stuff,”; Kahiapo says. “;They're the only ones making ake, so you don't get it unless you come here or know someone who makes it at home.”;

Carol Komatsu of Kaneohe visits Haili's once or twice monthly. She says the food is great, but what motivates her patronage most of all is a desire to keep longtime venues like this one in business.

“;I've grown up with this place. I was 13 when I started coming here, and that was 50 years ago. It's kinda like home,”; she says. “;It's too bad old places like this are closing down. I support the places I want to see stay.”;

It's folks like Komatsu whom Donna wants to continue serving.

“;I still want to be in touch with local families, customers who have become friends. I love coming to work and being among people I've grown up with,”; she says.

“;People living on the mainland reconnect with their childhoods when they come,”; Rachel adds. “;They come here and eat the same food they had when their grandmas brought them.

“;There are a lot of different responses to this lunch wagon. Hopefully, people will patronize us here. We want to offer a little bit of Hawaiiana in the middle of all these chains of restaurants.”;


For Haili's catering, or for those interested in performing at the lunch wagon site, call 593-8019.



Courtesy Haili's Hawaiian Foods

2 pounds chicken breast, skin and bone removed

4 tablespoons canola oil

1 piece fresh ginger

2 pounds cooked luau (young taro leaves)

2 cups reserved water from cooking luau

2 teaspoons Hawaiian salt, or to taste

1 13-ounce can coconut milk

Dice chicken into 2- to 3-inch squares.

In oil, brown ginger, then chicken. Add luau water and salt. Simmer until chicken is tender.

Add coconut milk and drained luau leaves. Mixture should have soft, chewy consistency; if desired, add more water or coconut milk to taste. Serves 25.

Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving: 80 calories, 6 g total fat, 3 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 200 mg sodium