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Refreshed, yet familiar at reopened People’s Cafe

Most Hawaiian food eateries in the islands have been in business for decades, with a long, storied history, evoking a deep sense of personal nostalgia and connection by their loyal patrons and ohana.


Whether it’s the famous Helena’s, Ono’s, Young’s Fish Market, Haili’s and Highway Inn. To the more obscure, yet equally adored People’s Cafe, Kapahulu Poi Shop, Alicia’s Market, Ruger Market, Yama’s Fish Market and Masa & Joyce. Plus likely a few more not mentioned here that you know and love in your neck of the woods.

All of whom we think of almost as institutions, where the very thought of any one them shutting down would be considered an unthinkable tragedy!

Well, People’s Cafe, located near downtown Honolulu next to Pali Long’s, recently left folks in shambles when it appeared they had suddenly closed doors for good several months ago. The only stark clue of what seemed dire remaining being a ‘FOR RENT’ sign posted on the front door, as well as a disconnected business phone line. No!!!!!!!!

The news spread quickly online, with folks concerned practically begging to ask whoever might know ANYTHING, “What happened to People’s Cafe? Did they move? I hope they didn’t close down!”

Then just prior to several weeks ago, a small sign was FINALLY posted on their front door saying they were reopening on Tuesday, September 18th. Whew!

With that sign offering a ray of light, just before reopening, Star Advertiser’s Erika Engle attempted to get more information on People’s Cafe’s owner’s whereabouts and plans for a news story, to no avail. She still got the word out in her ‘Buzz’ column that they were reopening, making references to positive online reviews about People’s Cafe from Urban Spoon, Yelp and blogs such as this one. Mahalos once again for the plug, Erica!

Lack of communication notwithstanding (ehem, a big honkin’ “CLOSED FOR RENOVATION. BE BACK SOON!” banner would have been nice!), they were in fact under renovation, along with a change to a new business phone number.

And now I’m happy to confirm via personal visit this past Tuesday evening, People’s Cafe is indeed back in business!

Sporting a fresh and rejuvenated, yet subtle makeover, while thankfully not doing anything too modern-chic, People’s Cafe has retained the charm and feel of its original old school, local style, very casual ‘n laid back decor, in a fresh, clean, new and inviting look.

Let’s check it out now, with some shots before and after the renovation ….

Before:

After:

Before:

After:

Before:

After (looking towards the opposite corner):

Newly-upholstered cushions replaces the old worn-out ones on the original laminated Formica® faux wood booths, while the tables and chairs remain the same. A fresh coat of what we’ll call “Koloa Plantation Fields” earthen green semi-gloss paint freshens up the walls, while for a contrasting accent on the trellis entrance woodwork, it’s been given a fresh coat of what we’ll call “Waimea Valley” lime green semi-gloss paint.

Here’s more shots around the rejuvenated People’s Cafe…

What I do miss from the previous decor are the watercolor paintings of old Hawaii fishing boats, such as this one that’s now given back to its original owner of the Kula Kai…

As noted in my original review of People’s Cafe, my ex-brother-in-law (whew, that’s a long one! lol) used to work on the Kula Kai Aku boat. And boy, back then did they catch TONS of Aku! All by hand line, too!

I’m not sure if it’s still docked there, but only recently I remember seeing the Kula Kai in a dilapidated state at rest at Kewalo Basin. Hopefully someone will invest in restoring it for static display, perhaps at the Honolulu Maritime Museum. They sure don’t make ’em like that anymore!

Rounding up the make-over, there’s brand new drop ceiling panels and light fixtures setting the mood up above, while wood laminate flooring graces the entrance, finishing it off with large square Travertine floor tile covering the main dining area. Lookin’ sharp!

Summing the renovation up, a well-calculated, rather reserved makeover, where while Robert Irvine and his ‘Restaurant Impossible’ certainly weren’t at hand here, it never-the-less turned out very, very nice!

And the nice folks behind it all are owner Tomas Ventura, along with his sister and assistant Judy…

Hey, that Hawaiian plate on the table looks ONO!  Me thinks we need a closer look!…

Angle B…

Wow! ‘Das one “bambucha” Laulau! Let’s check it out closer…

For presentation, I prefer my Laulau still wrapped in the Ti leaf it was steamed in, as opening it is like unwrapping an edible gift. Just like… oh never mind. lol Ultimately, all that matters is that it TASTES ono, which we’ll soon find out!

Chicken Long Rice…

Gotta’ say, that’s one mighty fine presentation of Chicken Long Rice. Very nice! The only thing I’m questioning is the clarity of the broth, which should have more golden tone to it from the stock-making process. More on that later as well.

Lomi Salmon…

Kalua Pig…

Jus’ da’ way Kalua Pig should be served.. drippin’ JUICE-AYYY!!!  And try look, da’ (the) Laulau stay (is) so bambuchas (massive), da’ buggah’ (the darned thing) stay (is) breaching da’ perimetah’ (perimeter) of da Kalua pig bowl. LOVE THAT!

Haupia…

Gotz’da’ get Poi…

Notice when I photograph Hawaiian food individually, I like to compose it “in situ”, which is to showcase it in its original place, while including at least part of one or several adjacent dishes. Reason being, Hawaiian food is all about the sum of its parts. No single dish is ever truly complete on its own. Kalua Pig just doesn’t taste the same without Lomi Salmon. And Lomi Salmon just doesn’t taste the same without Chicken Long Rice to go along with it, and vice versa with each and every other dish. They all NEED each other to truly be complete.

Speaking of complete, rounding out this spread is the classic sliced wedges of sweet onions and Hawaiian Salt condiment…

Once again, this is the top-of-the-line People’s Cafe “Hawaiian Plate”, including everything you see here for $12.50, which is a pretty sweet deal, especially considering that MASSIVE Laulau, including both Salmon AND Butterfish AND Pork AND Pork Belly in it. Plus, look at how much Poi they give you!  Wow, Laulau, da’ folks at People’s Cafe really geeve’ ’em!!!

What’s funny is, I intended to swing by there after work just briefly to snap a few quick photos and ask a couple basic questions. Then as I was about to leave, Judy says, “Wait, I going make one plate so you can take picture of dee pood” (“the food” in a heavy Filipino accent lol).

Of course I obliged, only concerned about my FJ being parked in the Pali Long’s/Safeway lot next door. To which Judy assured me they’re OK with it, as long as you don’t stay longer than an hour, which is when they start marking tires and running a countdown.

So yeah, while I’m still going strong on my pescetarian diet, stabilized at 176 lbs., I once again had to “take one for the team” and should we say “taste test” this Hawaiian plate I had just taken photos of, meat and all, which otherwise I’m not eating. I mean, besides, how many photographers get to eat their “model” after the photo shoot? The whole time I was so tempted to dive in! lol!

Let’s start by sampling the Kalua Pig…

Oh. Em. Gee! This is by far the BEST Kalua Pig I’ve had in, well, long before I’ve since stopped eating meat!  Seriously, it’s got the perfect level of smokiness, being super moist ‘n fall-apart tender, Hawaiian salted PERFECTLY, while also having all the good ‘n fatty drippings soaked right through every fiber of its smokey porky goodness. In fact, it tastes almost identical to the one I make at home in my oven. Of which Tomas confirmed his is oven-“imu’d”, not done in a real imu like I believe Helena’s still does. Still, to me, if you do it right, oven “imu’d” Kalua Pig is close enough in flavor to pass.

And with that, we’re off to a GREAT RESTART with 5 SPAM Musubi for People Cafe v.2.O Kalua Pig!

Next let’s try that supah bambucha Laulau, digging through the supah’ tick (super thick) layer upon layer of soft, tender Luau (taro) leaves…

Salmon? Check. Pork & Pork Belly? Check. Butterfish? I couldn’t find it in this one, but Tomas says it’s in there. Maybe this one had such a small piece (Butterfish is relatively expensive), that it just melted away into the pork belly.

How’s People Cafe’s Laulau v.2.0 taste? SUPAH ONO! Again, perfectly seasoned with Hawaiian Salt, where the light sprinkle of additional of Hawaiian salt I always add on by default wasn’t necessary at all. The seemingly endless layers of Luau leaves were steam-cooked to tender ‘n moist perfection, where that magical “Hawaiian Luau” flavor really permeated deep into the also succulently tender pork and salmon. Another 5 SPAM Musubi for People’s Cafe v.2.O Laulau!

The Lomi Salmon needed help, as Tomas said he used regular, not salted salmon, for this batch. You MUST use Salted Salmon for Lomi Salmon! Thankfully there were generous amounts of salmon in, so I’ll give it that, while it also tasted VERY FRESH, like it had just been made, because it had!…

Now let’s sample da’ Chicken Long Rice…

Yup, as I expected, the broth, while seasoned perfectly with salt didn’t taste “chicken-ee” enough, while also lacking the accent of ginger, which is also critical for a good Chicken Long Rice. Simmer the broth longer in chicken meat ‘n bones, while add more ginger, and it’d be perfect. The long rice noodles and shreds of white chicken meat were fine. As is, I give People Cafe v.2.0 Chicken Long Rice 2 SPAM Musubi (good).

As for the Haupia, FANTASTIC. Super silky, with a semi-gelatinous, semi-dry-semi-moist texture, while tasting like pure ‘n creamy natural coconut that has the just the right amount of sweetness going on. Judy made it a point to tell me that their Haupia is made from SCRATCH using fresh-squeezed Coconut milk from the flesh of the coconut. Very impressive! None of that powdered instant Haupia stuff here! 5 SPAM Musubi for People’s Cafe v.2.O Haupia, and fantastic way to finish off one overall SUPAH ONOLICIOUS, broke da’ mout’ Hawaiian Plate! Salamat Po Judy and Tomas for hookin’ me up for the photos and the kaukau! Masarap!

So ono in fact, miraculously with how small my meals normally are (eaten more frequently), in one sitting here, I was actually able to POLISH DA’ PLATE!…

Someone pin a medal on me! I swear though, after this VERY EARLY DINNER (we’re talking like 5pm), I felt like I was going into labor. lol Seriously though, man, “stuffed” would be an understatement. More like Kanak Attack!

Oh, and while I was enjoying that amazing Hawaiian plate, Judy brought out an order of Crispy Pata that she wanted me to get a shot of. Check it out…

According to Judy, this is the whole front leg of the pig.

One of these will set you back about $15, which again ain’t bad considering this a family-sized portion… or perhaps just one portion for a greedy Lechon lover. lol

Speaking of crispy, Judy was also eager for me to try their Banana Lumpia…

And? Very nice. Not too greasy, with a very delicate and thin lumpia wrapper that was almost Filo-like. the flat-cut banana within super soft, with just the right balance of sweetness and acidity. Pretty much as perfect as Banana Lumpia gets as far as I’m concerned. 5.

Being People’s Cafe features both Hawaiian AND Filipino cuisine, they sell number Filipino desserts to go at the front counter…

I remember a number of these being served at that 1st Birthday Hello Kitty themed Baby Luau I covered a while back here.

As for ownership, I asked Tomas about it, which he clarified that People’s Cafe was previously owned by Kiyuse Nakasone. Then in 2001, Mr. Nakasone retired, selling the business to Tomas’ OLDER BROTHER Dondy Ventura, who was Mr. Nakasone’s trusted long-time lead cook, who then eventually passed it on to younger brother Tomas. Tomas is now in a partnernship, however I didn’t get around to asking who his business partner is. He also noted that while he’s not positive, he suspects People’s Cafe went through at least one other owner before Mr. Nakasone.

Finally, here’s the takeout menu for People’s Cafe v.2.O…

People’s Cafe menu (updated 9.2012) PDF download here

It’s good to know People’s Cafe is back for the “Kanak Attack”!!!

People’s Cafe (“version 2.0” – reopened September 18, 2012)
1310 Pali Highway (next to Pali Long’s & Safeway)
Honolulu, Hawaii  96813

Tel. (808) 521-5552 (effective Friday, September 28, 2012)
Business hours:
Monday ~ Saturday 10am to 8pm
Sunday 10am to 5pm

The Tasty Island rating:

(4) Excellent. Worth another visit or purchase. (Winnahz!)

Related links:
Hawaiian Eats: People’s Cafe – The Tasty Island review (11.07.09)
People’s Cafe – Yelp user reviews

 

8 thoughts on “Refreshed, yet familiar at reopened People’s Cafe

  • September 27, 2012 at 9:04 pm
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    Salmon eh? LOL. We have done that. In fact we have put serious fresh fish laulau in the imu (always way on top in heavy banana around the ti wrap), with salt salmon to flavor the mahi mahi or ono etc. But in fact salmon is good because it has a lot of fat and more flavor than cod.

    Reply
    • September 27, 2012 at 11:12 pm
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      My only concern about salmon in Laulau is that some may find its distinct flavor too “fishy” and overpowering. In fact, I addressed that concern to Tomas, which he said he has Laulau with just pork for those who don’t like fish.

      Personally, I’d be just as happy with a “vegetarian” laulau made of just Luau leaves! That’s my favorite part, really! As long as get poi for grind wit’ ’em, it’s all good!

      Reply
  • September 27, 2012 at 10:28 pm
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    “I prefer my Laulau still wrapped in the Ti leaf it was steamed in, as opening it is like unwrapping an edible gift. Just like… oh never mind. lol”

    Bad boy… lol

    Reply
    • September 27, 2012 at 11:14 pm
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      Huh? Whuh? What you talkin’ ’bout? LOL!!!

      Reply
  • September 28, 2012 at 8:46 am
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    Wow, what a review. They should be paying you for the free advertisement. Couple things interest me on the menu. The pata for one and the lava rock. Mmmmm….laulau covered with stew gravy. Might have to give it a shot when I’m back in Honolulu.

    Reply
    • September 29, 2012 at 7:43 am
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      While I haven’t tried People Cafe’s ‘Lava Rock’ yet, I think it’s marketing GENIUS. In fact, they have a commemorative T-shirt in honor of their ‘Lava Rock’ dish. “Hawaiian Style” Beef Stew smothered over a Laulau? Now THAT’S as comfort food “Hawaiian Style” as it gets!!! When I have time, I’ll swing by and get photos of ALL their dishes for a website I’d like to help them develop. More on that later.

      Reply
  • September 28, 2012 at 3:12 pm
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    That pood looks gooood. And it looks like you whacked the whole thing? You didn’t just take a hit for the team, you jumped on that grenade.

    Must visit. Soon.

    Reply
    • September 29, 2012 at 7:55 am
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      Yup. The whole thing. Da’ kine’ major “Kanak Attack”, where I felt pregnant afterwards (as if I know what that feels like lol!). Could barely drive home. Seriously!!!

      Reply

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