Corey Masao Johnson
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
The first scratch of dawn has yet to mark the sky. Wiping away tired eyes, I cut the car engine a few steps away from the entrance to Hilo Lunch Shop. It’s a good 10 minutes or more before their 5:30 a.m. opening, but even then I’m not the first to arrive. A lone figure is joined by another, then another, and another, as one minute slips into the next. In the store’s double doors, freshly made okazu are arranged neatly, encased under glass and light.
At 5:28, the small crowd is let in, and by a quarter to 6, there’s a line wrapping around the storefront’s large windows. Construction workers in highlighter shades of yellow and orange buy breakfast and lunch for the worksite, mixing in with early-bird office workers in aloha attire and pressed slacks. Occasionally, a customer catches a familiar eye in line, sharing a few words be-fore heading out, box lunch in hand. The door’s metal hinge swings open and shut; the sky turns to grey. I wait for a chance to snap a photo of the employees behind the counter, but the line gets in the way.
“It’s just gonna get longer,” owner Al Nakamura tells me as I duck into the kitchen. I guess the photo will have to wait.
Hilo Lunch Shop is one of a handful of longtime okazuya in town. Along with Cafe 100, Suisan Fish Market and a few others, it’s on my “must-eat” list of “while in Hilo” places that I’ve come to appreciate after being away. At the same time, the allure of local-style okazu is hard to explain to the uninitiated. I’ve brought friends from England and New York into Hilo Lunch Shop, describing okazu as a kind of à la carte Japanese takeout and okazuya as the mom-and-pop eateries that specialize in them. On O‘ahu, Fukuya, Mitsuba, Gulick and Sekiya‘s brand themselves as Japanese “delicatessen.”
One of my more amusing experiences in the shop came while I was waiting in line a half-dozen steps back from an awestruck Japanese tourist, saying in Japanese to no one in particular, “Wow — Hilo Lunch Shop. To think I could find this on vacation.” On second thought, maybe we’re better off calling it “Japanese soul food.”
The word okazu is centuries-old. In the hidden language of Japan’s Imperial Court, the term arose with ladies assembling a “number,” or kazu, of items to accompany a simple meal of rice, broth and tsukemono, or pickled vegetables. An austere diet was paired with a single okazu, while a meal with three okazu was usually reserved for special days or as an extravagance for visitors. The term was first recorded in a Christian missionary’s journal during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1603) and published in the “Nippo Jisho,” a Japanese-Portuguese dictionary dating from 1603 to 1604. As the word entered common usage by the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868), okazuya arose as convenient places to easily pick up side dishes for the family dinner.
In Japan today, stand-alone okazuya are a rare sight. This past summer, I was surprised enough to snap a photo of a local okazuya I stumbled across two blocks from the Kamakura beachside. (It had closed for the day, unfortunately.) Instead, chain bentö shops are a common find, while the easiest place to source okazu in Japan are the dedicated warm food counters at the edge of most supermarkets. These okazu are often snapped up as quick sides for dinner, or else as late-night snacks for lonely bachelors, discounted an hour or so before closing.
Even on O‘ahu, some of my favorite okazuya have shuttered in recent years. On the other hand, Hilo has no shortage of choices. Hilo Lunch Shop is joined by Kawamoto Store and Asami’s Kitchen, both downtown, along with Hiro’s Place next to the Puainako KTA. Likewise, Cousin’s Seafood and Bento on Lanikäula Street and a dozen other places offer premade bentö to go.
I find myself with a few days left in Hilo as summer lazes to a close, giving me some time to hang around the shop and talk story. Led by Al Nakamura, Hilo Lunch Shop is on its fourth set of owners. Al is joined by his wife Junette, her parents Susumu (“Sus”) and June Shigemasa and her sister Suzette. Collectively, they bought the shop almost a decade ago, with Sus negotiating the sale from a childhood friend. After clean-up on a Thursday afternoon, I pull up a worn chair windowside and chat with Sus about the shop’s history.
Sus tells me that the shop started “many, many moons ago. Must be about thirty years or more.” Originally located on Keawe Street in downtown Hilo between Kaläkaua and Haili streets, it was opened by the Okuna family before being sold to a Mrs. Honda, one of the store’s employees. After operating near Chiefess Kapi‘olani School (kitty-corner from Cafe 100), the third owner, Stanley Maeda, relocated to the shop’s current location on Kalanikoa Street, across from the Hilo Civic Auditorium. Maeda occupied just a corner of the current storefront, but when the neighboring business, Airport Flowers, left the building, he expanded into the vacated space.
Sus and Stanley were both born and raised together in Ka‘u, and when Stanley ran the lunch shop, Sus used to help him out in the back once in a while. Eventually, Stanley began thinking about retirement.
“Well, it took two years for the previous owner to really consider who to sell it to,” Sus‘ wife June explains, taking a seat next to her son-in-law. “And Al wanted a career change. That’s how it all happened.”
The handover took place on Oct. 1, 2005, in what Al calls a “turnkey” transition, with the shop’s employees passing along the know-how involved in preparing the shop’s signature foods. Sus and June agreed to help out with the business for a decade during what might have otherwise been a quiet retirement.
“One thing, I’ve never gone through so many tennis shoes in my life!” June notes. “If I wash them, they last longer. This pair is less than a year — nine months. You see the hole on the left toe? I didn’t realize I had that.”
What happens next October, when the 10 years are up?
Sus is quick to answer: “I ain’t gonna come! I’m gonna play more golf if I’m living.”
Hilo Lunch Shop is staffed by dedicated employees, and I can tell that Al takes pride in his business. It’s not for everyone, though. For one, he starts earlier than most.
“Three in the morning,” he says, thinking through his routine. “Cook the rice. Bring out whatever has to be heated up and cooked. Then we start making. The other worker kinda comes in around 3:30, 4 o‘clock. Mostly all the food is out front be-fore we open. One person makes all the salads, gets it out. When we get catering, we get double duty,” he says, remembering how busy the shop gets. “Ah, that’s how it goes.”
Was it a good decision to take over? “Oh yeah,” Al says without hesitating at all.
It may be one of the best things brought over from Japan, but Hawai‘i’s okazu has evolved over the years to cater to local tastes. Okazu in Hawai‘i tends to be meat-heavy, while its image in Japan leans toward grilled fish and prepared vegetables. Spam musubi is a local favorite that has sadly yet to make the return journey back across the Pacific. There are even some variations between the islands in Hawai‘i.
O‘ahu tends to have garlic chicken on the menu, while Hilo favors Korean chicken. What’s the difference? From what I’ve seen, the sauce for garlic chicken tends to be cooked until the sugar caramelizes, thickening into a glaze, while Korean chicken is dipped in a thinner sauce more likely to have a mix of roasted sesame seeds, green onion and red pepper. Korean chicken is usually made from wings and drummettes, while garlic chicken is more often boneless. Likewise, as the name implies, garlic chicken has, well, more garlic. Other than that, I’m not sure — I’ve even heard people mistake one for the other. I guess it’s sort of like the difference between shave ice and ice shave, or else whatever you call that blue-lined loose-leaf paper that elementary school students bring to class: binder paper, folder paper or notebook paper, depending on where you went to school. Whatever works for you.
One of my favorite okazu at Hilo Lunch Shop is the 95-cent hot dog musubi, completed with a crisp slice of takuwan. Also a must-have is their nori chicken, deboned and deep-fried with a thin strip of the dried seaweed holding everything together. Along with their pork hash, it often sells out an hour or more before lunchtime.
The menu isn’t strictly Japanese, with pork blood on Tuesdays, chow fun on Wednesdays, and kalua pork on Fridays and Saturdays. Business ramps up during football season, and they also feature seasonal specials like lomi maki for the Merrie Monarch Festival events, some of which are held across the street at the Hilo Civic Auditorium every spring.
“With the hälau (hula school) upstairs (from the shop) — it’s a very exciting week. After rehearsals, they would come and pick up lunch,” Al recalls, thinking about the line stretching out the door. Lomi maki, a Hilo Lunch Shop original, pops up on the menu whenever Kamehameha Schools puts in an order for lomi salmon. On those occasions, Al makes a little extra lomi salmon to use in the lomi maki for the okazuya. Lomi maki? My mouth waters as Al explains. “We drain the liquid from the lomi salmon and then lay it on a bed of regular rice and roll it, wrapped with nori.” Mmmmm . . .
On the whole, though, the menu has not changed much over the years.
With no shortage of out-of-town customers, one common question is whether Hilo Lunch Shop will ever open a branch in Kona, since there’s nothing like it on the other side of the Big Island. Al shakes his head, smiling at the thought. “Too much work.”
I ask him why he thinks customers keep coming back. “You can come to the Lunch Shop every day and eat something different.” It’s true — there are close to sixty different offerings on their menu. I ask about their best sellers and Al rattles off a list: “Nori chicken, cone sushi, maki sushi. Our mac salad is really popular, too. They see that, they see that,” he says, pointing. “They fill up the box.”
I know the feeling. With eyes too big for my stomach, my box is stuffed to the brim. It’ll be two days before I get through it all.
Corey Masao Johnson is a Ph.D. student in the Program in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford University. The Hilo High School alumnus earned his undergraduate degree at Harvard University and worked in the JET Program in Fukui Prefecture before continuing his studies at Oxford University.
KEEP HANDY INFO:
Hilo Lunch Shop
421 Kalanikoa St., Hilo
Open Tuesday – Saturday, 5:30 a.m. – 1 p.m.