Lovin’ Every Minute
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For Richard and Millie Chan, owners of I Love Country Cafe, one thing is certain: Their gourmet food business is deeply rooted in their love for daughter Elizabeth, the inspiration behind this eatery.
“When my daughter was young, we wanted to be responsible parents and give her a nutritious diet,” Richard recalls.
“In preschool, we were always served brown rice because we were told it was healthy,” says Elizabeth, chiming in. “From then on, my parents, who had never had this type of rice in their lives, only served me brown rice.”
That was more than 20 years ago. Since then, the Chans have kept that same commitment by serving up some of the healthiest, home-style meals to kamaaina.
I Love Country Cafe first opened as a small eatery along Fort Street Mall back in 1987. Three years later, the business relocated to a roomier spot along Piikoi Street. What seemed like a landmark to many for close to 20 years would soon close shop, but not before Richard opened a new 1,000-square-foot restaurant on Queen Street.
“We first started serving our own personal recipes,” Richard explains, “and over the years the menu has evolved, and our customers have had a great influence on our current food selection.”
A self-proclaimed “die-hard foodie” herself, Elizabeth is quick to mention that her family lives, breathes and eats for the longevity of the restaurant. As the only child and graduate of Iolani School, Georgetown University and William S. Richardson School of Law, Elizabeth serves as counsel for I Love Country Cafe. At the tender age of 4, she affectionately named the restaurant and now oversees much of the day-to-day operations.
“Right now we’re cross-training the staff at our different locations — Queen Street, the Navy Exchange and downtown,” she explains.
“I collaborate with many of our chefs and work a lot with our bakers on developing new products. This is how I would personally cook at home. I wouldn’t want to serve my customers something that I myself wouldn’t eat.”
And with an ever-expanding menu, Elizabeth says, the restaurant caters to anyone wanting a guilt-free, homemade meal. Everything is served fresh and made to order, utilizing a majority of local ingredients.
The Furikake Mahi ($7.95 small, $9.95) and Fresh Roast Turkey ($9.25, white meat only add an additional $1.30) are among the house specialties. “The Furikake Mahi is very popular. We serve it with rice and stir-fried vegetables,” Elizabeth says. “The Kiawe Steak Wrap ($8.95), served with avocado, mushroom and onions and paired with seasoned fries, is one of my favorites.
“We’re also experimenting with homemade smoked bacon and are slowly immersing it to the menu,” she adds, noting that it can be included with many of the breakfast items.
“I got together with our chef one day and brought over some pork belly. We marinated it for a week and smoked it, and there you have it — smoked bacon.”
According to Elizabeth, the restaurant’s specialty bacon is cut a little thicker than your average bacon, thus giving off a meatier and smokier flavor and taste.
Customers also can create their own salad, but the Cobb Salad ($7.25 small, $8.95 regular) has proven to be a hit, along with the Cheeseburger Deluxe ($7.95), Teri Burger ($6.95) and Garlic Mushroom Burger ($7.50), all made with kiawe-grilled Angus beef patties complete with the perfect pairing of lettuce, tomato, mayo, Dijon mustard and choice of french fries, tossed salad or potato-macaroni salad.
Loyal customers are well aware and new diners will soon find out that I Love Country Cafe is so much more than your average local plate lunch joint. In fact, it stands in a league of its own.
“We cater to most dietary restrictions, whether the customer be vegan or vegetarian,” Elizabeth states. “Pretty much everything on the menu can be adapted to the customer’s request.
“We also have a lot of customers who come in and ask for certain specifications. For instance, they request for their food to be cooked with less oil, no oil, less carbs, or more vegetables,” she says. “I think what’s important about food being good for you is that it’s fresh. There’s a theory in Hong Kong along the lines of, if food is over a day old, you shouldn’t be eating it because the nutrients have vanished.”
Yet, when it comes to the ultimate dining experience, there’s one rule that cannot be broken — you must save room for dessert. And at I Love Country Cafe, freshness is key. Desserts range in price from $1.50 to $5 and feature a diversity of items, including the restaurant’s famous Macadamia Nut Cheesecake, Bread Pudding, Butter Mochi, Vegan Oat Cakes, Brownies and more.
“It’s always exciting to explore new food concepts and recipes,” says Millie, who helps oversee the catering aspect of the business.
“I really enjoy making candy, which is a dying art. Therefore, we do a lot of research when it comes to candy and have actually visited old candy masters in Asia, more specifically Thailand, Hong Kong, Macau and China,” she says. Indeed, Millie’s famous Cranberry Macadamia Nut Candy has been flying off the shelves.
So, while diners are bustling in and out of I Love Country Cafe on a daily basis, the Chans are busy refueling bodies with nutritious and delicious meals. Sure, some may call it work, but for the owners, catering to their guests is a passion. Or as Millie explains it, “Everything here is made from love.”
I Love Country Cafe
- 885 Queen Street
- Honolulu, HI 96813
- (various other locations)
- (808) 596-8108
- (808) 783-7901 (Catering Hotline)
- 7 a.m. – 6 p.m.
- Monday – Friday
- 7 a.m. – 3 p.m.
- Saturday – Sunday