Rainbow Drive-In Flourishing After 50-Plus Years

Features Inside Feature

January 28, 2012

Story By: Dining Out Team |

When Seiju and Ayako Ifuku opened Rainbow Drive-In just off Kapahulu Avenue in 1961, their goal was to offer up food geared toward the working class and beach crowd.

The couples’ philosophy was to serve plate lunches featuring ample portions of simple but delicious food accompanied by two scoops of rice and a scoop of macaroni salad — and all at reasonable prices. More than 50 years later, the tradition continues as kamaaina and visitors flock from around the island and the world to eat at Rainbow Drive-In.

  • Rainbow Drive-In cashier manager Tessie Viloria with Mix Plate ($7.75)
  • BBQ Pork ($7.25)
  • Mix Plate ($7.75)
  • Mahi Plate ($8.25)
  • Boneless Chicken ($7)
  • Mahi Sandwich ($4.50)
  • Chili Plate ($6) and Rainbow Drive-In Hawaiian Style Chili Seasoning & Rub ($4.95)
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Fittingly, Rainbow’s Kapahulu location serves as a link between customers of multiple backgrounds. On a recent visit, the line at the eatery’s order window included tourists from Japan and Canada, visitors from the Mainland, a few construction workers taking a break from the sweltering heat, and former University of Hawaii turned Oakland Raiders football player Samson Satele, who was in town for Pro Bowl festivities. As Rainbow Drive-In vice president Jim Gusukuma puts it, “we have a great mix of customers, from construction workers to office workers, and look at the amount of tourists we have here. It’s a great mix, and it kind of represents all the colors of the rainbow, and that’s what we’re all about. We’re so proud that we can appeal to a great cross-section of customers.”

Little has changed in the 50-plus years since Rainbow Drive-In began pumping out popular plates. After all, why mess with recipes that have been shared with multiple generations of diners? The only noticeable alteration to the iconic eatery can be found at its menu display, where digital screens have replaced the old static and handwritten menu boards. But don’t worry, the menu items and recipes haven’t changed a bit, Gusukuma insists.

“We just completed our 50th anniversary celebration in October, 2011, and going forward, we intend to be around for the next 50 years so we’ve modernized a little bit,” says Gusukuma, the son-in-law of the establishment’s owners. “If you come down to Rainbow Drive-In, you’ll notice that we have replaced our static menus with digital boards; we used to use hand-written dry erase boards for our specials, but now we feature a revolving digital board. Even though we’ve done some things to modernize, our food is still the same, original recipes, the Ifuku family still owns and operates the restaurant and we haven’t changed the food or its presentation one bit.”

Following a brief absence because of a lack of supply and soaring prices, mahi mahi recently made its return to the Rainbow menu at the start of the new year. Customers may indulge in favorites including Mahi Plate ($8.25), which features tender, juicy pieces of fish with tartar sauce and Mahi Sandwich ($4.50).

“I don’t know why there was a shortage, but I do know that mahi mahi was difficult if not impossible to get,” Gusukuma says. “And, if you could get it, it was so expensive that we decided not to serve it because one of the things Rainbows is known for is good value. At the time, mahi was very popular, but the cost-per-plate would have been too high for us. So, we substituted ahi and katsu-ed it, and while customers enjoyed it, the majority of them expected mahi and wanted it back. After the first of the year, we were able to secure some mahi mahi at a more-reasonable price and we are offering it again. We’re happy to do it, too.”

Mahi is also a major component of the eatery’s most popular plate, Mix Plate ($7.75). The heaping helping features mahi mahi, teriyaki barbecue beef and boneless chicken all perched atop the standard two scoops of rice and a scoop of macaroni salad. Boneless Chicken ($7) is another local favorite, and comes smothered with brown gravy.

“Our Mix Plate is the most popular plate,” says Gusukuma as he offers advice to a first-time customer who was in awe of all the tasty offerings from which to choose. “It’s kind of a sampler, so it has mahi mahi fillet, teriyaki beef and our boneless chicken cutlet. Boneless Chicken is our second most popular plate, and it comes with brown gravy. Although Mix Plate is the most popular, Boneless Chicken is not far behind.”

Customers also return for other local favorites including BBQ Pork ($7.25), which features a marinade that has been used since the store originally opened, as well as Chili Plate ($6). Rainbow chili has become so popular that the restaurant now sells individual chili mix packets so customers can make and enjoy the dish at home. Hawaiian Style Chili Seasoning and Rub ($4.95) is available at the RainbowTiki store located next door to the restaurant, and Gusukuma suggests using the powder as both a seasoning as well as a dry rub for spicing grilled meat. The store also offers everything under the proverbial rainbow, from T-shirts and hats to bags and gift cards.

And, as a special scoop for Dining Out readers, Gusukuma announced that customers will soon be able to purchase packets of Rainbow’s famous brown gravy and pancake mix. Stop by the RainbowTiki store after ordering a plate for more details.

“We’re grateful that our customers have allowed us to be here for the last 50 years, and we really, really appreciate it,” says Gusukuma as he smiles while watching customers dig into their plate lunches. “If you’ve been here before, you know that we try to keep our prices as low as possible, and give quick service while serving good food. That’s the secret to our success. If we didn’t have the customers who continually support us, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do.”

Rainbow Drive-In

  • Where
    • 3308 Kanaina Avenue
    • Honolulu, HI 96815
  • Call
    • (808) 737-0177
  • Hours
    • Open daily
    • 7 a.m. – 9 p.m.
  • Notes
    • Free parking available.
  • Website