These Lau Laus Bring Bundles of Joy

Columns What's for Lunch?

February 16, 2014

Story By: Rachel Breit | Photos by: Rachel Breit

If there’s one thing the owners of People’s Cafe are adamant about, it’s that everything they serve is made right in their kitchen.

“We don’t buy it from Costco,” explains co-owner Conrad Valdriz. Save for the poi and some condiments, you can thank chef and other co-owner Tomas Ventura for making the Hawaii classics and Filipino favorites. He’s been with the restaurant since age 17 and keeps the original 80-year old recipes alive, while bringing some of his own.

Listening to Ventura, you’ll learn of one key ingredient that’s not so secret: time. And the only shortcut he takes is not busting out any measuring cups.

“I eyeball,” he admits.

A veteran in the restaurant, his eyes-only approach is no setback. The same goes for Valdriz: “We’ve been doing this for a long time,” he says.

So it’s no mystery why Short Rib Pipikaula Style ($13.95 with poke, kalua pig, lomi salmon, poi or rice, and haupia) and Hawaiian Plate ($12.50 with lau lau, chicken long rice or squid luau, kalua pig, lomi salmon, poi or rice, and haupia) served on trays piled with the assorted dishes, are popular picks for locals. Not to mention, the quick handiwork to be made of Filipino-style Pork Lumpia ($5.50 for 10 pieces), Ventura’s own recipe of ground pork, white pepper, garlic and salt, served with sweet chili dipping sauce.

Before you dig in, you may be curious to know what goes into making the generously portioned dishes barely contained by their serving trays. With so many dishes sitting in front of you, which one will you aim for first?

Why not go for the short ribs marinated in a secret shoyu-based teriyaki sauce for eight hours and then hung on hooks to dry out every night — the traditional preparation for pipikaula?

“You dry it out so the smoke flavor goes inside,” says Ventura. Pick them up to get every last morsel of chewy meat that clings to the bone.

The large ruby cubes of ahi dressed with limu, Hawaiian sea salt, green onions, thinly sliced cucumbers and sesame seeds are gems worth coveting. For the poke, Ventura hand-cuts 40 pounds of fish that arrives each morning directly from the auction. This level of freshness is “why everyone likes it,” says Ventura. He leaves the poke minimally seasoned so diners can add their own shoyu or chili peppers to taste. The crisp vegetables add an element of crunch alongside the ahi’s silky flesh.

If fall-apart meat is what gets you salivating, spear a hearty forkful of kalua pig or lau lau. Four hours is how long it takes to get the juicy, smoky kalua pig into tender shreds. It’s also the amount of time Ventura steams the hand-made lau laus, for which he laboriously cleans taro leaf tops and cuts pork, pork belly and butterfish before wrapping the components in bundles.

Other items ripe for forks or spoons: chicken long rice with translucent noodles swimming in gingery broth, lomi salmon’s fresh tomatoes studded with pink fish and traditionally prepared squid luau.

Save room for a slice of the custardy coconut haupia. The soft-set pudding made from coconut flesh retains its texture just long enough to melt once it hits your tongue — its luxurious mouth feel something not soon forgotten.

People’s Cafe

1310 Pali Hwy., Honolulu
Monday-Saturday, 6:30 a.m.–8 p.m.
Sunday, 6:30 a.m.-5 p.m.

Honolulu, HI 96813

Hawaii's Best
Hawaii's Best