I was born and raised in Kahala, a stone’s throw from Kaimuki, and I have lots of fond memories of visiting its five-and-dime stores when I was a kid. My brother used to collect coins, and we’d catch the Number 14 bus to Kaimuki to buy more, then we’d get take-out dim sum in a waxed paper bag. As a teenager, I remember going to the dilapidated Queen Theater to catch, say, The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Free Ride, a classic 1970s surf movie.
I moved to Kaimuki in 1995. There are ridges and valleys all over the neighborhood that make for spectacular hikes, with waterfalls and panoramic views. I especially like to walk the seven-mile Lanipo trail during straberry guava season and pick fruit for the jams and jellies we serve at our three restaurants.
In the past decade, I’ve watched the area undergo a renaissance, with an influx of coffeehouses, boutiques, yoga studios, and restaurants that cater to a young, healthy local clientele. Luckily, it still possesses its classic neighborhood charm.
I wouldn’t want Kaimuki to become too hipster; I’m getting too old for that. But I do like to see homegrown businesses coming in rather than the big brands—Curb coffee instead of Starbucks, the Sugarcane shop instead of the Gap.
The neighborhood’s mix of new and nostalgic made me choose it as the place to open my first restaurant, Town, almost 11 years ago. Town is all about showcasing Hawaiian ingredients in their purest, simplest form. I followed that up in 2014 with Kaimuki Superette, a sandwich and coffee shop.
Last year I opened Mud Hen Water across the street from Town. This is where I really go back to my island roots; the menu is totally based on the flavors I grew up with. We serve a Hawaiian dish called squid luau, made with slow-braised taro leaves and octopus (called squid, locally). Traditionally, it’s made with canned coconut milk, but we like to juice our own coconuts. It’s not that we’re meddling with a classic; we’re just tweaking it to make it a little better.
Most of the popular places to eat in Honolulu are in tourist districts. The restaurant business is easier when you cater to out-of-towners: They come in only once, pay whatever you charge, and you never hear them complain because you never see them again.
But I didn’t want that. I wanted to be part of a community, in a neighborhood where I could feed the same people day in and day out. I have a constant stream of regulars who tell me what they like or don’t like, that they want things this way or that way, and I take care of them—they’re exactly why I do what I do.
—As told to Jennifer Flowers