After 57 Years, ‘Ono Hawaiian Foods is Closing for Good
One last lau lau.
At ‘Ono Hawaiian Foods on Kapahulu Avenue, Louis Johnson attempts to fit the whole lau lau in his mouth while his mother, Ally Johnson, holds him back.
Photos: Lorin Eleni Gill
‘Ono Hawaiian Foods is nearly always as crowded as its walls. Its customers are an eclectic mix of newcomers and veterans. Today, there’s a family from Connecticut, two Hawaiian co-workers on their lunch break, two gal pals visiting from Sydney, Australia, and a hungry surfer. They’ve all come to eat while they still can—because the iconic Kapahulu Avenue restaurant is closing the final week of August.
The cramped-yet-cozy restaurant has been serving authentic Hawaiian food for 57 years. And, boy, have they delivered. Without fail, food appears within minutes of ordering. Tables become mosaics of pūpū and poi in an assortment of plastic plates and bowls.
Long-time customer Hannah Apolo says she was so saddened to hear about the restaurant’s closure that she cried.
“This is is the best Hawaiian food to eat besides in your kitchen,” she says. “I like the hospitality, the atmosphere. They’re really good and on it with the service. They make you feel like you’re at home, like this your kitchen you walking into fo’ eat. When you pau, you get the kanak attack.”
She’s not kidding. The lau lau is as heavy and as large as a giant breadfruit. If you’re fearless, order the combo plate ($26), which comes with the lau lau, kālua pig, lomi salmon, pipi kaula, poi, onions, rice, chili sauce and haupia for dessert. It knocks you out.
Digging into the combo plate.
As you try to recover from your kanak attack, the waiters and waitresses never pause to take a breath. Even more impressive? Nearly all of them are more than 50 years old. Co-owner, manager and chef Vivian Lee is in her 70s, but she’s always on her feet. She wouldn’t even sit down for an interview. She preferred to talk story while standing at the foot of our table.
I ask her how she stays energetic.
“Stay moving,” she replies with a smile. “We so used to it already.”
Closing the shop is bittersweet, but it’s time for everyone to retire and enjoy some time off, she says.
“It is sad,” she says. “You know why? We’re going to miss the customers. Everybody is so, so nice. Without the customers, ‘Ono Hawaiian Foods wouldn’t have been able to go on this long. We say thank you to all them.”
from left, Vivian Lee, Doris Maeda, Cynthia Oh Young and Clayton Oh Young, Who run the iconic Kapahulu Avenue restaurant.
Lee still remembers fondly the early days of the restaurant, when she learned how to cook from the late Sueko Oh Young, ‘Ono Hawaiian Foods matriarch, founder and the “No. 1 sweetest lady you could ever meet.”
“I can never forget her,” Lee says. “She was just like a mother to me. We’ve been here so many years. We’re all like family. We all work together.”
The family has stayed true to Oh Young’s business vision and traditions. Just as she did for decades, the ‘Ono staff wakes at 5 a.m., six days a week, to prepare the lau lau, which must steam for at least three hours.
“Mama wanted it that way,” says Cynthia Oh Young, Sueko’s daughter-in-law and co-owner. “It’s the real old-fashioned stuff.”
It’s also because of Sueko that the restaurant has remained rooted at its original location, despite multiple opportunities to move or expand.
“We had many chances to move out and we were going to open one by Pi‘ikoi Street,” Oh Young recalls. “Then they wanted us to go in Aloha Tower Marketplace. But Mom, she no like. She wanted to keep it like how it stay.”
‘Ono’s dependability has drawn famous customers including Anthony Bourdain, Richard Chamberlain, George Takei and Muhammad Ali. Its consistency has also brought the Yup family from Connecticut to ‘Ono Hawaiian Foods for 24 years.
“It feels like very authentic home cooking,” Jack Yup says from across our shared table. “We’ve tried a lot of local places and this is our favorite. I was hoping it would be here forever.”
“I was hoping to bring my kids here,” his daughter, Kiana Yup, chimes in. “There’s just something different about this place.”
“All the aunties here are so lovely,” his wife, Fei Yup, adds.
“They remember us,” Jack Yup concludes. “You feel like you belong here, which is hard to find anywhere else.”
‘Ono Hawaiian Foods will be closing sometime between Aug. 26 and 31. 726 Kapahulu Ave. Breakfast, lunch and dinner served from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, except Sundays. (808) 737-2275.
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