Field Notes: Eat, Shop and Talk Story at this Warehouse-Turned-Food Court
Field Notes explores Honolulu’s vast and varied scenes and subcultures. This month: Moanalua 99.
Mini Garden Express is one of the oldest vendors at Moanalua 99.
Photos: David Croxford
What it is
Roughly 130,000 square feet of warehouse space with 21 food vendors and 17 retail shops in Māpunapuna.
It’s a food court, a gathering place, a shopping mall. There are no frills and very little aesthetic décor, which is why, at first glance, it seems run–down, but that’s the charm of Moanalua 99. Round and long tables with chairs are set up in front of two large-screen TVs, so people can sit down with their food and spend hours talking story. There are 442 parking stalls outside, with no time limit.
The food offerings range from gyro sandwiches from Mary’s Mediterranean Kitchen to slices of premium chu-toro from Take’s Fish Market. Unique ingredients including peeled split mung bean, spicy pork ear and bittersweet watermelon are sold at Diana Bounthieng’s farmers market. Yum Thai Salad just arrived, still finding its place in the Moanalua 99 dynamic. There’s Watanabe Bakery, a vape shop, two payphones and, in the back, the Chinese restaurant Wah Kung Restaurant. If it’s your birthday, the owner will come out and belt out a personal birthday song.
It’s all very haphazard and fun.
What it used to be
Moanalua 99 used to be a warehouse distribution center for companies like General Electric and Paradise Beverage. Originally owned by Saito Ryoui, and now Hiroshi Kobayashi, it was the site of an Asian supermarket chain called 99 Ranch Market from 1998 to 2007.
“We wanted to open an Asian marketplace that targeted Chinese and Vietnamese folks, but people thought we were crazy, especially to open it there in the warehouse,” says Kobayashi, who came to Hawai‘i in the ’60s from Japan. He’s a Farrington High School grad and speaks fluent Japanese and English.
After the supermarket ran into financial troubles and closed down, the food court area and several food vendors remained open, and the place evolved into Moanalua 99. (Of course, many people still call it 99 Ranch.) According to Kobayashi, vendors like Moanalua 99 because they pay rent for their own space but not the surrounding food court area.
Farrington High School, class of ’57.
The lunch rush starts at 11 a.m. and dies down by 2 p.m. There are construction workers, military from Fort Shafter, employees from surrounding businesses and families. Those who aren’t on the clock tend to lag behind and watch television. Closer to evening, parents pick up and drop off their kids from the gymnastics classes held at Hawaiian Island Twisters. They pick up food, too, so they don’t have to cook dinner for the kids.
Toward the back of the warehouse, midday on a Wednesday, there’s a group of about 30 elderly local folk who have strung a bunch of tables together. They are McKinley High School grads, class of ’56. They’re here because there’s plenty of parking, and they don’t get kicked out. They meet at least once a month to reminisce and talk about their “aches and pains, and the kids,” says Jane Fukioka.
On the other side of the warehouse is Farrington High School, class of ’57. There are two married couples, together since high school. “He was the quarterback, I was the songleader,” says Arlene Bierne.
What brings everyone back together after so many years? “Camaraderie!” she says.
The Long Timers
One of the oldest vendors at Moanalua 99 is Mini Garden Express. Saito Ryoui had a soft spot for Chinese food and would eat it at least three times a week. Mini Garden used to be one of his favorites and, when Ryoui passed away, Mini Garden moved from its downtown location to Moanalua 99 in his honor.
Then there’s Lillian Hong. She’s the Chinese-American owner of a shop, selling handcrafted semiprecious stones, necklaces, bracelets, earrings, keychains and more. She’s been there since 2005. You might recognize her—Hong has run for mayor, City Council and Congress, but has never won. It doesn’t bother her: “I want to try, and I know I make a difference,” she says.
Lillian Hong, 75, Moanalua
of Lillian Hong
“I like it here. I’m not going anywhere.”
Diane Bounthieng, 56, Waipahu
“Been here since last August, and it’s good!”
Danny Chan, 55, Liliha
owner of Bee’s Dessert House
“I used to be in finance, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do, so I started Bee’s. I’ve been able to serve two generations of customers here.”