Food Trucks Used to Be Everywhere in Hawai‘i—Where Did They All Go?
O‘ahu’s food truck scene is better than ever.
Food trucks gather every weekday for lunch service at Mililani Tech Park.
New and interesting food trucks are still out there—you just have to find them.
Hawai‘i has had food trucks—or lunch wagons—for decades. But there was a time, back in 2011, when the scene really ramped up, with new trucks serving more than just carb-heavy plate lunches and chilled cans of Hawaiian Sun. There was Shogunai Tacos with its Moroccan pomme frites and Zeus Glory Greek taco with lamb and kalamata olives. And Melt Honolulu’s gooey gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. And the red velvet Whoopie Pies and Gooey Bars from Fairy Cakes. And the chimichurri beef tacos from Camille’s On Wheels. And the spicy pork BiBim burritos and creamy kim chee fries from Gogi Korean Tacos.
Just reminiscing about these menus makes me salivate.
2011 was the year of the first Eat The Street, a monthly food truck rally that started in a small parking lot on Kapi‘olani Boulevard, with 11 vendors luring more than 2,000 people over the course of four hours. The event quickly moved to a 4-acre parking lot in Kaka‘ako for four more years, growing to about 40 vendors. The largest Eat The Street happened in 2013 as part of Pro Bowl festivities; that event boasted 50 vendors and about 12,000 attendees.
In 2015, riding on the success of the monthly event, which by then had expanded to different O‘ahu neighborhoods, Eat The Street organizer Street Grindz opened Makers and Tasters at the site of the old Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant. The promise was the same: create a space for mobile food vendors and their customers to find each other on a regular basis. But organizers said after two years of dealing with bad weather and trouble getting permits to build a sheltered area for customers, it closed in early 2017.
In the meantime, Eat The Street moved to Kaka‘ako Waterfront Park on Ala Moana Boulevard, where it remains today. Many of the food trucks from Eat The Street’s heyday are gone, some moving into brick-and-mortar spaces, but most closing up shop altogether. The event still attracts thousands of people, with nearly as many vendors as its previous location just a few blocks away.
At a recent Eat The Street, the parking lot at the Kaka‘ako park started filling up by 4 p.m., with families, co-workers and groups of smartphone-toting friends wandering the grounds, checking out menu boards and securing picnic spots under the few trees there. Food trucks lined the ‘Ewa perimeter of the park and booths lined the other. The selection was varied and exciting: We found pulled pork sandwiches and brisket tacos from Big Texan BBQ, lemongrass chicken banh mi and summer rolls from Banh Mi Xpress, spicy ‘ahi poke bowls and pipi kaula spare ribs from Aloha Plate. There was even a whole pineapple scooped out and filled with a mound of fried rice and garlic shrimp from Mega-Load Burgers.
It’s the same event, with new—but equally interesting—food options and just as many customers and vendors. So why does it feel different?
—Justin Alverio, owner of Local Stop
“The food truck scene isn’t gone,” says Poni Askew, founder and CEO of Street Grindz, which also runs Honolulu Night Market. “It’s just more spread out. They’re still very much in demand; they’ve just got a lot more options now.”
She’s right. The state Department of Health currently has active permits for 391 mobile units on O‘ahu, up from 303 in July 2015. (The number also includes any mobile trailers and mobile units that may not be in business or roaming the streets.) While that’s way down from 2002, when there were about 600 mobile eateries on the island—many of them lunch wagons—the current number shows interest is still there.
Many food truck owners today aren’t relying solely on Eat The Street-style events and the lunch crowd anymore. They’re booking catering gigs and attending events, including school fundraisers, farmers markets, even weddings. El Chino Loco, a food truck specializing in Asian barbecue, only hits the streets twice a week, focusing more on catering jobs than daily lunch service.
And many of these permit-holders aren’t trucks at all. Instead, they’re setting up tents and tables—think of the hot-food vendors at farmers markets—and selling their food that way.
“It’s cheaper, it’s faster and it’s easier,” Askew says.
And most of them have hopes—even concrete business plans—of moving their concept into freestanding restaurants.
Opal Thai started 12 years ago as a truck in Hale‘iwa; owner Sanith “Opel” Sirichandhra moved into a restaurant space in 2011 in Hale‘iwa, then Chinatown last year.
Paul Zarate, who ran the Zaratez food truck, opened Tacos Zarate on King Street in 2013, then moved into a cavernous 1,450-square-foot space in Kāhala in 2016.
Via Gelato, which opened in Kaimukī in 2014 and in Ward Village last year, started as a food truck. Kawehi Haug of Let Them Eat Cupcakes—“I remember seeing her piping cupcakes while sitting on a cooler,” Askew recalls—opened her bakery in Chinatown in 2011; now she and two partners also run Hukilau Honolulu in Downtown.
My favorite food truck success story, though, has to be Kan Zaman, the Moroccan-Lebanese restaurant in Chinatown with a second location in Kaimukī. It may not have started as a food truck, but the two owners owned separate ones: Youssef Dakroub had Xtreme Tacos and Kamal Jemmari ran Shogunai Tacos. They met at a food truck event.
“Our vision was to give food vendors the opportunity to see what it’s like to be in a brick-and-mortar,” Askew says of Street Grindz. “That was our goal.”
Though more food trucks are opting to serve at events, you can still find them on the streets, at the usual spots: Campbell Industrial Park, along Mililani Street in Downtown, by UH, at Sandy Beach, in Kalihi and around Kaka‘ako.
But the most bustling food truck scene on O‘ahu has to be at Mililani Tech Park, where a dozen trucks pull up at lunchtime to serve workers, nearby residents and even tourists who find the spot on Google Maps.
Justin Alverio, owner of Local Stop
“It’s bumping,” says Justin Alverio, owner of Local Stop, which has been going there at lunchtime for the past seven years. “This is Hawai‘i’s secret food truck alley.”
By 10 a.m. there are already six trucks pulled on the side of Akamainui Street. Shay’s Filipino Café is serving lechon and adobo. Aloha Brew Coffee Bar offers a variety of morning boosts, from hot espressos to Cinnamon Toast Crunch affogato. Scoopers Kitchen & Lunch Wagon cooks traditional plate lunch fare: hamburger steak, beef stew, shoyu chicken, sweet-sour spare ribs. Grindz By Evan’s Grandma—easily my favorite truck name—has a watermelon salad, Portuguese croissant sandwich and wagyu burger.
Alverio, 38, quit his stable full-time job as a nuclear insulator at Pearl Harbor to start a food truck operation. He’s here at Mililani Tech Park Monday through Friday and saves the weekends for fundraisers and other catering jobs. He’s been doing an average of one wedding a month.
“I didn’t love it in the beginning, but now I do,” he says, in between preparing shoyu chicken plates and ringing up customers. “People think you buy a truck, you going make money. But why would anyone come to your truck? You have to set yourself apart from everyone else.”
And he does. Self-taught—credit YouTube—Alverio found a niche in creating interesting, craveable dishes while perfecting the classics. Alongside such lunch wagon staples as kālua pig and pastele stew, he serves a red velvet malassada burger—all made from scratch—and something called Puerto Rican sushi, gandule (pigeon peas) rice stuffed into inari and topped with bacalau (salted codfish).
Alverio strikes that balance between old-school lunch wagon and nouveau food truck, serving tasty, large-portion plate lunches along with innovative dishes that get likes on Instagram.
“The Mainland was claiming the food truck scene,” Askew says, “and I was like, uh, no, Hawai‘i was doing street food for a long frickin’ time.”
Elena’s Filipino Foods
ORDER THIS: Pork adobo fried rice omelet
EXPECT TO PAY: About $10
INSIDER TIP: If you want the Sari-Sari or Lechon Special, get there early. These often sell out.
STALKER INFO: The truck is at the Central Pacific Bank Plaza Downtown two Thursdays a month. Check @elenasfilipino on Instagram for this and other locations.
It’s not unusual to see the line to Elena’s Filipino Foods lunch wagon at lunchtime snake around the pillars outside Central Pacific Bank and down Alakea Street. The truck is there just twice a month, and office workers, HPU students and contractors need their fix of Filipino food served by the popular Waipahu restaurant. On the menu are pork guisantes, dinuguan, banana lumpia and the best-selling pork adobo fried rice omelet, a genius dish that combines vinegary pork with local-style fried rice all stuffed in a thin crêpe of egg.
“We get all regulars,” says Mellissa Cedillo, the gregarious second-generation owner, after the lunch rush on a Thursday in March. Despite the sweltering heat, her makeup—rose-pink lips and thick lashes—is impeccable. “I know what they going order before they even order.”
In 1974, Elena and Theo Butuyan—Cedillo’s parents—opened Elena’s in Waipahu, serving humble, home-style Filipino dishes such as pinacbet, pork adobo and pancit. The couple also concocted a few original dishes that quickly became restaurant signatures, including the Sari-Sari, a savory soup brimming with local veggies and baby shrimp, and the pork adobo fried rice omelet. (Elena got the idea for this dish from a dream. Seriously.)
The restaurant launched its first lunch wagon about 30 years ago, bringing hot food to workers at Campbell Industrial Park and various construction sites in West and Central O‘ahu. At one point, the restaurant ran four wagons; now, there are just two, including this one.
Elena’s truck is one of the oldest still on the road. Its contemporaries—Sassy Kassy’s, Pine’s, Take’s—have all shut down. And Cedillo still runs it old-school: All the food is prepped and cooked in a commercial kitchen—in her case, at the Waipahu restaurant—and she just serves the plates out of the truck. There’s not much cooking going on, except for frying up the omelets and lumpia.
Lechon Special with lumpia, shanghai lumpia, pancit and rice.
“We cannot cook,” Cedillo says, waving her hand at me. “We just gotta blast ’em.”
And that’s what she and the two other workers—including her husband, Adrian—do, spending no more than 20 seconds on each plate and sending out nearly 300 of them in a two-and-a-half-hour period. (Her brother, Richard, runs the second truck, which still services Campbell Industrial Park.)
“What do I love about food trucks? It’s fast and it’s easy, but it’s different with us,” Cedillo explains. “Our business model is different. We not the ones cooking. We have a kitchen and employees cooking for us. They wash the dishes, they unload, they prep. Without our employees, I can’t do this job.”
A few years ago, when the food truck scene exploded in Honolulu, Cedillo was a little worried about how that would impact her business. But so far, it hasn’t.
“I got nervous at first, when we started seeing this food truck revolution,” she says. “They were doing all these crazy kine dishes. We were doing traditional food. I wondered if people were going to want something different from us. But we just kept on doing what we do. And we still here.”
ORDER THIS: ‘Ahi katsu plate with kalbi fries
EXPECT TO PAY: $12 to $20
INSIDER TIP: Check Instagram for daily specials.
STALKER INFO: @flyinahi
“You want a shot?”
It’s not even noon yet, and Leroy Melchor is handing me a small plastic cup filled with a special gin. I don’t ask. While he’s busy pouring—he’s invited two other people to join us—two of his workers are assembling 30 plate lunches in his food truck, Flyin’ ‘Ahi, in Mililani Tech Park. They’re for a staff meeting at Spectrum, which is located steps from the truck. Many of Melchor’s customers work at the cable company; some of them have his personal cell number and text him their orders.
Melchor has the right personality for the job: He’s friendly, easygoing—and, clearly, generous. His mechanic stops by for a plate. Other truck owners pull up and wave. A customer hands Melchor his cellphone and says, “My wife like say hi.”
“I always wanted to try this,” says Melchor, 42, who’s married with four kids. “But you gotta be kinda young to dive in.”
Three years ago, he left his 15-year career as a nurse to start Flyin’ ‘Ahi, focusing on fresh fish, poke and innovative local-style mashups, including the ridiculously addictive kalbi fries—strips of tender Korean kalbi on a bed of crinkle-cut fries with a furikake aioli that I can’t stop eating. Daily specials have included Korean fried chicken, applewood-smoked misoyaki chicken, grilled marlin, blackened ‘ahi salad and beef lū‘au.
‘Ahi katsu tacos with kalbi fries.
He invested more than $60,000 in a custom food truck built in Oregon, complete with a refrigerated window up front to display the poke and a hot-water shower in the back (for what, I’m not sure). When he first rolled up to the Mililani Tech Park in 2015, his concept stood out from the other trucks, which were serving traditional plate lunches, Mexican tacos and Filipino food. No one was doing fresh poke and ‘ahi katsu tacos.
“Nowadays, everybody is trying to do what people are doing on the Mainland,” he says. “You know, off-the-wall stuff. But you gotta look at your customers and what they want, too.”
Because his focus is poke and fish, Melchor buys his seafood fresh from the auction every morning. (He used to buy it himself; now he uses a broker.) Then he preps his food in a commercial kitchen space in town and drives to Mililani Tech Park by 10:30 a.m. to serve lunch five days a week. His workday is over by 1:30 p.m. and he saves his weekends for catering gigs. He’s already done weddings and big corporate events.
Melchor prefers this career, which gives him the flexibility to pick up his kids after school and spend quality time with his family. (His wife, Loke, is a full-time teacher.)
“It’s as busy as I want it to be,” he says. “I’m a lot happier.”
El Chino Loco
ORDER THIS: Super Loco Combo Plate, which comes with a half-order of everything (ribs, brisket, meatloaf), with rice, potato salad and coleslaw
EXPECT TO PAY: $14 at the most
INSIDER TIP: If the Super Loco is too much, order a mini version for $8.
It’s not every day you see a classically trained, experienced chef cooking out of a food truck.
But that’s who you’ll find at El Chino Loco, a truck that fuses Asian flavors with old-fashioned barbecue. (Think yuzu-kosho pulled pork sliders and cognac-and-togarashi char siu spareribs.)
Originally from Northern California, Curtis Chung has an impressive culinary résumé: He’s worked at In-N-Out Burger, trained at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, and apprenticed under renowned chef Rodney Baca at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga, California. He’s worked at the Cliff House, Roy’s Restaurant and Wolfgang Puck Catering in San Francisco; was recruited by Rick & Ann’s, a small Berkeley restaurant, to be its executive chef and revamp its dinner menu; and ran the kitchen and deli at Whole Foods Market’s flagship location in San Francisco before moving to Kailua last year to manage the one here.
When Amazon bought Whole Foods Market, things changed, Chung says, and he decided to exit. He wasn’t in a rush to get another job: “It really wasn’t until after I left [Whole Foods] that I thought about a food truck.”
Through a mutual friend, Chung met Ty Takishita, one of the owners of Kau Kau Grill, a truck-turned-restaurant in Māpunapuna. One day, Chung asked him what he was doing with his old food truck, which was always parked outside the restaurant.
“Nothing,” Takishita responded. “It’s just sitting there.”
“Let me buy it from you.”
And that was that. Chung spent about $25,000 on the truck, including some fixes and refurbishing, and started serving Asian-style barbecue a few months ago, mainly at events, including Eat The Street. Twice a week he roves O‘ahu, posting his whereabouts on Instagram.
Super Loco Combo Plate.
“I wanted to do something we could all relate to but still unique and exotic enough for people to be curious about,” says Chung, 35, who lives with his wife and cat in Waikīkī. “I mean, who doesn’t love barbecue—especially Chinese-kine barbecue?”
He played with old family recipes, adjusting ingredients and modernizing techniques. His flavor combinations are intriguing, including the popular bourbon-misoyaki brisket. He slow-cooks the brisket for about 13 hours—he uses Kau Kau Grill’s kitchen—and serves it with rice, potato salad and coleslaw he makes that morning.
He debuted the truck in November 2017 at a CrossFit competition in Waipahu, serving about 70 meat-heavy plates right off the bat.
Right now, he’s focusing on events and catering, only heading out during lunch twice a week. (The location changes, though he usually stays around the Honolulu metro area.) He knows his business is at a crossroads.
“I’m starting to pick up a lot of speed … and I do want to grow the business, but I don’t really want to hire anybody and space is a real issue,” he says. “Maybe I’d like to go into a brick-and-mortar and run an everyday operation. That’s definitely something I’m interested in. It’s crazy. We have to make a decision. Do I want to spend more time out there? How can we grow? I don’t know.”