Your O‘ahu Neighborhood Guide: There’s Something About Mānoa Valley
Winding its way through a community that’s part college town, part longtime historic neighborhood, East Mānoa Road is going modern, in a small-town way.
There’s something about Mānoa Valley. Ka‘ahumanu built a home on the Tantalus side of the slopes. Wetland taro and ‘ōhi‘a thrived in the verdant land and in 1825, John Wilkinson planted some of the first coffee trees there. Today, the usually misty Ko‘olau mountain range stretches above the homes of a quiet community of retirees and families who congregate in the small businesses along East Mānoa Road, and the University of Hawai‘i Mānoa campus.
The reflective doors and glass of State Farm Insurance serve as a picture window for Kathy Ginoza-Arakaki. She grew up in Mānoa. The office representative for agent Doug Kam-Young is the mom of a soon-to-be college student and, as her co-worker Erica Fujiwara says with a laugh, the unofficial “Ms. Mānoa.” “It’s an awesome neighborhood,” Ginoza-Arakaki says. “There’s a neighbor who makes puakenikeni lei so sometimes we get blessed with them.” When clients get into fender benders at the marketplace across the way, they’ll run over to talk and wait with them. She recalls when the Grylt was KC Drive-Inn, when First Hawaiian Bank was Tanabe’s gas station, Toyo’s Superette stood instead of Asia Mānoa (“the family still lives behind there”) and when Andy Rodrigues’ grandson would sneak out of the sandwich shop a few doors down to visit. “He would wander in to our snack counter,” she says. “When they couldn’t find him, he was here eating.”
State Farm, 2841 Kaonawai Place, (808) 988-7011
Mandy at Andy’s Sandwiches and Smoothies knows exactly who that little boy was: It was her oldest son, Nathaniel, who is now 21 and living in Portland, Oregon. Mandy and her sister, Marci, were the babies in the early days of the shop; dad Andy tells stories of how the young girls used to snack on sprouts they pulled out of indulgent customers’ sandwiches. Now, both work alongside their mom—and today, their niece—under the handwritten signs (Mandy has the neatest writing) that are the only menu. The shop itself feels timeless—the weathered shelves lined with Hawaiian Sun and soda cans, the unlabeled bags of dried cranberries and homemade trail mix atop a bakery case of scones and cookies match my college memories from UH. Andy, 77, and Norma, 75, feel timeless, too, as they talk and laugh over each other. They toss out greetings and smiles while quickly building hot turkey and mushroom sandwiches on homemade bread (Ginoza-Arakaki’s favorite), vegetarian tostadas and smoked ‘ahi sandwiches for the waves of people who form a perpetual line stretching to the door. During a rare lull, we ask if retirement is on the horizon. The answer is quick and simple: No. “We would miss this place, our customers,” Norma says. Andy interjects, “If we retire, we would pick up old-timer’s disease.” To which Norma adds with a smile, “It would put our body in shock, to not do anything.”
Andy’s, 2904 E. Mānoa Road, (808) 988-6161, andyssandwiches.com
The New Kids on the Block
Next to Andy’s, Fantastic Nails’ lineup of chairs sits mostly empty on a late Friday afternoon. Sarah Jenny sits in the first chair getting a pedicure. She went to Noelani Elementary across the way and her parents’ agent was at the State Farm next door. When her daughter comes home from college one of their stops will be the nail salon. “We haven’t had a lot of big developments,” Jenny says. “It’s a nice quaint little town. The shops that have been brought in are conducive to the neighborhood; we support them.”
Fantastic Nails, 2906 E. Mānoa Road, (808) 988-1977
One of the newbies is Off the Hook Poke Market. The small restaurant has a few standing tables, a sofa in front of the window, a single refrigerated case full of pans of fresh—from the fish auction that morning fresh—poke, and country music playing overhead. Yes, country music. Co-owner Tomoki Ito says it was his choice. “The first time [co-owner] JP [Lam] rode in my car, he was surprised it was playing,” he says. The two opened Off the Hook a little less than a year ago, gravitating toward the natural feel of Mānoa. Their customers include young beach-goers, their faces still white from sunscreen; Japanese visitors who stop to take selfies; and students and workers. They order big chunks of ‘ahi or tako tossed with wasabi furikake, Kīlauea Fire’s gochujang and jalapeño, limu or the top-seller, a cold ginger sauce, all topped with tiny tempura puffs. Ito suggests trying the green sushi rice—the color and a subtle flavor come from spinach—to set it all off.
Off the Hook Poke Market, 2908 E. Mānoa Road, Instagram: @offthehookpokemarket
Down the Road
Cross the street and walk across the cement bridge stamped Mānoa 1950, which spans a timid-looking Mānoa Stream, and you’ll find a confusing door on the block. In a townhouse building that sits surprisingly far back from the road, B&L Business Services with BSnT LLC and Leahi Business Services is open or closed, depending on which of the three signs in the windows you believe. May Hiroka-Tomita of BSnT (an acronym for Bookkeeping Services ’n’ Taxes) explains she splits the space with Leahi Business Services LLC. They are in and out at different times, hence the signs.
A little farther down, Morning Glass Coffee + Café is full. The popular coffee-and-sandwich shop retains the open walls and open feel of a place that was once a gas station. It’s overflowing with students on laptops, groups of friends in raucous conversation and young parents parked with strollers and mortadella sandwiches, slices of frittata, and cups of lattes and agua fresca. We snag the last table and break into a scone redolent with dried pineapple. Eric Rose founded Morning Glass in 2011 in Mānoa. “He was looking for a small neighborhood, something with a community feel,” says co-owner Mahina Akimoto Reppun, “and we definitely have that here.” Dogs that stroll in with their owners often receive a treat from the nearby Hawai‘i Doggie Bakery. But maintaining that sense of small-town can be difficult as popularity grows. “It’s definitely hard trying to find the balance between maintaining local clientele and tourist clientele,” Akimoto Reppun says. “But it’s good, good for business.”
Morning Glass, 2955 E. Mānoa Road, (808) 673-0065, morningglasscoffee.com
Five businesses share a cottage-looking building on the corner of East Mānoa Road and Lowrey Avenue: a chiropractor, a dog groomer, a chocolate shop, a second-floor day spa and Hawai‘i Doggie Bakery. Inside, a knee-high festive photo background and a wall of canine-size party hats and accessories hints at some of its best-sellers. “We do a lot of birthdays,” says general manager Chris Luke. His girlfriend, Niki Libarios, and her sister, Tasha, took over the 21-year-old Hawai‘i Doggie Bakery in 2012 and moved it to the valley. “We saw this online on Craigslist and we saw the white picket fence and we thought it was so cute,” Niki says. “It was perfect for us.” And, says Luke, “Whenever we’re stressed, we can go look at the mountains and clouds outside.” Pet owners pick up Paw Lickin’ Lasagna (layers of sweet potato, spinach and cheddar), sweet potato biscuits and custom birthday cakes, then let their canines browse the new pet-friendly garden outside.
Hawai‘i Doggie Bakery, 2961C E. Mānoa Road, (808) 783-7390, hawaiidoggiebakery.org
Just past the garden is the dog grooming business, and through a door flanked by two stools painted to look like mushrooms, a woman considers rows of glossy truffles. Choco Le‘a creates as many as 1,000 of the decadent bites a week, along with bags of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts and dipped slices of dried pineapple and jabong in its kitchen just behind the doggie bakery. Special accounts manager Stephanie Char enjoys the safe and friendly nature of the neighborhood and the loyal customers who often come in for just one or two truffles. One mom comes in every week with her daughters for a special treat.
Choco Le‘a, 2909 Lowrey Ave., (808) 371-2234, chocolea.com
Ending with a Feast
One of the mysteries of Mānoa has been what is going on across the street. A long-empty restaurant has recently been seeing some activity. Inside the old Beau Soleil, chef Jon Matsubara stands under arches, talking with a contractor about installing air conditioning. Matsubara cooked for Michelin-starred restaurants on the Mainland, then a roster of top local ones including Alan Wong’s and Azure before opening Forty Carrots at Bloomingdale’s and Merriman’s Honolulu. The Punahou graduate has been looking for his own space for a while. He’s found it. “It’s actually been a long time since I’ve been in Mānoa,” he says. “When you come back, all the memories growing up here, it’s a great community. It’s vibrant so it’s a good opportunity to come in and try something new.” Plans are to open Feast this fall with some of the dishes diners loved from his pop-ups in Café Anasia and Juicy Brew (the response to the vegan menu was huge) as well as favorites from Forty Carrots. Renovations inside will keep some of the unique architecture for now, but the roof is getting a redo. “You can see the whole valley” from up there, he says. “It’s super unique. I want to get beehives up there and maybe herbs for a rooftop garden.”
Feast, 2970 E. Mānoa Road
Parking and Traffic
A tiny lot behind Starbucks, Andy’s and Off the Hook fills up quickly. You can find parking on the side streets, depending on the time of day. Mānoa Marketplace has plenty of space if you are also planning to stop at Safeway or any of the other businesses there.
The Bottom Line
Easily walkable, the early morning and late afternoons on East Mānoa Road retain that small-community feel. Avoid the lunch rush and you can still find a seat and a moment to talk story with the business owners.