Live Your Best Mango and Locavore Life at Kalihi’s Roots Cafe

The community cafe at Kokua Kalihi Valley offers ever-changing menus reflecting the seasons.

 

Rootscafe Food Hub

Roasted cauliflower and cassava, mango cake, duck and chicken eggs from Roots Cafe and food hub. Photo: Martha Cheng

 

Few other places incorporate as much locally grown produce and meat—and as creatively—as Roots Cafe. On offer in the past few months: a blue-hued mango and butterfly pea daifuku mochi, char siu sausage made with 2 Lady Farmers pork, roasted cauliflower and cassava with a pickled radish relish. 

 

For this, we’ve returned to Roots (during the pandemic, the once convivial cafe has operated as a takeout counter) again and again for fresh and healthy food. But this summer, I’ve been drawn there as if by tractor beam—a mango-fueled tractor beam. It’s been a good mango season, which means most days this summer, Roots Cafe has been slipping it into practically everything—in a mango carrot slaw on chili, ginger mango barbecue sauce with slow cooked pork, mango panna cotta, mango coconut syrup drizzled over ‘ulu pancakes. 

 

And if you’re lucky, Roots’ farmer partners will have brought in mangoes that you can pick up at the food hub. Lately, I’ve been buying eggs here as well, drawn irresistibly to the duck and pretty blue hen eggs by Polū (“blue” in Hawaiian) at Pilalimai‘a Farms in Kahalu‘u, one of Roots’ newer producers. In addition to the cafe that operates Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., its food hub offers produce from partners including Bear Claw Farm in Waimānalo and Rise Up Farm and Reppun Farm, both in Waiāhole. 

 

Rootscafe Beef Kalo

Ground beef stir-fried with olives, tomato and chayote, with a side of kalo. Roots Cafe emphasizes cultural starches such as kalo, ‘ulu, ‘uala and cassava.

 

Roots Cafe started about 10 years ago, as part of Kōkua Kalihi Valley (KKV) health clinic’s holistic approach to health, an approach that also includes a 100-acre nature preserve that gathers the community through farming and forestry. Jesse Lipman, the community food coordinator and chef at Roots, says the reason Roots’ menu changes from week to week is partly because they cook with whatever their network of small farmers bring in (“sometimes we’re working with ingredients we’re really familiar with and sometimes we have sunchokes”), but also because it’s an amalgamation of all the people who have cooked in the kitchen since the cafe started. That includes cooks who’ve worked at restaurants from Town to Gyu-kaku (“so we all have a few secret skills”), and even staff from other departments in KKV, through a program that lets them experience different divisions in the organization. “Sometimes they’re really good cooks and they have a favorite dish that becomes part of a cafe,” Lipman says. And with a lot of Filipino staff, that results in menu items like ginataang, a tapioca pudding with chunks of kalo, ube and ‘uala. 

 

In other words, the cooks at Roots cook a lot like how we do—directed not by set menus or chef egos, but by ingredients and whims, and flavored by all the cooks in our lives. Which may be why more than anywhere else, eating at Roots Cafe feels and tastes like home-cooked food in all the best ways.

 

Entrees $8 to $9. Cafe takeout window and food hub market on Ahonui Street, just off North School Street, with parking in the lot on the right. Check @rootskalihi for the menu. 2229 N. School St., rootskalihi.com/roots-cafe-roots-kkv