My Honolulu: Memories of Sandy Beach’s Manapua Man Van

Breakfast at Sandy’s—after getting whomped by shorebreak for a couple of hours—wasn’t for the faint of heart, or stomach.
Manapua Man Van
Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino


Back when times were tight and even gas money had to be counted out in gritty wet change from a swim trunk pocket, finding anything to eat before, during or after a dawn bodysurf patrol to Sandy Beach was a major, major problem. We’d hit the road without eating because if Dolly caught sight of us she’d impound the Honda and make us do chores. But once on the way, we’d pass closed up after closed up eating spots that only made your stomach growl.


“Well, looks like the Manapua Man,” my brother-in-law would say. “Do we dare?” His best friend, a tremendous swimmer and bodysurfer whose bulked-up body burned calories when he so much as breathed, would let out a groan. “I’m huuunnnnggggrrry … but not having diarrhea again,” he’d add. “Not in the waves.”


This was their gross-out schtick. Nobody had ever seen David—well, we won’t go there. But he sure liked to talk about it. And we’d all suffered stomach cramps and worse after going to The Man. Not always—which was the problem.


“No way after last time,” we’d assure each other. But there was always a next time. Because we were huuuuunnnngggrrrryyy.


At 6:15 a.m. there was no Manapua Man van parked anywhere in the scraggly desert that was Sandy’s back in the mid-1970s. We ran down and timed our entry between the bigger waves, then took a body slam or two on the upper back as we duck-dived out. From beyond the breaking waves we would be lifted on a big swell and occasionally see all the way over to the highway.


No Manapua Man.


No Manapua Man.


Manapua Man!


At some point the place started getting crowded and the pounding took a toll, along with the burning sun. We’d try to stay out as long as we could—one more wave stretched to five, six—but the dinged, rusted van was there in plain sight. Finally, knowing we had to get the Honda back home or suffer Dolly’s wrath for the rest of the day, we’d stagger out, shower and get in the car.


“Are we doing it?”


SEE ALSO: The Search for a Hawai‘i Icon: The Manapua Man


If we could hold out for another 20 minutes, we could make it to Kahāla Mall in time for the Chinese place to open. Its manapua were huge, fluffy, filled with char siu and, most important, fresh.


The Manapua Man’s manapua were slumpy, tired, blemished and blotchy and its char siu resembled dried earthworms. 


Could we hold out?


Whoever was driving usually made the decision. Usually the decision was yes, no matter who was driving, except Mindy, my wife. So we never let her drive. We counted out our change and debated the eternal question: one manapua each, or two? Sometimes the Manapua Man would take pity on us and give us each three for the price of two, an act of generosity which we usually came to regret.


“Never eat three,” my brother-in-law would remind us, after.


We watched out for each other in other ways, though. We never let David order the beef stew. Once was enough.


The worst was when you pulled up in the driveway and the grandparents’ station wagon was there, which meant they were going to take everyone out for a big Chinese lunch at Hee Hing, where you would find you were too sick to stuff yourself all over again.


How long ago was this? Well, the stretch of road from Kāhala to Waimānalo had no fast food, not one Spam musubi stop that I recall. The market at Hawai‘i Kai didn’t have a steam table or baked goods section. It was a time beyond imagining for most. But the Manapua Man was real. And he never let you down.