Your O‘ahu Neighborhood Guide: Waipahu Depot Street
Mauka of Farrington Highway, this street holds some of the plantation town’s sweetest memories. But they’re disappearing fast.
The sugar mill smokestack still towers over Waipahu.
Waipahu has a rich cultural history, but it’s also a mishmash of intrigue, from a Frito-Lay distribution center to aisles of ube snacks and desserts at Seafood City. The predominantly Filipino town is gearing up for big changes as the rail gets closer to operating, with a major station opening between Mokuola Street and the appropriately named Waipahu Depot Street.
Waipahu Bicycle & Sporting Goods
No matter where you stand on this stretch—lined with a few old buildings housing a variety of shops—you can see the old smokestack from the sugar mill towering over the town. But the view from the top of the street near the smokestack has changed drastically in the past century. Inside Waipahu Bicycle & Sporting Goods, an old photo behind the counter shows dirt roads and rice paddies; underneath it hangs a 1935 photo of the Waipahu Pedal Pushers, a bicycling club, at the shop’s original location on Waipahu Street when the store was called G. Takayesu Bicycle Shop. Next door at Rocky’s Coffee Shop, plantation photos from as far back as the 1890s adorn the right wall, as well as a 1928 photo looking down Waipahu Depot Street, complete with old-timey cars.
SEE ALSO: Your O‘ahu Neighborhood Guide: Kaimukī’s Kapahulu Avenue in Honolulu
Rocky’s Coffee Shop
The photos aren’t the only nostalgic parts of the diner, which opened in 1960. An old-school radio with an antenna plays Hawaiian 105 KINE as Tammy Yamashiro takes my order—today’s special, croissant French toast—and refills my coffee. I sit quietly reading the newspaper, which she handed me earlier without prompting, at the low counter facing the stove. “Hungry again already?” Yamashiro asks a customer who comes in and sits a few seats away. Around 11 a.m., only a few booths are filled. The cash-only diner has been serving since 4:30 a.m. “We always opened early for the plantation workers,” she says. “Lots of people want to beat the traffic. We do a lot of takeout. Some come almost every day—almost half.”
ROCKY’S COFFEE SHOP
Yamashiro has worked at the diner since she graduated from high school about 41 years ago. Both her father and grandfather were named Rocky; her mom, Agnes Ishii, has been there all 59 years and now owns the place. But Yamashiro’s not sure how much longer it’ll stay open without a younger generation to take over. “Not many places like this anymore,” she says. “No one wanna work this hard anymore.”
Waipahu Bicycle & Sporting Goods, 94-320 Waipahu Depot St., (808) 671-4091; Rocky’s Coffee Shop, 94-316 Waipahu Depot St., (808) 677-3842.
SEE ALSO: Your O‘ahu Neighborhood Guide: 1600 Kalākaua Avenue in Honolulu
Da Ultimate Grindz Hawai‘i
At the bottom of the street before Farrington Highway, Da Ultimate Grindz Hawai‘i sits in stark contrast to Rocky’s, with “all the hits now” blaring through the speakers tuned to 102.7 Da Bomb. In the past five years, this takeout window has been Shiro’s Saimin Haven, Elle’s Corner Café and Three Sisters Café. Now it’s a plate-lunch spot known for its smoked brisket; one of the most popular dishes is the Heart Attack Moco, combining brisket, pork belly, an egg and gravy all over.
Junior Ancheta at Da Ultimate Grindz Hawai‘i
Born and raised in Waipahu, Merrill Rillamas helps run the 5-year-old business, which started with catering and events such as Eat the Street. This location, which includes a patio with a few tables, is its first brick-and-mortar, only a few months old. Now Da Ultimate Grindz serves customers daily and continues to work events on the side.
94-256 Waipahu Depot St., (808) 888-3872
Waipahu Festival Marketplace
Through the open-air seating, past the guy grilling meat under a white tent, Waipahu Festival Marketplace offers a mix of services and products: imported snacks and sauces from Southeast Asia, an optician, a salon and barber, local produce, hot food, boba and shrimp of every size. It’s one of the few places open in the middle of a weekday. Many of the other storefronts facing Waipahu Depot Street—a photographer, acupuncturist, consignment shop, hair salon—are boarded up or locked behind gates and “by appointment only.” “Had to,” says Yamashiro of Rocky’s when she sees me wandering the street, calling out to make sure I’m OK. She tells me to be safe: “Lots of homeless.” There aren’t many people out walking, even though it’s a well-kept tree-lined street with wide sidewalks. I count three people sleeping in corners, trying to avoid the hot sun.
94-340 Waipahu Depot St.
The Depot Center
“Rocky’s is a landmark,” says Ronald Ravelo, who moved to Waipahu in 2010 and now owns Westside Music. With construction in the area, “We’re up against some challenges,” he says. The small store is empty. ‘Ukulele of many different shapes and colors hang from the walls among vinyl records, mostly conversation pieces, though he says some younger customers have been buying them.
In front of the counter sits a giant wooden guitar, a gift from Ravelo’s sister-in-law. He decided, “anybody who performs, as long as they’re out there playing, can sign the guitar.” Upon inspection, you’ll find signatures from Moon Kauakahi of the Mākaha Sons to contemporary indie pop band Ivory City.
As we talk, a guy walks into Westside Music with his first guitar, asking for help. His dog chewed the strings, the nut needs replacing, it needs to be adjusted. He’s finally finding time to play, but it’s been in the case for a long time and needs a little love. Ravelo takes it gladly.
“If you play an instrument, you get to relax. You play it up here,” he says, miming strumming an ‘ukulele near his chest. “It’s the closest thing to your heart. People love to play because it really resonates.”
94-239 Waipahu Depot St., (808) 676-8008.
The New Arakawa’s
Everyone still calls the building at 94-333 Waipahu Depot St. Arakawa’s, even though the store closed in 1995. For the past three-and-a-half years, it’s been Waipahu Plantation Marketplace, but with a large “FOR RENT” sign on one door and a sign advertising a Christmas craft fair hanging above another, the place shows few signs of life. Nothing looks open until I head upstairs and find MetalInk Piercings, a small piercing boutique/toy store with a wall of Funko Pop vinyl dolls, owned by Jay Hadley. “I collect toys as a hobby and people kept asking if they were for sale. Now I buy and sell on the side,” he says.
Hip-looking Hadley may seem out of place in an old-school town like Waipahu but he grew up in the neighborhood, then studied at Washington State University. He’s been in the body-piercing and -modification industry for almost 25 years and opened MetalInk about two years ago. “There are five tattoo shops in the area. None of them do piercing, so I put mine right in the middle,” he says. He used to tattoo but got “tired of being a piercer in a tattoo world.” He gets referrals from those shops, plus Yelp, with customers coming from as far as the North Shore and Kahalu‘u.
94-333 Waipahu Depot St., (808) 627-5342.
Parking and Traffic
We had no problem finding space in the lots near Waipahu Festival Marketplace and Waipahu Plantation Marketplace on weekdays. There are also a few stalls on the street.
The Bottom Line
The Waipahu Transit Center rail station is scheduled to open next year, with affordable rental homes planned a few blocks away. Check out the neighborhood before everything changes. As Hadley says: “I know Waipahu’s got a lot of bad stigma but there’s nothing wrong with it. I wanna see it succeed. We’re still here, even with all the construction. It’s a great area with a lot of great people.”
Read more stories by Katrina Valcourt