After 13 years of running Kauai Family Restaurant, owner Peter Buza was ready to sell the place. He spent the fall and winter looking into joining an import business based in Las Vegas. It just seemed like time for something new.
Kauai Family Restaurant 6324 Sixth Ave. S., 762-3469, www.kauaifamilyrestaurant.com. Open for breakfast, lunch, and early dinner Tues.-Sat. GEORGETOWN
"We had people come and look, make offers," Peter's sister Estrelita, who runs the attached bakery next door and works the dining room on Saturdays, told me. "I went into a depression about it." For her, shutting down the restaurant meant breaking up the family, whose members had helped make Kauai Seattle's best Hawaiian dining. Luckily, Peter decided at the last minute to pull out of the deal and instead pour even more energy into the restaurant, keeping the place open for dinner—well, early dinner, since the Buzas still want to be out of there by 7:30.
Everything about Kauai, hidden in Georgetown's warehouse zone, feels like a family place with a history, including the blackboards, photos, and flyers that paper its counter area. Locals—Boeing workers, Georgetown artists—come in during the week, but on Saturdays the room fills with Hawaiians, who, Buza says, drive from as far as Tacoma. That's when the glass-covered tables with purple tropical-print fabric underneath often get pushed together for parties of eight and you can hear Estrelita's voice, above the table conversation: "Oh, you from the Islands, too?"
It's a good old American diner, really, only with a pan-Asian rather than a British-German pedigree. It took me years of visiting restaurants in California's largest Polynesian community to get past the anticlimax of the Hawaiian standards they served, such as sweet-and-sour chicken, hamburgers smothered in gravy, and musubis (best described as ginormous Spam sushi). This is the stuff served in Islander homes and cafes far from Waikiki, eaten by people who aren't sniffing for the exotic.
Buza's two-page menu, most of the items on it under $10, shows what happens when Japanese and Polynesian, Filipino and Chinese, Korean, Puerto Rican, and Portuguese people are all smooshed together on small islands, working together, eating one another's foods, marrying each other and producing kids who measure their ethnic heritage in eighths and sixteenths. You can order kalbi (Korean), pork adobo (Filipino), or kalua pig (native Hawaiian) on your "plate lunch," as Islanders call these meals. What draws the dishes together are the sides: two scoops of white rice, one scoop of macaroni salad. As I've grown to appreciate Hawaiian food over the years, I've also learned to schedule four hours for the meal—one hour for eating, three for the carb coma.
What I most enjoyed at Kauai is Buza's attention to detail. Sure, the steamed rice may come to your plate shaped into a perfect globe, but it's also real, distinct grains, not mush. (You can substitute a good fried rice, too.) The macaroni salad is Hawaiian-style, not Midwestern: The elbows are ultrasoft, there's no celery or mustard or potato chips added for crunch, and the primary ingredient is mayonnaise rather than pasta—yet Kauai Family's version is one of the better I've tried.
I couldn't say that of everything. The Lawai crispy ginger chicken, a descendent of Japanese chicken kara-age, would have been a knockout had it been served hot instead of barely lukewarm. I also wasn't a big fan of the gristly chicken and pork used for the teriyaki-style "Hawaiian barbecue." Lau laus I have loved (lau lau is fatty pork, beef, and black cod wrapped in taro leaves and steamed forever) have collapsed into a black mass of meat and greens; here the leaves stayed unpleasantly stringy. But when I spooned a bit of the lomi lomi that came on the side onto the lau lau, the salmon-tomato-scallion salsa definitely amplified its dark, intense flavors.
Buza's loco moco, however, was the first I've actually enjoyed—something about the tender cube-steak patty he topped with a sunny-side-up egg, or perhaps it was the seasoning of the gravy that soaked deep into the bowl of rice underneath the meat. And who wouldn't be blown away by the Blahla special? One plate wasn't enough to contain it. First there was a bowl of saimin, ginger-y chicken soup with skinny, kinky egg noodles, its surface a patchwork of shredded egg, chopped green onions, sliced Spam, and a pink-edged slice of Japanese fish cake. Plate two held three sunny-side eggs, perfectly lacy and liquid-yolked, plus a mound of fried rice, slices of Spam, sweet Portuguese sausage, and two fried Vienna sausages. Not only was every part cooked just right, it reminded me how good Spam can taste when you eat it in moderation.
Saturday morning is often the hardest time to score a table, but if there's one reason to brave a wait, it's the off-menu special: the malasadas. Buza makes one batch a week of these Portuguese doughnuts, and when he sets bags of them on the counter, you'd better be there to fetch some. The tangerine-sized balls are coated in sugar, their insides eggy and dense, tasting of yeast and coconut. They will spoil your appetite, but what a way to go.
Surprise, surprise, my favorite dish involved pork, but this time, I really mean it: Replicating the pit oven, Buza marinates a hunk of pork and wraps it in banana leaves, then seals the pork up in a pot for eight hours or so until it steam-roasts into smoky, satiny meat, so tender it can only be served in shreds. I ordered it twice.
Buza says his primary customer base of locals has changed with the neighborhood. "We now have a lot of haole kids in Georgetown come here. I know they're from Georgetown because of their clothes and hair," he says, adding somewhat wonderingly, "I've been here 13 years and have never seen them before. And they're eating the authentic food."
With daughter Randi on staff, ready to take over the business when Peter finally decides to move on, the weekday hipsters and weekend Hawaiians should be able to enjoy Kauai's food for years to come. Buza recently put a sign out on his front door: "We stay happy," it says. "We goin stay."