“Food is love” at the Pacific Seas Restaurant and Market in Salt Lake City

Story and photos by SHEHERAZADA HAMEED

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The entrance of the Pacific Seas Restaurant and Market, facing Redwood Road.

According to eua-island-tonga.com, living on the island of Tonga doesn’t mean all the food comes from the sea. The traditional cuisine of the beautiful tropical island consists of two main categories — “food from the sea” and “food from the land.”

The Pacific Seas Restaurant and Market makes it possible to experience Tongan flavors here in Utah. The restaurant is located at 1151 S Redwood Road in Glendale, a neighborhood not far from downtown Salt Lake City.

Family owned and operated for more than 28 years, the restaurant is a popular location for Tongans and other Polynesians to dine. The atmosphere is casual and friendly and pays a large tribute to Tongan athletes. Framed photos of football and rugby players line the walls of the dining room.

The aromas of cooking meat and chicken curry awaken a hunger in the shoppers who come to the market to purchase items such as canned coconut cream, long rice, mackerel fish and corned beef. People often complete their shopping and stay for a meal or a take out.

The kitchen and the counter are run by the family members and overseen by David Lavulo. He is recognizable from the framed newspaper articles that hang on the wall. In one of the articles, David and Leti Lavulo are pictured wearing Mormon missionary badges. In another picture, Lavulo is next to Kalani Sitake, the head coach of Brigham Young University’s football team.

Lavulo left Tonga in 1968 to study in Fiji. A year later he moved to the United States and settled in San Francisco, where he married his wife Leti Lavulo. After five years, they moved to Utah. He said they moved to Salt Lake City because they liked the slower paced lifestyle.

After working in construction and other jobs, he decided it was time to start his own business as a way to serve the local Pacific Islander community.

Lavulo said the restaurant serves almost the same food as in the American cuisine, especially the types of meats. Pork chops, sausage, lamb ribs, chicken curry, fried fish and raw fish are among the menu items. The one thing that distinguishes them is the use of different vegetables.

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Lavulo’s open kitchen at the restaurant.

The favorable climate, soil, rainfall and sunshine contributes to the growth of many fruits and vegetables, typical for the Pacific Islands, according to eua-island-tonga.com. 

Taro is a vegetable that grows under the ground. While it is growing, the leaves can be cut and used as greens. Lavulo said they are used instead of spinach.

Another typical root vegetable for the Pacific Islanders is the sweet potato, also called kumara. There are 77 different varieties. “I think you have seen some of those sweet potatoes … not the very soft ones, not the orange ones, but we have kind of white and almost green,” he said.

Another significant item on the menu is the green banana. “It is the remedy to the people in the Pacific that have diabetes,” he said.

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David Lavulo shows the green bananas out of his refrigerated walk-in storage.

The animal protein on the menu comes from the variety of fish, chicken, lamb, pork and beef. Although these are relatively lean options, Lavulo reduces calories by healthy cooking. He wraps meats in taro leaves, adds coconut milk and seasoning, then steams the dish. “It is really tasty,” he said.

The signature dish, which is Lavulo’s favorite, is the Rainbow Sushi. It is similar to the Japanese sushi and is prepared with tuna, mahi-mahi, snapper, mixed with coconut milk, tomatoes, onions and cucumber. “All the Polynesian likes to eat fish,” he said, smiling. He opened the walk-in refrigerator and showed boxes of fish from Taiwan.

Lavulo said they cook everything from scratch daily. He took a visitor on a tour of his kitchen. Everything from the ceiling to the floor is spotless. Containers are labeled and vegetables are fresh. He imports his produce (taro, green bananas and yams) from Costa Rica.

“The flavors of the yams from there are different,” he said. He buys his lamb from New Zealand. “We don’t eat the lamb over here, it is not tasty. We also import the taro leaves from Hawaii,” Lavulo added.

To the right of the open kitchen are chafing dishes with steaming side options of taro, yams, yuca and green bananas. The Pacific Seas Restaurant and Market kitchen staff are dedicated to serving fresh meals. The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., but at 5 p.m. they stop cooking. “We don’t want the leftovers,” Lavulo said.

Unique beverage options are available. Otai is a beverage made of mango, coconut and sugar; it is a traditional drink made fresh daily at the restaurant.

Lavulo recently visited Tonga and said he was amazed by how much the island has been developed since the last time he was there, 11 years ago. When he first left his homeland, there were still houses made of coconut fronds and today there are modern multistory buildings. ”The [Mormon] Temple was the most beautiful building,” he said.

While Lavulo shares his memories of his trip to Tonga, four family members cook and serve to customers who wait in line to purchase lunch.

On the north wall, there are frames of Tongan beauties and pageant queens. One of Lavulo’s five daughters, Anamarie Lavulo Havea, discussed the female beauty standards in Tonga. The heavier-set women are found to be beautiful. Thin women are considered unattractive. But, she said, when women move to the U.S. they consume a lot of junk food and become even heavier.

Tongan food, however, is particularly wholesome and healthy, because the main ingredients are fruit, vegetables and lean proteins.

Havea is the youngest of Lavulo’s five daughters. She is married and already has children of her own. She has worked in the family business since she was very young. She and her siblings ran the restaurant while their parents served an LDS mission in Papua New Guinea in 2014. Now Havea cooks. On a typical day, she said, 100 to 150 patrons dine at the restaurant. As many as 250 meals are served on a busy day.

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Anamarie Lavulo Havea and her nephews work behind the counter, while David Lavulo is overseeing the restaurant.

There is a large poster with an autograph from Will Tukuafu, a Tongan player, from Salt Lake City, who played for the Seattle Seahawks with number 46. His message is “To Pacific Seas, thank you for the great food and continued support for the community.”

Havea added, “This is that food, that you would find in the South Pacific and is what a lot of our NFL players eat.”

According to Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou, the executive director of Pacific Islanders Knowledge 2 Action Resources (PIK2AR), food in the Pacific Island is related to family prestige and prosperity. She said, “People with more weight, and why we are overweight, signifies that your family has money to feed you. If you are thin that means your family is poor, and there is no food to feed you.”

The Pacific Seas Restaurant and Market is where Pacific Islanders meet for an authentically cooked food and mutual support. Customers seem to be regulars because they know each other and the Lavulo family. The sound from the football game on TV is mixed with lively conversations in the native language. The large pots of steaming taro leaves and cooking meat fill in the dining room with aromas.

For them, the peaceful islanders, Feltch-Malohifo’ou, said, “Food is love in the Pacific Islands culture, and it shows everything with food and service.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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