Utah restaurants provide traditional Hawaiian food

Story and photos by SHAELYN BARBER

The traditional Hawaiian plate lunch is a rich fusion of foods from many countries. When Hawaii’s pineapple and sugarcane industry began people came from all over the world to work on the farms, and they brought a variety of cultural foods with them. When workers took their lunch break they shared their food with each other, and the Hawaiian plate was born.

Keni Aikau, the owner of The Hungry Hawaiian, and Masa Tukuafu, the owner of Moki’s Hawaiian Grill, are two men who brought this tradition to Utah with their restaurants.

The Hungry Hawaiian

 

The Hungry Hawaiian is a hidden gem. Tucked away in an unassuming strip mall at 1492 S. 800 West in Woods Cross, the tiny restaurant packs a punch with its full-flavored meat plate.

“For us, food is the other emotion, you know? You’ve got happy, sad, food,” Aikau says.
He was born in Hawaii and raised in Utah, and his childhood was filled with food.

“At a very young age we started learning and we just cooked. Everything we did was based around food,” Aikau says. He began learning at family luaus and celebrations. The young children in the family would carry out simple tasks, and as they got older they became more involved in the process of making food.

In 1978, Aikau’s father opened the original Hungry Hawaiian restaurant in Provo, Utah. It didn’t last long. Despite the popularity of the restaurant, it ran into financial difficulty and was forced to go out of business. He was never able to re-open his beloved restaurant.

But Aikau’s love for food led him to pursue a culinary education at Western Culinary Institute, now called Le Cordon Bleu, in Portland, Oregon. He brought his traditional food with him.

“You can’t tell me that Spam isn’t a meat!” Aikau exclaimed. Spam, though popular in Hawaiian cuisine, comes with a negative stigma on the mainland. His colleagues at Western Culinary Institute scoffed at the canned meat. That is, until Aikau gave his classmate a Spam and egg sandwich for breakfast. He ate the whole thing, and part of Aikau’s as well.

After his father’s death in 2010, Aikau returned to carry out his father’s dream himself. He modified his father’s original recipes and on June 23, 2017, the restaurant opened once again — this time in Woods Cross, north of Salt Lake City.

His goal was to keep the menu as simple as possible. Each plate comes with two scoops of white rice, a scoop of macaroni salad, and a choice of beef, chicken or pork.

“We just keep hearing how good it is from everyone around us,” Michelle Benedict says. She was drawn to the restaurant for the first time after hearing about the food from her neighbors.

“I just adore Hawaiian food,” Kristin Yee says with a laugh. “I know it’s rich so I have to be careful how much I come.” She has been a regular at the restaurant since its beginning. She was initially interested when she noticed Aikau’s children on the corner holding signs during the first week they were open.

Yee loves local food places but says, “It’s not just support, it’s really good. So, you’re getting the benefit too.”

Moki’s Hawaiian Grill

 

From the minute you step into Moki’s Hawaiian Grill, the warm smell of Hawaiian barbeque greets your nose. Mellow ukulele music hovers underneath the friendly chatter of customers, and the staff greet you with a smile from behind the counter.

“Food is what brings people together,” Masa Tukuafu says. He started Moki’s in 2002 and now owns two restaurants: one in Mesa, Arizona, and one located at 4836 S. Redwood Road in Taylorsville.

“In the beginning I just wanted to burn the place down,” Tukuafu says. “And, as time goes, you figure things out. So, you learn from your trials and you just keep going at it.”
Despite his trials, Tukuafu says the biggest benefit of owning Moki’s Hawaiian Grill is being able to provide for his children and his family.

“Being a first-generation here and struggling all the way through school and graduating from the University [of Utah], it was a challenge, and I didn’t want my kids to do that,” Tukuafu says.

Tukuafu is half Tongan and half Samoan. Traditional Polynesian food is costly to make, so he chose to run a Hawaiian restaurant instead. The ingredients for that cuisine are much easier and cheaper to find, and far more accessible than those required for Polynesian food.

“We wanted to provide something that was more for the majority instead of the minority,” Tukuafu says. He places an emphasis on health at his restaurant, altering traditional cooking methods to reduce fat and grease by using an open broiler for the restaurant’s meat.

“I heard about Moki’s because they’re one of the only places that sells musubi and I love musubi,” says customer Faitele Afamasaga. Spam musubi consists of a hunk of grilled spam and a block of rice wrapped in seaweed.

Afamasaga is a frequent visitor and usually comes for a cone of Moki’s ever-popular Dole whip ice cream.

“We like the cultural food from Hawai’i,” says Jennifer Selvidge, a first-time customer with her husband. She drives past Moki’s almost every day for work and wanted to try it.
“Everyone that’s had Moki’s or the style seemed to enjoy it and go back,” Selvidge says.