Closing An Island Tradition

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - August 24, 2005
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Debbie Leong of Leong’s Cafe

I discovered Leong’s Café in 1997. I went there to interview Lucy, the owner, and in the course of conversation ended up making a friend. She opened Leong’s in 1952, principally to feed the stevedores. They’d line up on Mokauea Street at lunchtime for plates of steaming hot beef stew and salty pipikaula, and they’d come back sometimes in the evening with their wives, “to show them how they wanted things cooked.”

Lucy laughed as she remembered this story — and we spent a good part of the afternoon talking about the old days and how her food had remained unchanged through the decades.

A week later I got a call to say that Lucy died a few days after our conversation.

Leong’s Café stayed open under the watchful eye of Lucy’s daughterin- law Debbie, and Lucy’s recipes continued to draw people to the restaurant. The dilapidated building, at the far northern end of North King Street, housed some of the city’s favorite Hawaiian dishes. Tender pipikaula, luau stew, chicken long rice and day-old poi served in utilitarian plastic dishes on tables that looked as if they’d been in use since the invention of Formica — all in an atmosphere embracing family and friends.

Leong’s Hawaiian foods became so famous that Debbie and her husband were occasionally seen at fine food events, sharing space with the likes of Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong — sharing their particular brand of comfort food, too.

“The dishes that people love most are the ones that nobody makes any more,” says Debbie. “The luau stew, for example. Nobody seems to know how to make it — or they don’t have time.”

When a restaurant has been serving the same menu for more than 55 years, you know there’s something about it that people like.

At Leong’s you could always turn up, push open the torn screen door and know that whatever else was happening in the world, the food would taste just the same. But on Friday, when Debbie closes the screen doors at the end of the afternoon rush, they won’t be opening again for business.

Rising rents and no parking in an area that’s patrolled by a mean-spirited security guard have made things impossible for Debbie to continue.

“It was a tough decision to make,” she says. “And of course we have mixed emotions about closing.” Debbie says she’ll take a long vacation and then take some time to think about a possible relocation.

“I don’t know yet what’s going to happen,” she says. What she does know is how much she’ll miss her customers.

“I’ll miss just talking to everyone, and making them laugh,” she says.

So, there are just a couple of days left to get over to Kalihi and say goodbye. Take in the tattered pictures on the wall, the menu board that’s been up since 1966, choose a few of your favorite dishes, and have a last taste of luau stew. But don’t expect to get the recipe for their chicken long rice or their wonderful pipikaula.

I asked Lucy for the recipes when we met and I got a resounding “no” in response.

“Lucy wanted to keep them in the family,” says Debbie with a smile and a glance at the matriarch’s picture on the wall. “So we will.”

Go before Friday if you can. And don’t worry about the parking — tasting a memory is well worth the hassle.

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