Moki’s Hawaiian Grill offers a taste of Hawaiian and Pacific Islander food in Salt Lake City

Story and slideshow by GEORGE W. KOUNALIS

Moki’s Hawaiian Grill brings the food and atmosphere of Hawaii to Taylorsville, Utah, from the 808 to the 801. Located right next to an Indian market and a True Value hardware store, the restaurant’s bright yellow sign sticks out as one drives by on Redwood Road.

The atmosphere of the restaurant is laid back and family-oriented. Family is a cornerstone of many Pacific Islander cultures, and Moki’s is able to make many customers feel like they’re part of the family.

Bele Tukuafu, 19, has been working at Moki’s for six months.

“My uncle owns the restaurant,” she said. “My uncle’s sister started the restaurant in 2002, and he took it over.”

Tukuafu said the Moki’s in Utah is the first of two locations, with the second restaurant located in Mesa, Arizona.

“We try to make simple, good Hawaiian food,” she said.

The food is simple and basic, but explosive with flavor. It is a tour of the Hawaiian Islands and many other Pacific Islander cultures.

Each plate comes with a choice of meat; two mounds of white rice; a Hawaiian salad consisting of chicken, cabbage and rice noodles with a house dressing. The flavors of each respective item had a story.

Kristian Naone of Honolulu was at the restaurant with Ted Camper, a University of Utah student from Chicago. Growing up in Honolulu with Hawaiian cuisine, Naone had a lot to say about the food.

Naone ordered the chicken katsu plate. Katsu is very similar to the fried chicken many Chinese restaurants make prior to coating it with a sweet sauce.

“It’s a dish that one could eat a lot of without getting full too fast and is complemented by the macaroni salad that Moki’s makes,” he said.

“That’d be good on a sandwich, it’s real crispy,” Camper said about Naone’s order. Both diners offered the writer a piece of each respective dish.

Camper ordered the teriyaki beef. Moki’s dish is more authentic than anything one can get at Rumbi Island Grill, Naone said. The teriyaki beef at Moki’s is marinated prior to being cooked, unlike many other restaurants’ interpretation of teriyaki where a sauce is coated on the meat after cooking.

The marinade reminds one of Korean bulgogi, a dish that consists of thin sliced marinated beef that’s been grilled.

“Modern Hawaiian food is a culmination of multiple ethnic foods,” Naone said.

“It’s because of the sugar plantations back in the day,” he said. “There were a lot of different cultures from Asia that were living with each other, but had no way to communicate with each other, except using food.”

“Prior to colonization,” he added, “Hawaiian food was simple. Taro was the big starch for people. It was the potato for the islands.” Colonization had brought problems with it, such as the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, but also created a fusion of food.

The Spam musubi is an example of this. The dish is comprised of a piece of cooked Spam covered in teriyaki sauce, put in rice that was pressed with a musubi press, then wrapped in seaweed.

“Spam is a big part of Hawaiian cuisine,” Naone said. World War II “created a lot of meat shortages on the islands, but Spam was abundant and easy to access and quickly became part of the cuisine.”

Lokomokos are also a popular Hawaiian dish, he said. “We call it surfer food because it’s simple to make, but hearty and gives you the energy to go out and surf all day.” Lokomokos consist of rice, brown gravy, hamburger patty and egg. The meal is served with a side of macaroni salad.

The theme of this fusion of cultures is very apparent with the kalua pork and kalbi ribs. Hawaii’s history can be told by its cuisine.

Naone said, “Kalua pork is made in a slow cooker. You put your pork and cabbage in and let it cook. The cabbage absorbs the juices and turns almost translucent, but is filled with the pork flavor.”

One bite into the kalua pork shows the flavor of the seasoning salt used. The pork has the consistency of almost melting in one’s mouth.

“The cabbage in this dish almost acts like noodles,” Naone said. While eating the pork, one has to mix it with the cabbage at the same time to make sure that all the juice is eaten.

The kalbi ribs are a dish very similar to Korean BBQ short ribs. “You have to make sure to eat all the meat around the bone,” Naone instructed. “Be sure to bite around the bone to get the sinew as well.”

The kalbi ribs at Moki’s explode with the flavor of the marinade and the cooking technique used. The smell of the marinade prior to taking a bite builds the flavor as one takes a bite of it. The flavor is a rich experience of sweet and smoke along with the fat melting in one’s mouth. It is similar to eating meat candy.

“There was a place across the street of my high school that offered comfy memories,” Naone said. “They’d serve kalua pork, rice, chicken katsu, all the comfort foods were there. This was the food we would have served in school as well. Katsu, rice, kalua pork. This is local food to me.” 

The Hawaiian salad offered a mix of sweet and salty flavors that pair well. The sweetness of the vinaigrette against the crunch and saltiness of the rice noodles offered an equilibrium that made the dish a good go-to in between the kalua pork and kalbi ribs.

The rice at Moki’s is served in two big mounds, topped with black sesame seeds, and can be mixed with the restaurant’s own rice sauce. The sauce offers a flavor similar to the Filipino condiment toyomansi, which is a mix of soy sauce with lime juice.

To finish the massive lunch, the two placed an order for malasadas, mango otai and a pineapple split.

The malasadas are very similar to a donut, but not as dense. “This is food you would get at a carnival,” Naone said. Malasadas are covered in semi-wet granulated sugar with a very crunchy outside, but a warm doughy inside.

Camper said, “The best part about the malasadas is they’re not as floury and you don’t have to drink a sip of something after every bite.”

Naone pointed out, “It’s very important that they use granulated sugar to coat the malasadas.” He also said that the way the granules stick to the outside surface of the malasada creates the texture necessary when one eats malasadas. “Usually when you order these back home, they give it to you in a brown paper bag and you just eat it straight out of the bag.”

For the pineapple split, a pineapple is cut in half and served with Dole Whip, whipped cream, and strawberries on top. The quality of Moki’s Dole Whip, a soft serve pineapple-flavored frozen dessert, is very similar to the Dole Whip served at Disneyland.

“When my family came to California for the first time, we went to Disneyland,” Naone said. “We saw the line for the Dole Whip and I was just thinking to myself that I can get this anytime I want at the Dole Plantation.”

The mango otai is one of Moki’s non-Hawaiian dishes that shows the Tongan roots of the Tukuafu family. Naone said, “Otai isn’t necessarily a Hawaiian drink, but it’s still present in Hawaii.” The otai consists of shredded mango, coconut cream, sugar and mango juice. Naone pointed out that the use of a boba tea straw is important for this drink because of the shredded mango.

Camper said, “There’s nothing like this in the Chicagoland area. Pacific Islander culture feels like it’s missing in Chicago.”

Salt Lake City’s Pacific Islander community is big. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Utah is home to one out of every four Tongans who live in the United States.  

Moki’s also offers a Polynesian plate. “The plate has samples of Tongan, Fijian and Samoan food,” Tukuafu said. The restaurant’s mixing of Pacific Islander cuisine offers Utahns a unique chance to get an authentic taste of these cultures. “We just try to make it as close to home as we can,” she said.

Hawaii’s history is marked by colonialism, the sugar plantations and the impact of World War II. The islands’ story is not only told through what’s been recorded but also through its cuisine. The use of Spam, teriyaki and lokomokos tell Hawaii’s post-colonial history through food. Moki’s is a testament to that history by serving its cuisine.

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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.

Pacific Islanders coalesce to preserve their culture

Story and photos by WOO SANG KIM

The Sixth Utah Pacific Island Heritage Month — an annual celebration held to increase the profile of the Pacific Islander communities and raise awareness of the different Pacific Islands — will be held July 28, 2018, from 6-11 p.m. at Sorenson Multicultural Center & Unity Fitness Center at 855 W. California Ave. in Salt Lake City.

Susie Feltch-Malohifo’ou, executive director of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources, proposed the observance in 2013 and Gov. Gary J. Herbert declared August as Utah Pacific Island Heritage Month.

Will Unga, career adviser at Salt Lake Community College, has assisted with hosting the annual celebration at the Sorenson center. “The event is like Hawaii. We offer different types of foods and teas. Some people love it. Some people find it interesting. Some of the dishes are lu sipi, palusami, ika, taro and cape. We also have dances like haka, mari, sipi tau and siva tau and arts like tattoos, drawings, ta moko and tatau,” he said.

“We prepare yearlong, working to offer tables for vendors or to let them perform. We want to get to a level of having an application process to elevate the level of quality,” Unga added.

He said the event is extremely short-staffed. Volunteers’ time is limited. More money is needed to hire an overseer. Yet, Feltch-Malohifo’ou’s drive and determination have helped the event to expand exponentially each year.

“The first celebration was a test, the second was going somewhere and the third was phenomenal. The first gathered about 100 people, mostly the families and friends of the event associates. The second had 300 people and the fourth had 600 people,” Unga said.

Micronesia Cultural Booth participated as a vendor at the past celebration. Melsihna Folau, a third-grade teacher at Pacific Heritage Academy who volunteered for the booth, said, “We aim to raise awareness of the current problems of the Micronesian region and educate people about the culture of Caroline Islands, Mariana Islands, Marshall Islands and Kiribati Islands.”

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Folau helped in hosting the Micronesia Cultural Booth.

Folau said the staff offered food and clothing as samples. Pilolo, tapioca mixed with banana and coconuts, and kemalis, rice mixed with coconuts, are given. The staff also answered questions about the Micronesian region. Most inquired about global warming and what the inhabitants are doing to slow the heating, Folau said.

“It took us six months to prepare. We had to get approved from the Marshallese government, connect to friends in Kiribati Islands, write to tourism management companies and talk to visitors from Guam. Getting the approval was the hard part,” Folau said.

The vendor also increased in size and had to divide. “The Marshallese wanted to have their own things, so they separated last year. They were excited to show their crafts and share things that they were shy about before,” Folau said.

“We are all part of the one history with different perspectives. I was excited to learn from experiences and network with people. I am just happy that I have been a part since the beginning,” Folau said.

The Queen Center, a Pacific Islander nonprofit promoting healthier lifestyles by providing cultural resources, tobacco prevention and advocacy and education, also has participated in the heritage celebration. Tufui Taukeiaho, a health sciences instructor at Granite Technical Institute who served as a committee member to the nonprofit, said, “We helped out by starting a 5K run.”

Taukeiaho said the Queen Center has hosted the run since the first celebration. The 5K started with 80-100 runners but the number surged each year. The funding from the run was given to two families. The husband of one family had a kidney failure and the other family had a 4-year-old boy who had cyclin-dependent kinase-like 5 (CDKL5) disorder — a rare X-linked genetic disorder that results in difficulty controlling seizures and severe neurodevelopmental impairment. Each family received a check of $6,000.

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Taukeiaho assisted families in need by helping coordinate the 5K run.

“Helping out to host the 5K run as a committee member and handing out the checks to the families was very rewarding to me,” Taukeiaho said.

The celebration increased the cultural awareness even among Pacific Islanders. According to a Salt Lake Tribune article, “One of every four Tongans in the U.S. calls Utah home,” Utah boasts the second largest Tongan population and fourth largest Samoan population in this country. Yet, Unga said, “Second-generation Pacific Islanders have never been home (Pacific Islands). They don’t get any more of the culture, food, and language.”

Second-generation Pacific Islanders responded very positively to the past celebrations. “They can’t get enough. They want more. After the taste, they save up money to go back to the Pacific Islands and see more, especially the language,” Unga said.

They also garnered an opportunity to network with other community members. “I advise and connect students to other Pacific Islanders. I help them get internships and jobs, and refer them to other business contacts,” Unga said. “I help no less than 50 students a year.”

Some students even took part in the fourth celebration by screening a film. Unga said students from Salt Lake Community College made the film incorporating the Pacific Island videotaping techniques learned from the New Zealand filmmakers.

Participants gained novel experiences, too. “When you work with people, you have to learn to compromise. Keeping mind and heart in the right spot answered my question of what I want to accomplish at the UPIHM. Past years have been that way,” Unga said.

“Pacific Islanders are a very small group of minorities,” he said said. “We have challenges because of that, and we have one common goal: To live a happy life. We just want everyone to be successful and try to be good members of the society.”

 

Pacific Islander cuisine and the impact of colonization

Story and photos by ANTHONY SCOMA

On the corner of Redwood Road and Paxton Avenue in Salt Lake City hangs a sign that reads “Pacific Seas Restaurant and Market” on a background of beaches and palm trees. While the sign is at odds with the landlocked, wintery Utah surroundings, the interior of the building is filled with the enticing scents, sounds and heat of a busy kitchen. Adults and children sit and eat at the tables or stand near the counter and order what is likely the most popular Pacific Islander cuisine in Utah.

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1151 South Redwood Road, Salt Lake City

“A lot of these customers that we receive come to the restaurant because it reminds them of their upbringing and their culture,” Maryann Tukuafu, the manager of Pacific Seas, said in a phone interview. When asked why food is so important she said, “I know for the Polynesian culture, it is a sense of togetherness, a unity. Food brings people together.”

At any celebration, from birthday to baptism to promotion party, food plays a part in recognizing good news. Tukuafu emphasized how these traditional dishes promote feelings of happiness and togetherness among Pacific Islander families and communities.

This shared experience and expression of culture is built on a history that stretches back to the first Pacific Islander communities. However, the diet of those who inhabited the islands originally had a much different makeup than what is seen today.

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A plate from Pacific Seas Restaurant consisting of lu sipi, a dish of lamb, taro leaves, mayonnaise and coconut milk; a lamb chop; fish with coconut milk gravy; and sweet potato.

According to a 1992 study by the Institute of Polynesian Studies, 85 percent of pre-colonial Pacific Islander diet was vegetable-based with 10-15 percent coming from protein largely sourced from the sea. More specifically, the Pacific Islander diet in the pre-colonial era was 60-78 percent carbohydrates, 10-15 percent protein and 7-30 percent fat. In comparison, the modern U.S. diet is 45-65 percent carbohydrates, 10-35 percent protein and 20-35 percent fat.

“Prior to colonization, refined sugars, deep frying, and trash foods like turkey tails and lamb flaps were not part of the diet,” said Jake Fitisemanu Jr., chair of the Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition, in an email interview. “It reduced the prestige and perceived value of indigenous foods and enhanced the value of introduced and imported foods.”

It wasn’t just changes in diet that European missionaries and colonizers brought. They also introduced technology and economic systems that made the Pacific Islanders’ highly active farming, hunting and fishing lifestyle obsolete. As with most demographics, modern work has continued this shift to more sedentary lives.

“In terms of activity, westernization’s emphasis on cash economy devalued the traditional subsistence, hunting, and fishing lifestyles of [Pacific Islanders],” Fitisemanu said. “Modern transportation, heavy machinery and processed foods have allowed for sedentary lifestyles that are a far cry from traditional lifeways that depended on intensive manual labor, walking, paddling and physical activity to ensure survival on remote islands with limited resources.”

These factors have contributed to the rise in obesity and diabetes in Pacific Islander communities. According to findings shared by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, Pacific Islanders were “three times more likely to be obese than the overall Asian American population” and “20 percent more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic whites in 2015.” In addition, “native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders are 2.4 times more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes as the white population.”

This phenomenon is not isolated to just Pacific Islander immigrants. According to a July 2010 bulletin posted by the World Health Organization, the abandonment of traditional diets for imported foods has led to widespread obesity, nutritional deficiencies, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and premature death throughout the Pacific Islands.

Local groups and events are working to improve the relationship between Pacific Islanders and their diet, exercise and health. The MANA 5K and Aloha 5K promote Pacific Islander health. Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition chapters in Salt Lake and Washington counties host a Health Week every year. They provide health resources, wellness screenings and demonstrations to promote Pacific Islander families’ physical activity. Weber and Davis counties will also host similar events after the creation of new UPIHC chapters there, Fitisemanu said.

For food and exercise, Fitisemanu recommended Pacific Islanders start with “small, incremental changes that reduce our reliance on processed foods in favor of more fresh foods and more varied diet.”

He also stressed “family-based and group-based efforts that play to our cultural values of social connection and mutual support. We need to learn lessons from the way our ancestors lived and thrived before colonization, and I believe those tenets are easier to integrate into our cultural worldview than new-fangled fad diets and celebrity-endorsed workout routines,” he said.

It must also be noted that health is informed by a culture’s values, history and ideals of beauty. Here again, we see evidence of the clash between pre-colonial and post-colonial ideas. For a Pacific Islander, what communicates health and beauty may be very different than what would be found in the pages of a western magazine.

When asked what the standards are for female beauty among Pacific Islanders, Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou, executive director of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources, said, “For a Tongan, and Samoans, I’d say heavier-set. Our older elders, they love women with big calves.” She also said that being overweight in Pacific Islander culture “signifies that your family has money to feed you. … When you are plump, that is looked as your family having status.”

The role food plays in Pacific Islander culture and health is significant. Food is used to communicate love, togetherness, celebration and community. The traditional food practices of the Pacific Islands are being used as a model for improving diet and overall health of the community in Utah and the Pacific Islands. And the authentic food from Pacific Seas Restaurant has brought Utah Pacific Islanders together since 1991.

Maryann Tukuafu’s father, the founder of Pacific Seas restaurant, “didn’t realize that it would flourish the way it did,” she said. “There were no other Polynesian/Pacific Islander restaurants at the time. [In] 1991, you still had people migrating from the islands to America. So it gave people who didn’t have time … time to swing by and pick up a plate.”

Power of woman: struggle to strength

Story and photo by MCKENZIE YCMAT

We all have a story to tell, all we need is a platform to share it. Two women, Noelle Reeve and Hailee Henson, are both members of the Pacific Islander community and have stories that they believe will inspire people not just within their community, but all women in general.

“I just want to be remembered,” said Reeve, a 23-year-old half Hawaiian woman from Sandy who was recently diagnosed with lupus. “I just want to tell my story like everyone else.”

Lupus is a common disease that causes the immune system to have a hard time telling the difference between good and bad substances going through your body. This forces the body to create an army of antibodies that attack good tissues, which can lead to mild and sometimes life-threatening problems.

Reeve started showing signs of lupus early in her teenage years and decided to visit her doctor after noticing she had become sensitive to light, struggled with fatigue throughout the day and experienced muscle soreness.

 

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Noelle Reeve was diagnosed with lupus at age 20 and now tries to share her story.

 

“My first appointment was with a rheumatologist I found through Google,” Reeve said. “He looked me up and down and only asked short questions. Every time I would answer he would talk over me. I had hoped I would go in and spend at least an hour doing tests and figuring things out, but I was only with him for 10 minutes.”

After countless appointments with numerous doctors, Reeve felt like she was at a loss and needed to find another route to find the answers she was looking for.

“I realized I wasn’t being taken seriously because of my age, my gender, and possibly even my ethnicity,” Reeve said.

Researchers have found that 50 percent of non-white patients have lupus, compared with 25 percent of whites. Reeve finally discovered a small group of doctors who are aware of these facts and also are members of the Pacific Islander community.

“I felt like I finally found a place where people understood my disease and they also understood my heritage,” Reeve said.

The new group of doctors diagnosed Reeve with lupus and helped her find a treatment that fit her needs. She said she feels like she is managing her disease and living a healthy future.

“I finally feel like I have control of my life and I found it through my own community and my family,” Reeve said. “I hope one day I can help someone else as they have helped me.”

Reeve is trying to get more involved with her community and wants to help others find answers to their health questions by sharing her story with friends and family who struggle with the same things.

“It’s all about family in the Pacific Islander community and that’s the one thing I hope people take away from hearing my story,” Reeve said.

Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou is the executive director of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources, an organization that focuses on violence prevention, economic impact and education within the Pacific Islander community. ““Everything is for the family. That’s why we’re so good at sports, besides our build. It functions the same way as a family. All for one, all for one family,” she said.

Hailee Henson, a 25-year-old from North Salt Lake, grew up in a strong Mormon family but never knew her family heritage. Henson’s mother was born and raised in a white family, but her father was adopted as a child and never knew his ethnic origins.

“I served an LDS mission and spent 18 months with companions who were islanders from Tahiti,” Henson said in an email interview. “I always felt some sort of draw to them and special bond with them, but never knew why. They always joked that I was an honorary Tahitian.”

It wasn’t until early 2018 that her family decided to visit the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii — a trip that pushed her father to get an official DNA test to find out which community he belongs to.

The day after returning home from their Hawaiian trip, the DNA test results had arrived. His father and mother were both Polynesian, making Henson a part of the 56 percent of the Native Hawaiian population to be considered as Polynesian mixed with another race.

“It felt amazing. It felt so right. Honestly, my family was so excited,” Henson said. “But like I said before, I’ve always felt so drawn to the Polynesian culture and this helped that tie make so much sense.”

Henson is currently studying to be a chef at the Culinary Arts Institute in Orem, Utah, and feels like her newfound identity has opened her eyes to a whole new menu.

After learning about her family heritage, Henson wants to understand more about Polynesian cuisine and share her findings with her family.

“I’m obsessed with Island cuisine. It’s such a simple way of life — eating off of the land and appreciating all that you’ve been blessed with,” Henson said. “The islands contain some of the best, fresh produce. They’re so blessed! I’d love to delve further into working with island cuisine and tropical fruits and fresh fish and all the good stuff.”

Reeve and Henson hope to make a change within the Pacific Islander community to show that women have a passion and a story to share that can change many — specifically those in their close communities — for the better.

LoL Hawaiian Grill: Lots of love and laughs in this Sandy restaurant

Story and photos by ALEXANDRA OGILVIE

The restaurant Lol Hawaiian Grill is kind of hard to find, hiding in a strip mall at 9460 S. Union Square in Sandy. The inside is very clean, with bright colors and welcoming music. The smell of slow-cooked pork is enticing as soon as the door is open. There isn’t room for many people with less than a dozen tables, and the kitchen is visible right behind the register.

Seven years ago Lana and Lopi Toleafoa opened their restaurant in American Fork, and about a year ago moved it to Sandy. “When we started out, some of our friends said, ‘Well, you have to find a spot where there are lots of Polynesians,’ but unbelievably, and amazing for us, our clientele, our customer base, is about 70 percent locals from Utah,” she said. “But they love our food.”

And love their food they do: their average on Yelp is four and a half stars out of five. Lana Toleafoa said that’s because “it’s very unique in that all our recipes are made by our family; they’re family recipes and yes there’s a lot of teriyaki barbeque chicken out there, we’ve been known to have the best.”

Of course, Toleafoa said, the most important ingredient used in any mom and pop restaurant is love. “I think it makes a difference that we love what we make.”

Ana, whose family is from Hawaii, loves the authenticity of the food. “A few things they ‘got right’ first of all is flavor. I can tell sauces are scratch made. The overall flavor profile is right on. Second is, the cuts of meat from the short ribs having some fat on them, chicken thigh as opposed to breast and even turkey tails. All cuts you would see used on the island.”

In addition to raving about the food, almost everyone on the first page of Yelp reviews talked about how nice everyone who works at the restaurant is. “You’re treated like family when you come here!” BJ Minson, a regular, said.

Sarah, another regular, wrote, “I love LoL Hawaiian Grill! Friendly staff every time just like being back on the North Shore!” Toleafoa loves learning the story of everyone who comes in, called “talking story” in Hawaii. “We love meeting new customers and getting to know you people every day.”

LoL Hawaiian Grill always offers the basic dishes: barbecue chicken; kalua pork, which is slow cooked until tender; kalbi ribs, a Korean-style dish that is very popular in Hawaii; and garlic shrimp. But if diners want loco moco — rice, a hamburger patty and an egg — they have to come in on a Wednesday. “We find that people look forward to those specials on those days,” Toleafoa said.

“We also make Polynesian dishes, you know, we don’t just focus on Hawaiian,” she said. “What we do have are very popular and people love what we make.” An example of a Polynesian dish they serve is Samoan oka, which comes with traditional Hawaiian poke. Both are made of raw fish, cured with some form of acid, much like Peruvian ceviche.

Lana and Lopi were both born in Tonga and lived in New Zealand before moving to Hawaii and ultimately to Utah when their daughter Juanina was accepted to Brigham Young University-Idaho.

Lana and Lopi Toleafoa, owners of LoL Hawaiian Grill.

“We love our little island, we love the beach, we love the sand, and the ocean, so it’s been a huge, huge adjustment,” Toleafoa said. “But our kids wanted to get off the Rock.”

The LoL in LoL Hawaiian Grill stands for “Lana or Lopi,” but it could also stand for “laughing out loud,” “labor of love,” “love our life,” or “lots of love.” Toleafoa said, “We like to laugh out loud too! It’s catchy; it’s easy for people to remember.”

Despite being in the restaurant almost all day every day, Toleafoa and her husband love being restaurateurs. “It’s a lot of hard work, it gets pretty tiring, but we love what we do, so we hope to grow,” she said. “We work for ourselves, even though it’s really hard work, we’re the first in and the last out kind of thing, so it’s not easy. But just having that option where you don’t have to clock in, clock out, not having anybody to tell you what to do or jump here and jump there.”

They do it to feed their community: “We love that everyone loves to share the spirit of Aloha.”

“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.”