Last week I housesat deep in Kalihi Valley, and driving home for the first evening of cat-feeding duties I spotted this inviting storefront with a modern, streamlined logo across from Kalihi Uka Elementary. Wassat? The next night I pulled into the school’s parking lot, ran across the street and found a cheery plate lunch spot.
Opened last month, Puka is owned and run by husband-and-wife Kathy and Michael Huang and their friend Amy Man. They found the space, in a dank row that includes Polynesia Market, through Craig’s List. (“We’ve been here for 30 years and we had never been to Kalihi before!” Kathy said with a sheepish laugh.) The Huang’s daughter Zeny designed the logo and menu and their son took the black-and-white photographs of Kalihi that hang on the wall, breaking new ground in plate-lunch-hut style.
The look may be an akule out of water in the neighborhood, but the food isn’t. You get straightahead two-scoop-rice-mac-salad plates. “BBQ” mixed plate, mochiko chicken, chicken katsu, hamburger steak—you get the idea. And even though it’s not the healthiest food, it’s probably the healthiest thing you can get in the valley. (I lived there for two years—I know. Loved how my neighbors down the street had a chopped-up goat in a plastic tub, its eyes staring me straight in the eyes.) Everything is well-prepared with pretty good, fresh ingredients. Check this mahimahi, nicely dotted with capers.
The thing I went back for, though, is this unholy mess—mac chili cheese. A boatload of macaroni topped with, uh, chili and cheese. For those of you who miss Masa’s Massive Plate Lunch’s chili, boy have I found the place for you. Puka’s is very similar, that slightly sweet local style, but with a low, slow burn. It is damn good. And perfect for watching TV in your flannel jammies with a crocheted blanket tucked over your footsies in fricken cold back-of-Kalihi-Valley. Writing this makes me wish I had a bowlful on top rice right now.
Even better news is the fact that Amy is from Hong Kong and Kathy is from Malaysia. This means that also on the menu is honey walnut shrimp, and Kathy said she may add curries and laksa to the menu. LAKSA! She said they’re getting a feel for what people want and will expand the offerings accordingly. So go to Puka and say that you want laksa. Please. I’m begging you. I already did my bit.
ps: It is a sad state of eating affairs when I get so excited about a plate lunch place in Kalihi. zzzzzz.