Good Food For A Good Cause

“Today I operated this grill, and I prepared chicken char siu, teri short ribs, and pork chops seasoned in the chef’s special sauce,” explains 26-year-old trainee JoJo “Purp Dog” Suarez. “It’s short for the color purple,” he adds to explain his name. “It’s a high school thing, and I’m a godfather to two of my nieces. They call me Uncle Purple.”

Suarez is one of five trainees at Lanakila Kitchen, a new restaurant in Lawai, next to the post office. The restaurant has only been open for eight weeks and there is already a steady stream of customers. Residents know they can get good food at a good price, but they may not know their purchase directly supports employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

For 72 years, Lanakila Pacific, the parent company in Honolulu, has been helping disabled adults reach their full potential through an array of programs and services that promote community inclusion. Lanakila Kitchen is its first venture outside Oahu.

“This is really a training facility,” says project manager Carol Horner, who gets trainees through the state of Hawaii’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. “That’s first before everything else.”

Trainees learn while getting paid, and besides cooking they wash dishes and clean floors and bathrooms.

“They do everything that it would take if they were to work in the outside sector,” explains Horner. “That’s what we prepare them for.”

Under the culinary guidance of chef Frank Guillermo and Harbie Loza, trainees make everything from scratch because, according to Horner, it’s the best way to teach them.

In the cooler, fresh menpachi and ulua wait to be transformed into lunch. Deep-fried ‘opelu is today’s special, and the sweet fish is excellent dipped in chili pepper water.

“This is one of the best homemade chili pepper waters,” explains Suarez, who says he’s been around great food since he was born. “It’s very tasty kind of hot, but it’s delicious.”

The Chicken and Green Papaya Soup ($4) is deeply nourishing. The soft, green papaya and tender chicken simmered in a rich, salty broth is like a culinary hug from Mom.

Chunks of beef and potatoes are gently cooked in a flavorful tomato base and make the thick Beef Stew ($4) a satisfying lunch.

Starting at $6.50, diners can choose one main dish, which comes with a side of white, brown or fried rice and a green salad. Two mains cost $1 more and three cost $8.50. The menu changes daily and usually features one each pork, chicken, fish and beef dish.

Purp Dog’s pork chops are used in both the Tinono with tomatoes and onions, and in Pinakbet with eggplant, okra, sweet potatoes and bitter melon. Lindsey Dana’s light and chewy bread is the bowl for the stew-like Portuguese Bean Soup ($5.50) full of smoked ham, Portuguese sausage, macaroni, beans, carrots and potatoes.

Owen Ignacio made today’s Beef Chow Fun with slivers of carrots and scallions. Kanae Soto started making today’s desserts at 7 a.m., and her Haupia Sweet Potato Pie, Pumpkin Crunch Pie and fruit salad are on display in the front cooler.

“This is a very beautiful place to work. Everyone is on top. Everybody brings it,” says Suarez, with a catch in his throat. “I love the chef, and I just try to do my best to help him out, whatever he needs. It’s a lot of responsibility. No jokes, no games, straight work. It’s absolutely amazing, and I’m blessed to be hired and representing Lanakila Kitchen.”

Lanakila Kitchen
2-3687 Kaumualii Hwy., Lawai 322-5500
Open Monday-Friday
Breakfast: 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.
Lunch: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.