“The pork chops are so ono here,” said Kaniela “Danny” Akaka.
He removed a straw paniolo hat as his wife Anna presented me with an orchid lei in the lobby at Manago Hotel. Danny always gets the pork chops. She prefers the fried opelu. I wanted the butterfish. We’ve been ordering the same dinner in the cherry wood–paneled dining room of this guesthouse for the past two decades. It’s a regular gathering place for friends and family, called ohana in Hawaiian. On a lower slope of Mauna Loa, the town of Captain Cook is surrounded by many of the island’s small-acre coffee farms, with precipitous views above an ancient place of refuge and Kealakekua Bay, where the British explorer met his end. The crew of HMS Resolution stole wood from a sacred heiau to repair a broken mast and that offense led to the skirmish that sealed James Cook’s fate.
Compared to the volcanic shoreline on the Kohala Coast, this side of the island is cooler and often shrouded in mist descending from rain forest at a higher elevation. In 1917, Kinzo and Osame Manago opened their modest rest stop for travelers going mauka (upland) on Mamalahoa Highway, the narrow belt road that circles Hawai’i. Their portraits still hang at the entranceway to the dining room along with a sepia-tint photograph showing the original two-story building with Ford Model T roadsters parked in front. The couple’s youngest grandson, Dwight Manago, and his wife, Cheryl, run the place now. The backyard is planted with lychee and coffee banana trees. A porcelain hand sink and tap outside the screened front door still invite farmers to wash away grit from the coffee fields before entering. The television room has bentwood loungers and a display cabinet of sports trophies. The reception area contains a glass case of candy bars for the neighborhood kids. Not much has changed in a hundred years, and that’s part of the charm.
Going out to dinner with Danny and Anna Akaka is like arriving with the band. (He plays ukulele and she is a kumu hula.) Our regular spot is in the middle of the room, cooled by old-fashioned ceiling fans and a salty breeze blowing off the ocean through open windows. But they know everyone, so it always takes a while to say hello at other tables before we actually sit down. This time, Danny kept popping up each whenever someone else paused at our table for a chat. Laughter leaked from the kitchen. A collection of vintage aluminum lunch pails was visible above the china cupboard when the swing doors opened, and one of the staff came out to take our order.
Like many from the mainland, I first came to Hawai’i for the sun and the beach, but have since been drawn back by a dining culture that celebrates its diversity with good humor and shareable portions. Settlement and immigration have gifted the islands with dishes and techniques far from this Pacific Ocean latitude. Along with pigs and chickens, Polynesians brought taro, breadfruit, coconuts, and yams in their outrigger canoes. Later came Filipino marinated pig’s head, Japanese fried rice omelets, Korean kalbi short ribs with kimchi, and Portuguese malasadas. A Spanish botanist planted the first pineapple. Chinese laborers contributed crack seed snacks and char sui roasted meats. American servicemen introduced canned Spam. Through friends here, I first tasted squid luau and lomi salmon, homegrown contributions to the Hawaiian kitchen.
Posted on a black felt message board, the menu at Manago rarely varies. The papaya or mango at breakfast often comes out of someone’s yard. Most of the fish is caught right offshore. On lucky days, that could mean mahi mahi, ahi, ono, or opakapaka. Sides depend on whatever the ladies are cooking in the kitchen. Our waitress delivered the daily selection: pork tofu, stir fried mung beans, and ogo namasu—a vinegary salad of sautéed seaweed, raw onion, and tomato sprinkled with sesame. Bowls of steamed white rice came next. Danny’s pork chops arrived smothered in onions. Fried in age-tempered skillets, the thin center cutlets were crisp with sea salt. My butterfish fillets, flaky and delicate. This simple black cod preparation has eluded me for years, and Dwight Manago remains politely noncommittal about revealing the family recipe. (However, he once hinted it was glazed with a miso marinade.)
We held hands as Danny offered thanks.
Then toasted with green tea and beer.
Nearby tables were pushed together to accommodate a party. Lots of balloons, loud chatter, presents on the table, babies passed from lap to lap. The entire dining room sang the birthday song when a sheet cake came out, and one of the family members brought over slices for us to share. Everyone lingered, crumbs scattered on the yellow Formica tabletops.
By the time we finished, the moon was rising above Mauna Loa. We walked out past reception, where a dish of gardenias scented the night air. Danny and Anna said farewell to me on the street by performing honi, touching foreheads and sharing breath, or ha (that’s the root word for aloha). We all had fishy breath, but it’s an honor. I’ll miss my friends. Until we meet again.