I remember my high school classmates bragging about ditching school to get loaded and go eat at Kitada’s. But they never took me along. I was never that cool, I guess.
It wasn’t until I was 23 that I ate Kitada’s food. My boyfriend brought me some take-out—saimin and cheeseburgers at 6 a.m. for my hangover. It was the best cure for a hangover I’ve tried.
I’ve passed the place a million times. You can’t exactly see through the windows and it looks like a little rundown hut about to fall off the cliff into the gulch at the beginning of Makawao Town. You might even think it’s an abandoned building, were it not for the Kitada’s sign outside.
Maybe they keep it this way to ward off tourists and outsiders. It certainly kept me away. Or maybe it’s the fact that they open early in the morning and close in the early afternoon—that ain’t much time in the day. Not too many restaurants close when most of the working world is ready to eat.
Anyway, the other morning I took my first trip to Kitada’s. Inside it looks like it hasn’t been redecorated since 1965, which isn’t a bad thing. Two rather irregular regulars accompanied me. One told me that if Kitada’s ever closes, there will be a lot of Portagees with nothing to do in the morning.
I looked around. There were a lot of Portagees and Filipinos talking up a storm about uncles/brothers/coworkers/the old lady’s first-born’s graduation party they attended/the gout someone had last week.
There was no sign of service, so my boyfriend walked to the kitchen and casually leaned in.
“Ethel, I’m gonna get two coffees,” he said.
Waiting, I looked at some of the faded pictures on the wall. Some are from old Makawao society, showing cattle ranchers and Catholics. There are a few autographed photos of Frank De Lima, Marty Dread, several high school mug shots of family friends and—wait a minute—is that a naked lady?
Once my boyfriend returned with the coffees I asked he and his friend if tourists ever come in here. Sure, they said: they’re the ones who look over the menu. I looked down at my menu, then said it’s all strictly research.
They’ve got your typical plate lunch choices: beef stew, hamburger plate, curry chicken, pork chops. All come with mac salad, salted cabbage and rice. There are some sandwiches, cheeseburgers, burger deluxes and their specialty—saimin and dry mein with broth.
Ethel finally came out. She’s a small woman with honest eyes.
“This is a really good boyfriend, if this is your boyfriend,” she told me. “What you guys want?”
My friends quickly told her, but I—always indecisive—hesitated.
“Haoles like the hekka,” Ethel suggested. Being haole, I agreed.
I asked my friends what made Kitada’s plate lunches so special.
“It’s the atmosphere.”
“No, it’s the seasonings.”
“The recipe. No, it’s the meat.”
“It’s the mom and pop-style food.”
“It’s a place for the local people to come together.”
I began to fantasize about a less-filling/tastes great brawl starting, but then the food came. We grabbed canned juices from the self-serve cooler and donned our food with all the proper condiments (shoyu, pepper, etc).
The hekka was a colorful mix of beef, juices and onions. There was something about the meat—an indescribable goodness.
Some say you can judge a plate lunch place by its mac salad, so I dove into my perfectly round scoop. It could have used a little pepper, but before I knew it, it was gone. My plate was bare, everyone else’s plates were bare and we were at the cash register.
This is Kitada’s. You don’t linger over the meal, you grind it. You don’t chit chat, you talk story. You’re not related to any of these people, but you might as well be. They care about the food they cook you. They have for years and will continue.
Because if they don’t, there will be a lot of Portagee people with nothing to do in the morning. MTW