Cooking to keep the place open

Are you up to the challenge of the Hunter’s Special — four eggs, smoked meat, Spam, Portuguese sausage, and two scoops rice — at Unko’s Kitchen in Hanapepe?

“That and the Beef Stew Plate are our hot sellers,” said Manuel Cabral, whose family and friends run Unko’s Kitchen in Hanapepe. “This is a family thing. We own and run the place.”

Cabral, describing himself as “an ordinary Samoan-Hawaiian man,” has always had a passion for cooking and dreamed of opening a catering business and restaurant.

News of his prowess in the kitchen spread across the coconut wireless after “just cooking a few things for family and friends.”

Sharon, his wife, worked for the Hamabata family and the Green Garden restaurant from 1982, he said.

“The Hamabata and Arashiro families were the icons of the restaurant business on Kauai,” he said. “Sharon worked for them, and they were my mentors even if I only helped with the trees and the outside.”

When Mrs. Sue Hamabata passed, Cabral said he lamented seeing the place close.

“Everybody used to come here — breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” he said. “The place was always busy. Sharon said people used to come from all over for the food, turning dining into a time to catch up with friends and family from the Westside.”

Gwen Hamabata became his mentor.

“She passed along what she knew,” Cabral said. “Bring in homestyle, local cooking, she said. And consider the people who are working two or three jobs to support their families. They need a place they can bring the kids to and enjoy family time. The young people getting started need a place, too. They don’t have a lot of money, but they enjoy good food, too. My family and friends who work here all have regular jobs. I teach them cooking so if anything happens to their job, at least they know how to cook.”

This advice coupled with Cabral’s passion for cooking to develop the unique menu which includes the Polihale Special, a mixture of Cabral’s unique fried rice recipe with two over-easy eggs.

“I eat that all the time,” said Patty Boy Malama. “Today, we have family and friends from Honolulu so I bring them here to taste Unko Manno’s cooking. They don’t know about this place in Honolulu because the papers haven’t discovered him.”

Unko, or uncle in pidgin, pronounced uhn-ko, and Aunty is used to show great respect, Cabral said.

“Unko Manny, and Aunty Sharon — they the best,” said Brenda Jose who had her family at one of the tables in the busy dining room. “This is the best place to bring the family after church. They give you way more food than you pay for. My kids, Kaimana and Uakea, they order a short stack, Kalua Hash, Fried Chicken and Fried Saimin, and they eat it all! No leftovers. Just no can beat.”

Gwen Batara and her son Kainoa were wrapping up their breakfast at another table.

“I like the pork cutlet,” Kainoa said. “It’s just the right size.”

“You just missed the wave of tourists who were here,” Gwen said. “Now, it’s the people coming out of church. Tom, my husband had the Roast Pork Moco which is a special. I am trying the Taco Salad for the first time, and I just have to have a to-go box.”

Cabral said after working 28 years at Barking Sands, his goal is to see the former location of the Green Gardens flourish.

“Gwen always said, ‘You take care of the community; you take care of the island, and they’ll take care of you,’” he said. “We’re trying.”

Open Friday evenings from 6-9 for “saimin and other local favorites,” Unko’s Kitchen is also open from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays because “everybody else (has) jobs.” For now, we just open on the weekend when everybody doesn’t work, Cabral said.

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