By Anni Caporuscio
It’s time for a new year, and so it’s time to try new things. I acknowledge that traditional Filipino backyard cuisine may not be new to you, but to this Italian-American lady it’s still an adventure.
Mark and Tricia Ruiz, along with cousin Rodney Baptiste, present Kiawe Roots, a roots restaurant featuring the flavors of backyard barbecues of their personal ethnic backgrounds. It’s an opportunity for the rest of us to jump on board and experience things like bibimbap, namasu, tinono, gandule rice, calamansi and other creations not typically on a regular menu. What’s impressive is that their diversity creates a collection of food with a variety of spices so that every dish is unique.
I’ve said it before, but it merits mentioning again that I love the creativity of island chefs that can seamlessly blend a childhood island favorite with mainstream preparations and presentation to pull off something that both transmits heritage and livens the modern palate. In doing so, Kiawe Roots has given us a heavy Filipino influenced menu with simple ingredients, simple techniques and unique flavors. They honor the past by serving dishes in kaukau tins, the round metal bowls given to the plantation workers for their meals during Kaua‘i’s earlier times. While I may experience it as “neat,” this is meaningful history for island residents.
You will know Mark and Tricia from their recent food truck at the Lawa‘i Warehouse, Roots in Culture, which married southern comfort food with Kaua‘i island comfort food. Six months ago they opened Kiawe Roots in the Kukui‘ula Shopping Center, continuing to follow their dreams.
Now let’s define a few terms. “Bibimbap” is Korean cuisine, a Korean hot bowl, and it means “mixed rice.” It’s served like deconstructed fried rice. Just like the Kimchi Fried Rice on the menu, the fried rice comes on the bottom of the bowl with all the ingredients — Portuguese sausage, kimchi, pickled veggies, shoyu potatoes, etc. — laid in tidy piles on top, with an egg. When you get the dish, mix it all up.
Namasu is Japanese thinly sliced and pickled cucumbers, usually, and Kiawe features namasu cantaloupe for a sweet and tart garnish. Calamansi is a small citrus fruit that’s a cross between a small orange and a lime, which turns into a surprisingly tart and bright orange sauce for the Crispy Smoked Pulled Pork.
Gandule Rice is a Puerto Rican family rice (from Mark’s side) that’s served with the Jawaiian Jerk Pork Ribs. Gandule is pigeon peas, and the rice with sausage, black olives and achiote seed to turn it reddish, kin to a Spanish rice but with interesting depth.
Tinono is a grilled style of Filipino cooking. Kiawe offers a fully customizable section of the menu dedicated to Tinono. It’s traditionally a deeply spiced meat combined with fresh tomatoes and onions, carrots and chili vinegar, served over rice. It turns in to a spicy, cool, savory, sweet, hearty bite.
Kiawe doesn’t want to be your special-occasion restaurant, but your every-week place. Open for brunch, happy hour and dinner, all with affordable prices and simple good fare, it is entirely possible to experience this modern island eatery that seeks to present the past with a modern twist. A special note to their naturally gluten-free menu.
Find Kiawe Roots above Tortilla Republic in the Kuku‘iula Shopping Center in Po‘ipu, open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., with Monday open for dinner only. Ask about take-out catering, restaurant buyouts and parties.
Visit www.eatatkiawe.com or call (808) 631-3622 for more information.
- Anni Caporuscio is a food lover and can be found daily at her Kapa‘a business, Small Town Coffee.