By Anni Caporuscio
It was my honor to sit and chat with Barbara Oki Mundon about food, business and life. Of particular interest to me is that she has been a resilient restaurateur for more than 25 years, changing the shape, location and style of her restaurants along the way, yet always keeping the focus the same: delicious food must be worth the money She has worked hard as a perfectionist to make sure this is true at Oki’s.
Mrs. Oki was a teacher with a clothing boutique on the side. She got into the restaurant business by accident at the behest of family to help their business. As it turned out, Mrs. Oki found a passion for creating good food, and she regarded it a challenge to create the best recipes. Maybe you remember a saimin stand in Kekaha in the early 1990s? That was Mrs. Oki. In 1996 she moved her operation to Lihu‘e next to McDonalds, then on to Rice Street from 2006 to 2011. Remember eating pancakes at Oki Diner at 2 a.m. after dancing all night? Just me?
These days, Oki’s is incarnated as Oki’s Box Lunches and Omiyage — a take-out restaurant in the food court at Kukui Grove, which she runs with her son, Ryan Ogata. Omiyage, is a little gift that you bring to a home to which you are invited, a cultural inclusion that I find charming and correct. It can be an orange, mochi or tiny pastry snacks. There are three specials per week, to keep the frequently returning customers happy. Monday is Korean Meat Jun, Wednesday is Beef Stew, Friday Thai Yellow Chicken Curry. Oki’s specializes in local Hawaiian foods. Note the “s” on “Foods”. This is homage to the conglomeration of cultures that make up Hawai‘i and our local palate, and thus the diverse menu at Oki’s.
Things Oki’s is famous for, and not limited to:
- Neill’s Chicken. Neill was a warden at the Correctional Center who shared his recipe with Mrs. Oki, who tweaked it a bit and it is a favorite. It’s a tender chilly spiced fried chicken laden in tangy sauces.
- Pancakes! After a prayer and a trip to Borders (RIP), Mrs. Oki invented her famous buttermilk pancake recipe that has been pined over at any time of day, not just at 2 a.m.
- Shrimp Scampi, which is reported to be the best ever, rivaling that of fine dining establishments.
- Saimin, of course, it’s the origin of Oki’s food dynasty. Rod Moura, a favorite saimin customer since mid-July 2017 says “excellent saimin! Really, really good!”
- Oki’s crispy friend chicken wings that you can order by the bucket for parties. Also to note for parties, Oki’s can cater your event with anything from the menu.
- Oki’s Best Hawaiian Tropical Syrups. It’s a mix birthed from Mrs. Oki’s famous coconut syrup that you can find in stores all over Hawai‘i. There’s also a mochi mix.
But what Oki’s is most famous for is Barbara Oki Mundon herself. She sat in the corner of the store between the walk-up counter and the coffee, an easy place to communicate with both the kitchen and customers. Outgoing and sociable in an honest and familiar way, she greeted each customer, and instinctively knew their favorites. She says she has always been able to guide people to what she thinks they’ll enjoy. “You must enjoy your food,” she said. In the midst of our chat, she effortlessly organized food for a grandson, ordered extra luau leaf for laulau, talked to customers, gave us a brief history of Hawaiian food, and made us feel right at home. This is truly a Kaua‘i institution.
Find Mrs. Oki and Oki’s Box Lunches in the food court at Kukui Grove Center everyday starting at 9 a.m. Call in orders at 245-7744.