By Anni Caporuscio
Rob Kubota worked at Pono Market since he was a kid. His father, Bob Kubota, taught him the family’s work ethic, a legacy he learned from his own father. On a Friday morning, Rob was wearing a Kapa‘a Warriors shirt, matching the Warriors photos lining the walls, and other local sports teams Pono Market has sponsored.
Pono Market was originally a meat market, part of the former Pono Pineapple Company where now sits Pono Kai Resort in Kapa‘a. Rob’s grandparents were pig farmers who bought the place with a handshake in 1968. It remained a meat and produce market into the 1980s, when Rob’s uncle, Ken, introduced the convenience store type setting. It was open until 11 p.m., sold liquor, quite the scene.
Rob’s parents, Bob and Lynn, opened up Pono Fish Market in the late 1980s at the site of the current Kaua‘i Pasta. They married the two concepts around 1995, adding the Coffee Talk coffee bar about 10 years ago at the old and current location.
Now Pono Market is a happy place with happy service and familiar faces. Pono Market is what local people know as local food; it’s what everybody grew up with. Rob serves grandparents who bring their grandkids to the Market for nostalgic dishes. They keep all the food simple; simple recipes always play out. They still mix the poke the way his dad did it. They still use his grandmother’s sushi rice recipe. The manju, my 15-year on-and-off love affair? Grandmother’s recipe, too.
Since my first poke came from Pono Market, and poke itself is a current Mainland craze, let’s talk story about poke. Poke is one of the many byproducts of a Hawaiian melting pot of cultures. Poke means “chopped” or “cubed” in a sort of Hawai‘i creole, origin unknown. It’s not just ahi, it can be any chopped sea food. The basic ingredients are the protein, seaweed, nut oil (traditionally kukui nut) and salt. The sesame is a Japanese influence. The onions and chili pepper is Portuguese. The original seaweed used is called limukohu, the tree-like kind. But our melting pot is continually evolving, and so is poke. Pono Market features five flavors: spicy, sesame (both the most popular), onion, shoyu, and now kim chi (featuring cucumber, kim chi and sesame).
Picture a gathering of people, perhaps for a farmers market. One person has the fish, one the seaweed, one the onions, another salt and spices. Then you make a dish. This is how we got lomilomi, a term meaning “massaged” or “mixed”, for which everybody brought an ingredient: fish, onion, tomatoes, herbs, salt, and it became a cool staple of plate lunch. Rob knows the stories of local food, and the common theme is the celebration of people coming together.
A few things at Pono Market have changed. They’ve got a brand new POS system at the register. They started taking credit card about five years ago. They’ll let you know what’s gluten free, even though most items already are naturally gluten-free.
I asked Rob what he wants Kauai to know about Pono Market. He says,
“We, as a family, won’t give up. We want to make sure we keep serving the ‘aina of Kaua‘i to our 75th year and beyond. It’s sad to see the mom and pops going. But we’re here to stay,” said Rob, adding his 4-year-old kid already works at Pono Market. He organizes the candies and wipes the windows to a certain height, a legacy he learned from his father.
Pono Market is in Old Kapa‘a Town on Kaua‘i’s Eastside, open Monday through Saturday.
- Anni Caporuscio is a food lover and can be found daily at her Kapa‘a business, Small Town Coffee.