When Peter Buza opened his Georgetown diner in 1993, he intended to cook what he knew, the kind of informal dishes he and his father-in-law made in their restaurant in rural Kauai: simple, hearty, unfussy food. But he doubted how well the comfort food of Hawaii would translate with his working-class, Seattle customers. As luck would have it, a burger joint a few doors down had just closed, leaving the area without a single place to get a hamburger. So that’s what Buza cooked: burgers and fries and fish.
The same month he opened his restaurant, a longshoreman who happened to be from Hawaii stopped in, giving Buza a reason to try out some of the local dishes he knew. Quickly, word spread that there was a guy in Georgetown who served Hawaiian food, and the rest became history for Buza, who has cooked at the Kauai Family Restaurant near the corner of Sixth Avenue South and South Michigan Avenue for 16 years.
The location is inauspicious — his place shares a broken-down strip mall with a teriyaki restaurant and a printing shop — but the rent is cheap, and the overhead low. His daughter Randi Buza, 27, is his business partner. Peter’s wife Sharon waits tables Thursday and Friday night. They employ family friends to help Saturday, the busiest day of the week, but do most of the work themselves.
The menu has grown to include most of the specialties found at a Hawaiian diner: laulau (pork and fish wrapped and steamed in taro leaves), kalua pig (salty, smoked roasted pork), poke (raw tuna chunks marinated with onion, seaweed, and soy sauce), chicken long rice (short noodles cooked in broth), and poi, the paste made from the root of the taro plant.
Increasingly, residents of Hawaii are settling down in the Seattle area. More restaurants serving Hawaiian food have opened (Hawaiian Breeze in Wallingford, Northshore Hawaiian Barbecue in Greenwood, Kona Kitchen in Maple Leaf), appearing to the uninitiated to be some variant of teriyaki or Japanese fast food. The L&L Hawaiian Barbecue franchise, which started in Honolulu, has opened four restaurants in Lynnwood, Renton, Federal Way, and Lakewood. In this small and growing genre, the most earnest and personally tended is the Kauai Family Restaurant.
Buza roasts his own pig and smokes his own pork in a cedar-lined smoker he built himself out of an old refrigerator. The cooking is consistent because he has always done it. “We’re not fast,” he says. “If you eat here, you have to wait 20, 25 minutes for your food. We could make it faster but it’s not going to be as good.”
Buza, 54, bakes his own sweet bread, from which he makes French toast. On Saturdays he fries and fills his own malasadas, donuts of Portuguese provenance that have become a Hawaiian favorite. The signature dish of the restaurant is the Lawai crispy ginger chicken, named for the little town on Kauai where Buza’s last restaurant was. The chicken is soaked overnight in a ginger marinade, dusted with flour, and deep-fried.
For as approachable and ordinary as Hawaiian food really is, it remains largely a mystery outside of the islands, and difficult to find. Perhaps because it is so slippery to define, as are the people. Hawaii’s is a creole culture. Few if any parts of America can match the depth of the mix found there. For Asian Americans, Hawaii is like the Deep South for African Americans, a place their numbers prevail in the population, and a place their traditions and quirks were allowed to thrive and evolve in relative isolation. The Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Portuguese, Koreans, and others came to the island for work, joining the native Hawaiians already there, married one another, and became something uniquely American.
The Buzas are typical. Peter is of Spanish, native Hawaiian, and Filipino descent. He married a Japanese woman. Randi looks like the ambiguous blend of all her forebears. Like the people, the food is a blend found nowhere else in the country.
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