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Going Hawaiian in Georgetown

Peter Buza simmers Kalua pig at Kauai Family Restaurant in Georgetown. Credit: Hugo Kugiya

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.

Strictly speaking, Hawaiian food is regional, American cooking. This region just happens to be heavily influenced by Asian immigrants, who arrived poor, made do with what they had and what they remembered and created a kind of American food that is both familiar and strange. The food is like a lot of cooking that comes from a legacy of peasantry: salty, rich, and hardly low-fat; Asian soul food, if you will.

The Buzas serve macaroni salad, creamy and redolent of onion, with just about every meal. Portuguese sausage is as common a breakfast meat as bacon is elsewhere. Rice, rather than potatoes, is the preferred starch at all meals, served with entrees of Asian origin as well as those of Western origins such as spaghetti, beef stew, and chili.

The breakfast plate called loco moco is a hamburger patty and an egg served on a bed of rice with brown gravy poured over the whole mess. Spam, the beloved canned meat of Hawaii, is a habit acquired from the state’s longtime military presence, and is served with noodles and most often in a rice ball wrapped in seaweed, a borrowed form of Spam sushi.

The distinctions of Hawaiian food are sometimes a little bizarre, sometimes very subtle, which is why much of it passes simply as Japanese or Chinese food, albeit an Americanized version.

“In Hawaii, everybody’s food just gets mixed together,” said Randi, who grew up in Kauai. “It’s just what we eat. I thought everybody knew how to make that kind of food, but when I moved here, people were like, ‘what’s that?’”

A Hawaiian diner in Georgetown is perhaps no stranger a sight than a Puerto Rican diner in the Bronx or a Cuban diner in northern New Jersey. There are many of the latter, but only one of the former. There are still bars over the restaurant windows although it’s been a while since the last break-in. Prostitution and vagrancy are still hallmarks of life in Georgetown, a working neighborhood of light industry, machine shops, building materials, showrooms, and warehouses.

The city’s creative class — the kind that brews beer or sculpts or plays bass guitar, not the kind that writes code and fine prose — was supposed to turn Georgetown into the SoHo or Williamsburg or Venice Beach of Seattle, or at least an extension of Fremont or Belltown. That hasn’t quite happened. Georgetown doesn’t have the density of architecture, or the proximity to wealth. But it has attracted the more intrepid of those with creative ambitions, not just artists but restaurateurs, furniture makers, and metal workers like Randi’s boyfriend Matt Adams, who makes custom choppers out his Georgetown shop, called Red Soul.

For Peter Buza, Georgetown in 1993 was simply where the rent was cheapest. His mother and sisters lived a few miles away on Beacon Hill, so the place made sense. He took over the space from a Korean-American woman who ran a teriyaki stand. At first, he didn’t even bother changing the sign. It took time to make the place his own.

The place feels most transformed on a Saturday afternoon, when transplants from Hawaii fill the tables. At the front counter, the Buzas sell T-shirts and Hawaiian tsotchkes like palm-tree candle holders and key chains. Last year, he took a try at selling surfing shorts. Only a few sizes remain.

“When something pops into his head, he’ll just try it,” Randi said.

If you go: Kauai Family Restaurant is at 6324 Sixth Ave. S., Seattle, 206-762-3469. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday; 9:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, closed Sunday and Monday.

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