Hot papa: Owners Stephanie and Gabe at Papa Lucks.

Located in between the art building and Miller Hall on the UH-Manoa campus is the food stand Papa Lucks. Students go there for breakfast in the morning, for snacks in between morning and afternoon classes, and for their big meal of the day: lunch. This distinguishes Papa Lucks from the eateries surrounding it. For example, Govinda’s–which is in the Sustainability Courtyard and close to where I work–opens for the midday meal at 10am and closes at 2pm, and its main customers are those who want a vegetarian lunch.

Papa Lucks’ owner-manager Gabe is the grandson of Lucky Luck–someone I remember watching on television in the days when Hawai’i had only three channels and every show was in black and white. He had his own program and appeared to be genial, approachable and goodhearted. He always wore a woven hat at a jaunty angle, and it was as much a part of him as his smile.

Shortly after I started going to Papa Lucks and talking with Gabe, he told me he was the grandson of Lucky Luck. I was shocked and said, ‘You’re related to Lucky Luck?!’ Gabe’s voice had no trace of an Island accent, his hair was clipped as short as a soldier’s, and he had a tattoo on the inside of one of his forearms. However, I’ve found as the weeks have passed that imposing Lucky Luck’s quick smile and twinkly eyes on Gabe’s face takes little effort.

To those who frequent Papa Lucks, Gabe and his wife, Stephanie, have become friends. Gabe is someone who can trade pidgin jokes with the best of them, who can discuss anything from the surf to the latest political developments, and who listens to Miles Davis and other jazz notables but can talk about many kinds of music. A recent customer asked him what he does in his spare time, and he replied with a slight smile, ‘Experimental dentistry Ö punk-rock counseling.’

‘Our name comes from a lunch wagon my father owned in Makaha during the ’70s,’ says Gabe. ‘That was the original Papa Lucks. My grandpa Lucky Luck was a big influence. He loved food and people. His cookbook, Lucky Luck’s Hawaiian Cook Book, played a good part in our recipes and menu development. Everyone in our family has a copy of his book in the kitchen.

‘I used to help my dad in between surf sessions as a kid. Stephanie’s mom was a pastry chef, and her dad was a sommelier from France. We both grew up in the kitchen. We joined with Steph’s sister, Vanessa, and opened Keawe Street Cafe in Hilo in 1994. We sold it to a customer two years later and then returned to school. Steph studied art at Portland State, and I attended the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, in Napa Valley. We returned to Honolulu looking for the right opportunity. I guess you could say it was luck.’

One hot day this past summer, a customer was purchasing something and complimented Gabe on the food, then said he was glad the stand was open (many of the university eateries close during the summer). Gabe said he would be closed the week before the fall semester started because he ‘had some things to do.’

I assumed, from a couple of comments he had made to me, that he would be changing his offerings in an effort to attract more people to Papa Lucks. I liked what the stand had to offer, but the Indian curry place a hundred yards away had longer lines of students, faculty and staff; and Govinda’s had as many lunchtime devotees as it could want. When I went back to Papa Lucks after school started on Aug. 20, it took no more than a few seconds to see that things were different.

How has the food stand changed? It now has more choices for vegetarians, such as a breakfast dish made with granola, strawberries and aai fruit; a salad that includes cherry tomatoes, olives and feta cheese and comes with a balsamic vinaigrette or creamy onion dressing; and smoothies made with fruit, yogurt and juice.

It has more seating choices. Next to the stand, a bright red umbrella now shades customers from the sun or protects them from the rain; formerly, people were exposed to the elements and were often discouraged from sitting at the concrete table next to the stand. About half a dozen tables with chairs have been set up under the roof of the art building, creating the impression of an outdoor cafe.

It has more presence: a large, artfully lettered sign announces the specials and draws the attention of the art and fashion design students in the nearby buildings.

Some things have stayed the same, of course:

The coffee drinks–my favorite is the iced cappuccino–are made with Grounds for Change, described in Papa Lucks’s menu as ‘a freshly roasted, organic, fair-trade, shade-grown coffee.’

The fresh-baked quiche and pastries are good, though the latter change frequently and I can’t be sure my favorites will be there when I stop by.

My preferred lunch–a $5.50 special featuring a sandwich made with ciabatta bread, pesto, mozzarella cheese and tomato, a bag of Maui onion chips and a bottle of Perrier–is still available. (Of course, the lunch special includes a choice of sandwiches, chips and drinks.)

With the advent of the fall semester, Gabe’s wife came back to help, and it’s a good thing she did. Business has picked up.

When you stop by, you’ll probably hear jazz playing and Gabe talking–in between taking orders and filling them–about the surf or method acting or the collages he enjoys making. His homemade quiche and fruit-and-nut scones are delicious, as his loyal customers know. Whatever is cooking at Papa Lucks, it’s a treat. 

Papa Lucks

UH-Manoa Campus, between the art building and Miller Hall.