If you eat at Pupukea Grill, the lunchwagon nestled next to the service station and across the street from Shark’s Cove on Oahu’s infamous North Shore, you are there because someone told you to go there, or because you were lucky enough to stumble upon it. The remote wagon’s bustling business has been growing strictly by word of mouth since they reopened last summer.
“Tourists will say that they were told to come here and when we ask who recommended us, they always say the lifeguards told them,” says Deann Sakuoka, with a laugh. She owns the lunchwagon with her sister, Janelle. “In addition to the very steady business the lifeguards bring us, pro surfer Pancho Sullivan was a big supporter, along with a lot of the pro surfers who live here or oversee the different surf company houses. They really help us out and take care of us. We got really lucky that people just kept spreading the word,” she continues.
When you think of a lunch truck, you think of fast food, small kitchen, limited menu. Your first experience with a mobile food venue was likely an ice cream truck.
However, this particular lunch truck serves a wide variety of made-to-order meals that span everything from healthy selections to comfort food. There’s just one cook, one grill and one cashier, but the meals make you think of home–quality fare prepared with love.
The average plate price is $10 but worth every penny since any item on the menu delivers a big enough portion to save for a second meal or a snack later.
Menu mainstays for the lighter diet include the açai bowl with strawberries, blueberries, banana, coconut, granola and honey ($8); farm fresh salads ($8-12); paninis (I highly recommend chicken pesto); and wraps such as grilled veggie and hummus in what I consider to be the most delicious bread on earth, naan ($6-8). Spicy ‘ahi and ‘ahi poke bowls are served with white or brown rice ($8). Handrolls of the same fish are sometimes available, as well as a shrimp tempura and crab roll, the newest and most delectable addition to the lineup ($5). I endorse topping any of the ‘ahi items with avocado and the special “brown sauce” that adds a sweet and spicy zest.
For the larger, post-surf appetite, plate lunches include shoyu chicken, hamburger steak and loco moco ($10), while Mexican plates beckon with heaping portions of fresh pico de gallo, locally grown greens, cheesy pinto beans and Spanish rice. Mexican plate options include quesadillas, tacos, tostadas and nachos with filler choices of veggie, chicken, kalua pork or grilled fish ($11-12).
Daily specials ($10) change with the seasons: This past winter, selections were feel-good items such as veggie lasagna, chicken katsu curry, beef stew, Portuguese bean soup, beef enchiladas, turkey chili, meatloaf, kalua pig and cabbage and a teri combo plate.
“We care about the people we feed. They’re our extended family,” Deann says. “We know what’s going on in their lives. We see them regularly, so we want to make sure they get quality food.”
Those who are regulars feel as though we are a part of something and that we are valued with special Pupukea Grill treats. For example, frequent meal cards earn patrons a “Free ‘Ahi Bowl” coupon after a certain number of visits or a “Free Meal” coupon on their birthday–usually followed by complimentary shave ice.
Pupukea Grill shave ice is the kind that your uncle makes for you at family gatherings–the one with the condensed milk, fruit, and candies on top with ice cream in the middle.
If you follow Pupukea Grill on Facebook, sometimes there are trivia questions about North Shore legends, and the first few who answer correctly win homemade guava jelly. Not only can you see the daily specials posted on their page, you can keep your eye out for status updates that say: Come by in the next hour and say, “I love Pupukea Grill” and get a free spicy tuna or ‘ahi poke bowl!
Another way to experience Pupukea Grill affection is in the mysterious appearance of a dessert on the plate or in the take-out bag. It’s something the community whispers about, asking one another what kind of treat they got that day, if any, and wondering what they did to deserve the delicious (and free) banana bread, chocolate bonbon or cinnamon cream cheese cake.
“The dessert thing kind of just happened on a whim because we’ve always enjoyed baking,” Deann explained. “So whenever we have a couple loaves or sheet of something here and there–and as we got to know our customers more– we throw the treat in to liven up the food. Plus, it’s something to smooth over a long wait for those who complain about the food taking too long.”
About that wait: Just try to enjoy the view of the ocean and peruse the autographed magazine spreads of surf stars hanging in the picnic table area. Or grab a menu and call your order in next time.
“We’re not fast food,” Deann says. “We are quality food.”
This isn’t the first eatery for Deann and Janelle; they operated a popular bento spot, Okazu, for 12 years in Haleiwa. When they started Pupukea Grill in 2008, they couldn’t focus on it completely because of conflicting demands, so they closed the foodtruck for a year.
“We finally decided we’re in it, so we’re going do it right,” Deann said. They sold the Haleiwa location in June 2011 and focused solely on the wagon.
Former business students, the sisters realized some years ago they’d prefer to be their own bosses. “It’s hard work but we love it.”
The love is exactly what you will feel and taste at this gem.