Why: It started as a side-of-the-road kind of thing, on a whim. It was 1996 and Kekoa Hunter, 43, figured he’d use the parking lot of his family’s Eugene, Ore., auto parts store as a locale to serve up some of his Hawaiian fare. He cooked. Customers came. So, too, did the authorities, who busted him for skirting permits.
“It was supposed to be this casual thing,” Hunter said, a Cheshire grin crossing his face.
The bust closed down his parking lot operations. But the customer success spurred him to open Hawaiian Time Cafe — this time with permits — in Eugene.
Fast forward and he’s franchised six of the cafes now, with three in Eugene, and a restaurant each in Salem, Beaverton and in Portland’s Pearl District.
Now Hunter and his 25-year-old son, Kawika Hunter, have brought non-franchise restaurants to Vancouver, where they both live. Kawika runs the restaurant and they have plans to open a second Hawaiian Time Cafe within a month.
Atmosphere: Tucked in the corner of a supermarket strip mall, this cafe looks like a number of chain-style restaurants from the outside. But inside, you get a Hawaiian vibe, with a surfboard and paddle stowed in the corner and island wares scattered about.
It’s a walk-up experience, the kind of place where you order and pay at the counter and then find a table or take it out.
What I tried: I tried the Mauna Loa Chicken; my dining companion tried the Huli Huli Chicken.
Both dishes came in white Styrofoam to-go boxes, something that Kekoa Hunter later explained is considered traditional Hawaiian boxed-lunch style.
The Mauna Loa Chicken is offered from mild on up to the “Super Hawaiian,” a fiery concoction, which the menu presents almost as a dare. I opted for medium, which kept my tongue plenty busy looking for cool-down spots. The dish comes with white rice and Hawaiian macaroni salad.
The Huli Huli Chicken is marinated in the cafe’s teriyaki sauce and, like the Mauna Loa Chicken, comes with white rice and Hawaiian macaroni salad.
As my companion and I sat down with our meals, Kekoa Hunter stopped by our table. He guided our experience, saying that we “had” to drizzle teriyaki sauce over the macaroni salad and sprinkle our dishes with Furikake, a salt and seaweed seasoning.
I was dubious about teriyaki sauce on mac salad, as was my friend. And seaweed, to me, goes with sushi or a coastal trek — but not on my plate. To my surprise, though, it all worked. The sauce added an unexpected savory element to the salad and the sprinkle jazzed up the rice and chicken.
In a subsequent interview Kekoa Hunter explained that he often steers his customers toward sauces and spices to complement the dishes.
“The teriyaki’s gotta go on the mac salad,” Hunter said. “I say (to customers) ‘Look, it’s my food, just try it.’”
Other observations: This is a casual, come-as-you-are kind of place. You’ll find both Hunters duded in Hawaiian shirts. During a recent lunch, the restaurant was empty for the first 10 minutes we arrived. But within 30 minutes, it was standing room only.
Menu highlights beyond what I tried: The Kalua Pig, a shredded pork dish sounds intriguing. Like the chicken dishes that we tried, it comes with white rice and macaroni salad.
Cost: Plan on $7 to $9 for a boxed lunch.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday.
Where: 5000 E. Fourth Plain Blvd., Suite A101, Vancouver.
Health score: Hawaiian Time Cafe received a 0 for its March 2 inspection. Zero is a perfect score. Clark County Public Health closes restaurants that score 100 or higher. For information, call 360-397-8428.