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Once Upon a Restaurant

Kana Girl's Hawaiian BBQ

Kana Girl’s Hawaiian BBQ on a busy Friday night

Once Upon a Time…  Kana & Keoni owned a Hawai’ian barbecue restaurant.

For more than a year, Kana Girl’s Hawai’ian BBQ held UrbanSpoon’s #1 spot for “Best BBQ restaurant” in the Treasure Valley (home to one-third of Idaho’s population)…. And we had a kick-ass time of it, building a unique atmosphere with our combined knowledge of Hawai’ian culture and Keoni’s cooking—the authentic family recipes he learned from his Tutu Pa (grandfather) when he was a small kid. The word our guests most often used to describe Keoni’s food (a little ironic in view of our own alcoholic/addict backgrounds) was: ADDICTIVE.  We were closed Sundays & Mondays, which meant we’d have an onslaught of regular customers every Tuesday, jonesing for a “fix” because they’d had to go two days without his food. No joke.

Kana Girl's Hawaiian BBQ

A photo featured in “Boise Weekly” with a rave review of our restaurant… Keoni & me displaying a couple “Plate Lunches”…

When we first opened the restaurant, we hadn’t realized what an abundant number of Hawai’ians and Pacific Islanders lived in this area, but word quickly spread among the “Local” community (“Local” being a word Hawai’ians use to refer to other Islanders, regardless of their current location) and we quickly had a flood of folks looking to test us to see if Keoni’s food were the “real thing.” He passed the authenticity test, hands down—his “plate lunch” (a to-go container with sticky rice, mac salad, and favorite Island entrees) is precisely what the Local folks remember from back home. Word-of-Mouth served us well; most months we didn’t spend a dime on advertising—but business was booming.

Island Time Zone

The two of us ran the place by ourselves–the original “Mom & Pop” approach—so we had the pleasure of getting to know our many Regulars, and after a while we couldn’t go anywhere in town without being pounced on and identified as “the Hawai’ian BBQ people.” No doubt it’s the closest we’ll ever come to experiencing “celebrity” status. (Keoni follows the Hawai’ian custom of addressing everyone as “Bruddah” or “Sistah”–a personable habit that came in handy in the occasional encounter when we were unable to put names to the faces of people who obviously recognized US…)

Kana Girl's Hawaiian BBQ

Wally & Esther—a friendship that began with “Howzit”… Enjoying Lau Lau, an ULTRA-traditional Hawai’ian dish

It led to some interesting social dynamics at times… During our first week of business a gentleman came in the front door and I greeted him with “Howzit“–the Island version of “Hey, how’s it going?” He literally stopped dead in his tracks and repeated the word with a question mark. He looked “Local” to me, but I expanded with an explanation: “Howzit–How’s it going?” He looked askance at my haole (white!) self and retorted, “I know Howzit. How do you know Howzit?” I explained that I went to school on the Big Island, and that I’m married to a Hawai’ian (the cook)—and once he tasted (or should I say tested) his first Plate Lunch order, he was hooked. In fact, he and his wife became some of our closest friends in the years that followed.

Kana Girl's Hawaiian BBQ taro

Keoni  “playing ukelele” on a taro root

And then there were my Friday-morning rounds to the Asian markets in town… We made our fries from the taro root (the Hawai’ian staple from which they make poi)–but taro is understandably difficult to come by in Idaho. All the Asian markets got their produce shipments on Friday mornings, which meant that every Friday the markets would be swamped with lovely ladies who came up to my shoulder… And every Friday I made the rounds of all those markets, buying up their taro root. I’m not sure what the Chinese words would be for “tattooed white lady who buys the taro,” but chances are that I’d recognize the phrase if I ever heard it again… The taro fries were a hit—and we noticed that although people occasionally asked if we had poi, very few people actually asked for it. Let’s just say that poi is an acquired taste.

Kana Girl's Hawaiian BBQ

Keoni on a “charm walk,” sharing a shaka with a connoisseur of the keiki (kids’) menu

Whenever Keoni had a few minutes of down-time in the kitchen, he’d wend his way through the dining room (I called it his “Charm Walk”) speaking Hawai’ian Pidgin with the Local folks and “talking story” with other diners.  (Pidgin is a recognized language in the Islands, so Keoni was considered a Bilingual Officer when he worked in the prisons there…) He also sang in the kitchen all day long–he’s got a gorgeous tenor voice and knows all the classic Hawai’ian songs by heart… His Tutu Pa was a musician, and taught Keoni to sing as well as to cook–and also to blend the things he’s passionate about.

Kana Girl's Hawaiian BBQ kanikapila

Piko (one of our regulars) kicking back for some kanikapila after a meal

Our restaurant was the kind of place where diners (who didn’t know each other) would chat among tables, where people would bring ukeleles and indulge in an impromptu kanikapila (“jam session”) when they finished eating, where a couple might get up and dance in the middle of the floor to one of Keoni’s solos, where regular customers would drop in to say Aloha and give us a hug even when they weren’t there to eat, where people brought in all kinds of Hawai’ian mementos until our decor was a wonderfully collaborative clutter, where we could get to know people’s regular requests and personalize their orders (that’s also how we ended up with Vegetarian and Gluten-Free menus), where people could slow down from the hectic pace of their lives and enjoy a mini-vacation in our “ISLAND TIME zone” (as the sign above the door proclaimed)… We liked to think of it as an embassy of sorts—a few hundred square feet of Hawai’ian soil in the middle of Idaho.

We loved being able to work together—we were happy to go to work together every morning, and we were happy to go home together every evening. We were only half joking when we’d say that Keoni was afraid of the cash register and I was afraid of the smoker—but together we made a Most Excellent Team.  And Keoni liked to boast that he got “paid in kisses and tattoos.” Whenever a diner told me I should give the cook a raise, I’d lay a big ol’ smooch on him!

Kana Girl's Hawaiian BBQ

evidently this chick doesn’t look like a business owner…

We regularly ran up against sexist stereotypes when dealing with salespeople and the like; very few people made their first approach with the idea that I might be the “businessperson” of the operation. One salesman came in while Keoni was out picking up supplies, and insisted on sitting and waiting until my husband returned, rather than talking to me. When Keoni came back half an hour later, you can imagine the guy’s chagrin when Keoni told him, “You’ll have to talk to Kana Girl about that. She’s the owner—I just cook.” Needless to say, this guy had already lost any chance of making a sale. Other people would ask me if they could talk to the owner (never mind my apron with “Kana” across the front, and the “Kana Girl’s” name across the front door)—and one fellow went so far as to ask me if I knew who the owner was. (Surely it couldn’t be the tattooed chick in the miniskirt!)

Ohana

Keoni at the restaurant with the youngest 4 of our 7 kids: Christian, Kapena, Elena Grace, & Kawika

We were also both very happy about NOT having to work for anybody else. It was one of our favorite jokes, whenever anyone asked if we could make a substitution or fulfill a special request—Keoni would answer, “Well, I’ll have to check with Corporate…” Then he’d turn to me with the question: “So what do you think, Babe?” (We also joked that if I were “Corporate,” that made Keoni my “Corporate Man-date”…)  We loved being able to do things the way WE thought they should be done, and we loved being able to involve our keikis (kids) in the family business.

Kana Girl's Hawaiian BBQLooking back now… Opening that restaurant when we did looks in retrospect like a totally harebrained idea. We were deep in a recession and eateries were closing left and right. Neither of us had ever owned a business, we’d only known each other for half a year, and only been Sober for that same half-year. Launching a restaurant just then was a crazy-ass thing to do. And we had a lot to learn! But all in all, it went beautifully. In fact, in some ways it was an advantage to be new to the restaurant business, because we weren’t hidebound by “The Way Things Are Done.” (Take the zero-dollar advertising budget, for example…) Although I also have to say that there were plenty of other things, learned along the way, that we would definitely handle differently if we ever had a “do-over.”

Kana Girl's Hawaiian BBQ

Keoni with another Keoni, who gave us his old license plate to hang on the wall

In the end, we threw our beautiful restaurant away. We didn’t lose it; we threw it away. After a year and a half of booming business, we drank again. In a mere matter of weeks, we threw away absolutely everything that was important to our Sober Selves. Custody of our kids, our restaurant, our house, our car, and almost our marriage. (People regularly ask us if we ever fight—a question usually accompanied by the observation that we clearly have a lot of fun together. The honest answer is that we don’t argue… when we’re Sober. When we drank, we didn’t even like each other.)

Kana Girl's Hawaiian BBQ

Keoni cooking on his smoker—in sunshine, rain, sleet, or snow… And always in shorts! Crazy Hawai’ian.

That was a little more than two years ago. If we could take back the hurt we caused to the people who love us—particularly our kids and our parents—we’d do it in a heartbeat. But at the same time… There are a lot of things about our journey of the last couple years that we wouldn’t want to trade. (In fact, that’s probably a whole post in its own right.) Bottom line, though: despite the financial struggles and various challenges of the last 27 months, we’re in a better place now than we’ve ever been—spiritually, emotionally, in terms of our Sobriety and our family relationships… in every way, actually, except financially.

And then… An unexpected blessing fell into our laps. Keoni had a retirement account from his career in Corrections; we’d been trying to avoid tapping into that resource, but we’d been falling behind on our rent, and he had a couple surgeries to get through (last week’s spine surgery, and another knee replacement coming up) before he could get back to working… So we finally decided we’d better go ahead and cash out his retirement. We thought it would be just enough to catch up on our rent and pay ahead a few months while we figured out “what next”… But when the check arrived, it turned out to be quite a lot more than we’d expected. In fact…

Kana Girl's Hawaiian BBQ

a wakeboard made for us (and autographed) by one of our regular customers

It turned out to be enough to re-open our restaurant. Seriously, how often in life do we actually get a “do-over”? Well, we just got handed one. To quote one of our favorite A.A. guys: “How cool is THAT?!”

Things have been falling into place the way only God’s plans do. (One of the things we’ve learned in Sobriety is that when we’re working too hard to try and make something happen, it’s time to take a step back and evaluate whether “our plan” is really the best thing to be doing. Not surprisingly, God’s ideas are better than ours.)

Kana Girl's Hawaiian BBQ

“Coming Soon!”

We found the perfect location almost immediately. It’s  ideally situated from a business perspective, and it’s right next door to Elena Grace’s school and within walking distance of Christian’s junior high. There’s even a private space upstairs that we can use as a “family room” when the younger kids are there with us.

This time around we also have the advantage of some eager extra hands within the family. Our teenage son Kapena has already been working full-time between two jobs, and he can’t wait to quit those  jobs to work with us. Even Christian is gung-ho about being part of the venture. And we have the chance this time to put into practice all the things we learned the “hard way” the last time around. I can’t even begin to describe how excited we are.

We’re set to open April 13 (our lucky number 13!), giving the landlord time to do some remodeling and updating of the building, and giving us time to “remodel” the cook (those surgeries I mentioned). The restaurant website is still under construction, but I do have the menus posted: www.KanaGirlBBQ.com. And so… The next adventure begins! Stay tuned…

Kana Girl's Hawaiian BBQ

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The Holiday Card

Keoni's first snowball fight (Christian's handiwork!)

Keoni’s first snowball fight (Christian’s handiwork!)

My mother used to joke that as far as holiday cards were concerned, “the Holidays” should mean not just Christmas, but also New Year’s—and probably Martin Luther King Day, Valentine’s Day, and Presidents’ Day as well. In other words, if the holiday cards got sent out before the end of February, they shouldn’t be considered late. On reflection, it’s interesting to note how frantically guilt-ridden people can become about the Christmas-card “deadline”—particularly given that it truly isn’t a mandatory activity in the first place. It’s a pleasant one, though, and (especially before the advent of Facebook) it certainly used to serve as a way to keep tabs on distant acquaintances and relations.

Christian hurling snowballs! (Right-handed... He's mostly a Lefty, he writes Lefty and BATS lefty, but he throws Righty...)

Christian hurling snowballs! (Right-handed… He’s mostly a Lefty, he writes Lefty and BATS lefty, but he throws Righty…)

There’s the potential down side as well: the “traditional” Christmas letter about which people joke (often with gritted teeth), the epistle in which a family boasts of how well everyone is doing, painting accomplishments in rosy hyperbole that leaves the recipients rolling their eyes or gagging…  I’m actually blessed with a number of friends and family members who write wonderfully anecdotal and amusing annual letters, so I’ve largely been spared the competitive clashings of those clandestine Christmas combat-cards…

In my turn, I’ll shy away from Tradition by calling THIS our Holiday Card for 2012.

my parents' front window, Christmas Day

I’m happy to report that Keoni and I finished 2012 Sober (a little over two years now) and Joyful. We’ve been blessed with a great deal more time with our three youngest children than we were able to spend in 2011. If anyone wanted to see the antics we’ve been up to, I’d just refer them to the Kanacles (er, chronicles?) archive here…  My only boast is that we keep finding fun in our life!

Composting

“Yet time, and showing up, turn most messes to compost, and something surprising may grow.” ~Anne LaMott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

Elena Grace and Grandy baking Christmas cookies

Elena Grace and Grandy baking Christmas cookies (my Grandma’s recipe, my mom’s home-made apricot jam)

Keoni and I drove our two youngest kids north to spend Christmas with my parents—the first time in a decade that I’d been Home for Christmas. The kids were excited about this, but if it came to a contest of who was MOST excited, I suspect it was a tie between my mother and myself! She posted on Facebook: “The only thing better than going over the river and through the woods… is being the Grandma!”

teaching Elena Grace (in her made-by-Grandy Christmas bathrobe) how to do crosswords

teaching Elena Grace (in her made-by-Grandy Christmas bathrobe) how to do crosswords

My family is definitely one for Traditions, so I knew I could anticipate all the same things that made my childhood Christmases so special: baking my Grandma’s vanilla-with-home-made-apricot-jam sandwich cookies, the Christmas tree with all the decorations we picked up in our travels (memories attached to each one), my mom’s Coconut Orange rolls on Christmas morning, the fireside Christmas-caroling-party my parents host every Christmas Eve… And the added layer of enjoyment: watching my kids enjoy the same things.

A visit to my parents is one of the rare occasions when I don’t pack books for a trip—because I know there’s plenty of reading-material to browse at their house! I picked up Anne LaMott’s “Plan B” from my mom’s shelf (a book that’s on my to-read list but not on my own shelf) and enjoyed not only her insights, but the myriad of little ways in which my reading intersected with my life

a sign spotted on our drive northward... "THAT explains a lot," commented Christian.

a sign spotted on our drive northward… “THAT explains a lot,” commented Christian.

One of the topics that regularly features in Keoni’s and my prayers together is giving thanks for the opportunity to regain and re-earn my parents’ trust after our relapse of two-plus years ago—the chance to rebuild our relationship with them. It’s a process that takes time (and showing up), and a process only made possible by their willingness to forgive, and to accept us and love us now, even with our messy past.

My dad (a retired Professor of Agriculture and a dedicated gardener) used to have a hat that said “Compost Happens.” If I were to add a tag-line to that hat, it would say: Compost Happens. But look what can grow from it!

“Things are not perfect, because life is not TV and we are real people with scarred, worried hearts. But it’s amazing a lot of the time.” ~Anne LaMott

Breaking Out the Bubbly (no, not the alcohol)

“Another secret [of life] is that laughter is carbonated holiness.” ~Anne LaMott

snowball fight

Keoni & Elena Grace behind the table “fort”

I’m not a great fan of snow, but the kids adore it. We don’t get a lot of it at home (“high desert” climate–we don’t get much of any kind of precipitation), but 300 miles north we were greeted by a sizable dump of snow the day after our arrival. (Hmm, do you think my word choice—”dump“—reflects my own feelings about snow?) The kids, of course, were delighted, and asked Keoni if he’d join them for a snowball fight after they built forts.

the "human shield" maneuver...

the “human shield” maneuver…

He good-naturedly agreed, and we expected he’d have an hour or so of fort-building time before his snowball services would be called for. Five minutes later, little voices at the back door announced their readiness. Wait, what? You built snow forts already? Well, not precisely snow forts… They tipped the pair of patio tables on their sides, each of them standing behind one, ready to get right to the snowball fight.

Having grown up in Hawai’i, “snowball fights” were not a part of Keoni’s childhood memories. In fact, he shared at dinner that this was his first one. Thinking of the hour’s worth of giggling in the back yard, I once again blessed Keoni’s Hawai’ian-sized heart (and his arthritic bones) for his willingness to play.

“You want to protect your child from pain, and what you get instead is life, and Grace…” ~Anne LaMott

A Welcome Ghost of Christmas Past

“Here’s what the priest said: ‘I promise you it will all work out, in its own perfectly imperfect way.’” ~Anne LaMott

My parents' Christmas Eve caroling party

My parents’ Christmas Eve caroling party

We lost my Grandpa this summer. I still haven’t been able to write about him—largely because there’s so much to say. Maybe I’m not meant to write a single, all-encompassing “Grandpa post”—maybe he’ll just find his way into posts-about-life. He was very much present this Christmas, maybe in part because so many of my childhood Christmases were spent with him (and of course my mother’s as well)… Grandpa was the son of German immigrants (didn’t speak English until he started school), so my mom grew up with delightful German Christmas customs. Real candles on the tree, her grandfather dressed as Santa (she says she never wondered why Santa had such a strong German accent), and O Tannenbaum and Stille Nacht (Silent Night) sung in German. And the Christmas-tree pickle: a glass pickle-ornament on the tree, and whoever found it first would be the first to open a Christmas present. (Elena Grace found it this year.)

Christmas Eve with the kiddos

Christmas Eve with the kiddos

A number of years ago, my mom taught me a soprano descant to “Silent Night,” and the two of us have always sung it together at the Christmas Eve church service. It’s absolutely beautiful, and the high soprano notes carry so well that two voices are all that’s needed to make it soar through the whole church. The thought of Singing the Silent Night descant with my mom is the single thing that has made me most sad every Christmas Eve that I have not spent at home. This year the two of us knew that we’d be singing it for Grandpa—his favorite song, even in the English.

Things don’t always go the way we imagine them… “Silent Night” has always been done at my parents’ church with guitar accompaniment (it was originally written when a church organ broke), but the new music director used the organ—and at a pretty quick clip, too. We were a little breathless at the end, and pretty sure that we were the only people who could hear the descant with the organ drowning out voices. But hey, what we wanted—what we’d been looking forward to—was singing it together, for Grandpa. I’m sure he heard it.

Joy in the Little Things

“My pastor, Veronica, says that peace is joy at rest, and joy is peace on its feet.” ~Anne LaMott

Christian & Elena Grace opening each other's presents

Christian & Elena Grace opening each other’s presents

Our family enjoys a lot of Blessings–but “money” hasn’t been among them this year. Our gifts were of the home-made and hand-made variety, of necessity. But a couple days before Christmas, Elena Grace crept up to me with a distressed expression and whispered to me: “Mommy, I don’t have a present for Christian.” I asked if she could find him something he’d like if she and I went to WalMart with ten bucks. After a similar conversation in the other direction, we ended up taking both kids to WalMart, each with ten bucks for a gift for the other.

Don't look now---they're playing together!

Don’t look now—they’re playing together!

I confess I went on Mom-alert when Christian came back with a Beyblade—one of the battling tops he collects—but my suspicion (that he might be giving her something he wanted) proved entirely unfounded, based on her squeals when she opened it. “She’s always wanted one,” he told me, with a smug certainty that I admit he’d earned. She picked a Hot Wheels ramp that had him bouncing on his knees and swooping in for an impromptu hug (which he promptly disavowed—”You did NOT just see that”—so you’ll just have to take my word for it).

The two of them took off downstairs to play with the Beyblades Arena, leaving Keoni and me to reflect that—despite their day-to-day snarking at one another—they’ve each got a pretty good line on the other. That’s a little shot of joy right there.

Hamming it Up

reading aloud from "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever"

reading aloud from “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever”

The first essay in Anne LaMott’s book was titled “Ham of God” (a play on the “Lamb of God” lines of church-liturgy), in which she wrote of a day when she unexpectedly won a ham at her supermarket, and didn’t want it, but figured she shouldn’t turn down whatever God sent her way. In the parking lot she ran into a friend who had gotten Sober with her, and who was in tears because she couldn’t afford to feed her kids. LaMott gave her the ham.

The same day I read that essay, Elena Grace and I curled up to read “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever”—a favorite from my childhood. A family of six rowdy kids (the Herdmans) show up at church and bully the other kids into letting them have the lead roles in the Christmas Pageant. Unlike the kids who have been hearing the Nativity story their whole lives, the Herdmans are hearing it for the first time—and they have a lot of questions. They raise some good points. They end up reminding everyone of the human element at the heart of the Christmas story.

my parents' cat, Mila, watching Elena Grace play in the snow

my parents’ cat, Mila, watching Elena Grace play in the snow

And when the three Herdman-Wisemen come down the church aisle, they aren’t carrying the prop-jars for gold and frankincense and myrrh; they’re carrying the Christmas Ham from their own welfare basket.

And as we were about to pull out with the packed minivan to head home again, Dad wondered if we’d like to take the extra ham from the freezer. Hey, we don’t turn down whatever God sends our way. God has sent us amazing gifts—starting with family. Ham is welcome, but family is wondrous.


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