Eight years ago, when I first walked into Aileen’s Teriyaki in downtown Ocean Park just across the street from Jack’s gas station, I knew Aileen Roberts was the real-deal, a product of the Hawaiian Islands. How — you might ask? Because with her teriyaki chicken, the side dish was macaroni salad with lots of mayonnaise. That’s a classic for Hawaiian plate lunch on the Big Island. And when husband John got the hand-crank shave-ice machine, that completed the picture.

I lived on the Big Island for eight years and consider it my spirit home. With the cultural mix of Hawaiian, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, Puerto Rican, Filipino, Samoan, Vietnamese, Japanese and American, it’s the closest you can get to staying in the U.S. and being in another country. “Hawaiian” cuisine is truly a melting pot of enchantment. Imagine poi (fermented taro), lomi lomi salmon (island-style ceviche), malasadas (Portuguese yeast donuts), sweet and sour stir fry (Catonese), bento lunch with tempura (Japanese), kimchi (Korean fermented cabbage) and spam (what have you?) in the same cookbook and you start to get the idea.

I was sad when Aileen sold their little restaurant, but you can’t keep a good cook out of the kitchen for long and Aileen is no exception. She’s at it again, working her magic out of Tutu’s Lunch Wagon at 1509 259th Place, behind Lighthouse Realty. (Tutu, pronounced too-too, is the word for grandma in Hawaiian.)

Tutu’s Cuisine

John and Aileen met back on Oahu. John, born in Oakland, Calif., was in the Navy, “I drove a crash truck, you know a foam truck, out on the runway. We had to be on hand when planes were in trouble.” He also drove a softie ice cream truck. “It was fun,” he continued, “I knew everyone in the neighborhood. So when I saw there was a new girl working at my favorite deli, I said, ‘Whoa, who’s that?’”

“I was real friendly and finally I got her to go out with me. That was 1964 — we’ve been married 49 years. Isn’t that amazing? It must be her fault!”

While John was doing his Navy stint, Aileen, born on Oahu, was learning everything she could about cooking in a melting pot. “I’m Hawaiian Chinese, my family name is Tyau, and I’ve been cooking all my life. I spent a long time in the International Village in Honolulu, Kau Kau Village. [Kau kau, pronounced cow-cow, is Hawaiian for food or eating.] I cooked in the deli — we made hamburgers, Chinese food, Korean bar-b-que. Every place I worked, I learned something new.”

Finally, they made the move to the Big Island and set up shop in Pahoa, a tiny place on the Puna side of the island. “We ran a hotel and the Puna Inn Coffee for 13 years,” said John. “We had such a great time. I’d buy fish right from the fisherman and Aileen would make Yellow Fin Ahi [tuna] and eggs. I’d buy 200 pounds of fish on Friday and we’d be out by Sunday. It turned into quite a business.”

Tutu finds the Peninsula

Soon though their three kids moved to Seattle (son John runs Maple Valley Electric) and Aileen and John weren’t far behind. “We were just driving around — I think it was Rod Run Weekend,” said John. “We came across the bridge, kind of took a wrong turn and ended up in the middle of all these old cars and I said, ‘Wow!’ Later we thought about it some more and I said, ‘That place has a nice feel to it.’ We like the end of the road. So we came back.”

Eventually Aileen opened her little restaurant, at the same time developing her famous teriyaki sauce. She wowed locals with her Hawaiian-style dishes until they decided to try the Big Island again and sold the place. But the island trip was short-lived and soon they were back in Ocean Park.

“Then one time we were just driving around California,” John continued. “We were buying gourds on highway 20 near a rice field near Redding and we saw this vintage 1964 lunch truck in dire need. I said to Aileen, ‘That’s a real shame.’ So we bought it. I went back and dragged it up here and worked on it for a year — rebuilt the whole thing.”

“But it’s not just a lunch truck,” he continues, “It has a certified kitchen, and when L and I certifies something you know it’s been done right.”

I got a backstage tour of Tutu’s Lunch Wagon. Everything inside is gleaming white and spic and span spotless. Aileen has a grill and vent, a stovetop, a fridge, a fan and a microwave (rarely used). She makes everything fresh — no frozen or canned anything — and she’s brought back all my favorites from her other location.

“Folks love her stir-fry,” says John, “and the teriyaki chicken.” The special on the board for the day is Loco Moco, a standard Hawaiian favorite — piles of rice, add a beef patty and gravy, top with an egg. “We only have a few customers that like it, “says John, “but once you get them eating it, they come back for more. We’ve tried fish and eggs too, but, same thing, not everybody gets it.”

I get it. It brings back the taste of the islands. I order kalua pork, Hawaiian style pulled pork, with rice and, of course, a side of macaroni. We sit at the outdoor picnic table and, between Peninsula raindrops, reminisce about island fare.

Taste of the islands

We talk about missing the Big Island, about Puna where I had property for years, and about where now, on the mainland, you can sometimes find those longed for island treats like Tex’s malasadas (a yeasty deep-fried donut covered in sugar); lau lau (fish or pork wrapped in ti leaves) or haupia (coconut pudding).

“Aloha Soy is the best,” says John, “and you can get poi — comes in fresh but you’re going to pay for it.”

“I finally found kimchi at Uwajimaya’s in Seattle,” I say, “In fact, there were shelves and shelves of it. I had to stop one of the Asian elders and ask her which one to try. She said get the kind with radish instead of Napa cabbage because it stays crispier longer.”

“But she only told you her favorite,” said John. “you’ll have to try them all. One time one of our kids had a Korean girlfriend whose mom sent home kimchi. It was hot! We put it in the refrigerator and the bloody thing blew up! But I’m telling you, it was some good kimchi.” He turns to Aileen, “Didn’t we have to take the whole fridge out of there?”

Tutu’s Lunch Wagon is open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., closed Sunday. Everything is “ono” — delicious. Tell them Cate sent you.

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