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Sustainability key at deli on pier

By Nadine Kam

LAST UPDATED: 9:03 p.m. HST, Jun 15, 2011

If I hadn't been interested in journalism, I might have considered a career in teaching. Same difference, I thought.

Through journalism, I believed whatever information I gleaned could be conveyed to others similarly interested in improving themselves and bettering their lives and society until we became one intelligent, thoughtful and progressive citizenry.

Ha ha ha! That was the me at 20, with all the naiveté, idealism and optimism of youth! Several years into this business, I finally got the message that most people already think they're brilliant; no further education needed after high school, or even the sixth grade, thank you very much. Newspapers only preach to a small choir of thinking and open-minded individuals and never really reach those simply heeding the voices in their heads, or those who find confirmation in the lone-wolf kooks of the Internet who conduct their own fringe choirs.

So it was easy for me to assume something tantalizingly anarchic about the newly revitalized Heeia Kea General Store & Deli. Like "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution," the idea of adding healthful ingredients to traditional comfort and fast food is nothing short of revolutionary.

In reality, at Heeia Kea the gesture doesn't come from cynicism or force-feeding people to do the right thing, but from a place of love and community. It was my turn to be educated.

Chef Mark Noguchi, who's from Hawaii island, always thought of returning one day to his home island to start a small restaurant with a community learning center component. For now at least, he's found that same small community spirit in Heeia. An alumnus of Chef Mavro and Town, he was looking for a change last fall when his friends from the Vertical Junkies, Russell Inouye and Blaine Tomita, asked him to consider making the move to Heeia Kea.

"They're kamaaina to this area. They grew up at the pier, and once word got out about what we wanted to do, I remember everyone telling me stories about hanging out at the pier. There was a strong sense of giving back and wanting to bring it back to a sense of the hub it was for the community."

Noguchi, who hails from a Hawaii island hula family, said he learned from working for other chefs what it is to discover one's passion, and for him that meant returning to the comfort foods he enjoyed as a child.

"When you're a student, teachers always ask you, ‘Why do you want to be a chef?' and people answer that they're passionate about cooking and food. To me that's a given. You'd better be passionate about food," Noguchi said. "Coming to the pier, all of a sudden I can do local food, because that's what fuels my fire.

"It's all about the people in this area, too. All of us have a strong sense of giving back to the community and doing place-based resourcing."

The menu is small and comprises burgers and warm-weather plate lunch fare that make the most of the area's abundance. That means working closely with Mahuahua Ai o Hoi and He‘eia Fishpond to encourage naturally productive kalo fields and other agricultural production while raising awareness of sustainable food practices.

The taro finds its way into a plate lunch mac salad as both a more healthful and sustainable alternative to the usual potato, and it's laced with curry for an extra flavor kick.

When it comes to sourcing from local fishermen and hunters as well, it makes the menu unpredictable. If a fisherman brings in eight papio, for instance, that would amount to a very limited special. There have been days when the deli, slated to close at 4, runs out of food by 2:30 p.m.

When I was there the day's specials included an $8 hamburger steak; a delicious, light version of pork luau without a lot of salt or coconut; and guava chicken, a modified teriyaki with a dash of five-spice and Hawaiian chili pepper.

On other days you might find an oio fishcake loco moco or adobo. You can keep up with the daily specials by following them on Facebook or @heeiapier on Twitter.

You can count on seeing Portuguese sausage fried rice ($5) and burgers ($9.50) made from Big Island Kuahiwi Ranch beef. For any local, the retro flavor of drive-in-style mayo-mustard-ketchup sauce amounts to taking a trip back to small-kid time. Just add Green River and dessert of an ice cake, and the journey is complete.

Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Email nkam@staradvertiser.com.

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