Joe Abilay ran a restaurant for two decades. OK, so lots of people do that. But Abilay ran his for a good chunk of that time while undergoing kidney dialysis three times a week. On another island.
Abilay and his wife, Georgia, opened the Blue Ginger cafe on Lanai in 1991. His stepson, Phoenix Dupree, said Abilay was diagnosed with renal failure two or three years after the opening and had to fly to Maui for dialysis until a treatment center opened on Lanai in the early 2000s. He finally had a kidney transplant nine years ago.
Through it all Abilay kept Blue Ginger running for breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week. And this was his retirement job.
"He was a very hard worker," Dupree said in a huge understatement.
The restaurant has been open every day for 23 years, he added. "We’ve gone through fires, we’ve been flooded, we changed up the kitchen and we stayed open."
Abilay died last year, but Georgia Abilay, now 76, still handles accounting duties. Dupree has taken over as general manager, which he says means "I wash dishes, I cook, I do inventory. If I need to mow the yard, I mow the yard."
The Abilays went to Lanai from Maui so she could take over the human resources department at the island’s new resorts. He had just retired as sous-chef at the Kaanapali Beach Hotel. At the time, Dupree said, Lanai’s main street closed down by noon, still running on the "pineapple clock" set to plantation life. A restaurant that served dinner was a radical concept, one that Joe Abilay grabbed as an opportunity.
Today, on Friday and Saturday nights, you can find four or five restaurants open outside of the resorts, Dupree said.
This little bit of Lanai history comes at the request of Kacie Mizoguchi, who asked for the recipe for Blue Ginger’s chop steak. "It has to be the best I ever tasted," she wrote, proceeding to wax delicious over "the many items on their menu that are so ono."
Dupree describes Blue Ginger as the type of small family cafe that reminds visitors of an older time, with a menu of local favorites from loco moco to chow fun. He provided the chop steak recipe, although he says his cooks don’t really measure, so proportions were estimated in quantities such as "two good handfuls."
I measured out some handfuls and cobbled together this formal recipe. It is very flexible — add whatever vegetables you like, use more or less oyster sauce. Blue Ginger uses saimin broth to keep the vegetables from sticking as they stir-fry, but I just used water. It’s a good technique that also steams the broccoli and carrots to the right texture.
I can’t compare it directly to Blue Ginger’s version, but like Mizoguchi, my family pronounced it delicious.
BLUE GINGER CAFE CHOP STEAK
1 pound sirloin steak, cut in bite-size cubes, fat trimmed
1/4 cup vegetable oil, divided
1 medium onion, sliced
1 cup carrots, cut into matchsticks
12 broccoli florets
12 thin slices green bell pepper
12 thin slices zucchini
12 thin slices yellow squash
2 cups sliced button mushrooms
Saimin broth (or chicken broth or water), as needed to prevent sticking
1/2 cup oyster sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce, Aloha brand preferred
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in wok or large skillet over medium-high and add beef. Stir-fry until medium rare. Remove from skillet.
Add remaining oil to pan; add onions. Toss to stir-fry, then add remaining vegetables in order listed. Toss and add a spoonful of broth between additions as needed to prevent sticking (this also helps steam-cook the harder vegetables). Stir in steak. Stir in oyster sauce and soy sauce. Toss until vegetables and meat are cooked. Serves 4.
Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving (not including saimin broth): 350 calories, 21 g fat, 3.5 g saturated fat, 75 mg cholesterol, 1,500 mg sodium, 15 g carbohydrate, 4 g fiber, 5 g sugar, 29 g protein
Nutritional analysis by Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S. Write “By Request,” Honolulu Star-Advertiser, 7 Waterfront Plaza, Suite 210, Honolulu 96813. Email email@example.com.