Every couple of months, Scott Shibuya gathers branches of the strawberry guava tree from the ridges of Hawaii Loa to St. Louis, and uses the wood to infuse everything from duck to butterfish for his restaurant, Guava Smoked, in the Kalihi industrial area.
The strawberry guava, also known as waiawi, is an invasive species and not widely used in smoking, but he likes the subtle, slightly sweet flavor it imparts — never too acidic, as kiawe can be. He got the idea from a relative on Kauai who hunts regularly, then smokes his meat with the wood and just gives it away to friends and relatives.
“I loved it. I thought, this stuff is gold, man! It’s so good, I told him he should be marketing this!”
Shibuya thought meat prepared this way would sell well, so he opened a hole-in-the-wall spot off Kalihi Street eight years ago. Customers are pulled in as if they’ve caught a whiff of barbecue on a gust of wind, and have given Guava Smoked a broke-da-mout’ reputation (check out Yelp).
The restaurant serves breakfast and lunch six days a week, in a clean, cheerful dining room with just four tables. Most of the customers are workers in the area who just grab and go. Shibuya also sets up at two weekly farmers markets and caters. Honestly, he said, “we’re (just) surviving now, trying to keep prices low to be sure not to scare people away.”
By the end of the year, Shibuya plans to open a second location in Kapahulu, next to Uncle Bo’s restaurant. Kapahulu Avenue has “turned into a foodie street,” Shibuya said. “This is going to be a big stepping stone for us to grow this business.”
He’ll keep the Kalihi location, where he will continue to do all the smoking. He doesn’t anticipate needing more strawberry guava, as it takes only a couple of handfuls of wood to flavor each batch of meat; propane does the rest of the cooking. The trees, about 10 feet tall, have thin branches that he chops up and hauls out in two backpacks with a friend’s help. That’s enough wood to last a couple of months of smoking.
A former United Airlines mechanic, then a graphic design teacher from 2001 to 2011, Shibuya built the smoker in his restaurant kitchen after converting it from a former piece of baker’s equipment. His handiwork is also evident on the walls of the restaurant, where he has hung two rectangles of graphic art made simply from the stark branches of the strawberry guava, framed in wood.
His cooking skills came from his father, a retired Waikiki chef, and grandfather, who both owned diners in Kalihi and Kapahulu. Shibuya said he had no formal culinary training. “I was just lucky to grow up with good food.”
Shibuya smokes his meat for four or five hours, then barbecues. “It’s not like Southern style, where you smoke it and cook it all the way through, then you add the barbecue sauce, or use dry rub first. Local style, we just marinate the meat, and we cold-smoke it — you don’t cook it all the way through — and we finish it off in the oven or grill.”
The No. 1 seller is spicy pork, with the kalbi a close second. His favorite is the salmon belly that he makes with a crispy skin, tended carefully so as not to dry it out. The butterfish collars are also “pretty decadent,” he said.
Chicken thighs and drumsticks, hamburger steaks and smoked duck (Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays) are all offered in plate lunches for $10 to $16, including hapa rice (white/brown) and mac salad or Nalo greens.
Other standard plates also have smoked flavor, including chili, made from bits of chicken and pork, and a three-egg omelette with choice of meat ($8.60 for either). The loco moco ($13.38) is a smoked pork patty (not the usual beef) with such richness it comes with a light brown gravy, not the usual thick style. The same pork patty ($7.64) comes in a sandwich so tasty, Shibuya said, “no need ketchup.”
The regular items are also sold frozen, as well as a 12-to-14-pound turkey at $55, a bestseller at Thanksgiving that customers tell him is so juicy it doesn’t need gravy. The freezer is also where you’ll find specialties such as turkey tails (four for $7.64), and a Chinese jook (a deal at 5 pounds for $9.55). Made with scraps from the whole turkeys, the jook is so thick and meaty, it’s like a concentrate that can be thinned according to taste and supplemented with vegetables.
The only dessert on the menu is guava bars, made from common guava puree, for $1.92.
HOW TO ORDER
For a full menu, including catering items, visit guavasmoked.com. Order in person or by phone. For large orders, email email@example.com and call to confirm. Delivery offered through Bite Squad.
1637 Republican St.; 351-0003
>> Hours: 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays
>> Parking: Three stalls in front; three across Republican Street at Young’s Meat Market
>> Farmers markets: 5 to 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Kailua Shopping Center; 7:30 to 11 a.m. Saturdays, Kapiolani Community College