Elroy Hamada remembers the fleeting feeling of sadness and loss when his son Brandon said he had no interest in taking over the family grocery, H. Hamada store.
Rather than pursuing a business that had been losing ground to big-box retailers, Brandon’s interest was in culinary service.
“At first I thought, ‘Oh no,’ but I could see what he was going through. I had two sisters, but I was the only son and my dad didn’t want the Hamada name to fold, so he said, ‘You have no choice. You gotta take over the business.’ ”
For three generations and 49 years, from 1958 until Elroy’s retirement in 2007, H. Hamada Store was a fixture on Queen Street. Prior to that, the company started before World War II by Elroy’s grandfather, Hatsutaro Hamada, had been known as a salvage company. The business branched out into produce and groceries after moving from Aloha Tower to Kukui Street near Chinatown.
“My grandfather would deliver goods by donkey. He would go to door to door peddling potatoes. We had a long family business history,” said Elroy.
SO IT was a pleasant surprise when Brandon, along with his biz and chef partners, Neil Nakasone and John Estrella, decided to open a restaurant and call it Hamada General Store, resurrecting the family name in its fourth generation in Hawaii after a 12-year absence.
What’s more, it’s on the same family-owned lot that was home to the grocery store and food-storage facility. The space had been leased to other restaurant operators I Love Country Cafe, then Egghead Cafe, in the interim.
The trio of chefs had no problem drawing a crowd from opening day in August, including those who have followed them since 1999, when they met in the kitchen of Alan Wong’s Pineapple Room. When Nakasone had the opportunity to start the food program at the bar Slammers, Brandon Hamada followed. Meanwhile, Estrella made his way to the Halekulani. The three reconnected in the kitchen of Kanpai in 2008, and moved on to Home Bar & Grill in 2011.
Working together for 20 years, they realized they shared a similar vision, even if their culinary styles differ. Estrella describes himself “as the homey one, and Brandon is the fancy one.” Nakasone is the one with a more global outlook, whose passion is for Italian and Mediterranean fare.
SOMEHOW IT all comes together in the form of Hamada General Store’s comfort-driven sandwiches and plate lunches with a contemporary sensibility.
The opening menu features a shortlist of about 17 dishes, plus a trio of daily specials, but within that grouping there’s something for just about everyone. Order at the counter and dishes are brought to you when ready.
“This is basically a storybook of what we’ve done over 20 years, and it’s stuff we grew up eating,” Hamada said. “I think we try to touch every demographic, what people like to eat.”
He said the menu will grow over time, but for now they’re winning hearts through customers’ stomachs, with the likes of wafu hamburger steak ($13) with kabayaki-braised onions and mushrooms, daikon oroshi and housemade ponzu; and pork katsu ($14) reimagined as a loco moco with Japanese curry replacing the usual brown gravy.
If you start asking fellow customers what’s good, they’re bound to rattle off a couple of dishes at first, then add a couple more before conceding, “Everything’s good!”
That was the feeling I had with the most basic dishes, such as an Okinawan-style taco rice ($11), tofu and salmon salad ($13) with soy vinaigrette, and an Italian-style chopped salad ($12) of chopped romaine with salami, basil, olives, tomatoes, Asiago cheese and red wine vinaigrette.
I liked seeing the lighter salad options to the usual meat-centric local fare. As enjoyable as it may be, you can’t eat a Spam and egg sandwich ($11) every day, especially when upgraded Hamada-style with tonkatsu, fried onions, an over-easy egg, avocado mousse and Sriracha on a toasted brioche bun.
One of my favorite sandwiches is the kim chee Reuben ($16). The fermented cabbage adds spice while tempering some of the pastrami’s guilt-inducing fatty nature.
ELROY HAMADA, who stays involved in the business by overseeing the parking lot, attests to his son’s exacting approach to sourcing fresh ingredients.
“He doesn’t eat leftovers. For the rest of the family, we grew up with the mentality that you don’t throw anything away. But he said gotta eat fresh coz otherwise the taste is different.”
Customers of Hamada General Store can taste the freshness throughout the menu, but most obviously in the salads and a negi toro poke bowl ($18), the raw fish undressed, save for garnishes of rice cracker pearls, shiso and radish sprouts. Diners can see the quality of the fish they’re getting before adding an accompanying soy-wasabi oil. Rice is also served in a second dish to avoid cooking the fish with its warmth.
Diners who have already run through the regular menu keep coming back for daily specials, to the point that those are typically sold out by noon. Some recent examples include beef-and-potato-laden pastele stew ($14), garlic rib-eye with escargot butter and balsamic reduction ($22), and surf and turf of a 5-ounce grilled rib-eye and lobster tail ($28).
And the chefs have plenty of ideas they want to bring to the table in coming months.
HAMADA GENERAL STORE
885 Queen St.
>> Call: 379-1992
>> Hours: 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays
>> Prices: $25 to $30 for two
Ratings compare similar restaurants:
**** – excellent
*** – very good
** – average
* – below average
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.