It’s nothing new that Uncle Lani’s poi mochi is addictive, judging by the way it flies out of the two Uncle Lani’s cafes, in Wahiawa and Kapolei. What’s peculiar is that its aroma seems to attract pregnant women!
Charmaine Ocasek invented the chewy mochi balls with their crispy fried crust 28 years ago, and started selling them out of her parents’ garage in Waianae during rummage sales. When they’d fry up a fresh batch, “pregnant women would smell it and would come running!” Ocasek said.
The treat has been a hit ever since, but to this day, “it’s a wonder that there are so many pregnant women that love it — no kidding, they crave it. If you like poi and you like mochi, you’ll know why. Everyone told me it’s addicting.”
The Uncle Lani’s food truck opened two years ago. The first Uncle Lani’s Cafe opened in June in Wahiawa, with lines out the door; the second opened in December at Ka Makana Ali‘i mall in Kapolei. The challenge in the past had been finding the mochi balls, as Uncle Lani’s would only pop up at various fundraisers and temporary locations.
Ocasek named the business after her father, known as “Uncle Lani” Na‘auao, who she said taught them the true meaning of aloha: “Everything good comes from the heart,” and how to make the foods their family ate at home.
The cafes are staffed by about 10 family members, and are managed by Ocasek’s daughters, Nanea Ocasek, at Wahiawa; and Kainoa Friel, at Ka Makana.
Besides poi mochi, the cafes offer the dishes her parents used to make. The Luau Special ($12) is a colossal deal, with laulau, kalua pork, chicken long rice, lomi salmon, sweet potato and rice. Hawaiian standards, including pipikaula and squid luau, come in different plate-lunch combos (12.50 to $13.50); and spicy ahi poke bowls are $10. Everything comes packed up in an old-fashioned pink cake box, because pink is Ocasek’s favorite color, and the mochi balls are sold in their own pink mini boxes.
The bestseller is Uncle Sean’s Beef Stew, named for her brother, award-winning musician Sean Na‘auao; it’s also the slack-key guitarist’s favorite dish. He took over making the stew every week for the family after their parents died five years ago, and has trained Ocasek’s eldest daughter to cook it for the cafes.
Originally his mother, Marion, was the main cook in the family. When she got ill, she taught their father all the recipes, and he in turn taught Na‘auao how to make the stew. What makes it special? “For me,” Na‘auao said, “it’s just the love, what has been given us to carry on, this cooking style and the dishes.”
Na‘auao won one of his many Na Hoku Hanohano Awards in 1998 for contemporary album of the year, headlining “Fish and Poi,” a song he wrote about his devotion to Hawaii’s food. He said it tastes better than anything he’s eaten around the world. “Nothing beats local food.…it’s just (my) upbringing, you know.”
On the cafe menu are a few side dishes not often seen in mainstream restaurants — canned meat that local people have doctored up and elevated to a kind of cult status (think Spam musubi) — such as corned beef and onions, sardines with onions, and Vienna sausage. “That’s the kind of food we grew up eating after church,” Na‘auao said.
A couple of weeks ago some old stevedore friends saw those items on the menu and said, “Oh my god! … that’s the kind of pupu you want when you’re drinking beer.”
The all-time crazy bestseller, of course, is the poi mochi, $8 for a dozen, fried fresh to order. Two years ago, it started coming with drizzles in Hawaiian fruit flavors, haupia and kulolo. For sweet tooths, there’s also shave ice; poke wai, a local comfort dish made with cocoa, crackers and butter mixed together soup style; and the new Haupoi, half dehydrated poi, half haupia, which sells for $4.25 for a 4-by-6-inch slab. “People love it,”said Ocasek.
>> Tip: To reheat poi mochi (if it hardens), microwave for 10 to 15 seconds on high; or heat in a toaster oven until it reaches the desired crispness.
Fundraising for community events has always been the backbone of the family business. Poi mochi was invented because Ocasek was looking for something new and different to sell to raise money for her daughter’s hula competition. After much experimentation, the final recipe was approved by her husband and brothers. She describes it as “a cross between (Chinese) jin dui, (Filipino) cascaron, and (Japanese mochi),” with a good measure of fresh Hawaiian poi added.
She also tried different ways to fry the mixture: at first the mochi looked like funnel cakes, but there were “too many arms and legs” of batter. Then, “we tried squeezing it through our hands to look like andagi (an Okinawan doughnut), and then we used two spoons to make a ball so it would be less crusty. Finally we realized there’s this wonderful thing called a cookie scoop!” she said, dissolving into giggles.
“The wonderful thing about it, is that it’s sustained all our different family members fundraising for football, soccer, volleyball … poi mochi has taken everyone through it.”
For more than 20 years, poi mochi obtained valuable public exposure whenever Ocasek sold it at fundraisers for the Children’s Miracle Network, held at Walmart stores. The family adopted the children’s fund as its own charity about five years ago, so all cafe tips are donated to the network.
UNCLE LANI’S CAFE
Ka Makana Ali‘i
91-5431 Kapolei Parkway
Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays
538 California Ave.
Open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, though hours vary
>> Phone: 551-9961 for either shop
>> Prices: $2.50 to $14
>> Food truck: See Facebook and Instagram (@poi_mochi) for weekly locations
>> Coming up: Sean Na‘auao will debut his 15th CD, “E Kahiau,” on his birthday, April 10, at both Uncle Lani’s Cafes