Chef Felix Lamela, 46, has only been in the country for a year and a half. Before joining Island Joe’s Hawaiian Barbecue he worked for a Thai restaurant in Hamilton. Back in the Philippines he was a Korean chef and the last hotel he worked for over there was the Filipino-owned Blue Water Resort.
AUCKLAND, Onehunga – In my first article on Filipino restaurants in Travel Galore titled ‘More to Filipino food than Adobo’ I featured the only Pinoy cafe in Auckland at that time. That was in 2012. Since then many others have sprung up, making it seven altogether.
Then here comes ‘Island Joe’s Hawaiian Barbecue’ in Onehunga, a Filipino-owned ‘family style restaurant’. By the way, Filipinos are a significant ethnic group in Hawaii and they are leading the way in introducing the islands’ exciting fusion cuisine to the rest of the world.
“Why Hawaiian when it could have been another Filipino restaurant?” I asked Island Joe’s Chef Felix Lamela Jr. “There are already quite a few Filipino restaurants here and we wanted something different,” he explained. “And we were aiming to attract other nationalities as well. In the latest Pasifika event people were lining up for our barbecues in the Hawaiian Village!”
It’s a fact that Filipino food has never had universal appeal, compared to say Chinese, Thai or Indian. Personally, I find it’s an acquired taste. So the rationale of featuring both Filipino and Hawaiian dishes on the menu is nothing short of brilliant. Surely punters will be adventurous enough to also try some Filipino food and it will catch on.
In any case, Filipinos are streaming through the door every day, drawn by the Hawaiian barbecues and also the Filipino specialities on offer. “After all, in the Philippines we always see meat and seafood grilling at a corner food stall,” says Lamela. The Maoris and Pacific Islanders likewise will find Hawaiian cuisine somewhat similar to their food, as evidenced by the growing customer base. And I guess everyone else loves a barbecue. So all the bases are covered.
“Our big sellers are barbeque riblets and pork barbecue,” reveals Lamela. “Our jumbo burgers are popular, as are the half-chicken and chicken leg. ‘Locomoco’ is an all-time Hawaiian favourite. It’s actually two hamburger patties, but smaller and served with two fried eggs and brown gravy. Chips and American macaroni salad are available as side dishes. But Filipinos prefer two scoops of rice.”
The restaurant’s menu was created after getting feedback from a focus group. “The pork barbeque, chicken and the ribs; we call them the short-ribs, came out tops in this survey.”
I have to admit that the Filipino menu is also pretty special. The crowd-pleaser here is, of course, their Pampanga-style sizzling sisig. You can request the spicy version of this dish; the standard version is mild. “We buy the whole pig’s head, pork belly and chicken liver, grill it and chop it into small pieces for the sisig dish. It involves a lot of work,” Lamela confides.
Another favourite is Bangus. “We have many versions of this fish on the menu – relyenong bangus, sinigang na bangus and sizzling bangus, that’s the belly. Or for breakfast nothing beats the whole bangus – two pieces with two eggs and rice. And as a side dish, tokwa’t baboy is just the thing.”
Other popular items are cebuchon or grilled pork belly, pork barbecue, the Hawaiian chicken barbecue and tuna. Kids love the crispy island wings. And if there’s room for more food sweets are available – buko pandan, leche flan and halo-halo.
‘Komo mai e ai.’ (‘Let’s eat’ in Hawaiian)
By Mel Fernandez