By Zoe Sims
Stephens Media Hawaii
A Japanese restaurant, a Mexican family, and fresh local specialties.
He‘e, a new family restaurant in the Kona Coast Shopping Center, is a reflection of Hawaii’s cultural and culinary diversity.
The restaurant is co-owned by Ariel Velasquez and her boyfriend, Klaus McCauley, and operated by the Velasquez family. The family is Mexican in origin, but Ariel and her sisters are rooted in Kona. Manuel Velasquez, Ariel’s father and the restaurant’s head chef, has 25 years’ professional experience cooking Japanese food and provides the business’ culinary backbone. He‘e is a unique fusion of Japanese cuisine, the family’s Mexican specialties, and McCauley’s taste for fresh, healthy, local food.
Ariel and McCauley provided the idea and impetus for He‘e, but the family’s support has made the restaurant reality. The business was built around Manuel’s cooking experience. Rosa, Ariel’s mother, helps in the kitchen and with cleanup at the end of busy nights. Ariel’s sister, Stephanie, came back to Kona from the mainland to help with the restaurant’s accounting and administration. Sisters Ariel, Stephanie and Esme wait tables. Behind the counter and in the kitchen, the Velasquez family members speak to each other in their native Spanish.
“It’s really fun because we’re all together,” Ariel said. “We’re a really close family. Everybody gets along and we’re learning together.”
Manuel is the restaurant’s metaphorical “he’e,” or octopus. Ariel said the octopus’ eight arms represent Manuel’s ability to multitask. Manuel was a chef at Teshima’s restaurant for 25 years, so Ariel and her sisters grew up immersed in Japanese culture, she said. Ariel was born in Kona and graduated from Konawaena High School this year. McCauley is a 2007 Konawaena High graduate.
“[Manuel’s] experience backs us up,” Ariel said. The restaurant plays off of Manuel’s strengths, serving tempura, which he says is his specialty, and popular Japanese dishes such as sukiyaki and oyako. He‘e also serves local favorites, such as stir fry and fried ahi. McCauley, who is half German and half Indian, but was raised on the Big Island, makes the restaurant’s three varieties of poke. The restaurant’s “fresh-made specials” highlight the family’s culinary diversity. For one recent special, Rosa cooked huaraches. The dish combines a fresh handmade corn tortilla with cheese, meat and an assortment of salsas. McCauley plans to introduce more fresh daily specials, such as Thai green papaya salad.
The restaurant’s focus is on fresh, minimally processed foods, regardless of the dish’s country of origin, McCauley said.
“It’s whatever is good and healthy,” he said. McCauley believes in cooking in a clean environment using whole foods without “mystery ingredients.”
“There’s not a lot of food like this here in Kona,” he said.
All dishes are made to order, and the menu gives customers healthy options, such as vegetable sides and brown rice or sweet potato instead of white rice. McCauley used to work as a fisherman, so he buys fresh ahi and tombo directly from his contacts in the fishing community.
The restaurant’s design mixes themes from the ocean and earth — mauka and makai — to evoke an environment reminiscent of home, not a cafeteria, McCauley said.
McCauley had initially hoped to open a food truck, but needed a certified kitchen to do so, he said. Ariel suggested that they open a restaurant instead, combining McCauley’s fresh ideas with Manuel’s experience as a chef. Part of the couple’s motivation came from the hope to give the family a better working life. Ariel said she had always watched her father work for other people, and thought that if the family owned a restaurant, they could work together and benefit directly from their efforts.
“We wanted the restaurant to help us and then help the community at the same time,” Ariel said.
The co-owners said it took three months to clean and remodel the restaurant and kitchen, which was formerly occupied by Kamuela Deli. The couple said the extensive repairs and replacements necessary was an unexpected challenge.
This is the first time McCauley and many of the family members have worked in a restaurant. “I was nervous and scared, but also excited,” said McCauley, who has sold his car and boats to pay for the restaurant’s start-up. “We are down to nothing in our pockets. We decided to go for it.” Since the restaurant opened on Aug. 7, business has been steadily increasing, Ariel said. The owners decided a soft opening would allow them to give customers a good first impression while the family gets used to the new business, McCauley said.
Most entrees, such as poke bowls or oyako and sashimi, cost between $10 and $15. Specials, such as Japanese-style butterfish with miso soup, a fresh side and a choice of sweet potato or white or brown rice, are around $20.
The restaurant currently serves both dine-in and takeout from 10 a.m.-8 p.m. daily. Ariel said they plan to expand their hours and breakfast offerings as word about the business spreads.
For more information, call 937-5661.