Story by Lynn Cook
Photos by Jack Wolford
Two years ago Jean Navarra was a self-described “economic refugee” from Hawai‘i when she found herself in San Clemente, California, with no job and no prospects. Her solution to both homesickness and unemployment? Open a Hawaiian restaurant. Her adventure creating the Hulaville Island Café and Company Store included finding a location, learning to navigate government permits, arranging to import Island goods— and meeting the Tiki People, Hawai‘i-philes who live all over the California coast, dress in aloha shirts and mu‘umu‘u, take hula lessons, surf and build tiki bars in their basements. “They live the Hawai‘i of the ’60s and ’70s, and they are faithful customers,” says Navarra as a Tiki-ite pipes in, “Hulaville is heaven for me.” Other customers include those like Sue Silva and her husband, Bobby, who moved to California from ‘Aiea but visit the restaurant for comfort food from home—like Zippy’s chili, which is flown in—and to remind themselves and their kids of what a real “local place” feels like.
|Strumming away again in Hulaville: Jean Navarra's Southern California restaurant has become a magnet for Island lovers on the West Coast. Every Sunday patrons gather for 'ukulele lessons from masters such as Uncle Bobby Tomei (seen here) and to kani ka pila (jam).|
Hulaville’s bestsellers include kalua pork sandwiches, kalua pork pizza and a chef Sam Choy-inspired macadamia nut pie. Navarra pours Kona Longboard and Primo beer and sells li hing mui powder, Hawaiian Host candy and a hundred other Hawai‘i products from small shelves in the corner. She does most of the cooking, but her kitchen assistant, Hortecia, who is from Mexico, gets into the spirit of things: She wears a Hawaiian flower in her hair and is learning to make Spam musubi, “even though she can’t pronounce it,” says Navarra with an empathetic laugh.
On the weekends Hawaiian steel guitar players and ‘ukulele masters perform, and there is always a dancer ready to offer a hula. Pat Enos, president of the ‘Ukulele Association of America, visited and asked if he could start a Sunday ‘ukulele group at the restaurant. “I said OK,” Navarra recalls. “The first Sunday evening it was a kani ka pila, Hawaiian backyard party, with maybe forty or fifty ‘ukulele players!” Hulaville now hosts a free ‘ukulele lesson every Sunday, and there is nonstop music for hours. Even 103-year-old ‘ukulele legend Bill Tapia showed up. “Bill came, played a bit,” Navarra says, “and said he loved my rice, so he will be back.”