By noon every seat in the Pāpa‘aloa Country Store & Cafe is taken. The place is getting so popular, its owners are building a new dining room out back. Alvira Cacabelos, better known as Auntie Vira, emerges from the kitchen with one reason for that popularity: a paper plate piled with mac salad, rice and a steaming, fragrant green bundle called laulau. The green is steamed taro leaf, with a spinachlike flavor, only milder and less mealy. Wrapped inside is pork and fish so tender it seems to have just melted into the pork. Laulau doesn’t taste like fish—nor does it taste quite like pork. It’s just tasty.
It takes Auntie Vira hours to prepare the traditional Polynesian dish, and it took her family generations to perfect it. Laulau is popular throughout Hawai‘i, but Vira’s recipe, she says, was a “family tradition for us,” a staple at holidays and family gatherings. The key is butterfish, a.k.a. black cod, marinated in Hawaiian salt. Laulau was traditionally made with local reef ﬁsh such as nenue (chub), but someone in her family tree, she says, learned the butterﬁsh secret. To those who love laulau, that’s an important innovation, as butterﬁsh is considered an essential ingredient in authentic laulau throughout Hawai‘i today. “My father used to say, ‘When you no have butterﬁsh, you no make laulau,’” she laughs.
Like the laulau, the Pāpa‘aloa Country Store is woven into Auntie Vira’s memories. When she was growing up, her family bought everything from groceries to Christmas presents at the store, which opened in the early 1900s to serve the booming sugar plantation communities of Hawai‘i Island’s Hāmākua coast. The plantations are gone now and the area is pretty remote; it’s one of the only businesses for miles in either direction along Old Māmalahoa Highway other than a gas station. As an adult, Vira worked at the store until it closed in 2006. When the new owners, Sol and Kristina Ammon and Galahad Blyth, renovated and reopened it in 2015, Vira, now 58, happily came back to work for them and brought her family recipe. “This building, he draw me here,” she says. “I gotta be here.”