The Power of Plate Lunch

Story by John Strieder. Photo by Bruce Ely

When community activist Sam Sachs was looking for a way to defuse tension between the police and the African-American community in Portland, Oregon, he approached Noho Marchesi, a Honolulu expat and owner of Noho’s Hawaiian Cafes, to help. Noho understands cops—his father and three uncles worked for the Honolulu Police Department—and his three Noho’s restaurants have been favorite hangouts of Oregon police since the first one opened in 1994.

At Sachs’ entreaty, Noho put together a free buffet of classic Hawai‘i plate lunch fare: savory chicken, pork, beef, macaroni salad and rice. Sachs and Noho invited every cop and man of color they knew to come share a meal. Some of Sachs’ friends wanted nothing to do with the police, but they came anyway.

About fifty people filled the “Board Room,” as Marchesi calls the dining room adorned with custom longboards at his second Portland Noho’s, in the Fremont neighborhood. This was during the summer of 2016, when a rash of shootings by and of police was putting severe strain on community relations nationwide.

Conversation was tense at first. One young man sat down across a table from an officer and greeted him with: “You pulled me over three times this month. Do you know that?” The cop didn’t recognize him. Composed and calm, the young man continued. “What do you feel when you walk up 
to my door?” he asked. “Because I’m scared to death I’m going to die.” Despite the uneasy beginning, by the end of the evening, stomachs were full and everyone seemed more relaxed. One kid told Sachs the buffet was the first time he had ever seen a policeman smile.

This sense of ease is exactly what Sachs and Marchesi had in mind when they launched the dinners, which have become monthly events and are now open to women as well. “We love people,” Marchesi says. “I treat them the same way, I don’t care what nationality they are, what creed they are.” He credits Noho’s steady police patronage with helping to clean up the area surrounding his original café in the Clinton Street neighborhood.

As the neighborhood gentrified, Marchesi took the Hawaiian kitsch off the walls and hung old photos of Hawaiian paniolo. He’s daring his customers to ask, why cowboys in a Hawaiian restaurant? When they do, he serves up a history lesson: “Did you know there were cowboys in Hawai‘i before there even was a Wild West?” he asks. “Hawai‘i’s not just about sun and surf,” he says.

Marchesi expanded his plate lunch mini-empire beyond his two Portland locations. A third Noho’s serves a blue-collar crowd in the town of Medford, a few hours south. At one point Noho’s had seven locations, but the Great Recession took its toll. And at the age of 59, Marchesi is content running just three restaurants.

Joshua Saio, manager of the Fremont Street Noho’s, says all the patrol cars parked in front of the restaurant do make some customers jumpy. He’s seen people stop in their tracks and back away from the outdoor seating area if they spot a tableful of men in blue there. Saio himself is not immune to the mild panic that can accompany an unexpected police encounter. Once he was driving the company van when a cop pulled him over. His heart pounded and his mind raced as he tried to figure out what he had done wrong. Instead of parking behind him, though, the cruiser rolled up alongside. “Tell Noho I said hi!” called the cop. “Tell him I’m going to come in and get some chicken.”

Not everyone, of course, reflexively recoils from a court-yard full of cops. On summer nights the Fremont Noho’s popular lānai fills up with an assortment of police and civilians of various genders and ethnicities. A handful of Hawai‘i expats are usually in the mix, some slinging guitars. Hawaiian music fills the air, the tiki torches and fire pit glow warmly, and the Kona Brewery beers flow alongside local microbrews. “It’s as close to home as I can get you without you being there,” Marchesi says. HH