A Hawaiian recipe from a local business owner’s waiting inside the July edition of TSR…
Welcome back to The Sunday Roast! Thanks for being a loyal reader. I’ve got another awesome local business owner featured this month, and an extra special gift card giveaway to encourage y’all to go out and support her. I’ll be unveiling the gift card giveaway on my Instagram around the same time this newsletter drops, so make sure you go follow @thesundayroastnews to enter to win a $25 gift card to Abunai! It ends on Friday, July 30th!
This month: During AAPI Hertiage Month in May, I made an effort to reach out to several AAPI-owned businesses to feature their amazing food as much as I could, and one was Abunai in downtown D.C. We had some scheduling issues as Akina, the owner, was busy at the time, but we were finally able to catch up this month. This feature lined up perfectly with my Instagram account passing the 500-follower mark, so I decided to celebrate that with a gift card giveaway as well. Make sure you take the time to read and test out the perfect lunch recipe.
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Meet Akina and Abunai.
Akina has been spreading the love for Hawaiian food and culture at her poke shop downtown for over four years now. Long considered one of the best poke shops in D.C., Abunai also serves up other delicious Hawaiian classics, like mochiko chicken, Kahlua pig nachos and, of course, spam musubi. She’s even operated her food trucks and opened some locations in Philly, bringing a taste of Hawaii everywhere.
Akina originally hails from Honululu — she even still has the 808 area code. She moved to the East Coast many years ago and immediately was entranced with the idea of opening up a food truck. She landed in D.C. after a friend living there suggested she join her, and despite only visiting when she was little and not researching the area much, she made the leap. Then, after a quick turnaround for the food truck application process (literally a day), she opened up the Abunai food truck that she parked downtown for the office lunch crowd. After parking in front of her current storefront for a while, the owner of the building, who frequented the truck for lunch, approached Akina to ask if she would be interested in leasing the storefront. In April 2017, the L St. location opened up for business.
A year later, she expanded to The Bourse, a Philadelphia food hall, where other D.C.-based businesses are as well, including Prescription Chicken and TaKorean. She used to go back and forth between the cities but doesn’t anymore since she has staff there to maintain the location. She’s kept her downtown location, but definitely is biased towards food trucks being a bit easier to maintain with low-cost, hands-on work.
All the while, Akina’s been killing it on the business side as a single mother. Her son just turned four years old after spending the last year or so always with Akina due to the pandemic shutting down many school and childcare options. Akina said she set up a table in the corner with books and other activities to keep him occupied while she maintained the restaurant. Now that D.C. is fully reopened, she’s looking to hire more staff to keep up with the demand for her food since pre-Covid, with school open and a full staff, it was easier to deal with. Some fellow owners in the industry have asked if she has staffers to spare, though she hasn’t had any yet.
Discover Abunai’s Instagram and website.
Keep scrolling for more on Akina’s mission to bring Hawaiian food to the District.
The story behind her recipe.
Akina’s whole family is still in Hawaii, but she’s here bringing the essence of D.C. When she first launched Abunai in food truck form, she noticed a lack of Hawaiian cuisine in the District, so she thought she’d try bringing it here since she cooked all the time at home.
She wanted to share her culture and food with the DMV community and see what they think. So far, they love it! Akina noticed that when she sold poke as a special on the truck, it was always really popular, despite her offering a variety of Hawaiian food. The downtown crowd tends to prefer healthier, fast casual options, just like poke. So Abunai offering poke downtown made sense. But don’t worry, the shop is still different and authentic compared to some of the other shops, that have opened since during the poke craze but not drawn attention away from Abunai.
The menu was curated of recipes that Akina and her family cook at home, so you know you’re getting the real deal. Every year, Akina will upgrade or slightly change the recipes to make sure the food is always the best.
She may change the sauce or do the marinade slightly differently for the Spam or chicken. She changed her Abunai sauce during the pandemic slightly, and even though nobody else can tell, she continues to tweak her recipes. That’s what makes her spam musubi so popular, which I begged to highlight here in the newsletter. It’s one of the most popular menu items, and one of Akina’s favorite as well. She says because it can be eaten as a snack or meal, the shop goes through a lot of Spam.
But due to the location of Abunai, it was devastated when the pandemic forced offices to close, leaving downtown D.C. completely dead. Akina unfortunately had to cut about 90 percent of her staff since her sales dropped severely. She transitioned to mostly online delivery for a while, but the radius is not that far since there aren’t many residential areas near the storefront, so that wasn’t booming as well. Then, Abunai adjusted mostly to takeout quite easily since its fast casual environment made the staff used to workers grabbing lunch to go.
Some tuned into the D.C. Instagram community may have heard about Abunai after a local food blogger posted negative stories about the poke shop. I won’t blast that person here, but suffice to say that they didn’t appreciate their pick-up experience, but then things escalated when they asked about compensation and posted stories about the experience. Akina, of course, responded to the situation to set the record straight.
She says she’s a very upfront, honest person, so if someone has an issue, she’s happy to fix it, but if it’s a lie, she’s correct them. Some may not realize Akina is at the shop all the time from open to close, overseeing everything to make sure it’s running smoothly, so she knows how situations play out. But after that snafu on social media, the community showed up and the shop was very busy. So busy that we had to delay any interview! Akina wasn’t expecting the outpouring of support, and since Abunai was understaffed, things were crazy. A couple of other foodie influencers, like Hypefoodies, were kind enough to offer marketing services around the same time as well.
Akina said she also saw increased support from the community the following month during AAPI Heritage month. She saw lots of new faces that she has seen come back already.
While it was exciting to get more loyal customers, the recent reopening of the city has been daunting. Abunai has seen busy times in the last two months, even before the city reopened in June, and the understaffing issue was seriously highlighted by that. Akina said they’re all just trying their best everyday, and she cancelled some catering bookings to help focus on the shop. But if you’re looking to support the shop and a local business owner, head over to grab lunch, try out this recipe, and enter to win the gift card to Abunai.