By Gavin Arucan | Staff Writer
The Manapua Man is a Hawaiʻi icon that may be difficult to find today, but rests in the fond childhood memories of nearly every local who used to frequent the Manapua Man’s truck for cheap grindz decades ago. While the Manapua Man trucks currently reside in only a few neighborhoods, many locals will remember when the food trucks served nearly every neighborhood on Oʻahu.
Pearl City High School Class of ’83 alumnus, Michelle Kuroda, used to rush over to the nearby manapua and shave ice truck with her friends after school. “We looked forward to the end of the school day to buy shave ice for maybe 25 cents and it was big,” said Kuroda. “Fried noodles in the waxed paper bag was a must from the manapua truck.”
“There was also Mr. Kato,” included Kuroda. “He would drive his green truck around our neighborhood and he was like a grocery store on wheels. Bread, boiled ham, candy, cookies, and even fresh fish on occasion. He knew our names and he always would tell us, ‘Go ask your mom if she like fish.'”
My father, 50-year-old Arnold Arucan, recalled that, in the ’70s in Kalihi, the Manapua Man didn’t come in a truck, but came on foot carrying a pole on his back that had containers of manapua on both ends.
The Manapua Man food trucks or vans are known for their inexpensive treats such as fried noodles, pork hash, fried chicken, and more, which barely exceeds the cost of one or two dollars. The manapua trucks also sell the beloved meat-filled buns that they’re named for, but most customers never buy manapua from the trucks. The typical truck has a glass case below its counter that displays some of its hot goods and boxes of candies to satisfy a customer’s sweet tooth. Mamba, a candy similar to Hi Chew that is sold in some Waiʻanae trucks, is known and loved by the community.
Most of the Manapua Men have retired over the years, but the remaining trucks, as they were decades ago, are still frequented by students looking for a quick, cheap bite after school.
Sheadon Shimabukuro, a freshman at Pearl City High School, goes to his community’s manapua truck around once a month. When he attended Highlands Intermediate, he would typically walk to the truck with his friends. Since the High School is farther away from the truck, he now goes whenever his father can drive him.
“I usually buy fried noodles and a strawberry drink,” said Shimabukuro. “The noodles are $1.50 and they are amazing. The guy is kind of grumpy, though.”
The truck that Shimabukuro referred to is consistently located at the intersection of Moanalua Road and Hoʻolauleʻa Street beneath one of Pearl City’s signature arching bridges. Due to his popularity, this Manapua Man was able to upgrade his metallic food truck to a newer, cleaner white van.
While the prices may have gone up by a dollar or so since the ’70s, the fried noodles that Shimabukuro buys still comes in that “waxed paper bag” that Kuroda described from almost 40 years ago.
The Pearl City truck may be the most well known of the remaining manapua trucks, but the manapua truck business still lives on strongly in Nānākuli. There are at least three manapua trucks lined up along Nānākuli Avenue, and they all have one thing in common: the signature Nānākuli special.
The $2 special consists of fries on top of fried noodles drenched in the famous yellow sauce I gushed over in my list of the best things on the west side. The special may be full of much more carbohydrates than any one person needs in a single meal, but it is the most delicious item on the menu of any Manapua Truck.
The Nānākuli trucks are also known for their fried pork hash, which only costs $1 for four, and hamburgers with the special yellow sauce in them. One of the trucks, named “Vong’s Manapua,” even sells other hot items such as shrimp tempura and full plate lunches.
Manapua trucks never advertise themselves, so the only way to find one is to hear about one through friends, be actively on the lookout for one wherever you go, or stalk relevant hashtags on social media. There are several other manapua trucks around the island, and even on neighboring islands. However, since most of them are only known to the surrounding community, they remain elusive to those who live further away. For example, Yelp users report that there is a truck in ‘Ewa Beach, but I’ve never been able to find it. Also according to Yelp, there is a truck in downtown Honolulu, which I have yet to look for.
Figuring out each truck’s business hours is tricky as well. Some trucks may be open every day of the week while some may only open on weekdays after school. Most trucks open as early as 7:00 A.M. but pack up and leave whenever they run out of food to sell. It can be a difficult hunt for the Manapua Man if you don’t know when and where to look, but the low prices and ʻono grindz are worth the effort.
While most locals today flock to Eat the Street or the Banán truck on Monsarrat Avenue to satisfy their food truck desires, it’s always nice to revisit the humble origins of the food truck craze that is the Manapua Man.