The Search for the Mysterious and Beloved Manapua Man
The manapua man holds a special place in the hearts, and stomachs, of local residents.
I glance at my hastily scribbled directions and drive back down the road I came from.
I was told there’s a manapua man in Pearl City, Oahu, but without a proper address, all I can surmise is that he’s on the corner of Moanalua Road and Hoolaulea Street, under a bridge. After taking a few more wrong turns through a quiet residential neighborhood, I head down Hoolaulea and pass a school on my right, then my eyes widen. A white van sits under a large overpass and I catch a glance of its makeshift menu: $2 fried noodles, 50 cent pork hash and an assortment of candies, all in a plexiglass case. I’ve found the manapua man. It’s the first one I’ve seen in over a decade.
The manapua man of my youth, Mr. Lee, never smiled and always parked underneath a large papaya tree across the street from Waialua Public Library on the North Shore. He was known for selling snacks, soft drinks and local comfort foods, such as thick, chewy fried noodles that’ll stick to your ribs; steaming hot balls of minced pork called pork hash, which are placed inside a dumpling wrapper; and, of course, manapua, the tasty steamed buns filled with succulent char siu pork. While it may sound like just another food truck, Mr. Lee and many of the manapua men and women who roamed residential neighborhoods in Hawaii set themselves apart by selling all of this at a price even kids with a few bucks could afford.
Arnold Hiura, author of Kau Kau: Cuisine & Culture in the Hawaiian Islands, believes that the manapua man is a culinary hybrid of the traveling salesmen archetype and the mom and pop shops of old. “For where we grew up, people used to go to the mom and pop store after school; they used to have ice cakes and sour lemons and a variety of snacks,” says Hiura, “and I think the modern-day manapua man, who travels inside of his truck, is kind of a hybrid. They have the Chinese-inspired food, like manapua and pork hash, with candies and cold drinks and whatever else they had.”
And although the origin of the name, manapua man, is hard to tie down, some propose that it came from the original manapua men, Chinese laborers from Hawaii’s sugar plantation era who would carry cans, slung over their shoulders on a bamboo pole, filled with manapua, which they would sell for additional income.
Regardless of how the manapua man came to be, Mr. Lee was always my first stop after class. Nudging and bumping my way through the mob of other kids, I’d always order the same meal: a bag of fried noodles, which came in a literal plastic bag, two pork hash and a grape soda, all of which totaled $3.50. It might be the nostalgia speaking, but I can clearly remember this being the best thing I ever ate as a child.
Today, however, the manapua man is a rare breed, possibly because the food truck craze has taken over the streets, or maybe because chain stores, such as Starbucks and 7-Eleven, are so much more prevalent in recent times. Either way, I haven’t seen Mr. Lee in years and I yearned once more for the cheap, but oh-so-ono (delicious) meals from my childhood. And so, after asking friends and searching the internet for where I might find these iconic gray vans, my journey to track down the manapua man led me to Pearl City.
Parking my car on a side street and running over to this relic from my childhood, a couple of things catch me off guard. First, this manapua man, who I hear referred to as Uncle Mike, is much more popular than Mr. Lee was. With a small crowd of kids and adults gathered around the truck eyeing out what he still has in stock, and another pack lined up to order, there are easily 15 people here. “Two pork hash, Uncle,” I hear from a customer. “Extra-large fried noodles and a soda,” says another. Second, the truck Uncle Mike is wheeling and dealing out of is probably newer than my 2012 Ford Focus. Stark white and without a hint of dirt, I can’t help but miss the rusty and dusty van Mr. Lee would ride around in.
Although it may look different, the food here is still very much the same. Out of pure habit, I order a serving of fried noodles, two pork hash and grape flavored soda—and instantly feel like a kid again. The fried noodles come in a plastic bag, still at a $2 price point, and I dig in. It’s exactly what I remember: thick, oily and delicious. As I finish wolfing down my afternoon snack, quenching my thirst and heartburn with grape soda, I’m happy to know that there’s still a manapua man selling the same foods that fueled my youth.
As luck would have it, I receive another lead the following week about a truck on Oahu’s west side: a manapua woman near James Campbell High School. I drive to Ewa Beach and circle the high school three times, beginning to fear the worst, that my hankering for more fried noodles would go unabated. As a last ditch effort, I cruise down Fort Weaver Road, then a few minutes away, I see a group of kids huddled around a gray van, and my hopes begin to rise. Walking toward the vehicle, I already smell the greasy goodies and know I’ve found the manapua woman. As a full grown adult, pushing and nudging my way to the front of this line would probably look pretty bad, so I wait my turn as they all order fried noodles, drenching their meals in Sriracha. I order the same and am surprised at how good these noodles look: lightly garnished with green onion and kamaboko (Japanese fish cake) and served in a legit Styrofoam container.
Sitting down on the curb to eat and bracing myself for the long drive back to Honolulu, I see another group of schoolkids approach the van, eyes wide, a few dollars in hand. One orders fried chicken, another grabs a few Snickers bars. The last kid orders a meal oddly close to mine: fried noodles, a few pork hash and a strawberry soda. It’s good to know some things never change.