When we named Ohana Island Kitchen the Best Fast-Casual Concept in the Best of Denver 2017, we noted that we’d like to see an outpost of the sunny Hawaiian counter-service joint in every neighborhood in town. But Louie and Regan Colburn, the husband-and-wife team behind the operation, swear they haven’t thought much about building a chain, even as they’ve watched their lunch crowd swell. The initial motivation behind Ohana came from an earnest desire to serve up a taste of Louie’s upbringing, they explain, and that remains the restaurant’s driving force. Not that the couple is ruling out another location: They’re quickly outgrowing their current space in LoHi, and their lease is up at the end of the year.
We recently sat down with the Colburns to talk about Hawaiian food culture, their journey from take-away window to full-fledged restaurant, and why they run out of poke almost every day (and why that stresses them out).
Westword: Louie, you grew up in Hawaii, and you are channeling a bit of that food culture here at Ohana. Tell us about Hawaiian food.
Louie Colburn: Hawaii does a really good job of creating satisfying to-go meals. There’s this place called Zippy’s that does bentos and zip packs [full of things like fried chicken, fried spam and rice]. You get a lot of carbs — mac salad and rice — and heavily marinated chicken. It creates these mouthfuls that are very gratifying. Because you’re bringing this to the beach or to do some kind of activity, you put those carbs to good use. You take food somewhere really beautiful to eat.
Regan Colburn: I love the breakfasts. I like just Spam, eggs and rice. It’s something that seems so simple, but it’s so good and savory.
Louie: Hawaii really has the savory seasoning down.
Regan: Hawaii is also a melting pot of Asian cultures and influences, Japanese being one of them. Louie got a lot of Japanese knowledge from his mom, so our food has a lot of Japanese influences, too.
Louie: Like, the pickles in our bento boxes aren’t Hawaiian, but it makes sense to balance the sweet and savory. Growing up, we had pickles and rice as a meal with hot tea.
Anything you really miss that’s hard to re-create here?
Louie: I miss the ethnic Hawaiian food — like the lomi salmon, which is cubes of cured salmon prepared kind of like pico de gallo [with tomatoes and onions]; you eat it with rice and pork. Or the chicken long rice, which is just rice noodles with stewed chicken. It’s salty, but you mix it with the lomi salmon and it’s great.
Regan: I love Spam fried rice and loco moco. We get Hawaiian natives who ask for malasadas and poi. [Loco moco is rice topped with hamburger, a fried egg and gravy; malasadas are doughnut-like pastries; and poi is a taro-based mash.]
You have really amassed a following for your poke, which is a lot simpler than many of the pokes you see around town. Is that reflective of the Hawaiian style?
Louie: When people have had poke on the mainland, like in California, they’re accustomed to having tons of options and toppings, but I don’t even have a prep table to hold all those toppings. So I decided to offer two options, which are true to my flavors that I know. In Hawaii, you get ahi tuna poke marinated in light soy — it’s a little sweet, with just a touch of sesame. I really wanted that flavor. What’s authentic in Hawaii? Shoyu poke with sliced sweet onions. For the spicy poke, I wanted to cross-utilize ingredients, and I already have spicy mayo for sliders. So I used that, although I don’t just add the cubed fish. There’s a proper place in the procedure to add the mayo and tobiko to get that honest flavor profile. This is not a fine-dining food in Hawaii; it’s accessible. If you go to a gas station during breakfast here, you might get a breakfast burrito. In Hawaii, if you go to a supermarket, there’s a poke section.
I’m always so sad when you run out of poke.
Regan: I know. It gets stressful. We try to give people samples of our Kalua pork and explain.
Louie: We don’t save fish overnight, so that means calculating how much poke we are going to make each day — and we can’t make it on the fly. We’re getting better at the planning so we don’t run out so early. I don’t want to give people a poor product.
You have had quite the ride with Ohana, expanding from a tiny take-away window where you might put out ten bowls of poke per day to this restaurant. Was slinging Hawaiian food always the dream? How did you get here?
Louie: In 2005, when I met Regan, I was in Colorado Springs on active duty in the Air Force. I was assigned to L.A. shortly after, but we always wanted to come back to Colorado. In 2010, I was able to separate with a little severance, and I could move back to Denver to attend culinary school with zero out-of-pocket. I really enjoyed cooking, so I really wanted to formalize my skills. I completed the culinary-arts program at Johnson & Wales, and then I worked at the Snooze on Seventh and Colorado. I liked it, but I only lasted for three and a half months. It was a fast entry into high-volume cooking. After Snooze, I wanted to re-evaluate what I wanted to do in food, so I took several months off and we went to New Zealand. Upon coming back, I got a job as a cheesemonger at the Truffle cheese shop. I was working with this large assortment of fine food products: There were 150 or 200 cheeses in the display case. I loved that — I loved to talk about the food, to describe the food and to assemble cheese platters. When the Truffle bought the Cellar Wine Bar [and opened the Truffle Table], I went there to work in the back of the house, and as I was assembling platters, I realized I wanted the food to have my own personal touch. I wanted to offer a taste of something that’s distinct to my upbringing. We had the knowledge that a former employee had sold sandwiches out the back door of the Truffle Table. I started thinking, what if I sold Spam musubis out of the window? That’s something that I know what it should taste like, so I can make it as good as it could be. I started thinking about the constraints. The space had no hood and was very small, about the size of a stand-up shower. So the menu came from what could fit within the constraints of using the kitchen.
Regan: They have a basement, and every day we used to carry everything up and down the stairs. Including this huge rice cooker.
Louie: It became interesting. We needed a little more space so that we would not step on the shoes of the kitchen people coming in to prep at 10 a.m. It was September and starting to get cold, so we thought, what are we going to do? We thought maybe a catering concept. Jay’s Patio Cafe had been vacant since mid-June, and we found out that it’s owned by Frank Schultz of the Tavern Hospitality Group, and we asked to rent it out.
Regan: He came down with an assistant to the window and liked the vibe. But the lease was only through December of 2017, and it still is.
So, still no lease extension?
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Louie: It gives us a little anxiety, but we focus on the day-to-day job. We’re hopeful that we’ll stay.
Regan: We’re trying to figure out what’s next. Another location? We’re growing out of this space as it is. When it’s cold, there’s nowhere to sit. So we’re asking, do we want to have more locations? When places get bigger, you can lose quality. We’re trying to keep the balance of standards.
Well, Westword would like to see you in every neighborhood in this town. We said so in the Best of Denver.
Regan: You know, we didn’t go into this thinking we’d expand like that, but seeing that fast-casual award solidified for us that we’re doing something right: We can get the food out fast and maintain the quality. We thought, okay, if we wanted to do other locations, that’s how people are viewing us.
Ohana Island Kitchen is located at 2563 15th Street, #105, and open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Find out more at 303-718-6580 or ohanadenver.com.