Throughout the month of May – also known as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month – the Rams will be spotlighting four Certified #RamsHouse small businesses that belong to the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. Up next: Aloha Cafe.
LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Angelenos looking for a taste of the islands don't have to search far.
Downtown L.A.'s Little Tokyo district is home to Aloha Cafe, a Certified #RamsHouse which has served up Hawaiian food for more than a decade. The restaurant serves dishes like Kalua Pork and beef teriyaki bowls, among many others.
"Everybody's like family that comes here."
"I think what I fell in love with Hawaiian culture is that it's kind of like a melting pot of all the cultures all together," Jennifer Lee, who co-owns the restaurant with her brother Kenneth Lee, told theRams.com last week. "When I first started, I didn't really understand Hawaiian food. But now it's part of my soul. I think it's the spirit of Aloha, welcoming everybody. Everybody's like family that comes here. I know families that grow, and I see kids that graduate and they come with their friends. I'm just so blessed that everybody is so loving and supportive."
The restaurant has been at its current location off E 2nd St between S Central Ave and S Alameda St. since 2009.
It was originally established around 1994-95 in Monterey Park by chef Komai, a native of Maui whom Lee estimates first arrived in Los Angeles in his late teens. Before starting the cafe, Komai had owned another Hawaiian restaurant in Torrance and also fixed up cars and raced them, according to Lee.
"He's had a very interesting history," Jennifer said. "Prior to that, I just think he lived a very care-free life."
Lee connected with Komai when she first started out as a server at Aloha Cafe in high school in 1997. However, not long after Lee joined the restaurant, it changed ownership and Komai was let go during the ownership change. The restaurant later went out of business.
As Lee began thinking about purchasing and reviving Aloha, she said someone recommended to her to do so in partnership with Komai. Lee took their advice, and it was restarted in Monterey Park in 2004, where it was for three years. Eventually, Lee also took over ownership a year after the original owner, chef Komai, passed away.
"If the food is good, people will come."
Lee is Chinese, but she learned about Hawaiian food from Komai, whose memory is kept alive not only through the food the restaurant serves but a drawing on the back of the shirt Lee wears (pictured above).
"He was a very interesting character," Jennifer said. "He was a very typical Hawaiian guy who had a really tough exterior. He had a really strong Hawaiian Pidgin accent, but he was just the sweetest, kindest guy underneath all that. He honestly taught me everything that I know to this day about Hawaiian food. He always said to me, 'if the food is good, people will come,' and that's something that I carry with me."
The surest sign that is working is the aforementioned support from long-time customers. And that backing has never been more important than now as Los Angeles and several other cities across the country grapple with a rise in Anti-Asian Hate Crimes.
"I really felt the support of the community."
"It's pretty amazing," Jennifer said of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) culture in L.A. "I would say that in large markets, it was a bubble, it was a really great community. But here in Little Tokyo, I really felt the support of the community and business owners. I feel like the community has grown so much since I've gotten here. It's just been so amazing, especially with COVID. I am a little bit more low-key, but I felt like when things started happening, they really came to check up on how I was doing, like, 'Hey, how are you guys doing? You've been here for some time now. We appreciate you.' And I really felt like, they really like loved us being here."
Lee wants Rams fans to know that the AAPI community in Los Angeles is strong and supportive of everyone, regardless of their background. She said it's still new for a lot of people in the Asian community to be more outspoken, but they're coming together and standing up to Anti-Asian hate.
"I think it's just important to talk about it, spread awareness, show support," Lee said. "I think that in our culture, sometimes we tend to be a little bit more quiet. It's really important to stand together and just say, 'I'm here if you need anything. Let's talk about it. Let's be better together."
Similarly, Lee said people can be better allies to the AAPI community by doing those same things: Talking about it, bringing awareness, asking questions.
"Bringing up conversations would be a great way to show support," she said.