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Nobu Yoshida closes popular lunch truck after 26 years

By Staff | Jul 26, 2018

Nobu’s Plate Lunch, or “The Pink Wagon,” serving plate lunches at the Napa Auto Parts parking lot in Lahaina for 26 years, closed on July 5. Owner and Chef Nobu Yoshida said, “I was happy to be able to run my business for such a long time. I got to know many people, and it is heartwarming that locals call out to me, ‘Nobu!’ “

LAHAINA – Success comes in all different flavors; the blends are wide-ranging, diverse and filled with spices from all over the Earth.

To Nobu Yoshida, the recipe was a one-of-a-kind mix that could only be prepared and perfected after 26 years of serving plate lunches in the Napa Auto Parts parking lot out of his pink lunch truck.

Nobu’s Plate Lunch “he was an icon,” West Side lifer Casey Smythe exclaimed.

Born in Yokosuka, Japan, in 1962, Nobu had a dream that led him to Maui over 30 years ago with stops in New York City and Honolulu along the way.

His first job on-island was at Benihana in The Wharf Cinema Center in downtown Lahaina, but it didn’t last long. Nobu was inspired; he wanted more.

Customers line up at the lunch truck on its last day of business on July 5.

“Main thing, I don’t want to work for somebody else. I was 30 years,” he recalled.

Nobu tells the story of how the lunch wagon was launched with his “Little Engine That Could” attitude in 1992.

“I don’t know anything about the future when I was 30,” Nobu recalled. “Most 30-year-olds same thing – only dreaming, dreaming, dreaming; I can do it. I can do it. I can do it. My dream was a restaurant when I was 30. Then I start this: the pink wagon.”

For 26 years, the menu was always the same, five days a week, Monday through Friday, except when adding specials. The choices appealed to the local community, including shoyu chicken, hamburger steak, beef stew and chicken curry, served with rice, noodles and mac or green salad. In the early days, the cost was $5 per plate.

“For the first five years, I was so slow. I was young, so I have no problem; it was fun doing that,” Nobu said.

“But now,” he added, “the past 20 years has been building, building, building. In Lahaina, more people, people, people. I do slowly, slowly, slowly to become successful.”

Nobu is proud.

“For the past five/ten years, I sell out almost every day,” he said.

“I make a Chicken Katsu Tuesday. Double people come – almost 100 people come Tuesday,” he added.

On average, he served 80 people a day and maybe 500 per week; “same people come back,” he explained.

Over the past two years, his customer base has expanded with Yelp to a tourist crowd.

“I have a good 4.8 point something rating on Yelp. I didn’t do this; somebody do this for me,” he said.

His prices have increased, as well, to $8.50 per plate.

Nobody complained; Nobu served more than food.

“I serve 99 percent local people. They smiling. My food is okay, but people more nice. That’s why they coming back, coming back, coming back. Food very important, but Hawaii, there’s more,” he observed.

He has a secret ingredient.

“That’s one of the successful keys in Lahaina – not only money, not only food, number one is the customer; talk to people, long time slowly, slowly, slowly.”

Smythe has been frequenting the lunch wagon since he was in his late teens.

“I’m 42 now,” he laughed; but his tone turned serious when discussing Nobu’s retirement.

“I kinda crushed when he told me the bad news. I will miss him and his food,” Smythe said.

Darri Felicilda Alvarez agrees. She’s been a Nobu Plate Lunch diner since high school.

“I liked that Nobu was super humble, and his food was always ono. My favorite was chicken curry. His definition of success was probably that he could make people so happy for his food,” Alvarez observed.

Anthony Steele spoke highly of Nobu’s kindness.

“Some days we never had enough money. He’d always say, ‘Okay, pay me back next week. When you get money.’ He was real easy going. We can’t replace that now. I know he’s not a local person – he might not be born and raised here – but he was just like a local person.

“The food was good,” Steele continued. “It was probably one of the last cheap places to eat in Lahaina. Plate lunch is like over $12 or $15.”

Gracey Gomes knew Nobu for 15-plus years, frequenting the wagon on Chicken Katsu Tuesdays.

She will miss most his mo’olelo’s (stories).

She remembered, “He came here to surf and never left.”

Raenette Kahaialii is equally sad about the unflavorable news. In her most polished pidgin, she communicated: “Ah pau Everybody going be all bum out when dey find out. Das da kine stuff.”

Jen Mather considered the loss of Nobu really heartbreaking – that “yet another one of our local, go to West Side foodie institutions is closing. Nobu was always so kind and patient when we all stood around deliberating if we wanted curry or hamburger steak for our precious plate lunches.”

But it’s time, Nobu said, to retire. His days were long.

“I left four o’clock in the morning and come back about four. Because I did about 65 hours a week, it is, to me, kinda too much. I am 56, so that’s why I decide to retire.”

Although no longer behind the grill, Nobu is still around. He’s larger than life, and his dreams are evolving, with surfing and music his preferred path.

He plays slack key guitar, having learned from the master.

“Keola Beamer, he came my wagon and said, ‘You want to learn from me?’ “

With enthusiasm, Nobu answered, “Yes, yes, yes!”

As the years have passed and with practice, Nobu, with his wife, Masako, have been playing, volunteer kine, at Lahaina Jodo Mission, at gatherings, parties, funerals and weddings.

Nobu continues to dream: “I want to play music in the hotel. My dream is to go maybe Friday night in Lahaina Town and play music.”

Riding the winter waves in Honolua is in his blood.

“Surfing is for yourself; music is for cheer to others,” he said.

Nobu and Masako are heading for a two-month adventure in Japan. When he gets back, he’ll be applying for a chef’s position at a hotel, he said.

He sold his business for $1,000.

“Little money, little money, little money. I don’t know if that was a success or not. I don’t have big money, but I had a lot of customers” – and people in our community who truly love, respect and cherish him.

When asked if he wanted to add anything to his previously made comments, Steele paused and added, “Thank you, Nobu.”