Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Ray of Goodness

What would you do if you were financially set, and didn't have to work any more?    Would you still work?  Would you still work because you felt like you made a difference to the community?    Would you still work because it gave you a sense of purpose?   Would you still work just because you loved doing it?   Would you still work just for fun?  I'm guessing that the honest answer for most people would be a resounding, "Hell No!".   I'm guessing that most people would prefer to spend their remaining days travelling, futting around the house, spending time with their grandkids, or in general just going holo holo.    But a surprising number of people I know, many more than you'd imagine, couldn't just sit home and relax.   These are the people who are the best at what they do.   The people who really produce something special.   Anyone can do a job, because they need to earn a living, but the people who do it because they really love it are the ones who really create magic. 

It sounds hypothetical, but I know of one such man.    His name is Felix.   He's an older, bolo head little man with glasses, and probably one of the nicest old Filipino men you'll ever meet.   He's the kind of guy who genuinely exudes warmth and aloha from his smile.   From what I understand, he also made quite a decent living as a realtor, so he really doesn't need to work anymore.   But it was his dream, his passion, to run a restaurant.   A good restaurant, where you could get an awesome meal for a very reasonable price.   Just the kind of place that he would want to patronize.   So that's exactly what he did.   He opened up a little local place, and named it after his son, Ray.   Thus was born, perhaps my dad's favorite restaurant in the world, Ray's Cafe.

My dad found out about Ray's, like all of the fantastic little hole in the walls he knows about, during his time as a State worker.   Like all of the secret State worker hangouts, Ray's served big amounts of fantastic food for tiny prices.  Ray's Cafe was originally on the corner of Smith and Beretania, across the park, next to where Golden Harvest Theater used to be (the place my mom would go watch and translate all of the kung fu movies for my dad when they were dating in the 60's).   Back then it was a tiny little joint with 3 tables that would be packed with firemen, police officers, and other big blalahs who could really pound all that food.   I took my wife there once when we were dating, and she was less than impressed with the ambiance (not really the kind of place you should be taking a date anyway).   Since then he's moved to Kalihi, on King St. just before Gulick Ave., to place that's doubled in size (with 6 tables), but retains the same hole in the wall charm. 

My understanding is that the secret to Felix's success, is that he's made friends with his meat suppliers, who always give him the best cuts of meat at really great prices.    Since Felix is already pretty well to do, he passes on that value to his patrons.   The result is really huge portions of really high quality food at dirt cheap prices.   This naturally leads to a fanatical following by those who know about the place, like my dad.   My dad enjoys it so much, that on Father's Day, rather than some fancy steakhouse or big sunday brunch buffet, we take him to Ray's instead.  The only drawback is, not only is it somewhat difficult to find street parking in that area, but Ray's is usually packed with all of the other local people who know about it and are trying to cram into one of the 6 tables.

Prime Rib at Ray's Cafe
Back when my dad first found out about Ray's, he used to rave about the oxtail stew (something my dad almost never raves about).  These days, it is my dad's favorite place to get his favorite dish in the world, prime rib.  Honestly, where else on the island, can you get a cut of prime rib that is the size of a mousepad, and over an 1" thick, for around $12-$15.    Not only is the slab huge, but it is perfectly cooked, moist and tender.   Sure it's not seasoned with fancy cajun seasonings like you find in the steakhouses (for 3-4 times the price).   It doesn't even come with the creamy horseradish that you get at Cattle Company.   But it's a perfectly cooked, simply seasoned, cut of meat that lets you taste the true beef flavor.  Add 2 big scoops of rice, and a salad that is easily 1/3 a head of lettuce, and you've got a really substantial meal for a great price.   For my dad, growing up in a very low income era, prime rib was seen as the epitome of food, reserved only for really special occasions.  So the prime rib at Ray's is something special that he enjoys down to the core of his being.  It is his favorite meal in the world.  Period.

Fresh Grilled Mahi Mahi at Ray's Cafe
Not a big red meat eater?    Felix has also made friends with some really choice fishermen.   He's always got gigantic pieces of mahi mahi, or ahi, or other big fish on his specials menu, for less than $10.   Again, they're not seasoned the way that you'd find a fancy seafood restaurant.   They're very simply grilled, to bring out the natural flavor of the fish.   But the texture is just perfect, tender and flaky, and never overcooked.  This is seriously fresh tasting fish.  I have never seen pieces of fish the size, the size that he serves, anywhere else. 

Bento at Ray's Cafe
My favorite thing on Ray's menu is the bento.   Can't decide between the steak and the fish?   Why not a little bit of both?    At least that's how it used to be.   A good sized piece of steak, a good sized piece of fish, some spam and a couple of pieces of fried chicken.   It was like a Zip Pack from Zippy's on steroids.  But unfortunately, I think this economy has even affected Ray's, because a few years ago he replaced the actual steak with several pieces of teri beef.   Not that the bento isn't good anymore, it's just not the one I first fell in love with.   It is still everything that a Zip Pack tries to be, and succeeds in ways that a fast food chain just can't compete with.

Steak and Alaskan King Crab Legs at Ray's Cafe
The biggest special at Ray's (when he has it), is probably his steak and king crab legs.   This is where Felix's relationship with his suppliers really shines.  This is not the thinner, Japanese snow crab, that you see on buffets around the island.   This is real Alaskan king crab, with a diameter bigger than wrapping paper tube.   The key though is the freshness.  You can always tell when you've got an older piece of crab, by how easily it comes out of it's shell.   If the shell is hard and easy to crack then it's pretty fresh.   If the shell is soft and bends (and thus difficult to open), or if the crab sticks to its shell so that you can't pull it out in one big piece, then the crab isn't the best.    The crab at Ray's not only easily comes out in one big piece, but it is still very moist and juicy, and has a really strong crab flavor.   There is no way that you could walk into a Sizzler, or any other place, and order something like that for less than $20.  

The best thing about Ray's food is the quality and freshness of his dishes.   The cuts of meat are all premium quality meat.   The seafood is all impeccably fresh and the choicest quality.  He may not be a star chef, with all of the haute techniques, but he lets the quality of the meat and fish shine on their own.   And on top of that, he gives you a huge portion and a great value.   Everything can be summed up in his lobster or crab omelettes, with really substantial pieces of lobster or crab, 4-5 eggs, and liberal use of butter.  They're huge, premium quality, and hopelessly delicious.

Imagine what the world would be like if we were all like Felix.   If work wasn't something that we toiled through because we needed to in order to survive, but something we did simply out of passion.  Based on the quality of food you get out of Ray's, I can just imagine the quality of life we would have.  That's the kind of world I want to live in.

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