KAILUA-KONA — The world nearly missed out on Garlic Furikake Chicken and Pork Adobo Fries. Robin Ganir, mastermind behind these Broke Da Mouth Grindz original recipes almost became an accountant instead of a chef. Thankfully, his college roommate at UH Manoa happened to be a culinary student.
Sitting across the table from me in their award-winning establishment in Kona’s Old Industrial Area, Robin and his wife Jean tell me how his parents were traditional “old school” Filipinos who wanted their son to have a “white collar” career. Robin’s dad worked on coffee farms to support the family and pay Robin’s college tuition, but he was also the person who helped him fall in love with food.
Robin describes his upbringing in Kailua-Kona’s Seaview Circle neighborhood as “very farm to table,” long before that was a trendy thing. If you were eating meat, the likelihood was that you caught it, killed it, and processed it yourself. Robin started cooking with his dad and his grandma from an early age, making classic Filipino dishes like pork adobo from scratch. Food was what the family came together around, a unifying force. It was something that the cook put time and care into and was an active way of staying connected to your roots.
Back on Oahu, Robin chose food over numbers and began secretly taking culinary classes at Kapolei Community College, which led to a job working under Chef Alan Wong in Honolulu. Then in 2005, Robin got his hands on a bright red lunch wagon and parked it in Kapolei Industrial Area. His concept was to take traditional dishes from his childhood and put a local, Hawaii-style spin on them. The lunch wagon menu was the beginning of what would eventually become the Broke Da Mouth Grindz menu. With low overhead and hungry truck drivers as clientele, Robin offered large portions and another unique selling point — wahine in bikinis working behind the counter.
The bikini factor helped get more clientele up to the window, where they promptly fell in love with the food. Soon, they had a line of regulars, and a bunch of other bikini food trucks popped up on Oahu. After Robin and Jean had their daughter in 2011, they decided to sell the lunch wagon and move to the Big Island to be closer to Robin’s family. Jean, who grew up in Orange County, California, recalls how it was a bit of a culture shock for her.
“The first time I went to his family’s house, they slaughtered a pig for dinner,” she said. “I was a little freaked out.”
With their young daughter and a son on the way, the couple opened their first brick and mortar location In 2012 and dubbed it Broke Da Mouth Grindz — Pidgin for really delicious food. Located in Kona’s Old Industrial Area, the original location was a mere 450 square feet, and you had to walk through the laundry mat next door to get inside. As their popularity grew, they expanded to their current 1,000 square-foot space, which is now jam packed with a lunchtime crowd of locals and tourists as I interviewed them.
Robin says that when they opened, they expected their clientele to be 80 percent locals and 20 percent tourists, but now, seven years later, it’s grown to 80 percent tourists and 20 percent locals. This likely has something to do with the numerous awards and publicity Broke Da Mouth has received as of late. In September 2018, they were featured on the Food Network TV show “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives” with Guy Fieri. Their loco moco was highlighted on the Hawaii Life Channel. They are six-time winners of Don the Beachcomber’s annual Mai Tai Festival Battle of the BBQ and winners of Sam Choy’s poke contest.
What makes their food so, well, capable of breaking your mouth? Robin says it’s his creative spin on traditional Filipino recipes and modern adaptation of local staples that are part of Hawaii’s diverse food culture. Filipino dishes like adobo are usually prepared with more salt and fat. His secret is sweetening the recipes up and using leaner cuts of meat to bring adobo to the mainstream.
“My goal is to put adobo, a food I grew up with, on the map,” Robin said.
What’s next for Broke Da Mouth? A larger second location in Kona, opening this April at 75-5864 Walua Road, the current site of Habaneros Grill. The new location, which can seat 60 in the dining room with space for private parties upstairs, will expand on their current menu and offer a full bar with cocktail and beer pairings. Robin and Jean’s vision for this location is a gathering spot for families and special events — with ohana-style larger plates to share.
They are currently seeking talent for their new location. Interested candidates with a passion for food are encouraged to contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Connect with them on Facebook @brokedamouthgrindzkona and on Instagram @chefganir. They also offer catering for parties and special events. Call 327-1113 to order, or in the meantime, stop by their original location at 74-5565 Luhia Street B-2, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii 96740, open for lunch and dinner 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 5-8:30 p.m.
Emily Gleason is a member of Business Network International (BNI) Kona Connections Chapter in Kailua-Kona and helps business owners reach their dream clients at www.mthewriter.com. She contributes a monthly business feature to West Hawaii Today.