Apr 13, 2021 Restaurants
There’s always Lus to be had at Pepe’s.
Before you spot Pepe Lavinia Veiongo Takeaway, you may spot its queue, snaking between two huge Samoan and Tongan flags, on Ōtāhuhu’s Atkinson Ave. It’s a small no-frills eatery dressed in little more than blue Christmas lights and fluorescence. The main attraction: two large display cases filled with Tongan- leaning Pacific Island classics, lit up under the golden glow of heat lamps. It’s dishes like kapisi pulu, lu sipi and the handful of others handwritten onto a piece of cardboard that have those after a taste of the Pacific (and sometimes of home) happy to wait. And, really, waiting here isn’t so bad.
Ukulele-studded ballads pour out onto the street from the stereo. If it gets too hot, they turn on a large sheet-metal fan the size of a 10-year-old child. People pour out of trucks and others into trucks. Cooks yell at the woman taking orders at the counter; the woman at the counter laughs at the cooks. This is all to say, it can be loud when in full swing, but the warm kind of loud you find in the kitchens of big families or at the wedding of your closest friend.
Classics here are done well. Ota ika, a bright coconut-milk ceviche, is the perfect accompaniment to whole fried fish heads or sticky-sweet bites of lamb rib and the kapisi pulu corned beef. For a sweet something, the Tongan-style keke doughnuts made with yeast and fried in pork fat are loved enough to take up an entire case on their own and get carried away in droves.
Whatever the order, you haven’t completed it unless you’ve chosen a lu. Lamb breast and coconut milk wrapped in taro leaves, lu sipi, or the staple corned beef lu pulu, all pinched up in their little foil pyramids, are what Pepe’s does best. Unwrapping these parcels and peeling away the leaves of warm nutty taro to find generous homestyle chunks of salty corned beef breaking down in coconut cream brings with it a fragrant warmth that comforts like only excellent home cooking can, even if the cooking isn’t of your home.
It’s the sense of community and connection to Tongan culture through food that caused Lose Helu and her husband to open Pepe’s four years ago, and you feel it readily in the space. While there is a notable population of Tongan people in New Zealand, they are underserved by restaurants serving the food of their homeland. Instead, a Westernisation of the palate and lack of representation slowly threaten to erase or alter certain elements of Tongan cuisine, and also those of the broader Pacific, in New Zealand as the years go on.
We’ve seen this before — Western ingredients coming in and altering the cuisine. Sometimes it’s in a good way, but often in a bad. Take, for example, the main ingredient in lu pulu, one of Pepe’s most popular and, now, traditional dishes: the Pacific corned beef. It’s the unofficial poster boy for the discussion surrounding the radical shift in Pacific Islander diets from fresh fish, vegetables, and food as medicine towards one with more fat, processing, and sodium brought on through colonisation.
If you’ve ever eaten at Bar Céleste in Karangahape Rd, there’s a chance you’ve already had a taste of Pepe’s. At least, a taste of its vai polo, the Polynesian chilli water made with bird’s eye chillis and vinegar. This staple varies in formula by place but at Pepe’s, it’s a fair fight between a heavy hand of chilli and an aggressive bite of vinegar. The result is a vai polo with a modest cult following that’s sold in labelless plastic water bottles by the litre.
At Céleste, Emma Ogilvie and Nick Landsman use this vai polo to heighten a crispy oyster po’boy. At Pepe’s, it’s a welcome slice through the richness of pig’s head. It’s an encouraging thing to see Tongan ingredients on a menu like Céleste’s, even if it’s just chilli water. Chefs like Robert Oliver and Michael Meredith have done tremendous work to integrate and showcase flavours of the Pacific and expand the cuisine over the course of their careers. Meredith’s newly opened Mr. Morris is already known for its sweet coconut pani popo, while Oliver’s second season of Pacific Island Food Revolution was recently released. (Not to say there isn’t any Pacific food, and even more specifically Tongan food, in Auckland — there is, and always has been. Eight Roses Cafe and Buffet in Ōtāhuhu, for example, has been feeding families for years.)
But more often than not, Pacific Island cuisine is subject to the paradox other cuisines have fallen prey to. It’s largely only seen in the finer spectrum of dining (like Mr. Morris) or the low (like Pepe’s). Though some of the cuisine is seen elsewhere — like in Ponsonby’s Lei Cafe, opened by Tongan siblings Saione Greer and Natasha Finau (who rightfully note that the now-gentrified suburb was once full of working-class Pacific families) — there is a noted dearth of eateries playing in this space.
It’s further representation and integration in the middle — the young Tongan chefs opening inventive bistros or Samoan chefs pushing a return to the cultivation of indigenous ingredients — that will keep these cuisines from dying and, even better, help them to flourish and grow. In the meantime, there are lus to be had. And there’s arguably no better place to have them than Pepe Lavinia Veiongo Takeaway.
Pepe Lavinia Veiongo Takeaway
123 Atkinson Ave, Ōtāhuhu
09 276 3188
Hours: Monday-Saturday 9am-11pm; Sunday 9am-6pm
DINNER BILL: Mains $5-$10; keke doughnuts $1 for 4
This review was published in our Autumn 2021 issue, which was released in March 2021.