A restaurant owner shares cuisine from her original island home with her new one
Stevina Kibuya is an island girl, and she can call two islands home to prove it. Originally from Puerto Rico, Kibuya came to O‘ahu in 2010 to spend time with her sister, whose husband had been deployed to Afghanistan. Her plan was to stay only a year. But life had other ideas: She met Fred Kibuya, a local guy of Puerto Rican heritage from the leeward side. The two fell in love, got married, and settled in his hometown of Wai‘anae.
Prior to arriving on O‘ahu, Kibuya, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, was immersed in the restaurant industry on the East Coast, working as a pastry chef, restaurant consultant, and trainer. I was raised by parents who taught me to follow my dreams,” Kibuya says.
It wasn’t long after her wedding that she felt the familiar entrepreneurial itch and decided she would open a bakery. One afternoon, while driving along Farrington Highway, she noticed a plantation-style house sitting on a small, commercial lot. It was up for lease. “I knew it was the place for me,” Kibuya says. Some market research led her to determine a swanky dessert shop would be a mismatch for the neighborhood. “Wai‘anae isn’t like New York,” Kibuya laughs, referring to die-hard foodie urbanites who make an art out of waiting in line for fancy sweets. So instead of high-end desserts, Kibuya went homespun, inspired the dishes of her childhood.
In 2012, she debuted Coquito’s, bringing flavors of the Latin American and Caribbean diaspora—from Columbian and Cuban to Mexican and Argentinian—to O‘ahu’s West Side. The Puerto Rican dishes remain its star attractions. Although making everything from scratch is time-consuming and requires the expensive importation of many ingredients, like plantains for mofongo, Kibuya believes it’s worth the effort. “Having people eat my food and then wanting to meet me to tell me it reminds them of their abuelita’s cooking fills me with joy,” Kibuya says.
In the near decade since opening its doors, Coquito’s has become more than just a place to grab pastele stew or alcapurrias. The little green plantation house has become exactly what Kibuya had hoped for: a festive, gathering space that welcomes all. Inside, guests are treated to a kaleidoscope of colors and sounds. Walls painted lemon yellow and blue channel the tropics, and upbeat Latin music plays on the stereo. Puerto Rican pride is displayed via decorative flags, maps, and patriotic tchotchkes. Holding court in the center of the restaurant is a wooden table —a collaboration between Kibuya and Yelenys Calabrese, an artist and friend—inlaid with a vibrant depiction of a Puerto Rican landscape and shells collected from neighboring beaches. If it’s not being used for eating, it’s a favorite place to play dominos.
Having the restaurant allows Kibuya to feel closer to Puerto Rico, at least in spirit. “Coquito’s has become La Casita to many Puerto Ricans who are here in Hawai‘i,” Kibuya says. “And to be able to offer a piece of Puerto Rico here in Hawai‘i has been an honor.