Tokemoana’s is a small space. The front of the house is around 100 square feet, and the kitchen in the back is double that size. Within those tight confines, more than a dozen customers might pass through the Redwood City restaurant and market in the span of a few minutes on a busy Saturday, picking up takeout orders and browsing the row of coolers stocked with root vegetables grown in Tonga and Polynesian drinks made of mango and banana. The phone rings every few minutes — more orders coming in.
One year after opening just before the COVID-19 pandemic, Tokemoana’s is doing well. So well, in fact, that owner Fusi Taaga says she’s looking to open a second location before the end of the year. This would be big news for the Bay Area’s too-often-overlooked Polynesian food scene: Tokemoana’s is one of just five Polynesian restaurants in the Bay Area — and the only one on the Peninsula.
To its Polynesian customers, Tokemoana’s might be one of the few places where they can find traditional Tongan dishes like taro cooked in coconut milk or braised turkey tails, but to Taaga, the restaurant is even more than that. It’s a bridge between the Bay Area and Tonga, and an invitation to non-Polynesians to learn what home tastes like to her. “I want to serve the Polynesian community,” Taaga says. “But my ultimate goal is to make Polynesian food more popular and to gain a wider market and customer base, which is actually happening. We get more and more non-Polynesians every day. It’s really awesome.”
For now, Taaga says that there’s still a shortage of what she calls “authentic Polynesian food,” Tongan representation, and places Polynesians can go to get a taste of Tonga, even if they’ve never been. The Bay Area is home to half of the Tongans in the U.S., with 13,000 living in San Mateo County alone. It’s not an insubstantial population, but despite that fact, many Bay Area diners’ experience with Polynesian cuisine might be limited to plate lunches from the L&L Hawaiian fast-food chain. With Tokemoana’s, Taaga sees an opportunity to provide food that stays true to its Tongan roots, rather than interprets it. Given how much the Bay Area prides itself on its ethnic and racial diversity, why hasn’t it caught on to — or broadly demanded — more options for Polynesian cuisine? Tokemoana’s wants to fill that void.
The restaurant’s bright yellow storefront sits on Middlefield Road, which runs the length of the Peninsula. Since Taaga moved the business from Utah to the Bay Area in February 2020, it has jumped between locations in East Palo Alto, then the Redwood City sports center (where it focused on catering orders), before finally settling at its current location.
Tokemoana’s began as a wholesale and catering food service. In those early days in Utah, Taaga was just selling the taro, cassava, and yam that her father shipped from his farm in Tonga. The restaurant came in 2017, and when they moved to California last year, Taaga and her brother, Kalolo Mahafutau, decided that they wanted to make the food available to the whole of the Bay Area and the region’s Tongan community. “We had started cooking just to showcase our products so that our customers could actually taste the difference between what was available here in the U.S. versus how the same product tastes when we grow it organically and naturally in the islands,” Taaga says.
The restaurant as a whole is a testament to Taaga and Mahafutau’s father, Tokemoana. “He came to this country with — you know, the typical immigrant — nothing but the shirt on his back and his flip flops and literally had nothing,” Taaga says. “We grew up watching him work really, really hard, and not just supporting us, but supporting a lot of his extended family, church family, and community.”
After Tokemoana retired he returned to Tonga to “build his dream house.” It was then that Taaga says he started his farm and began shipping the root vegetables that would eventually be served with every Tokemoana’s plate. “I want this business [to] be his legacy,” Taaga says. In that sense, Tokemoana is still building and supporting community. Though Tokemoana didn’t know that the restaurant would be named for him, Kalolo says the name is a way to “give back” to both of his parents. “For [my father], seeing the store succeed definitely makes us happy,” he says.
That’s part of the restaurant’s significance for Michelle Eke, who works the front of house and is also Taaga’s niece and goddaughter. Eke has a different relationship to Tongan food and to Tonga, which she says is common for Tongans of the millennial and Gen Z generations who were born in the Bay Area. Indeed, half of the Tongans in the Bay Area are under the age of 18 and mostly grew up in the U.S. “I feel like our generation is so enthralled in American culture [that] growing up Tongan-American is a lot different than growing up as just Tongan,” Eke says. “[It’s] really common for our generation to only really have the taste of home when you go to your grandparents' house,” which is why she says it’s a privilege to be around Tongan food and work with family at Tokemoana’s.
Tokemoana’s kitchen staff works throughout the day preparing trays of traditional lu pulu (corned beef cooked with onions and coconut cream in taro leaves), sosisi (Polynesian sausage), sapasui (chop suey made with rice noodles and thick soy sauce), and, of course, all of the root vegetables that come from Tokemoana’s farm in Tonga. Each plate is served with a starch, a hearty piece of either taro, yam, or potato, sometimes lathered in coconut cream. Root vegetables and coconut are cornerstones of Polynesian and Tongan cuisine, as is meat made incredibly tender from hours of braising. The menu is largely traditional Tongan food, which pulls from food native to the Kingdom of Tonga and that of New Zealand’s colonial influence (the coconut cream is not traditional — it’s canned and from Thailand, and Taaga notes that if they were in Tonga, they’d get it straight from the coconut).
There are some nontraditional additions to the menu, such as tuk or sinaloa fries (Tokemoana’s version of loaded fries) and chicken katsu. On weekends, Taaga says the kitchen will prepare 15 to 20 trays of the more popular dishes, like the lu pulu and lu sipi (like lu pulu but with lamb), and customers travel from the Central Valley and Monterey to stand in line.
Vanessa Mahafutau, who leads the kitchen with Kalolo — her husband — reflects that older customers are sometimes shocked by how the menu, whether the feke (octopus in coconut cream), povi masima (brined brisket), or kale moa (chicken curry), tastes as if someone of an older generation prepared them. The recipes, which the Mahafutaus craft together, are largely inspired by their parents, and the couple collaborates to find a recipe that works for both of them. “We’d critique each other, like, ‘Oh, you need more this, we need more salt, we need more seasoning or garlic’ — and then we just meet each other in the middle,” Mahafutau says.
While older Polynesians and Tongans might be attracted to the restaurant for its traditional dishes, younger Polynesians come in for the fries: “What ends up happening is they’ll come and get fries for themselves and then get Polynesian food for their parents or grandparents,” she says.
It isn’t easy, this work of bringing Tongan food to a new audience. Mahafutau and her husband start their workdays at 3 a.m. — the drive is long, made longer by traffic. But the opportunity to serve Tongan food to the community in the name of her father-in-law makes it all worthwhile. “I’m doing this for him,” she says.
Tokemoana’s is open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m.–5 p.m., at 3102 Middlefield Road in Redwood City.
Ray Levy Uyeda is a Bay Area-based freelance writer. Find her on Twitter @raylevyuyeda.