“Aloha doesn’t just mean hello and goodbye,” says Piilani Rupert, owner of Aloha Pii Lani’s Buffet Express in Okemos. “It actually means, ‘may the breath of God go with you.’ It’s very special when you use that word.”
Piilani, who prefers her Hawaiian name over her European surname, aims to bring the spirit of America’s paradise to mid- Michigan via her small restaurant near the intersection of Okemos and Jolly Roads.
Born and raised in Hawaii, Piilani moved to the Lansing area over 30 years ago and began an ongoing catering business. Her new venture features a daily lunch buffet and, if all goes according to plan, may soon feature a nightly dinner buffet ($8.99).
Two months ago, Piilani’s plans took a detour when a primary refrigerator broke down two weeks after the opening, causing Pii Lani’s to close for nearly a month. Taking the adversity in stride like a true Hawaiian, Piilani reopened in late June.
“It’s the people of Hawaii that make it different,” Piilanis says about her native land. “There’s a spirit there that you can’t find anywhere else.”
The people may be different in the middle of the ocean, but in the middle of this continent, Piilani’s food stands out from the crowd. She describes her buffet, which changes daily, as typically Hawaiian: a mixture of indigenous cuisine mixed with American and international influences.
On a recent Thursday, Pii Lani’s lunch buffet ($5.99) featured ham and pineapple roasted in coconut milk; kalua (roasted) pulled pork with a homemade barbeque sauce; mushroom chicken; teriyaki chicken; and Piilani’s oft-requested macaroni and cheese.
The ham-pineapple-coconut dish, with a texture and consistency similar to applesauce with large chunks of ham, mixes sweet and savory into a delicious combination almost suitable for dessert. The mushroom chicken, garnished with a mixture of herbs, bathes in a rich sauce. And it’s no surprise Piilani’s mac and cheese is popular: It’s creamy beneath a thin, delicate crust.
“The way to explain my food is as a Hawaiian style of eating,” Piilani says. “It’s an American international menu with Hawaiian flair.”
The Hawaiian flair includes Spam, of course, and cans of the meat product are used as table centerpieces. Piilani says it’s mostly native Hawaiians who request a dish using Spam, and she’s happy to oblige by cracking open a tin and whipping something up.
Beyond the buffet, Pii Lani’s offers a limited breakfast menu, daily specials and a few additional items made to order.
Thursday’s special exemplifies Pii Lani’s melting pot identity: pasties. For a lady from Hawaii, Piilani sure has mastered a Michigan specialty. Mildly seasoned beef is mixed with carrots and potatoes inside, but it’s the outside she really nails, with a flaky, buttery crust that melts in your mouth.
If you’re looking for something more exotic, Pii Lani’s has that, too. The mahi mahi surfboard ($6.99) is a sandwich with a mahi mahi filet cooked in butter sauce and topped with American cheese. Another sandwich with Hawaiian influences, the citrus key lime chicken ($5.99), combines citrus ginger marinated chicken with grilled tomatoes, spinach, red onion and honey pineapple, topped with orange lime dressing and provolone cheese.
For dessert, a must-try is the haupia ($1.99). A silky smooth yet firm, brilliantly white coconut pudding topped with shredded coconut, haupia is a delicacy you won’t find anywhere else in the area.
The décor and mood adds to the authentic feel of Pii Lani’s. A community reading table holds a ukulele, a Hawaiian to English dictionary, photographs from the Islands and much more. Piilani might sing for diners if the mood strikes, or she may tell stories, like a mildly ribald one she shares involving the meaning of her Hawaiian name (Pii means to climb and Lani means heaven.)
The food, though, will determine Pii Lani’s success, and Piilani thinks there’s a demand for what she brings to the table.
“Food like this is on every corner in Hawaii, but you can’t go anyplace else and get it around here. It’s been wonderful, simply wonderful,” Piilani says of her first few months in business.
Aloha Pii Lani’s Buffet Express
3490 Okemos Road, Okemos. (517) 347-8828. www.piilanibuffetexpress.com 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday- Saturday. Closed Sunday. TO, D, WiFi, $