The Hawaiian Islands are a chain in the Pacific that are bursting with vibrance, natural beauty, and cultural significance. The people of Hawaii offer a way of life that outwardly displays a lifestyle of warmth, happiness, and community. Ho Suk Lee, a Hawaiian local from Oahu, found his calling in the restaurant business when realizing he wanted to share great food while embracing Hawaiian culture. For about 15 years he has worked his way to success, and now co-owns three restaurants on the island alongside his life-long friend and business partner, Bo Pathammavong. He continues working at his restaurants and making people happy; embodying the true Aloha spirit.
Before the success of his restaurant businesses, Ho Suk came up from humble beginnings. He was born in Korea but immigrated to Hawaii when he was about 3 years old with his mother and sister. Growing up, he was led by the example of his hardworking mother, whom he describes as a fearless business woman. She worked tirelessly to support their family and later on had opened two restaurants of her own. “All day and all night she just worked really hard,” he said
Ho Suk helped his mother in her restaurants when he was young, which at the time, was a job he did not see himself pursuing. It was not until later that he realized he had obtained an overwhelming amount of knowledge about food service. Those early firsthand experiences became the backbone to his choice to open his own food businesses, but before he got there his career path shifted once more.
In his young adult life, Ho Suk managed five self-service gas stations throughout Oahu. He quickly learned that he liked business, but disliked the gas station business. “People are not happy to put in gas,” he remarked. “It’s not an experience that people enjoy…and after a while I realized that it was just not what I wanted to do.”
In pursuit of his own happiness, he had learned that he enjoys making others happy through food. “There is something innate and reassuring about seeing someone you love enjoying their food and having enough to eat,” he said. “When it comes to friends or significant others, it’s just a time of sharing.” That sentiment carries a long way throughout the islands. In fact, Honolulu residents alone spend about 10% of their income on food, making it such an essential piece to the culture. It was then that Ho Suk began taking a hard look around at the opportunity he had in front of him.
Ho Suk’s best friend and now partner, Bo, was a chef at the time. His other good friend was a notable bartender in Waikiki. His sister was an interior designer who had just been featured on HGTV for her beautiful work. He knew others in the community who were contractors, painters, and electricians. All at once, he realized that he had the power to open his own restaurant, and it was the time to seize it. 14 years later, Uncle Bo’s Pupu Bar and Grill is a success; all thanks to the commitment and hard work of Ho Suk, Chef Bo, their staff, and the outpouring support they received from the community.
Open For Business
Uncle Bo’s still operates in its original location in Kapahulu and sister location in Haleiwa on the North Shore of Oahu. “We incorporated unique touches to normal American fare that gives it an island touch and island vibe; something that the local palette really enjoys,” he said, in discussing the cuisine served at the restaurant.
Ho Suk describes one of their Pupu dishes (Pupu is Hawaiian for appetizer) called the Boca-Rota. The Boca-Rota features strips of prime rib with mushrooms, a gooey cheese blend, and garlic cheesy-french bread all shaped together like a flower. This dish has become the most popular on the menu and was made harmoniously with a sustainable methodology. Chef Bo himself made the dish with extra pieces of their famously delicious wagyu beef. “It’s sustainable, it’s something unique, it’s something that you don’t find at other places, and at the same time we’re able to prevent a lot of waste,” Ho Suk said about the dish. With the riveting success at Uncle Bo’s, Chef Bo and Ho Suk started planning their next moves.
Great ambitions led them to opening their second restaurant in Honolulu called Ya-Ya’s Chophouse and Seafood in November of 2019. It stands as one of the only locally owned steakhouses in the city. The restaurant boasts an array of delicious seafood, premium wagyu beef steaks, and local Hawaiian influenced dishes such as their original Fat Fried Rice; made with strips of A-5 Japanese wagyu steak blended with their local-style fried rice.
Ya-Ya’s Chophouse has attracted the attention of customers from locals to tourists, and among those customers came some very familiar faces – former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama.
The Obamas visited the restaurant for a New Year’s dinner. “I still get goosebumps thinking about it,” he remembered. “That’s what makes being a restaurateur fun. You never know who’s going to walk in through that door. It could be your new best friend, it could be your future roommate or whoever, and then you have President Obama walk in!”
Although the pandemic has brought along some challenges, Ho Suk remains optimistic. With Uncle Bo’s Pupu Bar and Grill and Ya-Ya’s Chophouse and Seafood, Chef Bo and himself have created beautiful modern dining establishments that encompass the beauty of Hawaiian culture. “Hawaii is about sharing,” he said. “It’s about Aloha, and I know that sounds so trite, but it really is about sharing, family, and making sure that everyone’s inclusive. We like sharing our culture with other people, and that’s something I think is very unique about where we’re from.”
If you ever find yourself on Oahu, make sure to stop into either of these restaurants. If one thing is for sure, you will be welcomed warmly, have a wonderful dining experience, and be well taken care of in great hands.