Codi Nishimoto could not cook — and not in the "I can't get the perfect crust on my scallops" way. When she left Oahu to study forestry at Humboldt State University in 2007, she got work as a restaurant server but didn't venture into the kitchen. "I couldn't even cook box mac and cheese at that time," she says, her voice serious. But one night, some friends came over and made a simple fettucine alfredo. The alchemy of it — watching them transform the raw ingredients into a finished dish, something delicious — blew her mind and she dove into learning to cook. Five years later, she opened a food truck.
That truck, painted turquoise and yellow with the name Pineapple Express emblazoned on the side, is as easy to spot by the line of patrons awaiting Hawaiian and Pacific fusion comfort foods like kalua pig over fried wonton "nachos" ($11), furikake-sprinkled and katsu-sauced fries ($7) and fried and sauce-tossed garlic chicken ($14). Nishimoto says that was true for a while in Garberville, too, up until a couple years ago, when the cannabis economy took a dive, hitting residents and businesses hard. After struggling to make ends meet amid plummeting sales, she moved Pineapple Express north to serve Eureka, Arcata and McKinleyville, where she and the business are finding their footing.
Born and raised on the island of Oahu, home to a large Japanese American population, Nishimoto is fifth generation Japanese and Okinawan. Like many Japanese Americans in Hawaii, her family worked in sugar cane farming, an industry that started using Japanese immigrant labor under the Kingdom of Hawaii in the 1860s. "All of my grandparents lived on the [sugar] plantation camps," she says. The food she grew up eating is a blend of food cultures: Japanese, Okinawan, Portuguese and Native Hawaiian.
"My parents grew up eating bitter melon and a lot of pork," she says, though the beloved Okinawan vegetable never won her over. "Shoyu chicken is my absolute favorite meal; it's the first thing I get when I get off the plane back home." So when she started to cook for herself, that was the first dish she learned to master, balancing the marinade and making sure the chicken thighs stayed juicy in cooking. One by one, she worked on making dishes she was homesick for. Her education and, eventually, the menu for Pineapple Express, was "born from missing the food back home."
But even after graduating to accomplished home cook, Nishimoto still had a lot to learn when she first opened her truck. Working in restaurants, "I'd always been front of house not back of house, so that was such a gnarly learning curve." To up her game and make her business work, she went on hiatus and got some professional kitchen experience. A friend of a friend connected her with chef Leanne Wong, who she says generously took Nishimoto on as a line cook at her popular Koko Head Café in Honolulu for three months.
"That was life changing," says Nishimoto. "My coworkers taught me so much. ... It was grueling but really good." The skills she gained in that intense period made a huge difference, she says, and when she returned to Humboldt and fired up the truck again, she saw her business grow.
Still, as the cannabis economy, to which Garberville's fortunes are inextricably tied, started to falter, so did business at Pineapple Express. Nishimoto says the truck had done well in its first five years but, in its sixth year, things grew dire. She "saw the town really transform." People just didn't have money to spend on meals out, even from a casual truck. "We tried to keep the doors open long as we could because I had all these long-time employees," she says, but eventually, there was no getting around the bills, including payroll. Other businesses, like Calico's Café, whose owners moved to Eureka's Old Town and reopened as the Ritz, have made the same difficult choice ("The Ritz Again," March 9, 2023). "Everyone is struggling," says Nishimoto. "It's sad news all around."
Months later, Nishimoto feels solid, if bittersweet, about the choice. "The move up here was definitely the right move," she says. "We super love Southern Humboldt and we miss our community there ... but it gave us the chance to expand." (It's also boosted sales of $3.50 Spam musubi, which are far more in demand with the crowd up north.) Pineapple Express is picking up catering work on weekends and busy at its weekday spots: Mondays at Kreations Auto Body in Fortuna (280 12th St.), Tuesdays and Thursdays at Overtime Eatery & Game in Eureka (215 W Seventh St.), Wednesdays at Six Rivers Brewery in McKinleyville (1300 Central Ave.), and Fridays at Heart of Humboldt in Arcata (601 I St. #B).
The plate lunches Nishimoto serves are standards from home but her takes on them, like the sesame seared ahi plate (market price) and the banana leaf roasted kalua pig ($14). All are styled with her customers' tastes in mind. "I'm just a rice person. Rice is life," she says. The hot piles of thick and crusty fries are a Humboldt adaptation. As are the zigzags of tangy-sweet sauces. "People like sauce," she says, though she prefers the plates without. "At first, I thought I was compromising my values," she says, having started out with a mission of faithfully carrying island cuisine to the mainland. "But then I realized blending cultures is what Hawaiian culture is all about ... it's a fusion of so many cultures." And now Pineapple Express' iteration of that cuisine has a little Humboldt in it. (Though ordering plates traditional style is an option Nishimoto is happy to offer.)
Specials rotate every couple of weeks and the wise keep an open mind and an eye on the surfboard-shaped space where options like poke and the SGC Sambruleé appear ($18). The latter is for the ambitious — a sandwich in name only, with lightly crusted garlic chicken and a fist-sized scoop of Hawaiian macaroni salad obscuring a Hawaiian sweet roll on which brown sugar has been torched to a crunch. The whole affair is drizzled with sweet chili aioli and accompanied by plain or furikake fries. Do not try to pick it up. By contrast, the kalua pig fries are an easy share, with a generous and juicy heap of slow-cooked pork on top.
Of late there have been shell-on garlic shrimp, gravy-doused chicken cutlets and other plates born of nostalgia and experimentation, and Nishimoto is excited to branch out with new dishes. While her truck has lately been giving her some trouble, Nishimoto has her sights set on a second one and expanding into wholesale business. She says she wants to raise the business' profile and make it a destination for both locals and tourists.
Pineapple Express, she says, could be famous. "I dream big."
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 320, or email@example.com. Follow her on Instagram @JFumikoCahill and on Mastodon @jenniferfumikocahill.