Thursday , July 31, 2014 - 1:45 PM
To restaurant owner Benjamin Fonua, food has always been a symbol of welcoming, giving and celebration.
Although the Syracuse resident grew up in Salt Lake City, his family made sure his Tongan roots were kept alive.
“My parents wanted to raise us inside the Tonga culture,” Fonua said. “Any time we went to a big event, like a wedding, a graduation, or even a funeral – food was always what we brought. That was our gift to celebrate the event.”
His family’s traditions led him to open Leila’s Luau last month.
“Our food is a mixture of all the Polynesian islands in the South Pacific including Tongan, Hawaiian and Samoan foods.”
Fonua started a catering business back in 2007.
“The more I grew up, the more I fell in love with sharing food,” he said. “When I served a church mission in Africa and started cooking for myself, I found a joy and pleasure in cooking for others and them enjoying it.”
His catering business grew until he decided to open a permanent location. Many of the customers who knew him from food booths at events have remained loyal, and have introduced their friends.
“A lot of people have been very supportive about spreading the word,” Fonua said. “About 90 percent of the people who walk through the door are word-of-mouth referrals.”
The main meats on the menu are kalua pork and chicken shoyu, served as a one-meat combo ($5.99) or a two-meat combo ($7.99) with rice and choice of macaroni salad or fresh fruit.
“We slow cook our pork in Hawaiian sea salt and cabbage,” Fonua said. “Our sauce is a mix of garlic, ginger and soy sauce. The chicken is cooked in a pot with the sauce. A lot of people refer to it as gravy because we put it over the top of our meats.”
Since some customers are not familiar with Polynesian cuisine and are squeamish about trying new foods, Fonua created some familiar dishes.
For example, the kalua pork burger ($7.99) includes a beef patty, cheese and a layer of kalua pork and the restaurant’s nachos ($7.99) are topped with cheese, tomatoes, avocados, spicy mayo and choice of kalua pork or chicken shoyu.
“The Loco Moco has been our most asked about item on the menu,” Fonua said. “It is a typical Hawaiian breakfast that is eaten for lunch and dinner as well.”
The Loco Moco ($5.99) is made from two scoops of rice, topped with a beef patty, smothered in gravy, with a fried egg on top.
They also serve otai ($3), a type of Polynesian fruit punch, made with watermelon, pineapple, coconut and milk.
The dessert menu includes guava cupcakes ($2.50) topped with cream cheese and guava jelly.
“The cake is flavored with guava juice,” Fonua said. “Guava is very common on the islands. It is something you can pick off the trees and eat while you are walking, like an apple.”
There are also chocolate covered pineapple spears ($2) and pineapple boats ($5) made with pineapple chunks, pineapple or rainbow sorbet, whipped cream and a cherry.
Sign up for e-mail news updates.