Taipe Vaka is currently closed for interior renovation. However, the store advertises the store name and phone number boldly on the front of a building whose architecture resembles an old western frontier house with a large porch on the second floor. The inside looks like an empty convenient store, bare white shelves save for a few cleaning supplies. Just outside, a group of middle-aged men sat on a Tuesday afternoon, talking story among car repair tools in what looked like a make-shift garage. Across the street, four young men stood on the corner.
“How's it?” I walked up, automatically switching to pidgen even though I’m a white girl with a high pitched voice. The men looked up at me from their conversation, “This place no more open?” I asked.
The man closest to replied, “No, come back in a month. They’re closed for renovation. Should be reopen in a month, come back then.” I asked if it was “Saaahmoan” food they served, and explained briefly I am a recent transplant from Hawai’i looking for some food “like that.”
Taipe Vaka gets a bad rep on Yelp, not surprisingly because its location does not exactly cater to the Yelper demographic. “This is a weird store” .Alan Y. states boldly opening his rather detailed 2012 review of the “Polynesian convenience store and ‘restaurant.’” When Alan tried to order a basket of wings, his Yelp review explains, the “kid working there [...] he did a double take, as if they had never had a customer before.” Alan goes on to describe his interaction with “old Islander guy” and brief eye contact with “an Auntie.”
Honolulu is speckled with Polynesian and Micronesian food marts. These small corner shops often have barred windows, cigarette ad posters, and serve food mart basic such as canned food and household goods, but often times also a hot food section serving Pacific Islander specialties, such as palusami or pan fried bananas for desert, and always a basket of spam musubis at the checkout counter.
Yelp reviewer Dee T, who has photos of her Pacific islander-looking tattoos which she received from “Mainland Ink” in Fermont wrote a review of Taipe Vaka back in 2009. In this review describes something of the ghost of Taipe Vaka past. She praises the features of the east Oakland store, which she describes very similar to the ones in Honolulu. She seems warmed by the “welcoming smile” she got from “everyone in there.” Dee T caught Taipe Vaka when it had “just opened a few months ago,” and the food was “made fresh.” Reviews by 2012, however, warn potential customers that the people in Taipe Vaka were“floating high in the sky,” and another even saying “If you wanna live stay away.”
It seems, according to the Yelp reviews, that things have changed at Taipe Vaka. They will continue to change once the store is reopened. However, even as the store is closed, it is clearly a gathering place for the Pacific Islander community in east Oakland, and attracts people from around the Bay with promises of tastes of the Pacific. Will it continue to do so when it re-opens next month?
Why is food, and an “ethnic” grocery store, important?
Displaced peoples and immigrants bring their cultures with them to a new place. The process of cooking, serving food, what ingredients are used and how food is used as a form of commerce are essential keys to understanding the health of a community. Food is a manifestation of adjustment that occurs when a group of people from one culture move into a very different location with a very different culture.