Images by Sarah Forbes Keough
If you can’t make the 5,000-mile trip home, then bring the islands to you.
That was Crystalyn Costa Filipovich’s reasoning behind opening Onomea, the only strictly Hawaiian restaurant in New York City. Homesickness was the inspiration. After hustling in New York for over four years in her early 20s, Crystalyn, who is now 25, was ready to move home. “For New York to be the first place to move after living in Hilo, a small town, it was night and day,” she says. “I don’t know how many times I cried and called my parents being like, ‘Can you buy me a plane ticket home?’” Greg Filipovich, a native New Yorker and her fiancé at the time, convinced her otherwise. Instead, he asked, why not channel the homesickness into a business? One that would bring the islands a little bit closer to New York?
The two are now business partners, and married. When I meet them at the Brooklyn restaurant in January, the newlyweds are recently returned from Hilo, where they got married at a sugar plantation with a view. “Sorry we’re late!” Crystalyn calls out. “Still trying to adjust back to this weather.” Inside, the 34-seat restaurant is cozy. Glossy pictures of beaches and lava reference the birthplace of menu items like shoyu chicken and Spam musubi. But outside, snow thaws behind a landscape of corrugated graffiti.
Onomea opened in August 2013 with a name that roughly translates to “delicious things,” though for Crystalyn it means “the favorite place.” Here, humble Hawaiian staples are served up against the backdrop of a Williamsburg food scene fixated on reinvention and pizzazz. The restaurant has no chef. Although she hops behind the line when the kitchen is short-staffed, Crystalyn refers to herself as “a self-taught home cook gone restaurateur.” It’s in this same modest spirit that she has resisted revamping her grandmother’s recipes, which have been passed down for six generations. Growing up, family gatherings centered around grandma’s cooking. “It’s what kept our family together,” Crystalyn says. “No one has a perfect family, but when there’s food around everyone’s happy.”
In the process of healing her own homesickness, Crystalyn has provided a space for others to deal with theirs. Through food, Hawai‘i émigrés are able to share their love for the islands with people who have no homegrown experience of slow-cooked kālua pig or Spam fried rice. “You can see that pride,” she says. “Like, this is what I ate when I was growing up.” Diners have traveled from as far as Connecticut to wrap their chopsticks around cubes of fresh pokē, and a group of regulars gathers every other week to talk story over food they grew up eating on the beach as music streams from a Big Island radio station. Crystalyn recounts one diner jumping out of his seat at the sight of loco moco on the menu.
Others note the taste of Aloha shoyu, which Crystalyn imports monthly by the crate. (The sign out front reads, “Shoyu a good time.”) Shipping costs more than the product itself, but it’s one of those things she can’t let go of. “I can taste the difference,” she says. “When you change things too much, you’re taking away the nostalgia that someone has for that flavor.”
It’s this quiet stubbornness and fighting spirit that landed Crystalyn on last year’s Zagat “30 Under 30” New York City list. It’s also how she met Greg, during her first weekend in New York City. The two had gathered at an acquaintance’s apartment to watch an Ultimate Fighting Championship bout. “The fight was happening, and I was just sitting around being quiet because I didn’t know anybody,” she recalls. Greg was commenting on the fight, using UFC jargon. Crystalyn eventually spoke up to correct him.
“That’s actually an Americana,” corrected Crystalyn, referring to the submission mount.
“Who are you?” he shot back.
The two made small talk, and later ended up grappling. “He put me in a triangle choke,” she says. “And I picked him up with my one arm, off the ground, to slam him.”
“She tried to slam me on my head,” says Greg, smiling. “And after that I was like, ‘I love her.’ I was chasing her around for weeks.”
Onomea is located in Williamsburg at 84 Havemeyer St. For more information, call 347-844-9559 or visit onomeanyc.com.