In what may be a first for South Whidbey, Clinton residents Stephanie and Chris Balora have opened up a restaurant serving Polynesian cuisine, among other dishes.
Since September 2022, the couple have operated Ikaika Bistro from the lower level of the American Legion Post 141’s distinctive log cabin building, which is located in the Bayview area off Highway 525.
Following a successful run at the Whidbey Island Fair last year – during which they sold out all four days, three hours early – the Baloras decided to make their restaurant dream a reality.
With an early start in the industry, Chris became a line cook at the age of 15, which put him up against grown men who had been in the same position for years.
“I’m a firm believer in the way you learn to do things is get your head kicked in and figure it out,” he said. “Basically, sink or swim, and like I always tell people, I’m Hawaiian so I know how to swim.”
Ikaika means “strong” or “warrior” in Hawaiian language.
“Which we thought was appropriate for the business we were going into,” Stephanie.
As first-time restaurant owners, the couple said that Ikaika Bistro is mostly a two-person show, with Chris completing the cooking by himself and Stephanie taking orders and serving beverages. The restaurant is open from 7 a.m to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Sundays are a day of rest and Mondays are reserved for shopping locally for fresh ingredients.
“It’s interesting because when people try the food, they’re blown away by it,” Stephanie said. “We get really good responses to our food, and I think it’s because he goes out shopping for everything, hands-on. We don’t get anything brought in by trucks.”
By being open for breakfast, they hope to fill a gap in the South Whidbey restaurant community. They offer complimentary coffee and tea with their breakfasts.
Chris, who grew up on the island of Oahu and moved to the mainland as a kid, has had a lifetime of perfecting dishes from his Hawaiian, Samoan and Filipino cultures.
Island favorites on the menu include Spam musubi, which consists of Spam cooked in teriyaki sauce on a bed of rice wrapped in roasted seaweed, like a sushi roll. It comes with a scoop of macaroni salad, another staple of Hawaiian cuisine.
“We call the Spam in Hawaii, that’s our islander steak,” Chris said. “Spam is everything out there.”
Stephanie’s favorite dish on the menu is Spam fried rice.
“It’s funny, because growing up in the Midwest in a Caucasian home, my grandmother would make Spam and it would look like cardboard,” she said. “But Polynesians are famous for having to make something taste good … They cook it with teriyaki and garlic and ginger and all those yummy things.”
The couple acknowledged that the canned ham might not be for everyone, which is why they offer a diversity in dishes, from burgers to seafood to tacos. Chris also likes to barbecue and smoke meats. His last job was in a Greek restaurant, where he picked up Mediterranean cooking.
“A lot of people haven’t tried Polynesian food, so a cheeseburger’s always a safe way to get somebody in the door and have them try something and see if they like it,” Stephanie said.
The menu changes often. A recent special was Monchiko fried chicken, a Hawaiian dish of chicken which is deep-fried with a rice flour batter and marinated in a tangy orange sauce.
Fish and chips are their best seller, which the couple finds funny for a Polynesian restaurant. One critic told Stephanie she was not expecting to like their fish and chips. That customer, who is now a faithful regular, later called the restaurant and, without introducing herself, announced that the fish and chips were the best she had ever tasted.
The Baloras have enjoyed meeting others of Polynesian heritage through their new restaurant.
“My favorite thing is you can tell somebody who’s a local – and I mean a local from Hawaii – they’ll come in and get like the loco moco, that seems to be their test dish,” said Stephanie, referring to the Hawaiian breakfast staple that consists of a seasoned hamburger patty over rice with sautéed onions and mushrooms topped with a fried egg and gravy.
“It’s awesome to see them get a taste of home, being so far away,” Stephanie said.
In addition, Chris has made pork adobo, which is considered to be the Philippines’ national dish because of its popularity, and a dish called Sapasui, which is the Samoan version of chop suey.
As relative newcomers to Whidbey Island and the Pacific Northwest as a whole, the Baloras have met some challenges on their way. In 2015, they moved from Kansas City, Kansas to Seattle with just their suitcases and $745.
But now things are really picking up, and this September, the couple has plans to move Ikaika Bistro from the American Legion kitchen to a food truck in downtown Langley.
“It’s kind of crazy to see something you’ve always talked about but never really thought would happen, happening,” Stephanie said. “So it’s pretty exciting.”