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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Portland State University football players find Polynesian home away from home

At Noho's Hawaiian Cafe in Northeast Portland, the super-sized version of the Loco Moco plate features three half-pound hamburger patties drenched in gravy, topped with two eggs and served up with mountains of white rice and macaroni salad. Looking at it, your reaction could well be: "How could anyone ever eat that much food?"

But to Alika Vaiese, the Loco Moco says "home."

Vaiese, 20, is a defensive end on Portland State's football team and one of a small group of Polynesian players on the team that has adopted Noho's and its owner, Noho Marchesi, as a home and a family away from home.

"(Going to Noho's) helps me get back to my roots a little bit," junior Kalua Noa said.

"This is all we do back home -- eat," Vaiese added with a smile.

In addition to helping provide the actual energy that has propelled the players through spring football practices, Marchesi and his restaurant have helped the players off the field as they adjust to mainland life.

Noa's dad connected him with Marchesi when Kalua moved from Hawaii to Portland to play wide receiver for then-coach Jerry Glanville in 2009.

"It has helped out a lot to have somebody out here who is willing to help me whenever I'm in trouble or just need a place to eat or something like Thanksgiving," he said. "(Noho) has always been there."

Having made the transition from island life to the rainy Northwest, Marchesi knows how difficult it can be.

"We've got great kids ... who have really never left the islands in their life coming to a new experience," he said. "We try to make it as easy of a transition as possible so they can experience all the things the mainland has to offer."

Marchesi cherishes his role as "uncle" to the players and uses his influence to preach the value of their education

"You're here about getting that education so you can excel in life," he said. "This is a way to catapult you to another level. I think my job is to be a support base for the kids. A place they can go to if there's a problem."

Marchesi came to Oregon from Hawaii in 1990 and soon after started LocalBoyz Hawaiian Cafe in Corvallis with his brother. In 1994 he opened Noho's on the corner of Southeast 26th Avenue and Clinton Street and has since added restaurants in Medford and most recently on Northeast Fremont.

Marchesi has been a supporter of Portland State athletics for many years but is more involved than ever now with his adopted group of sons. As much as the players all value his friendship and advice, their eyes really light up when he picks them up and takes them to his restaurant.

"Every time we go, we always clean off our plates because we know we're not going to eat like that until we go home again," senior safety Manoa Latu said. "It's always good ... (Noho) spoils us."

nohos.JPGView full sizeFor the Polynesian students on PSU's football team, a plate of poke (raw tuna dressed in a soy sauce mixture) is much more than just food. It's a chance to refuel, connect with one another and get a fix of the island fare they grew up with.
Food quickly disappears

On a recent visit following an afternoon practice, Noa, Latu, Vaiese and teammates Andrew Godinet, a senior from Hawaii, and Bruce Seumanutafa, a junior originally from American Samoa, put on an eating demonstration that would have made even the most hailed competitive eaters take note.

Appetizer plates of tender ginger chicken and delectable pork rolls disappeared almost as soon as they were set down, as did two generous helpings of the shoyu poke, which is raw tuna marinated in soy sauce-based mixture.

Noa, Latu and Godinet each tackled the super-sized "blalah" combination plates weighed down so heavily with teriyaki steak, chicken, ribs, rice and macaroni "mac" salad, that you could see the waitress's hands straining to balance them. Seumanutafa, who is easily the largest of the group at 6-foot-5 and somewhere in the vicinity of 350 pounds, had a smaller plate of yakisoba noodles and a side green salad.

As soon as the plates hit the table, the pre-meal chatter ended. There was no room for talking while eating, said one player.

Less than 15 minutes later everything but a small pile of noodles on Seumanutafa's plate was gone.

Marchesi came over to inspect the damage and to bring out big chunks of frosted coconut cake.

"The house specialty!" he insisted. "You've got to try it."

Despite the obviously full looks on their faces, everyone obliged with little urging.

Afterward, the group admired the mass of empty plates.

"I think it's impossible to leave here hungry," Noa said.

"Now we go home and sleep," Vaiese added.

Not for long, though.

"We'll be hungry again in a couple of hours," Latu said. No one laughed.

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