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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, October 3, 2001

Island Pantry
Grinding in Mo'ili'ili

 •  Map: A foodie's tour of Mo'ili'ili

By Kaui Philpotts
Advertiser Staff Writer

It's not like anything really big ever happened in Mo'ili'ili. Oh, Elvis Presley played the old Honolulu Stadium in the late '50s, and the building blocks for 'Iolani Palace and Central Union Church were quarried in the area a century ago. But for the most part, Mo'ili'ili is a quiet neighborhood that blends nicely into the rest of central Honolulu.

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Wanting to know more about the neighborhood that I mostly pass through in a car, and knowing that the only way to really see a place is on foot, I met with two friends who had lived or spent a lot of time there for a day's walk around the area with an emphasis on discovering the spots that delight foodies.

Over unfiltered apple juice and cornbread dripping with honey at Down to Earth Natural Foods one recent Saturday morning, we planned our trek through the neighborhood.

Rebecca Ryan who runs the Mo'ili'ili Community Association, said old-timers define the neighborhood's boundaries by Kapi'olani Boulevard on both the diamondhead and makai sides, the UH quarry at the mauka extremity, and Isenberg Street on the 'ewa side. There are others who would like to include the streets that push 'ewa toward McCully.

Out on the street, we headed 'ewa toward the sprawling park where the old Honolulu Stadium (lovingly known as the "termite palace") used to be. On the way we passed Maharani, an Indian restaurant we'd heard good things about, but they were no longer open for lunch, so we moved on.

Hide-Chan, operated by Hide Tamayose, is at 2471 South King St. Hide is the cook who scored so many points years ago at Sada's restaurant on Makaloa Street for his outstanding oxtail soup. He serves it here, too. Another friend of mine swears by his tonkatsu and Okinawan potato tempura (neither of which were on the menu the day we visited) and a dish called takaki (seared ahi with a special ponzu sauce). Like most Mo'ili'ili eateries, Hide-Chan's is small, simple and clean. The air conditioner was pumping in the midday heat and the mood was jovial and neighborly.

The three of us headed toward Yamagen, on the mauka side of the street next to the Mo'ili'ili Longs Drugs. On the way, we passed Scrumptious-Lee Delicious, which used to be called Cafe Chat. It's a tiny hole in the wall, primarily an outlet for gift baskets and sweets, such as energy bars and those lemon bars we all love.

Six-year-old Shae Banks shares her shave ice from the Waiola Store with grandmother Viola Banks. The tiny store's icy treats draw enthusiasts from all over the island.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Across King Street we passed Taste of Saigon, one of the city's many reliable Vietnamese places, on our way to Yamagen.

My friends have heard that Yamagen is a popular take-out place for Japanese nationals living in Hawai'i, indicating it must be pretty authentic, so we thought we'd check it out. This spot is no more than a walk-up window and a few picnic tables under a tarp. The name on the barely distinguishable signÊis peeling. Yamagen serves cozy, homestyle donburi, a one-dish rice casserole, with lots of different toppings, and the Japanese comfort food, noodles (udon, soba, ramen), for lunch and dinner.

We glanced over at the picnic tables where two men were slurping noodles, but it seemed just a little to warm for broth that day, so we headed to yet another hot spot, India Bazaar Madras Curry, in a strip mall near Kozo Sushi on King Street. India Bazaar is a deli with a few tables, but it has a real following of locals, many of whom started going there during their university days.

Still stuffed from all the cornbread, we ordered one plate with a sampling of different curries (we chose fiery ones), daal (lentils), some paratha bread (like naan but flaky) and a sweet chutney condiment.

On the shelves are hard-to-find condiment, spices and pickles used in South Asian and Middle Eastern foods.

After this filling and spicy lunch we turned back toward Isenberg Street and then over to Young to check out Yama's Fish Market. Open every day except Sunday, Yama's is in an old building with lots of parking out front. Although they are technically a fish market, the real appeal comes from the Hawaiian and local-style foods you can take home. Hawaiian plates include laulau, kalua pig, lomi salmon, poi and beef stew. You can enhance your meal with squid lu'au, pipikaula, macaroni salad, chicken long rice, franks and pasteles.

In the cooler, we spotted brownies covered with haupia that proved to be so rich they made us shiver. The great thing about Yama's is that you can get any size plate you like. For $3.50 they will make you a mini-bento if the regular size looks like too much food. They'll even deliver free of charge if you order a minimum of $65 in plate lunches.

Leaving Yama's, we head for Isenberg, and cross King Street on our way to Maple Garden across Stadium Park. Robert Hsu holds court in this perennial favorite. On this day, the parking lot was jammed with luxury cars, an indication of the clientele who are faithful to Hsu's brand of Szechuan cooking.

Sixth annual Discover Mo'ili'li Festival
 •  9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, Stadium Park, Isenberg and King streets
 •  Entertainment, farmer's market, bake sale, craft demonstrations
 •  Tickets for storytelling by Grant are $2 for adults and $1 for children 12 years and under. All other events are free.
 •  Parking: $2 at the Japanese Cultural Center; free at Kuhio School
 •  Information: 955-1555
Everyone from Honolulu Magazine readers to Zagat guide contributors has listed Hsu's modest restaurant as one of the best in town. Today we find him at his post, a table near the door, with his receipts for the day and an electric calculator. The walls of Maple Garden are flamboyantly adorned with large paintings by the late John Young. In one corner is a head of Buddha, a gift from the artist's personal collection, and in one of the private rooms off to the side are two Asian horses, also from Young.

Years before Hsu owned his own restaurant, he worked as a waiter at another. When he waited on Young, he would ask for a sketch instead of a tip, which endeared him to the artist. Their friendship and patronage lasted for many years, and it's one of which Hsu is proud.

Nearby is Waiola Store, at the corner of Waiola and Pa'ani streets. A small neighborhood corner grocery out of the past, Waiola Store is known more for its shaved ice window than its groceries. On weekend afternoons, cars double park and drop off people to stand in line for their superfine icy treats.

Anyone with a local's taste for shaved ice will be in heaven. There are the usual cones with toppings such as banana cream, strawberry, rainbow, chocolate, strawberry cream and lychee, and then there are the super deluxe bowls. Try the azuki or ice cream bowls, or the custard and sundae ones. Then top the whole thing off with syrup and pieces of mochi.

I decided on shaved ice with condensed milk and li hing mui sauce, which made one of my friends (a purist, no doubt) give me a slightly disgusted "side eye" glance.

Back toward King Street past Star Market, we visited a little mall on South Beretania where Sunshine Bakery occupies a downstairs location, selling baked goods with a decidedly Japanese twist. Upstairs is the Well Bento, a popular University take-out spot which sells plate lunches with brown rice, salad and such vegan dishes as tamari-grilled tofu and tempeh scallopini. They're not strictly vegan, however; my friend recalled that she was once served one of their "transitional plates" with grilled BBQ chicken at a meeting and loved every morsel.

Almost next door at 2518 S. Beretania St. is Kirin Restaurant, another old-time favorite for Chinese food. The lunch hour was winding down as we got there, but a few diners lingered at a corner table, in no hurry to finish their meal. Kirin has a good-sized parking lot, no small issue in Mo'ili'ili, and an interior that is a little the worse for wear. But decor is not what you come here for. Instead, we focused on their excellent fresh seafood, and the popular wu shui spareribs and dry-fried string beans with pork.

Back on University Avenue, we found ourselves in the heart of what passes here for a "university town." Across from the Varsity Theater is a row of small, mostly ethnic restaurants that cater to the student crowd.

Kokua Market Natural Foods, a cooperative but open to the public, specializes in produce and cheeses along with packaged natural foods.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Take one step into the Eastside Grill and all those misspent nights of your youth come roaring back. There's the odor of too much beer the night before on the floor, and the air-conditioning seems turned up high. It's pretty much a sports bar, a "Cheers" sort of place where you go to meet friends, have a few drinks and watch sports on one of the televisions mounted on the walls.

Bring in a ticket stub from a UH game anytime during the week of the game and they'll throw in free nachos with your order. I was in there one afternoon after a movie and loved the huge burgers and great fries. There is hearty, mainstream fare such as fried rice moco, scampi and banana lumpia with ice cream for dessert. They advertise bar specials like li hing mui daiquiris and something called bom-bucha bar tea for $3.50, and I bet they sell a lot of them.

Next door is a Ba-Le Sandwich Shop franchise, independently owned, and known for their great lunches (including many vegetarian plates, such as spicy tofu) at reasonable prices.ÊThis Ba-Le serves the chain's famous Vietnamese sandwiches and Thai iced tea, but adds many stir-fried dishes not seen at other locations.

The Greek Corner is an assault of blue and white and coolness, packed with noisy people having a great time sharing plates of hummus and baba ganoosh; the garlic and onion smells from the lamb gyros being prepared in the kitchen are inviting.

The crowd had already gone at Wan's Thai Cuisine next door where a young man leaned over the cash register trying to pick up the waitress, who was trying her best to be polite. Pictures of the dishes line the walls of Wan's, and one of the specials is a combination pupu platter for $12.95 that includes spring rolls, chicken satay, fried chicken wings, beef salad and shrimp. The waitress saw me looking at it and called out that it's a good deal.

The Curry House Coco Ichibanya next door is all yellow and lights. It's a branch of the Curry Houses at four other locations around town, and it emanates good cheer and good prices. You can get some very good Japanese-style curry here in every variation possible: fried chicken, spinach, vegetable croquettes, fresh mushrooms and even gyoza (dumplings).

Rounding the corner of Puck's Alley past Cheapo Books and the Hawaiian Tattoo Co., I headed up South King Street, having lost my friends to other Saturday afternoon pastimes.

Back off the main road is Imana's, a Japanese restaurant that can be quite difficult to get into because of its popularity with the smart, expatriate Japanese set. It opens for dinner only, so I pressed my face up against the glass door and took in the chic interior of black and natural wood. One of my friends compared the food to the famous Nobu's in New York, but that seems a little excessive. I made a note to return.

Nearby is one of Mo'ili'ili's many small flower shops, Flowers by Jr., Lou & T. I've often wanted to suggest that they change the name to something more stylish. I'd passed this florist many times and glanced in from my car. Inside, I'm really surprised by the diversity of cut flowers: sunflowers and obake anthuriums from the Big Island. In the refrigerators, there were racks of small, tightly-packed glass vases of roses of all colors. In the next refrigerator were Asian ceramic containers with closely-tied buds of fresh ginger making small, fragrant domes, and packages of loose, multicolored rose petals perfect for tossing on a dinner table.

Glen Grant, the popular storyteller and entrepreneur, has opened The Haunt nearby and filled it with everything scary from books to gag gifts. Next door to him is Touch of Mo'ili'ili, which no matter how many times I've been by, I've never found open. When they are open, Monday through Friday between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., they sell shave ice, snacks and drinks.

On up the street is Fukuya delicatessen, a neighborhood staple. This is a classic okazu-ya, but on a much larger scale than most. They open Wednesday through Sunday from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and are a great place to stop when you need pans of Japanese food for groups.

Across the street, I ducked into Kokua Market Natural Foods co-op, which came up in what I like to call our "granola days"; it's a co-operative but is also open to the public. The smell the moment you walk in the door is "health food store" — that unmistakable combination of whole grains in bins and organic vegetables. The market is scrupulously clean. In a sweep through the produce section, I discovered mounds of garden-crisp arugula, striped heirloom tomatoes from Hau'ula, and colorful red and yellow beets waiting to be made into a salad.

Nearby is Restaurant Yao's, where I had gone for lunch earlier in the week. Their dinner menu is much more extensive and offers that Japanese and Western combination of dishes that's so popular now. My ginger pork was unimpressive, but my husband's chicken katsu with a delicious, spicy sauce was so good I ate most of it. We finished off lunch with a shared cup of coffee jelly topped with vanilla ice cream. Only the grouchy waitress who clearly wanted to be somewhere else spoiled an otherwise charming lunch.

Nearby is Montien Thai Restaurant, open for only a few months. Montien Olney and her husband, John, have created a charming, small dining room of sparkling white tablecloths with blue and white china. Their daughter, Vicky, waits on tables at night with grace and simplicity.

Montien's cooking style is closer to Bangkok cuisine than many Honolulu Thai restaurants, which often are influenced by a richer Laotian style. The emphasis here is on freshness and crunch. Try Montien's special shrimp, or her BBQ chicken. My husband, who is a Thai noodle fan, thinks her version of pad Thai is one of the best he's had.

Before I left Mo'ili'ili, I took my life into my hands trying to drive my car into the parking lot of Mary Catherine's bakery up King Street, where it becomes Old Wai'alae Road. Mary Catherine's is known for wedding cakes; I like the ones covered with smoothly molded fondant frosting that look as much like the pages of Martha Stewart Weddings as any I've seen in town.

A granddaughter's birthday is coming up, so I ordered a pretty little six-inch pink cake with white dots of frosting and strawberries and cream in the middle. By the time they quote me a price, I was already sold on its specialness, so I gulped, and promised myself never to tell a soul.

Mo'ili'ili has yielded a lot of treasures on this day — so many that I'll never again think of the neighborhood as just someplace to pass through on my way downtown.