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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, August 2, 2002

Tokiwaya, Vietnam Cafe offer freshness in savory dishes

By Matthew Gray
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

Kate Patterson and Gary Kahn have lunch at the Vietnam Cafe Pho Saigon, in Chinatown, where the pho (beef noodle soup) is not only flavorful but exceptionally fragrant.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

This month's review will focus on two more of my favorite places, Tokiwaya and Vietnam Cafe, eateries that are long on flavor and easy on the pocketbook.

1104-A Pensacola St.
10 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays-Saturdays; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesdays; closed Sundays

Tokiwaya is a standout that distances itself from many of the plate-lunch places around town. I enjoy its lunches, but its hours are conducive to pau-hana takeout as well.

I noticed first that the food is plated a bit differently, on paper plates with compartments, which helps keep servings, and their flavors, separate. This seemed a bit nicer than the usual clamshell Styrofoam takeout containers.

Aromas wafting from Tokiwaya's minuscule kitchen area intensified my appetite as each moment passed. What would I be ordering? Bentos include a main dish plus tamagoyaki (silky-soft rolled omelet), gyoza (pan-fried dumplings), potato macaroni salad, pickles and rice. You can get one ($5), two ($7), or three ($8.50) choices of main-dish items.

About a dozen choices are cooked to order. Tempura (shrimp and vegetables) is popular, but best eaten there, if you can find a seat; tempura loses its crunchiness if it travels. Better choices are the grilled salmon or saba (mackerel), both just a touch salty and satisfying. The chicken teriyaki and the sweet-and-sour chicken were tender.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the chicken cutlet was made with breast meat. Most places use cheaper thigh meat in their dishes, but here the cutlet was lean and juicy. The beef croquette, an item you don't always see, was creamy and flavorful.

Butterfish bento ($6.50) is listed as a specialty, as are curry dishes ($5-$6). The butterfish is matched with sauteed watercress, potato-mac salad, bean sprouts, fresh vegetables and plenty of rice.

Sushi also is available, although I haven't tried any. Tokiwaya occupies a very small space, with just a few tables. When the urge for something fresh, light-tasting and luscious strikes you, give it a try. I think you'll enjoy the food.

• • •

Vietnam Cafe Pho Saigon
52 N. Hotel St.
9 a.m.-9 p.m. daily

What brings me here again and again is the pho, the beef noodle soup that is the national dish of Vietnam. It's the best I've ever tasted in Hawai'i — so wonderfully fragrant that you'll wonder what herbs and spices are being used to create it. The broth, so gelatinous and rich, makes your taste buds dance. And no matter which kind of pho (say fuh) you choose, the plentiful noodles will satisfy even the most proficient of slurpers.

Offerings are priced very reasonably. Several meat topping choices are available (rare beef, steak, tendon, chicken, beef balls and so on). My favorite versions are the pho do bien ($5.95), with fish balls, shrimp and squid; and the pho tai ($4.50 regular; $4.95 extra large) with rare steak. The meat cooks slowly in the hot broth to the level of doneness you want while you sprinkle it all with herbs, sliced onion and fresh coriander or mint. I also dose mine up with a few drops of chili paste for additional heat.

If you're not in the mood for a steaming bowl of soup, Vietnam Cafe also does a fine job with "bun" dishes — thin rice vermicelli, served cool with assorted toppings. Four great toppings, all priced at $5.75, are bun cha gio, topped with small spring rolls, lemongrass beef, barbecue pork or shredded pork. Other toppings include chicken curry ($6.50) and broiled shrimp ($6.75).

A large bowl of noodles comes packed with chopped fresh romaine lettuce, mint, basil and bean sprouts. They give you a cup of "house sauce" which tastes like a mild vinaigrette with fish sauce and sugar. I like to pour that over my dish, along with sweet and thick hoisin sauce and a few spritzes of hot sauce.

The owners of Vietnam Cafe are welcoming, the neighborhood is Chinatown colorful, and the pho is phenomenal.

Reach Matthew Gray at mgray@honoluluadvertiser.com with your comments, questions and suggestions.