CUISINE ON A SHOESTRING
Mouth-watering Asian flavors at three eateries
By Matthew Gray
Advertiser Restaurant Critic
1309 Kalakaua Ave.
11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily
Pho Tri's menu calls the place a "famous traditional Vietnamese noodle soup restaurant." It's version of phô (small, $4.50; medium, $4.95; large, $5.50), the national noodle soup of Vietnam, is light-bodied and fragrant, offered with fresh basil leaves, bean sprouts and green peppers, if you wish. You choose from various kinds of meats (round steak, brisket, meatballs, flank, tripe, chicken or seafood) to include in your bubbling cauldron of lusciousness, and there ya go, a meal in a bowl.
But what I come here for is the caramelized shrimp ($7), the menu equivalent of a wallflower, just waiting to be noticed and appreciated. The first time I ordered this dish, I knew not what to expect, but we've become fast friends over time. It's a spicy plate of shrimp, sauteed and sauced with a dark soy-sauce base, surrounded by scads of onions softened, dark, salty and lip-smackingly good. I haven't been able to determine what spices and flavorings they use, which makes me crazy, but it's damn good. And addictive.
1742 S. King St.
Lunch 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., dinner
5-8:45 p.m., Mondays-Saturdays
Hata is one more of those places we've all passed by hundreds, if not thousands, of times. It sits directly across the street from the McCully Zippy's, as it has for 30-plus years. The food is honest Japanese fare, flavorful and affordable. The clientele seems to include people who've been coming here for decades. Sorry, but I have to let the secret out.
With only eight tables, it's cozy but surprisingly comfortable. The offerings include combinations such as tempura and teriyaki (chicken or beef, $7.95); sashimi and teriyaki ($8.95); tempura and 'ahi, fried or nitsuke (braised), for $7.95; and sashimi and tempura ($8.95). The tempura was very good, especially pleasing because of the great dipping sauce. It included shrimp, asparagus, carrot, squash, mushroom, zucchini and sweet bell pepper.
The fried oysters ($9.50) were a generous portion, coated in a rather thick breading instead of the lighter panko, and served with a squeeze bottle of ponzu and a wedge of lemon. The butterfish misozuke ($8.25) was soft and flavorful; two boneless fillets instead of the sometimes dangerously bony cross-cut steaks. They also will fry it or prepare the butterfish nitsuke style for $8.
Other dishes such as 'ahi-belly misozuke ($8.25), salmon (fried or teri, $8.25), pork tonkatsu ($8) and sukiyaki ($9.50) are on the menu, too, and all come with good miso soup, tsukemono (cucumber and cabbage), rice and hot tea.
Nu'uanu Open Market
1627 Nu'uanu Ave.
8 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays
Thai food from 10 a.m.
Nu'uanu Open Market has been operating for a bit more than one year. It is owned and operated by a young couple, newlyweds really: Patrick Chang and his Thai wife, Sansane.
About two months ago, they decided to start serving Thai food in addition to the fresh fruits and vegetables they have been selling all along. Other staples and specialty foods can be found here as well. Sansane is the cook; Patrick takes care of the front. It's a small, friendly local-style place with a couple of tables.
A dozen or so lunch items go for $4.25, a great price in anyone's book. All but two noodle dishes and one fried-rice plate come with jasmine rice on the side. Pad Thai noodles are sauteed and steaming hot, aided by subtle flavors such as egg, chicken, tofu, bean sprouts and chives. The lemongrass fried chicken is deep-fried, battered wings (not stuffed) seasoned with lemongrass. Panang curry with pork is that creamy coconutty style of curry, flavored with potato, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and fresh shreds of basil. They do a red-curry chicken with eggplant and bamboo shoots, which is quite nice.
What the menu calls eight assorted side orders actually are entree-sized. I especially enjoyed the green papaya salad ($4.95), piquant and refreshing with chili peppers, tomatoes, crushed peanuts and of course, shredded green papaya.
Shrimp and snow peas ($6.95) are stir-fried and flavored with oyster sauce, a bit more Chinese flavored than traditional Thai. Chicken laab (often spelled larb, $5.95) is composed of ground chicken, roasted rice, mint leaves, shallots and dried chili peppers, and is wonderful scooped up and eaten in leaves of fresh lettuce.
Reach Matthew Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org.