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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, December 22, 2006

Checking in for cheap, tasty eats

By Lisa Sekiya
Special to The Advertiser

At Straub Cafe on South King Street, shrimp, tofu and noodles can be had at the choose-your-own station, "Wok-it-Your-Way Stir Fry."

Photos by RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Straub Clinic & Hospital, ground floor; 888 S. King St.

6 a.m.-11:30 p.m. weekdays, 6:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 7 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Sundays, 7 a.m.-6:30 p.m. holidays. Breakfast service ends at 10:30 a.m.; lunch-dinner begins at 11 a.m.

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Top off your choice of veggies with stir-fry sauce.

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You can add curly fries or onion rings to the made-to-order grilled tuna and American cheese sandwich.

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Because of my obsession with finding cheap, atypical eating places, I've checked into several hospitals. No, not because of food poisoning but because hospital cafes easily fit the budget.

My preferred provider is Straub Cafe on South King Street, where almost everything is under six bucks.

On my first visit, I think, "Maybe I'll meet a handsome doctor." As luck would have it, I sit next to a woman hooked up to an IV.

The monthly menu surprises me with selections such as mahi with lemon miso sauce and chipotle chili barbecue beef. On Mondays, hot soba hits the spot from their "Hashi Noodle Shop." They also offer a nicely stocked salad bar where everything sells for 32 cents an ounce.

On a follow-up visit, I find my doctor. He's ordering the same thing I am: marinated portobello mushroom steak (a little too marinated for my taste) with vine-ripened tomato relish and wild rice for $6.25. I ask Dr. Fred Ching, an emergency room physician, to eat with us.

Ching raves about the oxtail soup with shiitake mushrooms. "Way better than Kam Bowl, better than Columbia Inn," he says. Whoa! Them's fighting words.

"One day, I bought four bowls," Ching continues, "one for lunch, one for dinner, and two more for the next day." OK, I'm trying the oxtail soup next.

A few dishes remind me that I am, indeed, eating cafeteria food. The meat sauce at the "Lotsa Pasta Bar" is loaded with something tough and gristly. I order the chicken, and wonder what part of it is Korean barbecue. And the side vegetables have a melt-in-your-mouth quality that comes from overcooking.

But then, every other Friday, the cafe offers the wonderful "Wok-it-Your-Way Stir Fry," where you can choose from more than 10 items at the raw bar, then have them cooked to order. First, I select tofu, beef, chicken or shrimp. Next, I cram as many vegetables as possible into the Styrofoam container. If I'm mad about mushrooms that day, I go full on with the fungi.

Finally, I top it off with a generous spoonful of garlic and a drizzle of black-bean sauce before handing everything to the server. Five to 10 minutes later, a steaming mound of still-crisp, colorful veggies emerges from the kitchen. At $5.75, it's a bargain.

I also like the made-to-order grilled tuna and American cheese sandwich a toasty, buttery, tuna-packed treat with lettuce, tomatoes and pickle for $2.95. For $1.50 more, you can get curly fries or onion rings with that.

Straub Cafe is run by Sodexho, a national food service provider. Three shifts of cooks keep breakfast, lunch and dinner coming.

Here's a tip. Got an event at the Blaisdell? Have dinner at Straub if there's a line everywhere else. Don't worry, they can handle the crowd. Executive chef Conrad Pereira estimates they prepare 300 to 400 meals a day.

Caregiver Donna Johnson dines at Straub Cafe whenever her patient has an appointment or is in the emergency room. "The food is excellent the lau lau, fish, meat loaf," says Johnson. "One of my patients loved the meat loaf. He had a mini-stroke while eating it." Huh?

"He had heart problems," Johnson quickly adds, "and we were there to see his cardiologist. He lived a long life after that." Well, OK then. I'll try a slice.

Besides the convenience of a nearby ER, there is also an ATM and ADA-compliant bathroom around the corner. Two Purell dispensers sanitize patrons at the entrance. And the dining area has many clean tables with lots of napkins, plus a toaster, microwave oven and pre-cut aluminum foil squares for wrapping food to take food home. They've thought of everything.

Well, almost. As for getting a plate AND a date with a doctor, forget it. Ching told me the physicians eat in the back room so they can talk shop in privacy. No matter. I know I can still find me a nice, decent man, er, meal, whenever I stop by Straub Cafe.

From time to time, Lisa Sekiya, a former Advertiser columnist who now works in our marketing department, checks in with tips on places to find good, cheap eats.