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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 29, 2008

In Kalihi, high-end eats at plate-lunch prices

Photo galleryPhoto gallery: High-end eats and plate-lunch prices

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

From left, Kahai Street Kitchen employees Leland Ching, Ryan Leong and owner Nao Iwata show off a chicken Parmesan plate. right: Teriyaki boneless short ribs.

ANDREW SHIMABUKU | The Honolulu Advertiser

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KAHAI STREET KITCHEN PLATE LUNCH AND CATERING

Rating: Four forks out of five (Very Good)

237 Kalihi St. (Kalihi at Kahai, makai of Nimitz)

845-0320; fax, 842-4273

www.kahaistreet-kitchen.com

Lunch only: 10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. weekdays

Overview: High-end food at low-end prices

Recommended: Teriyaki boneless short ribs, pork chops, fresh fish specials, anything slowly braised

Price: Most plates $6.25-$7.75

Details: Parking difficult. Phone orders taken. Catering available.

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You won't find white tablecloths at Kahai Street Kitchen. Or wine waiters. Or valet parking (although they sure could use it).

But depending on the day, you will find seared 'opakapaka in lemon butter caper sauce. Tea-smoked duck breast. Seafood paella. Chicken saltimbocca. Osso bucco-style short ribs.

In a plate-lunch place? In industrial Kalihi? With no parking, two tables (usually occupied by people waiting for their orders), plastic foam lunch boxes and plastic utensils wrapped in napkins? Where the average customer is wearing steel-toed boots and a dusting of red dirt?

Yes.

And brah, once you taste the food, you won't care about the lack of decor, the scuffed linoleum, the out-of-the-way location. Or even the search for parking. Because it's good.

And in Hawai'i, as we all know, good food is what counts.

But one other thing counts, too: They're nice. Really nice. Here's how nice: They learn your name and use it. They give you an extra plastic bag for the bottled water you bought. They open your plate lunch to double-check that they are giving you the right order. They talk story. They smile.

This is the kind of place where the customers are so happy, they bond.

The first time I went there, a family party had co-opted both tables and was sharing bites and making happy food noises, and a woman who was experiencing her first taste of capers in butter sauce appeared to be in ecstasy.

Seeing me looking over the menu and clearly not ma'a to the scene, she got up out of her seat and came over to me and said, "OK, you have to order THIS and how many people? OK, so order THAT, too." I got the pot roast ($7) and a braised pork and panko-crusted shrimp special ($7.25) and headed off, white plastic bag in hand. At home, I lost my heart to the meltingly tender pot roast. And my husband, who was not feeling well and was kind of cranky, dived into the food, and even HE made happy food noises.

Kahai Street Kitchen Plate Lunch and Catering is an almost 2 years old, four-way partnership that began primarily as a catering operation but that is building an increasing following as a lunchtime restaurant.

Nao Iwata, one of the partners and also one of the chefs, serves as spokesman (the others behind the stove include executive chef Charlie Chinpam and chef-partner Ken Furuta, who has the secret recipe for the best pot roast I ever put in my mouth).

Iwata began working in the food business when he was 18 and worked for the Hau Tree Lanai, L'Uraku, the Waikiki Parc and other spots, in the process meeting the folks who are now his partners. Clearly, these cooks "get" both local food and classic "continental" cuisine. One of the partners is May Tunyarat, who is from Thailand, so Thai specials, such as baked chicken in peanut sauce ($6.75), tend to turn up on the menu, too.

Their goal, said Iwata: "semi fine-dining food at plate-lunch prices." Based on my taste excursions, they're achieving that.

There's a set menu a burger ($5.75), a teri chicken sandwich ($5.75), a crab cake burger ($8), plus their signature teriyaki boneless short ribs ($6.75), loco moco ($6.25), furikake salmon ($7.25) and a half-dozen other dishes.

And then there are five to seven specials a day, which roam the culinary universe. Our favorites (my husband was co-taster): a simple stir-fry of Chinatown vegetables and chicken ($6.75) that proved that these people know how to work a wok; sauteed pork chops (NOT dry, stringy or overcooked, as pork so often is; $7.25); and that melting pot roast ($6.95) oozing fat and (I think, but Furuta's not telling) five-spice.

You can get white or brown rice, green salad or potato-mac, or ask for all salad instead of starch. (But this was a very, very good potato-mac salad and has anybody else noticed that you rarely get potato anymore; it's all mac?)

Iwata laughed when I asked how duck breast got on the menu. They had to buy a case for a catering event, he said, and needed to use up the remainder. They tried it out as a daily special and "people were calling us up for it again."

Kahai has a dedicated following in the neighborhood people who get the daily menus by fax or check the specials online. But fans of the restaurant extend beyond the boundaries of Kalihi even Windward siders are stopping by, he said. There's been discussion of finding a location with a bit easier access and parking, Iwata said.

My advice if you want to check out Kahai Kitchen? Check the Web site and make your selections. Call ahead. Go early (because they 86'd the curried oxtails just before I got there at noon one day, and I'm still in mourning about it). Go in a pair. One circles with the car, one picks up.

And trust me, no matter how much hassle it is, you're both gonna smile.

Reach Wanda A. Adams at wadams@honoluluadvertiser.com.