Hawaii eats section
A TASTE OF MAUI
Occupational hazard for food critic: falling in love with a restaurant so that, instead of checking out somewhere new, you end up at the same place over and over again.
But, heck, I was on vacation last week, so I talked my husband, brother- and sister-in-law into revisiting Mala Ocean Tavern, Mark and Judy Ellman's restaurant in Lahaina (1307 Front St., 808-667-9394). Next visit, I promise, I'll check out Star Noodle, the hottest new thing in Lahaina these days.
Mala has special resonance for me because Ellman was the first Hawaii chef I wrote about after I returned to the Islands following 20 years on the Mainland. He and Judy then owned Avalon, a lovely little Front Street spot. His clams with black bean sauce are still a great favorite of mine (a version is on the Mala menu, too), and I once nearly burned down a friend's kitchen making his Asian lamb chops with kecip manis.
OK, this is how it went: We saw hawksbill turtles, swimming within a few feet of the outdoor deck. The smell of the trademark ribs had us salivating even before we got our complimentary chips and tomatillo salsa with edamame "guacamole." And I got to have Caramel Miranda, Ellman's trademark dessert (broiled fruit, ice cream, caramel sauce) for the first time in years.
• Ahi tartare ($18, four pieces), which blows its cliched name out of the water at first bite. Grainy, thin-sliced grilled bread tasting of good-quality olive oil, pureed edamame cream, two thick slices of juicy and sweet heirloom tomatoes and a couple of postage-stamp-sized pieces of gleaming red seared ahi.
• Whole moi, wok-fried in ginger garlic black bean sauce, nestled into a bed of crisp and flavorful vegetables (market price). Both gorgeous and delicious— although I admit my greedy husband barely gave me a bite. They also do a whole opakapaka for two.
• Hoisin-glazed baby back ribs with Okinawan sweet potato mash and coconut peanut sauce ($30)— tender, cooked perfectly, sweet and salty.
• Hamakua Alii mushrooms "a la plancha": shaved into ribbons, cooked in clarified butter, grilled, positively drenched in garlic. OMG! We took these home and put them on store-bought pizza the next night, thereby lifting Pizza Hut to new heights. I want this recipe!
And beyond the food, the place: a snug onetime storefront as close to the water as you can get without being IN it, surf videos on the flat-screen TV in the bar, tiki torches framing gorgeous sunsets, a pleasant hubbub (the place is always packed) and solid waitstaff who know their stuff.
Minuses: The only thing I can come up with is I don't think mashed edamame works unless you flavor the dickens out of it and add enough oil to defeat the purpose. I've tried. I want it to work because soybeans are so healthful. But give me real guacamole every time until you perfect this one.
Meanwhile, I'll be back to Mala every chance I get.
It's only been around for about a month, but word is out: The yellow Joe Aloha lunchwagon is THE place for plate lunch. Owner James "Kimo" Akaka caters to a steady stream of lunchtime diners from the second he opens for business every day . The draw? His smoked meats. Akaka smokes ribs, chicken, top sirloin and sometimes ahi in a roadside smoker on Kamake'e Street that can be sniffed out two streets away. The meat is smoky and tender, and at just $7 a plate, it's no wonder the line snakes down the block for the three hours a day that the truck is open. Joe Aloha also does catering.
JOE ALOHA LUNCHWAGON
Parked on Kamake'e Street between Waimanu and Kawaiaha'o streets
Hours: 10 a.m.-1 p.m.
A BEEFY ITALIAN, PLEASE
Hank's Haute Dogs in Kaka'ako (532-4265) now offers its Chicago-style Italian beef sandwich ($6.95) every Monday (instead of every first Monday of the month) because people just can't get enough of the stuff. The sandwich ó a French roll filled with shaved roast beef and pickled sweet or hot peppers (known as giardiniera) ó is a beefy hot mess. And that's a good thing. Trust us.
The Hawai'i edition of the Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" will air at 4 p.m. Monday. The show's host, Guy Fieri, visited five O'ahu restaurants that will be featured on the show: Hank's Haute Dogs, Highway Inn, Nico's at Pier 38, Rainbow Drive-In and Poke Stop. Also making an appearance on the Food Network will be Kailua's own cake maker Rick Reichart of specialty cake shop Cakelava. Reichart will be competing in the network's SpongeBob Squarepants birthday cake challenge airing at 2 p.m. Sunday.
The Taste of Waialua will be from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. tomorrow at the old Waialua Sugar Mill on the North Shore. There will be food and live entertainment. Info: www.tasteofwaialua.com.