10 to taste Hawaii eats section
By Mari Taketa
Special to The Advertiser
What is our identity as a food scene? Are we an island of glorified plate lunches, trendy izakaya and high-end Pacific Rim eateries way past their prime? A culinary backwater that can never get enough mediocre pho and chain-restaurant pasta? Are we noteworthy at all?
Happily, yes. Food writer Anthony Bourdain came close when he called us "Singapore in America," his compliment to our eclectic amalgamation of cuisines, accessible at casual prices in virtually every neighborhood. But in at least one sense, we outdo Singapore.
We may be Americanized, localized and heavy on the teriyaki, and our taste-of-the-motherland section is dominated by a handful of Asian cuisines. But we also have a gift for bringing home faraway flavors. A dish from the Mainland or the farthest point on the globe gets a simple spin, and it's ours. Unique. Broadly embraced. A must-try.
We set ourselves a task: In Oahu's evolving food scene, find 10 dishes worth the drive to taste. Some are new; some have been around for a year or more. All these restaurants have shown staying power: The newest, Maile's Thai Bistro, opened in late 2008 and became an immediate favorite in Hawaii Kai. The oldest, Duc's Bistro in Chinatown and Thelma's Restaurant in Waipahu, have been around since 1991.
Here are the delicious innovations that made our cut.
1. YEAGANTES, OLIVE TREE CAFE, $6
A simple appetizer of giant beans (usually spelled "gigantes"), this one gets overlooked by diners fixated on hummus, baba ghanoush and fish souvlakis. In Greece, it's baked with tomatoes and herbs; here, Olive Tree owner Savas Mojarrad tops the beans he imports from Greece with fresh olive oil and raw tomatoes, green onions, parsley and tiny flecks of dill — the last a recent accident that lifts the dish far beyond the earthiness of parsley.
"I explored a lot of dishes in Greece, went to different islands, and I found one secret: If you want to be the innovator of a dish, you have to pick up the ethnic dish and put it in a form the world enjoys," Mojarrad said. "I follow my own recipes. But one thing I have always been careful about is if a Greek eats it, he accepts it as a Greek dish. You don't change the soul of the dish."
Olive Tree Cafe, 4614 Kílauea Ave., 737-0303
2. FIVE-LAYER DIP, THE PINEAPPLE ROOM, $12
That's refried taro at the bottom, layered with local goat cheese, sour cream and taco sauce, and fresh romaine, tomatoes and onions. Steamed and pushed through a ricer, the taro is thicker than poi, a gummy, chewy reminder of the pure root.
"When I was at UH in the dorms, party time, we used to always make dip with refried beans and sour cream," executive chef Lance Kosaka said. "But I always wondered what it would be like with goat cheese. So one day at work we tried it, and we put in refried taro instead of refried beans and called it 'Dorm Daze.' Customers were like, huh? What's that? So we had to change the name."
The Pineapple Room by Alan Wong, Macy's at Ala Moana Center, 945-6573
3. THAI SALAD, MAILE'S THAI BISTRO $7.90
A standard salad of romaine, cucumbers, carrots and hard-boiled egg whites gets a frisky lift from a creamy dressing that turns out to have zero cream. "The base has fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and hard-boiled egg yolk. It sounds like the most disgusting combination, but it's very refreshing," owner Maile Sayarath said. "It's not upscale at all. It's what you would make at home or find at a hole-in-the-wall in Thailand."
Maile's Thai Bistro, Hawaii Kai Towne Center, 6700 Kalanianaole Highway, 394-2488
4. PLANTATION TEA JELLY, LA PALME D'OR $3.50
Bitter, bold black tea sits atop a solid two inches of sweet pineapple juice gelled right in the cup. You stick in your giganto-straw, twirl it around to let the tea permeate the soft jelly, and suck up fruity jolts of caffeine. Chewing is optional.
"We wanted something different," executive chef Akiko Kimura said. "The kitchen staff took the same idea as our coffee jelly, which comes with mocha or milk, and applied it to plantation iced tea. Now plantation tea jelly is one of our top three drinks."
La Palme D'or, Ala Moana Center, 941-6161
5. AHI KATSU, JURISON'S INN $9.15
We're standing in line at a noodle shop, listening to the Canadian foodie in front of us wax poetic about his favorite memories from around the world. Handmade soba in Okinawa. A fantastic dish in Waikíkí. And then he asks if we've been to Waikele lately.
That's how we discovered this plate. Comes with two scoops white or brown rice, your choice of mac or tossed salad, plus tiny cups of bean sprouts and corn. We know you can find similar versions at high-end places. But Jurison's katsu — a generous 5 ounces of fresh, high-grade ahi wrapped in nori and panko-fried to a light, non-greasy crisp — is right up there with them, and it's less than $10.
Jurison's Inn, Waikele Premium Outlets, 94-799 Lumiäina St., 676-1171
6. THELMA'S SPECIAL, THELMA'S RESTAURANT $9.95
Another word-of-mouth find, this one from The Pineapple Room's Kosaka. "You gotta try Thelma's special," he said. "It's the one thing my wife and I will drive from our house in Kaimukí to Waipahu for, and when we get there, every table has Thelma's special."
We take his advice and end up with a family-size platter loaded with lechon kawali pork (or rather, chicharon fried pork skin, some pieces with meat attached) topped with diced tomatoes and onions and dressed in shoyu. No traditional vinegar, oyster, fish or other sauce — it's just shoyu that lifts and ties the three ingredients together in a crispy, salty, fatty, unrepentant sin.
Owners Thelma and Larry Torres were in Las Vegas opening their second Thelma's Restaurant when we were researching, so we let Kosaka continue his description. "That sauce gets under the skin and penetrates everything," he said. "We try making the dish sometimes for our own kitchen snack, but it's not the same."
Thelma's Restaurant, Westgate Center, 94-366 Pupupani St., 677-0443
7. KASHMIRI NAAN, CAFE MAHARANI $7.99
Maharani's menu lists 30 kinds of steaming, floppy, tandoori-baked naan, plus a naan of the night, all the size of medium pizzas. Most popular: Cheese garlic. Our favorite: Kashmiri naan, with soft dried fruit and coconut sprinkles.
"We came up with a version that has five kinds of fruit, including dried mango, pineapple and papaya," owner Josiah Arafat said. "It's unique to our place. Kids love it, and customers who prefer something sweet with the spicy food enjoy it."
Cafe Maharani, 2509 S. King St., 951-7447
8. LAMB CURRY, DUC'S BISTRO $19
If you've had Vietnamese curry, you know the usual proteins are chicken or goat. Duc's, which takes Vietnamese dining to its highest incarnation in Honolulu, classes things up with lamb.
Said owner Duc Nguyen: "Goat meat is hard to get, you have to import it from New Zealand, and the quality you cannot control. So I tried lamb people like it."
Nguyen on what potato-anise dumplings are doing in his curry, instead of the usual chunks of potato and taro: "So easy to make. I just went on the Internet and Googled 'potato pancake.' And anise makes anything taste better."
On the role curry will have in his future: "My dream is to open a pho and curry shop. If I say I'm going to do something, it might take time, but I always do it. You wait."
Duc's Bistro, 1188 Maunakea St., 531-6325
9. LYCHEE ICEE, UNCLE CLAY'S $3.80
Your choice of strawberry, melon or Pepsi Icee, mixed with lychee syrup and topped with a lychee. It's the girliest of a line of 12 Icee specials created by Clayton Chang, fourth owner of a crack seed shop that dates from his own childhood in Äina Haina. Broke da Mout' has mochi crunch sprinkled throughout. Hawaiian Superman comes with a special blessing, with Uncle Clay ringing a gold bell for emphasis.
"I have the unique opportunity to innovate with something people love," said Chang, who loves connecting with his customers. Which is how we met Destiny (who wants to be a pediatrician when she grows up), and Isaiah, and Randy, and Bruddah Kevin
Most memorable Icee: Pele's Passion, into which Chang will shoot sriracha. The cold separates the flavors and smacks your senses with garlic first, chili second. If you can wrap your brain around garlic-Pepsi, garlic-melon or garlic-strawberry, try this. And yes, it does burn.
Uncle Clay's, Aina Haina Shopping Center, 820 W. Hind Drive, 373-3402
10. PETITS FOURS, SWEET STOP $8
To die for, even if it kills your health conscience. Sweet Stop's pack of six jewel-like petits fours shines among the selection of cheesecakes, cupcakes and tarts, which is why we've never been able to try anything else. The handmade truffle, mac nut tartlet and haupia cream puff are nice, but the piece de resistance is the tangy-yum of the lemon tart.
Don't let the sandy kayakers flooding the parking lot fool you. Deep inside Kailua Beach Center, the wedding cakes and other sweets baked by owner Joselyn Benn are the product of 30 years of experience, thanks to Marine Corps pastry training and stints as executive pastry chef for Roy Yamaguchi and other local chefs. "I wanted the community to taste fancy, elegant desserts without having to go to a fancy place," Benn said.
Sweet Stop, 130 Kailua Road, 721-5034; Kailua Farmers' Market (Thursdays 5-7:30 p.m.)