Old Haunts, New Food: Rijō and Square Barrels

New restaurants Rijō and Square Barrels have opened in the locations of two old Downtown favorites. How do they stack up?


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Square Barrels

Square Barrels executive chef Noah Blair with one of his favorite Waikīkī Brewing Co. suds.
Photos: Steve Czerniak

There’s virtually nothing left of Café Che Pasta in Square Barrels, the burger-and-beer joint that took over the 3,500-square-foot space earlier this year.


Even the grids in the ceilings have been removed and replaced.


“I like to take something that exists and turn it into something fun and new. But, unfortunately, when we got here, we couldn’t salvage any of the stuff and had to dump it,” says Hideo Simon, who co-owns this restaurant with his wife, Grace. “I felt sick about that.”


But there is one thing that’s a holdover from the popular Italian eatery: pasta.


Simon decided to keep it on the menu—alongside locally sourced beef and venison burgers and pig-fat-fried fries—to pay homage to the previous tenant and give the non-burger-and-beef crowd something to eat with a glass of wine.


“Yeah, some people tell us to do salsa night,” Simon says, laughing. “But that’s not what we’re trying to do.”


Here’s the concept: As co-owner of Pint and Jigger on King Street, Simon had already done the cool-gastropub-with-artisan-cocktails thing. 


Square Barrels takes pride in its simple but tasty Drive-Thru Burger, which features locally sourced beef, hand-shaped and grilled in butter.

Here, he was looking to create something more casual, a throwback to his days as a business student at the University of Hawai‘i when he would grab a Jumbo Jack from Jack in the Box and a six-pack of Coors Light from the store on his way home. (He upgraded to a burger from Wendy’s and a six-pack of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in grad school in San Francisco.)


“I wanted to take that and turn it into a place to enjoy the same basic things I enjoyed—but at the next level,” he says.


So, Simon, a 1992 graduate of Kaimukī High, got creative, bringing in the Michelin-starred Noah Blair as executive chef to create a burger-centric menu using as many local ingredients as possible. Local beef and venison are brought in daily, ground in-house and turned into hand-shaped patties that you can taste are fried in butter and dripping with flavor.


The most popular burger, the Drive-Thru Burger ($9), features a manageable 3-ounce grass-fed beef patty with lettuce, a slice of tomato, pickled onions, your choice of cheese, and a fried caper mayo, on—and this is key—a grilled sesame bun. What makes this burger so popular is its simplicity. You can add whatever you want to it—a premium cheese, a creamy duxelle sauce, a fried egg or dehydrated bacon for $1 more—to create a different burger experience. It’s not a huge burger, so it’s not too much for a mid-day lunch when you still have another five hours of work to go. It comes fast, too—so you won’t miss that afternoon meeting, either.


Other options: The Moloka‘i venison burger ($14) is cut with pork fat and dressed with a house-made blackberry and raspberry mustard sauce; the CB Burger ($14) features a house-ground corned beef patty on butter-toasted ciabatta with white wine-braised sauerkraut; and the Inception Burger ($14) boasts house-ground smoked pork sandwiched between ground beef and cooked up just right.


A popular—but not always available—version of Square Barrels’ fries is made from ‘ulu (breadfruit), shown here.

All burgers come with fries—naturally—and these are some tasty potatoes. The shoestring fries—though they were slightly thicker than traditional shoestring—can be cooked in either pig fat or rice bran oil. This is a no-brainer: Get the pig-fat fries. (Square Barrels does offer ‘ulu, or breadfruit, fries but not consistently. On two of our visits, they weren’t available.)


Square Barrels serves other menu items for those not craving a burger, such as salads and pasta. The Johnny Cakes with Shrimp ($14)—fried corn cakes with shrimp cooked with onions and an orange-juice reduction—were tasty, with a little kick in the sauce. And the Fettuccine Funghi ($16), with a duxelle of butter, garlic, onions, port and two kinds of mushrooms tossed with sautéed cremini caps, proved a decent plate of pasta. But those didn’t stack up to the burgers.


And then there’s the beer.


Twenty-four gleaming silver faucets jut out behind the wooden bar, just below a bleached deer skull (incidentally, the first one slaughtered for the restaurant’s venison burger). The whole look here—wood paneling, the metal straps that stretch across it and the configuration in a perfect square—is meant to look like a square barrel—hence the name—used for aging everything from kim chee to beer.


“And with the taps falling out of it,” Simon says, “it looks like you’re drinking beer from a huge barrel.”


A fettuccine funghi with a duxelle of butter, garlic, onions, port and two kinds of mushrooms.


Now, I’m not a beer drinker. But I can appreciate thoughtful pairings, which is what this place does. The idea isn’t to serve the newest or the best craft beers available. It’s about picking the ones that work right with the menu.


“One day, you might have the Drive-Thru Burger with the Rabid Beaver IPA and the bitterness cuts through the fat and the grainy spice takes it to the next level,” Simon says. “And then the next day, you have the same burger but with the Jubel 2015 (from Deschutes Brewery), which is a strong ale with a sweet, malty flavor to it, and you have a completely different experience. That’s what we’re trying to do. These are great beers and great burgers on their own, but, together, you have such different experiences.”


And the draft option called “College Beer” on tap? Yeah, that’s Coors Light. Love it.


1001 Bishop St., 524-2747, squarebarrels.com


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