First Look: Sweet Marie’s Hawai‘i
Kalihi welcomes gluten-free baked goods and café from Kaua‘i.
The teriyaki salmon ($15).
Photos: Maria Kanai
There’s nothing fancy about Sweet Marie’s Hawai‘i, a gluten-free bakery and café in Kalihi, but it’s the warmth and enthusiasm of owner Marie Cassel that makes you feel right at home. Tousled red hair up in a bun with glasses perched on her head, Cassel wears a black apron as she flits in and out of the kitchen and out to the front of the restaurant like a fairy godmother.
When we walk in, there’s a man and a woman sitting together, finishing up what looks like the remnants of a muffin. Turns out they just came in from New York, and the woman has gluten and dairy allergies and needed a place to eat. A Colombian helicopter pilot sits alone at the table next to them, eating a teriyaki salmon plate with fried rice.
“It feels like my birthday party!” Cassel exclaims from behind the counter, which is strewn with plates, baked goods and her hand-sewn counter curtains. She beams at us as we ooh-and-aah over a free sample of chocolate ganache coconut cheesecake. Thanks to the small space and the proximity of the tables, we feel like we’re already all friends.
Cassel says Sweet Marie’s Hawai‘i is the Islands' first dedicated gluten-free facility—that means not a speck of gluten in the kitchen, so people with celiac disease or other intolerances don’t have to worry about cross contamination. Cassel’s been in the baking business for 20 years, and moved from Kaua‘i to Honolulu to expand her wholesale business.
“I went through a bit of a depression period when I found out I had dermatitis herpetiformis, and wouldn’t be able to eat any more wheat. But then I realized it’s not the end of the world,” Cassel says.
Gluten is the general name for proteins found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale. It helps bind food together, but, for those who have sensitivities, it can cause stomachaches, skin rashes, migraines, joint and muscle aches and more. Gluten-free diets have become a trendy weight-loss regime for many (no more pasta or bread), which can be annoying for people who actually have a medical allergy.
“So many restaurants claim to have gluten-free dishes, but those of us who are celiac can’t eat there because of cross contamination,” Cassel says.
Cassel’s menu featured only one salad the day we went, a salmon or shrimp Caesar salad with homemade croutons. (No more asking for salads without croutons on top!) And there are other savory and sweet items that you wouldn’t normally think could be made gluten-free, including curries, sandwiches, polenta, muffins, cookies and even pizza. Cassel also bakes custom cakes for weddings, birthdays and anniversaries, and is planning to get her truck up and running soon. She also has lactation cookies in the works, which she says are designed to increase the milk supply in nursing mothers.
Everything is made with Cassel’s original brown-rice flour mixture. She doesn’t bake with any nut flours, and there are no substitute fillers of corn, potato or garbanzo beans, because she likes to keep her flour mixes “clean.” She also uses sunflower oil instead of canola.
We tried the teriyaki salmon ($15), which arrives with fried rice cooked up with kale, shredded broccoli, carrots, sprouts and onions. Instead of using shoyu for the teriyaki sauce, she goes with coconut aminos. The salmon’s cooked well, and the teriyaki sauce is sweeter than regular teriyaki. The polenta comes with a light marinara sauce and a tasty sun-dried macadamia-nut pesto.
The chocolate ganache coconut cheesecake.
The double fudge brownie ($4.25) isn’t as sweet as your typical brownie; we preferred the chocolate-chip cookies ($6), which were soft and more scone-y. The sour-cream pecan streusel coffee-cake muffin ($5)—yes, it’s a mouthful—was our favorite. Texture is normally a problem with gluten-free baked goods, because of gluten’s role as a binder. But this one isn’t overly dry or crumbly, and holds together well. On the other hand, the morning glory muffin ($4.50), which has carrots, apples, raisin, pineapple and coconut, fell apart a little too easily in our hands, although it tasted great.
“Nothing is better than seeing kids and adults who may have dietary restrictions get to enjoy things they thought they never would be able to try again,” says Cassel. She tells the story of a 4-year-old boy who was diagnosed with celiac, and had never tasted cake until he came to her café. “His mom and I were bawling our eyes out, watching him eat my egg-free banana muffins and chocolate chip cookies!” she says, as she shows us an illustrated thank-you from the boy. It’s in a binder full of thank-you notes and drawings from customers. “Moments like these make it all so worth it,” she says.
Sweet Marie’s Hawai‘i, 237 Kalihi St., Friday through Tuesday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and by appointment, (808) 823-0227, sweetmarieshawaii.com