Enjoy Unreal Szechuan Cuisine at Maple Garden
Revisiting the longtime Chinese restaurant in Mō‘ili‘ili.
Trays of assorted deliciousness at Maple Garden: deep-fried prawns, kung pao chicken, steamed fish fillet, beef and broccoli, braised pigs’ feet and choy sum.
Photos: James Charisma
I’m just gonna come out and say it: Maple Garden in Mō‘ili‘ili has the greatest all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet in Hawai‘i.
For a reasonable $18.95 per person (for dinner; $14.95 during lunch), you can enjoy a selection of 25-plus Szechuan dishes made with lots of garlic, red pepper, star anise and doubanjiang bean sauce, including spicy kung pao chicken with green onions and peanuts, grilled beef and broccoli, sweet and sour pigs’ feet, honey spareribs, mabo tofu, steamed white fish fillet, cold ginger chicken, hot garlic eggplant, and pickled cabbage and steamed choy sum. There are the usual mainstays like crispy gau gee and egg rolls, sweet-and-sour soup with soft tofu and mushrooms, chow fun, chow mein, fried and white rice, and the obligatory Chinese chicken salad, but surprises too, like some of the best fried chicken wings in town, plus tea-smoked duck and head-on deep-fried prawns at dinnertime.
Why order a plate lunch somewhere with just six shrimp or a handful of chicken wings for 12 bucks when you can come to Maple Garden and literally eat all the things? I’m kicking myself as I write this in fear that if people across O‘ahu realize how good this buffet is, Maple Garden will become so packed it’ll be impossible to find a seat there.
Party on a plate: chow fun, kung pao chicken, cold ginger chicken, beef and broccoli, fish fillet, fried prawns, clams with black bean sauce and smoked duck.
A decade ago, Richard Lam was just two years in as owner of Yen King at Kāhala Mall (having worked his way up from being a dishwasher, cook and manager, both at Yen King and its sister restaurant, King Tsin on McCully Street), when it was replaced by Whole Foods and he found himself looking for a place to relocate the restaurant.
“One of my customers told me that Maple Garden was for sale. So I came down and met Robert Hsu (the owner). He talked to my agent and said no, his health was doing better so he wasn’t going to sell anymore,” says Lam. “But after a week, another customer called me up and said the owner had recently passed away and his widow didn’t want to operate a restaurant.”
Lam later connected with Hsu’s widow, who wanted to sell the restaurant with two conditions: keep the name “Maple Garden” and continue to reproduce the classic dishes that regulars love. Lam agreed to both. “We’re similar Szechuan restaurants so that was fine,” Lam says. “Today, I’d say it’s half their menu and half ours; the dishes are very similar.” Ten years in, Lam says Maple Garden thrives from an active lunch crowd, weekend guests and hosting parties in its two private rooms (the place can fit roughly 150 people total).
Besides the buffet, the regular menu boasts signature dishes such as winter melon soup, spicy drunken clams, beggar’s chicken baked in clay, sizzling beef and Peking duck. Some items have changed, like the spareribs in Chinese sauce, which rarely appears on the menu due to the unavailability of some spices from China, but for the most part, Maple Garden and Yen King have found a balance under one roof. Which is nice, especially at a time when other neighborhood favorites are shutting doors, like the recently closed Kirin on Beretania Street.
The buffet also comes with hot-and-sour soup, with soft tofu and chopped wood ear mushrooms.
“It’s funny, people are eating more light now,” says Lam. “At dinnertime, they want something healthy so they often order from the [set] menu and don’t do the buffet as much during the week. But on the weekend, it’s popular, and during lunchtime, when people want to get in and get out and not have to think too much.”
Lam says to call ahead on Monday through Thursday nights if you’re thinking about the buffet, to confirm they’re doing it that night. But if Maple Garden says they are, trust me: Don’t skip it.
909 Isenberg St., open 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily, with the lunch buffet from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and the dinner buffet from 5:30 to 9 p.m., (808) 941-6641, maplegardenhawaii.com