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Taste the World

They came from different countries and backgrounds, but these Honolulu restaurateurs now share the same passions: good food, fresh ingredients and feeding a legion of happy customers.


Photography by Alex Viarnes

In this 2007 Hale Aina Cookbook, we’re featuring recipes from four award-winning restaurants—Little Village Noodle House, Mekong, Olive Tree Café and Town—that focus on ethnic specialties. Each started as a pioneer, bringing forth flavors that were unique to the Island dining scene. The food that emanates from these independent and creative kitchens has endured, and deservedly so. We hope you’ll enjoy meeting the chefs and trying some of their recipes in your own kitchen.

Kenneth and Jennifer Chan, of Little Village Noodle House

Jennifer Chan, shown with husband Kenneth, trains all of her cooks at Little Village, teaching them a repertoire of 15 sauces.

Jennifer Chan loves to eat and, when it comes to Chinese food, she wants to make sure you eat wonderful food at her restaurant, Little Village Noodle House.

Known for its Honey Walnut Shrimp, Dried String Beans, Salt and Pepper Shrimp, Mother of All Fried Rice and many more sumptuous dishes, Little Village has been the little darling of Chinatown since it opened in 2001. Good food, attentive service and a lively setting have made this Hale Aina Award-winning restaurant a popular destination for residents.

Chan is from Hong Kong and moved to Hawaii in the 1970s, when her husband, Kenneth, was hired by Yong Sing (formerly on Alakea Street) as a dim sum chef. In 1984, the couple opened Chan’s Dim Sum and Won Ton on South King Street, with 28 seats. Four years later, they expanded to a 170-seat, fine-dining location in the Moiliili/University area known as Chan’s Chinese Restaurant. Business was good until the economy soured in the 1990s. The couple changed their restaurant concept to Chan’s Gourmet Buffet, which served up 50 items in an all-you-can-eat buffet for $5.99.

Jennifer Chan modifies recipes to our Islands’ preferences.

During the buffet years, brothers David and Dennis Chang, engineers by training, joined the Chans as partners. As the economy in Hawaii improved, the Chans and Changs began to think about a restaurant concept. “I thought we should try Chinatown” says Chan. “I wanted a place with a feeling of China, homey and down to earth, a relaxing environment, a different kind of space.”

Wok hay, the seared taste that comes from the fire beneath the wok, is vital to the cooking philosophy of Little Village. “Seafood needs high heat to sear it; it needs to be slightly burned to keep it moist,” explains Chan. “Beef needs slow cooking to tenderize it; it takes time. Vegetables need medium fire to take away the raw taste.”

Even the rice at Little Village gets attention. While most Chinese restaurants serve long-grain rice, Little Village dishes up a combination of medium- and long-grain rice. For fried rice, Chan picks long grain to achieve a fluffier texture. The recipes are not pure Chinese, she admits; but they represent a wide spectrum of regional Chinese foods and reflect Chan’s passion for food.

Steamed Fish with Ginger Onion Sauce

This is Jennifer Chan’s version of Chinese steamed fish; she adds a little flavor twist in the soy sauce. Instead of a whole fish, fillets are used. Basa and bass fillets can be purchased frozen; fresh fish fillets can also be used.

12-ounce basa or bass fillet
2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil
Green onion, cut into fine julienne
Ginger, cut into fine julienne
Homemade soy sauce (recipe follows)

In a wok with a steaming rack, bring water to a boil. Place fish on a steaming plate and onto rack. Cover and steam for eight to nine minutes.

Remove fish from steamer and drain any liquid on the plate. Heat oil in a small saucepan until very hot, about 350 degrees. Place green onions and ginger on top of fish. Pour homemade soy sauce over fish followed by hot oil. Garnish with cilantro and serve immediately. Serves three to four as part of a multicourse meal.

Homemade Soy Sauce

4 ounces soy sauce (Aloha brand preferred)
1/4 cup chicken broth
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon minced onion

In a small saucepan, heat soy sauce, chicken broth and sugar until sugar dissolves. Heat oil in a wok and stir fry garlic and onion until golden brown. Add soy-sauce mixture and simmer for two to three minutes. Remove from heat and strain.

Beef with Choy Sum

Beef with Choy Sum

8 ounces flank steak
Pinch of baking soda
12-ounce bunch choy sum (a member of the bok choy family)
2 cups vegetable oil
1 teaspoon minced ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon green onion, white part only
1 tablespoon soy sauce (Kikkoman preferred)
1 tablespoon Chinese cooking wine (or white wine)
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch, divided
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
Preserved turnip for garnish
Chili pepper strips for garnish

Trim flank steak of all fat and connective tissue. Cut flank steak with the grain into 2-inch-wide strips. Slice thinly against the grain. Mix with 1 tablespoon of cornstarch, baking soda and one to two teaspoons water and set aside.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Trim stem ends of choy sum. When the water is boiling, add a little vegetable oil and salt to the water. Holding the leafy part, immerse the stem ends in the water to cook for 30 to 60 seconds. Release bunch of choy sum into water and cook for three to four minutes. Drain in colander; cool slightly. Line up stalks of choy sum and cut into 3 pieces and arrange on serving platter.

Heat a wok over high heat. When it is hot, add two cups of oil. When oil is hot, add the beef to the oil and lower heat to medium. Cook beef for about 45 to 60 seconds, turning and stirring beef in the oil. Remove beef from oil with strainer and set aside in a dish. Pour off all but one tablespoon of oil. Add ginger, garlic and green onion and cook until garlic is lightly browned. Add soy sauce, cooking wine, chicken broth, salt and sugar and bring to a boil. Add cornstarch to thicken. Return beef to wok, stir fry with sauce and add sesame oil; toss several times. Remove from heat and place beef on top of choy sum. Garnish with turnip and chili pepper. Serves four.

Chef’s tip: To preserve the bright green color of vegetables, add a little oil to the cooking water.

Keo Sananikone, of Mekong

Keo Sananikone opened one of Honolulu’s first Thai restaurants in 1977.

When Keo Sananikone started Mekong Restaurant in the summer of 1977, he was not only opening a restaurant, he was putting Thai food on the map in Honolulu. Mekong’s 30-year run speaks volumes on the quality of food, the ambiance and the service—all from a restaurant that seats just 52 people. There’s no glitz here, just simple, authentic Thai food, well presented at modest prices.

In Laos, Sananikone’s family held the Pepsi cola franchise and owned a tobacco company. Like his siblings, Keo attended high school and college in the United States, earning a degree in architecture from the University of Washington, Seattle. He returned to Laos to help his family’s business, but when communists took over in 1975, the family fled, penniless, to Hawaii.

“We all took two to three jobs. I was teaching at McKinley, washing dishes at Pizza Hut, doing some architectural drafting and selling real estate,” remembers Sananikone. Within two years, he had saved up enough, and Mekong opened its doors.

Says Sananikone, “I liked to eat Thai food and it was similar to Lao food.” His sister, Nancy, was a graduate of the University of Hawaii’s Travel Industry Management School. “She knew restaurant operations, how to manage a staff and about service and wines,” says Sananikone. For his part, he knew how to cook, and, of course, he designed the restaurant. “In the beginning, I would teach part time at McKinley, then come to the restaurant to serve lunch. I did everything: washed dishes, cooked, waited tables,” he recalls.

Sananikone also understood the American consumer, what Americans liked and didn’t like in ethnic restaurants. “We upgraded ingredients to American standards, but kept the seasonings authentic,” he says.

Like the Hawaii Regional Cuisine chefs that came after him, Sananikone insisted on fresh ingredients. “In the 1970s, you couldn’t buy lemongrass and other herbs,” he recalls. So he and his family bought land in Mokuleia to farm.

The success of Mekong led to the 1979 opening of Keo’s on Kapahulu Avenue, which became a hot spot for the Hollywood crowd. Mekong II, on King Street, opened in 1981. Keo’s moved to Kuhio Avenue in Waikiki and Sananikone opened Keoni’s, serving a menu of Thai and American favorites. The original Mekong still satisfies many a Thai-food aficionado with authentic flavors and fresh ingredients. These recipes are from Keo’s Thai Cuisine (revised), by Keo Sananikone, Ten Speed Press.

Evil Jungle Prince with Chicken
Keo Sananikone coined the name of this dish, a name that has been copied on many a Thai menu. He explained its genesis: evil for the spiciness of the dish, jungle for the basil that grows wild, and prince for white breast meat, fit for royalty. It’s a simple, intensely flavored combination of classic Thai ingredients.
Evil Jungle Prince with Chicken.

1/2 pound chicken
2 to 6 small red chili peppers
1/2 stalk fresh lemongrass
2 kaffir lime leaves
2 tablespoons oil
1/2 cup coconut milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 to 3 tablespoons fish sauce
10 to 15 fresh sweet basil leaves
1 cup chopped cabbage

Thinly slice chicken into 2-inch strips. Grind together red chili peppers, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves in a food processor or pound in a mortar. Heat oil to medium-high and sauté pepper mixture for three minutes. Stir in coconut milk and cook for two minutes. Add chicken and cook for five minutes or until done. Reduce heat to medium-low. Stir in salt and fish sauce and basil. Serve on bed of chopped cabbage. Serves three to four people.

Mango with Sticky Rice

Mango sticky rice.

3 to 4 ripe mangoes, chilled
3 cups cooked sticky rice (see the chef’s tip on this)
1 cup coconut milk
2 to 4 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt

Chill mangoes, then peel and slice them just before serving this dish.

In a saucepan, combine sticky rice and coconut milk and cook on medium heat for five minutes or until thick. Stir in sugar and salt, adjusting the sugar as needed, depending on the sweetness of the mangoes. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, for two minutes. Serve warm on a platter or in individual dishes with chilled mango slices. Serves six.

Chef’s tip: Thai sticky rice is a long-grain rice available in Asian grocery stores. To prepare it, soak grains in water for several hours or overnight. Drain and place in a cloth-lined steamer or a rice-steaming basket. Steam for 15 to 20 minutes or until grains are tender.

Savas Mojarrad, of Olive Tree Café

“Not so fast, mostly Greek” describes Olive Tree Café in Kahala perfectly. It’s an apt description of this popular neighborhood restaurant, where fresh food from Greece and around the Mediterranean is cooked to order and presented in a self-service format. It’s the brainchild of owner Savas Mojarrad, who insists he’s not a chef, but a marketing guy.

Chef Savas Mojarrad imports hard-to-find ingredients to cook with, bringing items in from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Mojarrad came to Hawaii in 1972 from California to open The Mad Greek, a restaurant and nightclub at the corner of Ala Moana Boulevard, and Cooke Street. At that time, there wasn’t much in the way of ethnic restaurants in Honolulu, he recalls, and The Mad Greek did well. His current restaurant, Olive Tree Café, has been located in Kahala for 11 years. It’s modest—just 800 square feet of space with perhaps another 400 square feet of space for tables outside. “The kitchen is extremely small; I developed a formula to suit the conditions,” says Mojarrad. “I never expected the response to be so strong.”

Strong is an understatement: Come dinner time, the neighborhood flocks to the restaurant. Diners order at the counter, find a place to sit—if they’re lucky—and pick up their food at the counter. (Bring your own wine, please.) But this is no Styrofoam or paper-plate eatery, the focus is fine food at a reasonable price.

Mojarrad’s philosophy is simple: a short, simple menu that features meals made from scratch daily. “Unless you go to a fine dining restaurant, you don’t get fresh foods,” says Mojarrad. “Why should people be deprived of that?”

There are five main dishes on the menu, three of which are souvlaki or kebabs featuring breast of chicken, lamb and fish. The menu also features a half-dozen or so appetizers like baba ghanoush (roasted seasoned eggplant puree), falafel (fried, ground chickpeas), tabbouleh (salad of bulgur and parsley), and other east Mediterranean favorites.

Mojarrad personally shops for his ingredients, inspecting and picking up vegetables and fish from his purveyors. Says Mojarrad, “I’m a member of Slow Food and I believe in supporting local farmers, as that reduces the fuel costs of transportation and keeps money in the community.”

Hard-to-find Greek and Mediterra-nean products are imported. A year and a half ago, Mojarrad opened a wine and food shop next door, focusing on cheeses and deli items, Greek wines, and more recently, organic wines.

Olive Tree Café is so successful that Mojarrad is on the lookout for a larger location. He may need some rest, too. While he takes a monthlong Greek holiday each year, he says, “People yell and scream.”

Shrimp in Cheese and Tomato Sauce
This delicious Greek dish, a version of which is served at Olive Tree Café on Tuesdays, is great for a busy night. You can also substitute shrimp with fish or chicken.

1 1/2 pounds whole shrimp, head and tail on or peeled
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 to 6 cloves garlic, sliced crosswise
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried Greek oregano
1/4 cup chopped onions or shallots
2 cups vine-ripened tomatoes, diced
1 cup green onion, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
4 ounces sheep feta cheese

In a large sauté pan over medium high heat, melt butter, then add olive oil. Add garlic and fry it for 15 seconds. Add pepper, oregano and onions; cook until onions are translucent. Add shrimp and cook, turning them after 30 seconds. Add tomatoes, green onions, white wine and lemon juice, allowing each to simmer for 20 seconds before adding the next ingredient. Once all the ingredients have simmered and the shrimp is cooked through, crumble the feta cheese on top. Serve with basmati rice or crusty bread. Serves four.

Greek Style Rabbit
This dish is a favorite of Savas Mojarrad, who creates it with either wild or farm-raised rabbit. You can also make it with chicken.

1 rabbit, cut into pieces (or 1 whole chicken, cut into pieces)
1 cup dry white wine
2 tbsp. white or red wine vinegar
2 bay leaves
4 cloves
6 black peppercorns, cracked
4 allspice berries
1 small stick cinnamon
1 tablespoon honey
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 stalk celery, chopped
1/4 cup chopped onions
2 cups whole tomatoes (preferably canned, the San Marzano brand)
1 pound pearl onions, peeled

Combine all ingredients except tomatoes and onions; marinate rabbit for 24 to 48 hours (chicken can be marinated for eight hours). When ready to cook, remove rabbit from marinade and place marinade in saucepan. Bring marinade to a boil, reducing the quantity to half.

In a sauté pan, sear the pieces of rabbit over medium-high heat, until golden brown. Add marinade, tomatoes and onions and bring to a boil. Lower heat, cover and simmer for about two hours (chicken will cook in about 30 minutes) or until tender. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper and serve. Serves four.

Chef’s tip: When cooking a Greek dish, always slice the onion crosswise for more flavor.

Ed Kenney, of Town

Town is the go-to place for eating simply and stylishly, in a sophisticated way. Well-conceived, flavorful dishes, such as ahi tartare, perfectly roasted chicken and light gnocchi emerge from the kitchen of chef/owner Ed Kenney and executive chef Dave Caldeiro.

Chef Ed Kenney

Kenney grew up in a family that loved food, but, after waiting tables in college, swore he’d never work in the restaurant business. After a corporate job and a year off to travel around the world with his now-wife, Kristen, his perspective changed. “Travel revolved around the next meal, food was how we met people and how we immersed ourselves in the culture of a place,” says Kenney. When he returned home to Hawaii, he hooked up with passionate foodie friends who were opening Solana restaurant (now closed) in Kailua. There, says Kenney, “I learned on the job.”

After a year, he went on to the kitchens of Indigo, Shipley’s and Roy’s. He enrolled in the culinary program at Kapiolani Community College and, in his last semester, created a business plan for a restaurant. He became the executive chef of Café Monsarrat (now closed), bankrolled by a Japanese owner. Reminisces Kenney, “There were no rules, it was experimental. I was finding my culinary identity at the time, on someone else’s dime.”

Kenney took over the kitchen at Café Laniakea at the YWCA on Richards Street, all the while experimenting and eating, formulating his concept and style.

Town opened in April 2005. “Our philosophy is to cook food simply, without a lot of extraneous ingredients, using the freshest local ingredients possible,” says Kenney. “Our MA‘O green salad epitomizes what we do. Fresh greens, shaved hard cheese, pancetta and dressing. Three to four ingredients on a plate, not much else.”

Putting a label on Town’s food is difficult. It’s been described as “vaguely Italian” or “new American”; some call it “California cuisine,” which Kenney says is better. “California cuisine is not bound by tradition. We do a northern-[Italy]-style egg-based pasta with a southern-style, tomato-based sauce and it works. We don’t use the Italian language, but our spirit is Italian.”

Pan-Roasted Chicken with Torn Bread and Tatsoi
One of Town’s signature dishes, this pan-roasted chicken satisfies the taste buds with salty, sweet and herbal notes.
To create dishes such as this pan-roasted chicken, chef Ed Kenney often shops at the KCC Farmers’ Market.

1 whole chicken, 3-pounds
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup Hawaiian salt
2 quarts water
1/2 cup olive oil
4 cloves garlic, smashed
2 tablespoons mixed fresh herbs of choice
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cups crusty day old bread, torn into bite-size pieces
2 tablespoons diced pancetta
3 tablespoons red seedless grapes
2 tablespoons pine nuts
Sprig of fresh thyme
4 cups tatsoi
4 basil leaves, torn
3 tablespoons vinegar, such as
balsamic, sherry or banyuls
3 tablespoons chicken stock
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Brine: Dissolve sugar and salt in water to make a brine in a deep, nonreactive pot or container. Submerge chicken in brine and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours.

Marinate: Remove chicken from brine. Split chicken in half, remove wing tips and bones from breast and thigh, leaving leg and wing bones. Combine 1/2 cup olive oil, garlic and herbs. Rub halves with marinade and refrigerate for at least four hours and up to 24 hours.

Cook: Preheat oven to 400°F. Heat two tablespoons olive oil in a sauté pan over medium-high heat until smoky. Place chicken halves in pan, skin side down. Lower heat to medium and cook chicken for three to four minutes, until skin is brown and crisp.

In a bowl, mix together bread, pancetta, grapes, pine nuts and thyme leaves. Drizzle in remaining olive oil and toss to coat well. When chicken is brown, turn over and add bread mixture to pan. Place pan in oven for about 10 minutes or until chicken is cooked.

While chicken is cooking, place tatsoi in a large bowl. When the chicken is cooked, remove it to a platter and pour bread mixture over the tatsoi. Return sauté pan to medium high burner and add vinegar and chicken stock to deglaze pan, simmering and scraping bits on bottom of pan. Pour this warm vinaigrette over the tatsoi and bread mixture, toss well and season to taste. Divide bread mixture onto plates and top with chicken. Serve immediately. Serves two.

Milk and Honey
A luscious, creamy panna cotta, topped off with honey and fresh seasonal fruits. At Town, the honey is Nalo Meli honey, gathered from banana blossoms, which adds a hint of banana flavor to the dessert.

Milk and Honey

2 1/2 teaspoons powdered gelatin
1/4 cup cold water
3 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup citrus juice, such as Meyer lemon
8 tablespoons honey
8 ounces seasonal fruit of choice

Dissolve gelatin in water. In a saucepan, warm the cream and sugar to just below a simmer. Stir in softened gelatin and dissolve, stirring gently so as not to create bubbles. Stir in citrus juice and buttermilk and remove from heat. Cool to room temperature. Pour into 6-ounce ramekins or molds; cover and chill to set overnight. To unmold, run a warm knife around the edge of the panna cotta and invert onto a plate. Garnish with a drizzle of honey and sliced fruit. Serves eight.

Chef’s Tip: Use a mandoline to create very thin slices of firm fruit, such as persimmons or apples.

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