What Does It Take to Win a Hale Aina?
There are more than 5,000 eateries in the state. What does it take to stand out from the crowd and win a Hale Aina Award? Here are a few inside stories.
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Cookin' in Kona
When in Kailua-Kona, I always liked to eat at Huggo's, its open-air dining room perched on pilings right above the waters of Kailua Bay. The restaurant has a killer sunset view and a warm clubby feel.
Once, by myself, I grabbed a stool at the bar. “I guess you can take that seat,” said the man next to me. “The guy who usually sits there is on a trip.”
I loved Huggo’s, except for the food, which used to be competent but bland. Until my most recent trip.
I wasn’t sure what had happened, but the cioppino, a long-time menu item, was suddenly alive with flavor as well as abundant with clams, shrimp and Kona lobster. The sizzling skillet of mushrooms was now packed with meaty Hamakua mushrooms, fresh shiitake and a zap of Asian flavors.
“We hired a young chef,” said the man who took over the venerable restaurant from his parents, Eric Von Platen Luder.
The new chef, Laine Uchida, has deep Kona roots. Laine’s grandfather, Atae “John” Uchida, came from Japan in the ’50s to cook at Teshima’s. Laine himself cooked at Alan Wong’s Hualalai Grill. When he signed on at Huggo’s, he decided to give the food a boost.
“I’m all about old-school, local flavors,” he says. He hit the mushrooms with shoyu, oyster sauce, chives, ginger and garlic. Deciding the cioppino on the menu “had no flavor,” he added bell pepper, more saffron, truffle butter. His remarkable mahimahi is crusted with lup cheong, Portuguese sausage, black beans, ginger and garlic.
“A lot of Mainland cities have the best of the best, French food, all that. Why try to compete?” he says. “Instead, you come here and what you taste is the kind of food everyone in Hawai‘i grew up with. Nowhere else can do that.”
And nowhere else can boast a Kona sunset, or those giant eels that swim up out of Kailua Bay and gobble down the lobster and clam shells you toss over Huggo’s railing. It was always a great restaurant, but now it has the food to make it a Big Island Hale Aina winner.
Ambition on Kauai
How do you win a Hale Aina as a Top Kauai Restaurant in a boutique hotel that hardly anyone has heard of? Ambition.
In 2009, nearly 17 years after Hurricane Iniki devastated the Poipu Beach Hotel, the Koa Kea Hotel & Resort rose on its foundations, more luxurious but no bigger than the original ’60s hotel. It needed to make a name for itself.
“We don’t want to sound arrogant, but our goal was to have the best food on the island,” says Koa Kea’s manager, Chris Steuri. “We knew we had to work at it.”
Steuri had just spent the weekend reviewing 605 guest comments on the hotel’s Red Salt restaurant—from Urban Spoon, Yelp, e-mail surveys and so forth. “Less than 5 percent had anything negative to say, and I counted the ones that said it was expensive, even though it’s fairly priced. We’re pleased so far.”
The food at Red Salt is spectacular—its checkerboard poke is likely to become a classic, and its plate of Wagyu steak with Red Salt fries alone is worth a trip to the Garden Isle.
Unfortunately, Red Salt’s founding chef, Ronnie Sanchez, has just returned to the Mainland, his father seriously ill. “He did the noble thing,” says Steuri. “He’s so good he’ll have no problem finding another job when he’s ready. Besides, he trained the three guys in the kitchen so well that we’ve had no fall off in quality.”
Still, Red Salt is looking for a great new chef. “If you know of someone, a No. 2 in a good kitchen, who wants to step up, let me know,” says Steuri. “We’ll make him famous. Maybe not rich, but famous for sure.”
Grilling Front and Center
Good to Grill in the Kapahulu Safeway complex won a silver Hale Aina Award for Neighborhood Restaurant. I wondered how it had done it; it was, as far as I knew, a plate lunch place in a shopping center.
When I went for the first time, I found myself caught in a flashback—I remembered the first time, decades ago, that I first walked into Hy’s Steak House.
The thing I remember most vividly about Hy’s was its then chef, Almar Arcano, in a sparkling white uniform, smack in the middle of the dining room, grilling big steaks over a glowing kiawe fire. The patrons were protected from the grill by a glass booth, but the wonderful aromas seeped into the room.
Good to Grill had the same large kiawe grill, this time not tucked away in a fancy dining room, but front and center in the little eatery.
I suppose that’s no surprise. Arcano and his one-time compatriot from Hy’s, Wes Zane, are partners with Jason Kim at Good to Grill. “I think it was always Almar’s dream to do that upscale, kiawe-grilled food in a casual, affordable setting,” says Kim. “We’re a little like Hy’s, I guess, except we do plate lunches.”
Exceptional plate lunches—macadamia-nut-crusted mahi, spicy-sweet hibachi chicken, loco mocos. The short ribs are so good that even Roy Yamaguchi tweeted them. To me, however, the can’t-miss dish at Good to Grill is the prime rib. We are talking aged beef, slow-roasted for five hours and then given a finishing burst of flavor on the grill. You can get a 10-ounce slice for $9.99, complete with garlic mashed potatoes or rice and baby mixed greens in balsamic vinaigrette.
When you can put that kind of value on an inexpensive plate, you’ve earned yourself a Hale Aina as a great neighborhood eatery. It’s a convenient neighborhood, too, since you can pick up wine for your dinner at Safeway next door. Get it in a screwcap bottle; the staff doesn’t open wine for you. But still … pinot noir and prime rib at these prices? What recession?