Best of Honolulu - Food



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photo: Jimmy Forrest

Best Pancakes: LILIHA BAKERY

On almost any morning, most Liliha Bakery customers will find themselves standing in one of two lines–at the bakery for its famous coco puffs, or at the counter, where they can watch short-order cooks whip up the best hotcakes in town. Unlike those sold by other pancake purveyors, Liliha's stack stands on its own. No dessert-like sauces, no fruit compotes, no whipped cream. Just three of the fluffiest, most buttery pancakes you could hope for, fried to a perfect golden brown. Can't wait for a seat? You can pick up a 26-ounce carton of Liliha's pancake batter for $3.60 to cook at home. 515 N. Kuakini St., 531-1651.

Best Gelato: LA GELATERIA

This isn't really a crowded category–we wish there were more gelato choices in Honolulu–but if you want the best in Italian ice cream, La Gelateria is the place to go. Owner Maurice Grasso supplies almost 50 local restaurants, including Mavro's and Roy's, with creamy desserts and palate-cleansing sorbets. "We're known for quality," says Grasso. "I'll put our chocolate gelato against any other chocolate you could find." Flavors range from the tried-and-true (Kona coffee, green tea) to the sublimely innovative (blueberry with zinfandel, rose-petal)–all of them delicious. La Gelateria, 819 Cedar St., 591-1133.

Best Artisanal Cheeses: STAR MARKET - MO'ILI'ILI

The Mo'ili'ili branch of Star Markets has a surprising offering–particularly of West Coast-produced, artisanal varieties–that helped it beat out traditional sources in town, such as R. Field.

The expanded cheese section is a specialty of that location, "but something that we are moving into with our other stores as we renovate them," says Star Markets' deli buyer, Dick Green. He says cheese consumption has increased greatly in Hawai'i, due in large part to the Food Network.

At Star, we found favorites from the U.K, Switzerland, Greece, Holland, Italy and France, but it was the intriguing American newbies that had us stocking up on crackers. Try the La Petite Crème from the Marin French Cheese Co., in Petaluma, Calif. It's as voluptuous and pale as a Grecian bust. Seattle's Beecher's Handmade Cheese created a Jamaican-jerk-seasoned variety, No Woman, which goes great with eggs. An Oregonzola, from the Rogue Creamery in Central Point, Ore., is mild, yet complicated.

With so many new cheeses being produced in the United States, Green says that it's tricky to handpick what to carry. We think he's doing just fine. 2470 S. King St., 973-1666.

Best Peanut Butter: DOWN TO EARTH

Heart-healthy and versatile, peanut butter is more than just a kids' snack. Grind your own fresh, natural version at Down To Earth, which carries crunchy or creamy peanut-butter options ($1.59/lb.), as well as almond ($9.29/lb.) and cashew ($4.09/lb.) butters, with no added sugar or preservatives. 2525 S. King St.; 947-7678.

Pu'uwainani's owners Marcos and Lendy Rebibis. photo: Karin Kovalsky

Best Lunch Wagon: PU'UWAINANI'S LUNCH WAGON

Garlic 'ahi with sweet wasabi sauce, crab-stuffed salmon, fried 'ahi poke–who knew you could get this stuff from a lunch wagon? For nearly four years, husband-and-wife owners Marcos and Lendy Rebibis have offered such delectable dishes at Pu'uwainani's Lunch wagon in Kaka'ako, cooking them to order right in their truck. "That's our niche, a healthier style of eating than you'd expect from a lunchwagon," says Marcos, a former cook for both Sansei and Brew Moon restaurants. Pu'uwainani's does the standard plate lunch fare, too, only better–its kal-bi is boneless, smothered in a garlic teriyaki sauce, and the pork adobo and pork guisantes recipes come from Marcos' own grandmother. True gourmet plate lunches, without the gourmet prices: Regular plates–including two scoops of white or brown rice and tossed or mac salad or kim chee–still cost between $4.75 and $6.75. Corner of Halekauwila and South streets, 286-5388.

Best Bakery: BA-LE

When you're looking for rolls for dinner, a cake for dessert, bread for a sandwich, cookies for a snack and muffins for tomorrow's breakfast, few bakeries can fulfill all your needs. Ba-Le known for its French bread, croissants and Vietnamese sandwiches, has become a full-line bakery with everything you could possibly want. We especially like the almond croissants, brownies and European-style breads. Award-winning owner Thanh Lam has even made these goodies available at the KCC, Kailua and Mililani Farmers' Markets each week. The toughest part is deciding what to buy. –Food editor Joan Namkoong 2242 Kamehameha Hwy, 847-2299.

Best Sandwich: A TASTE OF NEW YORK DELI AND MARKET

With 11 oz. of pastrami, it's ridiculously huge. At $14.95, it's ridiculously expensive. But the Reuben sandwich at A Taste of New York Deli and Market is also ridiculously good. The meat is the star attraction, juicy and flavorful, and it's perfectly complemented by creamy Russian dressing, hot sauerkraut, melted Swiss, and rye bread that appears to be fried in butter. A side of tangy potato salad or cole slaw accompanies the sandwich, and if the whole fatty, delicious production gives your heart a twinge, there's a tub of pickles on the table to provide the semblance of a vegetable. 1137 11th Ave., Kaimuki, 737-3354.

Best Local Coffee Roaster: KOKO CRATER COFFEE

Sure you can pick up a can of Maxwell House from your local supermarket. But for a truly tasty cup of coffee in your own home, we're partial to the fresh fresh beans roasted locally by Koko Crater Coffee. Owner Karen Ertell imports the world's best beans from exotic locales such as Timor, Costa Rica and Yemen, as well as the finest locally grown stuff from Kaua'i and the Big Island, and roasts them to perfection using a gas-fired drum roaster.

"There is someone standing over every batch, watching it at all times, paying attention to the color, the smell and the sound of it," Ertell says. "It's not automated at all." You've probably already tasted Koko Crater coffee without realizing it; it's the brew of choice for independent cafés such as Coffee Talk, Mocha Java, Encore Expresso and Volcano Joe's. If you want to bring the caffeine home, these cafés also sell Koko Crater beans by the pound, as does the weekly Farmer's Market at Kapi'olani Community College. 597-1266.

Best Hot Dog: GREAT HAWAIIAN HOT DOG CO.

Hot dogs are such simple constructions–dog, bun, mustard–it can be hard for one to stand out from the crowd. But that's just what the Great Hawaiian Hot Dog Co.'s offering did. We knew after one bite that this was O'ahu's best hot dog. The buns are soft, the toppings plentiful, but the real star is the hot dog itself: big, juicy, tasty, dare we say ... nuanced?

Owner Michael Ramsey Fujita has them custom-made in Chicago. "I went looking high and low for about five months for something like this," he says. "Instead of using various cuts of meat and fillers like lips and butts and eyelids, this hot dog is only made of sirloin steak, garlic and Worcestershire." We're hot dog purists, but many people also dig Fujita's secret garlic sauce, which is good enough that it's sold in bottles.

Five locations, including CompUSA, Ward Centre near Borders, Hilo Hatties on Nimitz, The Row Bar and Moose McGillycuddy's in Waikiki. Great Hawaiian Hot Dog Co., 630-1828.

Best Hawaiian Plate: YOUNG'S FISH MARKET

We polished off more than a dozen Hawaiian plates from restaurants across O'ahu, from Waipahu to Kapahulu. And while nearly every one of these eateries could've satisfied our search, we had to pick one. We shouldn't have been surprised at the winner, Young's Fish Market, which we recognized last year for having the best kalua pig.

This year, we give Young's mad props for its combination plate–the flavorful pork laulau, lomi lomi salmon (an ideal balance of salmon, tomato and onion), poi, pipikaula, sweet Okinawan potato and, of course, kalua pig, cooked in an underground stone pit to moist, smoky perfection.

The secret of this Kalihi establishment's success? "Not comprising anything," says owner Alan Young. "We still cook everything today the way we cooked it when my family first started 55 years ago. When you have something that works, why fool around with it?"

Apparently, customers couldn't agree more. Young's hand-wraps 1,000 laulau per day and sells nearly 500 pounds of kalua pig every week. City Square Shopping Center, 1286 Kalani St; 841-4885.

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