Dining: Taking Suggestions

This month, our restaurant critic let other people decide where he should eat.


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I am usually Restaurant Suggestion Central. People, sometimes people I hardly know, call me to ask where to eat. Where should I take my wife for her birthday? I have a client dinner, where’s a place quiet enough to talk? Is there anything new in Waikiki? Are there any good places that aren’t expensive?

This month, I turned the tables. I was unexcited about the few ideas I had bouncing around in my brain, so I threw myself at the mercy of others.

I went around asking people where had they eaten lately. Where should I go? My quests were rewarded.
 

Cafe Hula Girl
Waikiki Landmark // 1888 Kalakaua Ave.  // 979-2299 // Monday through Friday lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., cocktails and karaoke from 9:30 p.m. Saturday hours vary by event. Sunday brunch 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.  // $1 hour parking, major credit cards

I have to say I grew skeptical as I approached the restaurant. Christine Hitt, who writes the “Hitt List” nightlife blog for honolulumagazine.com, had suggested I eat at a Waikiki restaurant I’d never heard of, one with the kitschy name of Cafe Hula Girl, that seats all of 30 people.

To start, there was the improbable location: The Waikiki Landmark, that strange pink and aqua relic of the Japanese bubble, which sat empty for nearly a decade.


Cafe Hula Girl's chef, Merle Mariano, is happy to have a job where he can cook creative dishes, such as these braised short ribs with rosemary potato croquette.

Photo: Linny Morris

It’s easy to spot—its twin towers join above the 30th floor—but it’s not a particularly handy location. For reference, the building’s parking is off the Ala Wai, just past McCully heading toward the Convention Center, second driveway, marked SHOPS.

It didn’t inspire confidence that the nearly empty garage had no attendant, just a machine to take money. It was worse that the restaurant had no patrons on a Wednesday night, zero, none. I felt foolish for having made a reservation.

But the manager (also waiter, bartender, etc.), George Huffman, was a hospitable soul, and I’d brought a friend who was up for anything. “This place is so urban,” he said. “You could throw a great cocktail party here.”

“We do that,” said the Huffman. “As you can see, we’re not always busy at night.”

Two Saturdays a month, Cafe Hula Girl brings in a guest chef for a prix fixe dinner. That’s what Hitt had attended.

But what’s it like in the middle of the week with its own chef cooking? “Look at these prices,” said my friend. “Appetizers for $6, entrées $13. Let’s order stuff.”

That we did. Ahi poke. Crab cakes. Spanish rolls, whatever they were. Scallops, oops, no scallops, how about pot stickers?

When the food started arriving, we got intrigued. Being me, I started peppering Huffman with questions: What’s this, what’s that? “You better talk to the chef,” he said.

Out of the kitchen came Merle Mariano. Hawaiian-Filipino, he grew up in Pālama Settlement, went to KCC, has cooked for 28 years (Navy, Sam Choy’s, Gordon Biersch, Wynn Las Vegas, Four Seasons Hualalai). He was a guest chef last January at Hula Girl, and liked the concept so well he became a partner.

Tattooed, unpretentious, wearing a T-shirt and jeans, Mariano seemed happy to finally have a job where he can cook with a little creativity, and he’s nothing if not enthusiastic.

“Did you taste that the crab cakes were all crab?” he said. “I put some panko on the outside for crunch.” The cakes were only the size of a stack of silver dollars, but densely crabby. “That’s not mustard sauce,” he said. “It’s whole mustard seeds in aioli.”

What do you do with your poke? I asked. “I use a sea salt a guy gathers for me on Maui, makes it almost silky.” Where on Maui? “He wouldn’t tell me,” said Mariano. “His secret.”

The pot stickers were easy to understand: rock shrimp, marinated in Cajun spices, in half-moon won ton pi wrappers. “Did you taste the sauce?” asked Mariano. I tried, couldn’t figure it out. “I put some oyster sauce in a beurre blanc. Like it? Those dots of basil oil brighten it up.”

We enjoyed the “Spanish roll” so much we had two orders. To Mariano, they were lumpia “that decided to travel to Spain,” filled with chopped pork assertively spiced (chili, oregano, cumin, even a touch of curry). We complimented him on matching them with a citrusy sour cream. “I put lime in there,” he said.

After five appetizers, we were thinking of having only one entrée, the pork loin Gorgonzola. He looked wounded. “That’s good,” he said, “but you ought to try my chicken.”

“We’ll have both,” I said.
 

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