Dining: Eating Outside the Box
Someone out there in restaurant land was doing some unconventional thinking, perhaps just to keep me from getting bored.
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1025 Alakea St. // 532-4540 // Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. // No parking, major credit cards // www.mymixcafe.com
Two year s ago, I reviewed Mix, a miniscule, 15-seat Italian restaurant on Beretania Street, which whipped up some of the best pasta in town. “You should have to beg to get a seat here,” I wrote.
You’d still have to beg to get a seat at owner Bruno Iezzi’s second Mix Café, because there are hardly any. The new Alakea Street location is mainly takeout, a few tables ringing the edge. And there isn’t pasta. It’s a paninoteca, a sandwich bar of the kind that has spawned a subculture in Italy.
Who knew downtown Honolulu was starving for Italian sandwiches? There’s a line, and Iezzi’s selling more than 200 sandwiches a day.
But no pasta. “We’re not allowed to cook there, it doesn’t have a kitchen,” says Iezzi. “Maybe someday, but I’m too busy to do that now.” In fact, his next project is “some interesting salads.”
He’s already got salad going for him. For $7, Mix’s sandwiches come with a mixed green salad and a plastic ramekin of pleasant vinegar-and-oil dressing. And what sandwiches. A half-dozen varieties a day, including beef, pork, chicken and turkey, which Iezzi roasts himself, no sliced deli meats.
The preparations are simple. The pork is done in sea salt and fennel seeds, the roast beef merely short ribs rubbed with sea salt, which come out tasting like a much more expensive cut of meat.
These aren’t classic panini. In the first place, most aren’t done on a panini grill. “Too slow,” says Iezzi. They’re warmed in small ovens, which melt the slices of gouda.
Also, notes Iezzi, Italian panini are “less filled” than American taste dictates. “I had the famous sandwiches in New York. They were filling, filling, filling, so much, between two thin slices of supermarket bread. I thought the balance uneven, so my sandwiches have more bread, but enough filling for Americans.”
Of all the fillings, perhaps the tuna is the most interesting. It’s essentially a salad Niçoise on a bun—slices of hard-boiled egg, capers, olives, haricot verts, tomatoes as well as tuna. “Ah,” says Iezzi. “That was my first inspiration. I tasted the tuna melt everyone else serves.” He pauses to shudder. “I couldn’t serve that.”
His only regret? Canned Italian tuna would be too expensive for him to hit the $7 price point he thinks people are willing to spend for lunch.
One day I walked over and bought one of every sandwich Mix offered, carting them back to the office, to general applause. We cut them into small slices, so people could taste all of them. The favorites were the tuna and the roasted chicken (real pieces of chicken, roasted red peppers, gouda). However, the roast beef disappeared in a flash, and nobody wanted to tell anyone else how good it was.
Most people ate only a token portion of the salads nestled next to the sandwiches in their brown boxes. While I was consuming a full plate of salad, the rest attacked the dolci I’d bought. The banana muffin was fine, slices of real banana on top. But the cheers went up for the flourless chocolate cake and for the carrot cake, which had chunks of dried cranberries and chocolate.
“Great lunch,” said one. That’s why there’s a line outside of the new Mix.