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Drinks and Pupu in Hawaii

Pupu on the Rocks: You can’t always judge a great drinks and pupu place from the outside.


(page 4 of 5)

Chef Jamal Lahiani works wonders in thirtyninehotel’s tiny kitchen.

Once again, thanks to Colin Nishida’s Side Street, there were pork chops. Tsunami’s were elegant, a boneless chop, slightly breaded, then thin sliced and spread in a semicircle around a black plastic ramekin of not particularly delicious chipotle mayo.

Yelp had praised the poke balls, softball-size, deep-fried balls of rice, with poke inside. The poke was good, standard stuff, though difficult to eat with its thick coating of crisped-up rice. It was far better as a plain platter of poke.

The spicy ahi was beautiful, arriving in a bowl created by coating nori in a batter and deep frying it. Looked good, the ahi in spicy mayo overflowing the bowl, topped with tobiko. But the spicy ahi was pretty standard, and neither the bowl (made perhaps a day or two ahead) nor the rice was good to eat.

Not the rice? The four of us had ordered a lot of food, including a platter of kimchee fried rice. Nice color, decent spice, but the rice sodden, wet. “It’s not cooked all the way,” said one of my friends. Perhaps scooped out of the rice cooker too early. We left it, hardly touched.

The drinks on the rocks were honest pours and only $7. The pupu weren’t expensive, the waitress was pleasant. Four of us for $150, but, after we sampled the food, we went off to try somewhere else.



39 N. Hotel St., (808) 585-8439, Tuesday - Saturday 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., No parking, major credit cards.


If Yelp led me astray, Facebook came to my rescue. I’d asked for drinks and pupu suggestions. One of my friends wrote that the shot she’d ordered at Duck Butt came flaming, and posted a picture. Wild friends.

Not the two I was going out with that night, however. These two ladies were dubious about the entire idea of bars that looked like you might hesitate to enter.

“How about the bar at Nobu?” they asked. “Vino? Morimoto’s? SALT?”

All wonderful, all a little off concept.

Finally, on Facebook, young-man-about-town Brent Nakano came to my rescue. Take them to thirtyninehotel, he suggested.

Now, thirtyninehotel is not exactly a dive, but it does have zero parking and you have to climb a narrow stairway off Hotel Street to get there. Close enough, considering the company.

“But thirtyninehotel doesn’t even have a kitchen,” they complained.

Turns out it has barely a kitchen, a four-burner stove and a tiny prep area. In that unpromising space, young chef Jamal Lahiani works miracles.

Lahiani (Moroccan-German by ancestry) was born in Chicago, grew up here, Pearl City High. Back to the Midwest for a degree in anthropology, some restaurant jobs.

He moved to Morocco to become a Moroccan chef. That didn’t work out.

Torn between returning to Chicago or Hawaii, Lahiani chose Hawaii. Short stints at Casablanca and Town, then his own kitchen, if that’s the right word, at thirtyninehotel.

We sat on the pleasant rooftop lanai, enjoying the fresh, skillful, well-thought-out cocktails (at last, a decent drink). The menu, “Modern Multiethnic Cuisine,” was short and spare: shrimp skewers, fried chicken, mahimahi, steak.

The menu seriously undersells the food, which, when it started to arrive, was near brilliant, especially for food in a Chinatown bar.

The lemongrass-marinated shrimp were touched by some deft Indian spicing. We fought over them.

The fresh mahimahi was done butterfish-style, tender, rich with sake and mirin flavors. The fish was served over warm, marinated soba noodles, in a sesame oil-green onion vinaigrette. For a sauce, much the same vinaigrette enriched with tahini.

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Honolulu Magazine December 2019
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