Dining: Taking Suggestions
This month, our restaurant critic let other people decide where he should eat.
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.
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.
Mariano didn’t want to melt cheese on top of his pork loin. Instead, he’d constructed a log of Gorgonzola, butter and panko, sliced off two sunny yellow disks of it and warmed them at the last moment atop the pork in the oven, ending up with a nice, restrained cheese layer on an equally nicely pan-seared, thick slice of pork, golden-brown on the edges.
My friend objected to the faint blush of pink in the meat’s center. I agreed with Mariano that if you don’t cook pork medium, it goes all dense and tough, and this was tender.
The chicken was even better. Like the pork, it was relatively simple in concept. The breast had been butterflied and stuffed with a spinach, mushroom and bacon mix done up in béchamel sauce, which kept it moist and added flavor. As with the pork, it came atop a mash of Okinawan and Molokai sweet potatoes. (“You have to use both to get the blend right, said Mariano.) The potatoes were surrounded by a jus made from cooking down chicken bones. “Great flavor, but kind of salty,” I said.
“You’re supposed to eat it with the potatoes,” said Mariano, rolling his eyes. “It balances.” He was right; it was sweet and savory.
We had by this time equipped ourselves with a drinkable, though slightly coarse bottle of Argentinean merlot (it was $28 and it was all George had behind the bar anyway). We just relaxed, like we were the only people in the restaurant, which we were.
Did Mariano make the desserts? we inquired. We make everything, said George. And so we ordered a light mango cheesecake, a big, oozy chocolate cake, and one thing I tried to keep my friend from ordering, guava chiffon cake.
As far as I’m concerned, guava chiffon cake is Hawaii’s contribution to the world of lame desserts, ranking up there with New England’s Indian Pudding. But this was not the usual. First, it was real cake, with some body to it, despite being whipped into egg whites like a chiffon; second, it had dense whipped cream between the layers; and, three, real guava purée instead of some suspect pink stuff poured over the top.
We had five appetizers, two entrées, three desserts, a couple of drinks and a bottle of wine for $130, with tip. You could eat well here for about $30, so I’d urge you to do that, and soon.
“I like to give local people a five-star experience that’s affordable,” says Mariano. Go make him happy, he deserves it.
A Taste of the Bayou
740 Kapahulu Ave. // 732-2229 // Lunch Wednesday through Friday 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; dinner Tuesday through Saturday 5:30 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10 p.m. // Good luck on parking, major credit cards // www.tasteofthebayou.com
Several people suggested I check out the new Cajun restaurant on Kapahulu. None of them had tried it themselves. The thinking seemed to be: You first, John.
A Taste of the Bayou bills itself as “the leading Cajun-Creole restaurant in Hawaii,” a title it may claim by definition, since it’s the only one. I won’t go into the differences between Cajun and Creole, since in New Orleans everyone eats both and the definitions have gotten blurry. Just remember that New Orleans is the only place in the country besides Hawaii with a great cuisine all its own.
There were four of us at dinner, which was good because I wanted to try everything. Two of them were members of my immediate family, which was good because I was bossy about what to order, including alligator, which raised a few eyebrows.
“The alligator’s fishy, Dad,” complained my daughter. It’s only an appetizer, I pointed out, and the correct word is gamey, not fishy. It was tender, not always true of alligator, simmered in a soul-satisfying tomato sauce filled with bits of peppery and garlicky alligator sausage.
The other appetizer was easier to sell: fried green tomatoes with a thick panko crust, touched with remoulade, a spicier and much more appealing New Orleans version of tartar sauce.
But the entrées were the big hit. Taste of the Bayou’s chef-owner Dillard Faulk grew up in the tiny town of Stark, La., learned to cook from his mama, though he eventually attended KCC. Apparently, his mother could cook.
His file (that’s fee-lay, ground sassafras leaves, added at the last minute to keep from thickening the soup too much) gumbo is essentially a thick seafood soup, served over a mound of rice. Gumbo is built on layers of flavor: the New Orleans trinity of onion, celery, bell pepper; the nutty brown roux made by slowly cooking flour in butter. It had bright notes of black and red pepper and came flecked with file. The triumph here was the deep, rich shrimpy goodness in the broth, not to mention shrimp, scallops and crab in the soup itself.
If a gumbo is like a soup over rice, jambalaya is a New Orleans version of fried rice—except the rice is long grain and not fried, cooked up instead in a mixture of stock, vegetables and meats, absorbing the flavors. But it ends up much the same, rice flecked with a confetti of good things to eat, in this case, chicken and tasso (spiced, peppered and smoked pork shoulder). You can almost hear Hank Williams singing his hit, “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” as you eat it.
My wife waxed rhapsodic about the crawfish étouffée, which is a cousin of a gumbo. Since food is nearly a religion in New Orleans, how to make an étouffée is a matter of theological debate. Some cooks make it with a tomato-based sauce, which to others is heresy. Faulk makes it with a roux.
“That’s how my mama made it,” said Faulk. “I don’t know any other way.”
Finally, because how could we not, we had catfish and hush puppies. “I’ve never had a hush puppy before,” said my wife. “They’re great, sort of like a savory andagi.”
When I talked to Faulk later, he said he used his own seasoning mix for his dishes. He wouldn’t divulge its ingredients, but would say there was no red pepper.
That’s what I love about New Orleans food. It’s piquant, but not necessarily hot, despite all that bam! bam! bam! in which Emeril indulges. “I can make it spicy if someone asks,” said Faulk. “Then they put hot sauce in it anyway. I don’t see how they can taste the food.” And believe me, this is food worth tasting.
Dinner for four cost $126, with tip, and that includes Faulk’s wife’s pleasant, unfancy homemade desserts. (Try the sweet potato-coconut pie, sweet, not overwhelming, smooth but with texture, solid, not heavy). It does not include alcohol. You’ll have to bring your own or visit the Tesoro across the street, which is much stronger in the beer department than the wine.
Siam Garden Cafe
1130 n. Nimitz Highway // 523-9338 // Open Sunday 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., Monday 11 a.m. to 12 a.m., Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
I ran into Betty Pang, the chef whose Indonesian and Singapore-inspired Green Door Restaurant is back to being a Chinatown hole-in-the-wall, this time on Nuuanu Avenue.
“Where are you eating out these days?” I asked. She couldn’t remember the name, but described to me what sounded like a late-night karaoke place on Nimitz, near New Eagle Café and Sensually Yours, the adult store. Not a location I’d necessarily go looking for a restaurant.
“It’s Thai,” she said. “Real Thai. I can’t stand most of the Thai food here, but this is gooood.”
Given Pang’s acute taste buds, and her fussy standards on Asian cooking, I decided that, however improbable it sounded, I ought to take her to dinner. We ended up at a restaurant named, like hundreds, perhaps thousands of Thai restaurants nationwide, Siam Garden.
It looked like a Thai restaurant, too. Lattice-work ceiling, red chili pepper lights around a display of Thai beers, a singing-dancing Thai video playing on a flat-screen TV.
After arguing for a while—you order, no, you order—we compromised, taking turns choosing dishes. Betty wanted a pork Panang curry, something I am reluctant to order because it’s usually too peanut buttery for me. “See,” said Pang, “not sweet. I can taste that I am eating Thai food.”
I ordered a fish filet with chili sauce, which tasted surprisingly sweet-sour, rather than chili-basil. “No, it’s good,” insisted Pang. “Just right, except that they used vinegar for sour instead of lime juice. Vinegar’s cheaper.”
I also ordered something that left Pang unimpressed, although I thought it was remarkable, yum makeua, a roasted eggplant salad with shrimp and pork. The eggplant, shrimp and pork were warm, the eggplant soft, the shrimp and little nuggets of ground pork toothsome. But these were tossed with slivers of white and green onion, carrot and cilantro, creating a pleasing contrast of warm and cold, soft and crunchy, plenty of lively flavors set off this time by real lime juice and a deft array of spices.
The best thing was the fried chicken. Really. I would never have ordered it. Fried chicken in a Thai restaurant? Pang insisted.
It sometimes pays to be wrong. The largely boneless pieces of marinated chicken came in a glimmering gold and brown batter, hot, crunchy, ready to dip in a Thai sweet-sour sauce, with touches of ginger and garlic.
“I wonder how they make this crust?” I said, idly.
“Rice flour, tapioca, ginger, garlic, wine, white pepper,” said Pang, who then launched into a five-minute explanation of how she made the batter, first dissolving the tapioca in boiling water, or cold water, I forget which. Her explanation was so complicated it convinced me I’d rather go to a restaurant and pay $7.99 for a platter full than to try to make it. Besides, I was busy eating all the chicken.
“How did you learn so much about Thai food?” I asked, finally.
“Nobody would teach me because I didn’t speak Thai,” she said. “So I joined the nuns.” She once spent 17 days in a Thai temple in Aiea, so she could work in the kitchen and learn how to cook Thai food. “When I leave, the priest said he would miss my cooking, the taste.”
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “You became a nun for 17 days because you like Thai food?”
“Well,” she said. “I like Buddhism, too.”
Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center // 2201 Kalakaua Ave. // 922-9722 // Lunch daily 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner nightly 5 to 10 p.m. // Three-hour validated parking, major credit cards
I was meeting two old friends for dinner. One is now a Buddhist priest in Washington, who flew in for a visit. The other is a friend in the music business, whose enterprises often take him to Japan. (Yes, I know, I have diverse acquaintances.)
“Scott’s staying in Waikiki,” said the music impresario. “I know where we should eat: Chibo. You’ll love it. It’s like eating in Japan.”
It sounded great to me. But when I got there, my heart sank.
I’d eaten at Chibo all right, some 15 or 20 years ago. It’s an okonomiyaki restaurant, and broad-minded as I am, that particular Japanese fast food is not high on my list of things to eat again.
Okonomiyaki is a wheat flour-cabbage-yam pancake, and every bit as good as that sounds. You can top it with a variety of ingredients, from beef to natto. To choke it down, people routinely eat it slathered with a thick brown ketchup-shoyu-Worcestershire sauce, which blocks out the other flavors, perhaps mercifully. Sometimes they throw mayo on it as well. Hardly the most refined moment in Japanese cuisine.
“I am not eating any damn pancakes,” I said to my friends. They were gathered at the bar, our Buddhist friend Scott drinking only tonic and lime, my music friend drinking a Stoli martini. “Forget about pancakes,” said my musical friend. “Here’s the menu. You can choose.”
Chibo looked entirely different to me, clearly redone after two decades. We sat at a comfortable four-top near the bar, me drinking Masumi sake from an artful glass sake holder with a hidden blue compartment full of ice. I started ordering things, not without interference.
“We have to get the poke, it’s the best in town,” said my musical friend. Not a huge portion, but nice, bright ‘ahi in a better-than-usual sesame oil-based dressing. What really made it festive was the haystack of julienne vegetables—onions, beets, carrots, daikon.
There was also a burst of enthusiasm for the tataki—paper-thin slices of roast beef, thoroughly rare but not raw, tender, with a dipping sauce (Japanese kitchens will never tell you, but, my guess: shoyu, dashi, mirin, daikon, green onion, touches of citrus and goma oil).
My friends also insisted on the edamame, a suggestion that made me yawn inside, until I tasted them. Now there are slam-bang edamame recipes all over town—ginger! garlic! shoyu! oyster sauce! sesame oil! chili pepper! They are often addictive, but they tend to be far from subtle, messy and oily. This one had plenty of garlic, toasted dark, but not bitter. It also had citrus (yuzu, I think) that cut the oil and refined the taste. “Best ever,” said my musical friend.
“I have to say I enjoy these,” said our Zen friend, with equanimity.
OK, now that the more or less normal stuff was out of the way, I went to work.
Seaweed salad with jellyfish. This was a kaleidoscope of greens and seaweeds—red, green, shades of purple, fresh and crunchy. Woven through were strips of jellyfish—tan, soft, sweet and salty, with a marine tang. My Buddhist friend lost his equanimity: “No, no, you two eat that.” We did, praising so much its freshness and the contrast of textures that our friend gave in and ate some.
Our Buddhist friend, who you’d think would extend equal gustatory appreciation to all living creatures, also did not think much of the copper skillet of sautéed fresh sardines. These I’d ordered because the menu promised they came “in our own flavored butter.” Chibo’s “own flavored” butter turned out to be garlic butter—which I suppose might be more exotic in Japan than in the heart of Waikiki. Still, these were fine, plump, garlicky sardines.
I did better with the pork dishes, some thin slices wrapped around negi onions and shiso, then grilled, plus some fiery red pork slices sautéed up with an assertive kim chee.
Then, out of curiosity, I ordered potatoes and bacon—I’m always interested in how one food culture adopts and transforms another. This also arrived in a copper skillet, the potato slices a little al dente for American expectations, flecks of bacon, a healthy dose of well-roasted tomato, the whole thing somehow Western and not Western at all simultaneously.
While I was pondering this, the others were appalled. “Did you order this?” said my Buddhist friend.
“What’s this melted on top?” asked my musical friend. Mozzarella, I think. “The entire nation of Italy rises up in protest,” he said.
Fortunately, the last dish was a bigger hit, a pot of steamed mussels in a flavorful wine broth. The mussels were fine, but the broth, flecked with tomato, green onion and little golden globules of butter, was the best part. We wanted bread to sop it up with. Julia the bartender, who was doubling as our waitress, looked at us sadly. We wanted bread in a Japanese restaurant?
“Oh, don’t worry,” our Buddhist friend told her. “He’s always impossible like this. It’s not you.”
Finally, we recollected where we were and got an order of rice instead (Julia rolled her eyes when I wanted brown), filled the broth with rice and ate it that way, at which point we were all full, which was OK, because there wasn’t much on the dessert menu but ice cream.
You can do yourself serious damage if you start drinking and ordering whatever sounds good in a Japanese restaurant. But when we got the bill, it was only $160, with a generous tip for the long-suffering Julia, and that included several martinis and rounds of sake.
“Thank you,” said my Buddhist friend. “That was enjoyable—except for those potatoes you ordered.” I thought the remark lacked charity.
John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.