Dining: Two You’d Never Find
Here’s this month’s moral dilemma. I have for you two exceptional restaurants, ones you’d be unlikely to stumble upon. They are short on decor, but reasonably priced and wonderful to eat at.
The problem? These are tiny restaurants, seating about a dozen people. More than 111,000 local residents at least glance at the pages of this magazine every month. If an infinitesimal percentage of them—point zero zero one percent—show up at once, these places are full.
That’s why the people who mentioned them to me cautioned against writing about them. They worry if I do so, they’ll never get a seat again.
However, truth will out. If I don’t live up to my responsibilities and tip you off, someone else will. Besides, restaurants like these, full of food and fervor, with proprietors who have a flair for hospitality, deserve to be celebrated.
Green Door Cafe
1145 Maunakea St.
Tues.-Sat. lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 5:30-8 p.m.
Street parking, no credit cards
A friend who’d lived in Malaysia tipped me to the Green Door Cafe. He went on and on about the authentic belacan, a potent Malaysian shrimp paste, in some of the dishes. “Whenever I eat there, I get home and my wife says, What the hell have you been eating?’”
This, and the fact that he discouraged me from writing about it—“You’ll probably ruin the place”—kept me from following up immediately.
Then one day, two friends and I were in Chinatown, walking from Little Village, which was full, to Cafe Oriente, which we hoped wasn’t, when we stumbled upon the Green Door Cafe. It’s not easy to find: its address is on Maunakea Street, but it’s physically located on Pauahi. The doors—indeed the whole tiny storefront and the interior walls—are painted a distinctive shade of green, somewhere between a Granny Smith apple and a calamansi lime.
The sign said Open, but the door was locked. We had to knock. A Chinese woman, who we later learned was the proprietor and sole employee, Betty Pang, almost reluctantly opened the door. We walked into Wonderland.
Not a physical wonderland: four plain pedestal tables, a dozen metal folding chairs, a free-standing air conditioner, a cluttered kitchen counter with the menu handwritten in two colors on a Dry Erase board. The menu was filled with Singaporean and Malaysian items.
We had little idea what to expect, but life’s an adventure. We just started ordering. Red chili jumbo prawns. Nonya pork tenderloin. Crispy pomfret. Spicy Singaporean long beans.
Pang repaired to her tiny kitchen, but reemerged to tell us we hadn’t ordered the chicken and dried fruit soup. Her solution: She brought us a bowl. “Try it. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to pay. Why should I charge for something you don’t like?”
We liked it. Even before we tasted it. One whiff and the aromatics rose out of the broth—sherry, ginger, onion, spices, fruit. There were generous bite-sized pieces of chicken, and dried cherries and a small dried fruit. Pang called it keichi. The fruit seemed to add flavor rather than sweetness.
The prawns came in a red chili sauce thickened with egg, so delicious we scooped the sauce up with roti canai, a flat bread hot off the grill. The shrimp came with heads and shells on. Too much shell for us to eat, so we resorted to pulling off the heads and deshelling them, a messy business with all the sauce. Pang immediately brought us a finger bowl. (The next time I came, she made me the same dish with shelled shrimp. It was not as flavorful that way, she said, but she wanted to adapt to her customers.)
The crispy pomfret wasn’t really pomfret, it was papio, done in batter, a simple dish that would hardly challenge anyone’s Western tastebuds. Not so the Singaporean long beans, which were flavored with the authentic belacan shrimp paste, an acquired taste.
Still, no one has to acquire a taste for the pork tenderloin nonya. “What’s nonya?” I asked Pang. “It means local girl,” said Pang.
An intriguing translation, not far from the mark. Starting about the 15th century, Chinese traders in the Strait of Malaka began to marry Malay women. This resulted in another kind of marriage, between Chinese and Malay food. These Malay brides, known as nonya (honored ladies), combined Chinese technique and Malay spices into a distinctive cuisine, which, given the flow of trade and the currents of history, picked up traces of Portuguese, Dutch, English, Thai and Indian food as well.
Pang’s pork tenderloin is one good example of nonya cooking. The pork tips off its Chinese origins; Malaysia, being predominantly Muslim, does not do pork. Like much nonya cooking, it is built patiently out of flavor by flavor, often by marinades. In addition to a whole range of spices, Pang’s secret ingredients in the pork marinade are reconstituted dried scallops, which cost her $40 a pound, but which add a subtle richness and depth. The tenderloin is then dusted in chestnut flour and grilled, coming out remarkably tender and moist, served over chopped cabbage and topped with cilantro. Not to be missed.
Also not to be missed, when it’s available, is Pang’s nonya-style sea bass. Stir-fried with vegetables in the classic Chinese manner, this dish continues to astonish with each bite, as it unfolds layer upon layer of Malay flavors: onion, tomato paste (in nonya tradition, Pang makes her own), galangal, kaffir lime leaves, bird’s eye peppers.
If you want to appreciate the drama of nonya cuisine, just walk past the metal shelves that house Pang’s narrow pantry and breath deeply: curry powders in all colors, cloves, Szechuan peppers, star anise, Thai cinnamon, dried orange peel, dried chilies, preserved plums.
One ingredient isn’t visible. “The nonya were wives, mothers-in-law, they cooked all day for their families and passed down recipes,” says Pang. “It has to be cooking with heart.”
Pang, laboring away at an unfamiliar cuisine in an out-of-the-way location, has heart. She grew up in Hong Kong and Singapore, stopped off in London before coming to Hawaii. She studied baking at Kapi’olani Community College, baked for a time for the Hawaii Prince Hotel until she decided she wanted to know more about food than she could learn in a pastry kitchen. She worked, for a while for free, for a Thai restaurant and a Japanese restaurant. She did appetizers for David Paul’s Diamond Head Grill, cooked at Oahu Country Club.
Along the way she took a detour to Johar Baru in Malaysia, to master Malaysian cuisine. “I wanted to learn from someone who really knew, so I could do the real thing. I want people to learn this food.” Her small restaurant is often empty; people looking for a quick Chinatown lunch sometimes walk in, read her menu with growing puzzlement, and depart abruptly.
Pang shrugs. “Everyone needs money, but I do not worry about it so much,” she says. “To me, the first thing is to get the food right. When the food is right, then everything will be OK.”
Pang’s remarkable, multilayered food is served on Styrofoam plates; it costs only $7 to $10 an entree. If she’ll let you pay for it. That first time, she wouldn’t take money for that remarkable soup. “But we liked it,” we protested.
“I just wanted you to taste it,” she replied.
She has soft drinks and makes fresh cider daily from 20 pounds of apples. You can bring your own beer or wine (a Riesling, not too dry).
There’s so much heart and flavor in her dishes that every one of her dozen seats should be filled at every meal, with people whose palates are primed for this kind of excitement, who understand how much they are getting for such a small price. You should have to beg to get into the Green Door.
524 Ohohia St.
Daily from 11:30 a.m., last seating 7:30 p.m.
Free parking, major credit cards
Begging won’t work at Mitch’s. There are only 13 seats, five at the sushi counter and two tables of four, five at a stretch. When the place is full, it’s full. About eight oclock the night we were there, there was a woman at the door, asking for a table for four.
She was met by proprietor, Douglas “Mitch” Mitchell. Mitchell, who it seems natural to call Mitch, is 60-something. With his white hair and beard, he looks a little like Hemingway—if the great writer had been better natured. In fact, given the twinkle in his eye, Mitch perhaps looks more like Santa Claus, if Santa spent more time deep-sea fishing.
Mitch listened to the woman sympathetically. But he wasn’t about to squeeze four people in or make his chefs stay late.
“Ah, too bad,” he said, when the four departed. Then he brightened right up: “They’ll be back. Next time they’ll know to make a reservation.”
So now you know. Since Mitch wants you there by 7:30 p.m. for the last seating, and since Mitch’s is out of the way, to say the least, here are some quick directions: Drive out by the airport on Nimitz. If you’re coming from town, turn left at the Alamo Car Rental on Ohohia Street. Drive down a few blocks through an industrial area that, yes, looks deserted and spooky at night. That’s Mitch’s on your right, in the front of a fish distribution warehouse.
Seven years ago, tired of the real estate business in his native South Africa, Mitch moved to Honolulu. His son, Craig, had lived here for 20 years and owned Dow Distribution, which imports oysters, lobsters, salmon from New Zealand, abalone from Tasmania, fresh fish from as far away as Spain. “To give me something to do, he turned this front area into a poke shop,” recalls Mitch. “I learned to make all kinds of poke.”
Mitch ran that business until he shut down the shop to nurse his wife through the last years of a fatal illness. Six months ago, Mitch and his son reopened the front area, this time as a sushi bar. “The idea was to keep me out of trouble,” says Mitch.
Do people from South Africa eat sushi? “No, no,” laughs Mitch. “If they find you eating raw fish, they lock you up and put you in an asylum. Seriously, there may be one sushi bar somewhere in Johannesburg, maybe.” (Actually, there are 12, in a town of 2.4 million people.)
It doesn’t really matter. The two sushi chefs don’t let Mitch “anywhere near the fish.” He gets to wash the dishes and collect the cash, he says. “And recently I got promoted to making tea.” In reality, Mitch acts as the soul of the place.
Mitch’s may be the most welcoming restaurant in Honolulu. “I love meeting new people, having the company,” says Mitch. He’s likely to end up introducing all the guests to each other. “It’s like a party in here every night.”
Mitch’s warmth seems to even have caught on with the sushi chefs, Hideo Mitsui and Masakazu Murakami, who, despite the inherent gravity of their profession, seem caught up in the sociable spirit, chatting with Mitch and the guests at the bar.
So how’s the sushi? We kicked off with a sashimi platter, letting the chef choose: ama ebi, slightly salted, so fresh it didn’t have the characteristic mushiness. Delicate white tai snapper. Firm thick slices of New Zealand salmon. Blue fin tuna imported from Spain. Most of the sushi in Hawaii sushi bars is yellow fin. The blue fin is simply amazing, especially the toro, the belly meat, with is almost white with fat (the good Omega-3 kind).
We asked where we should go after that. “Lobster!” said Hideo. “Yes, lobster, you get it two ways,” says Mitch. “First as sushi, then in miso soup.”
OFFICIAL WARNING FROM COLUMNIST TO READER! The following paragraph is intended for mature culinary audiences and should be skipped by the squeamish.
Mitch comes out with a whole New Zealand spiny lobster, alive and wriggling. “How else would you know it’s fresh?” as he says. The chef then, with one of those large gyutou knives, disassembles the lobster, detaching the head and removing the meat from the tail. The friend who come to dinner with me, who started saying, “Oh, god, oh, oh,” the second Mitch walked in with the lobster, was forced to avert her eyes through the process, which included some unfortunate wriggling on the part of the lobster.
ALL CLEAR. IT IS NOW SAFE TO RESUME READING.
Washed in sake and salt, the diced lobster sashimi comes piled in the lobster tail. It’s sweet in the way that fresh cold-water seafood always seems sweet, and firmer textured, almost crunchier, than any raw crustacean I’ve ever encountered. Squirt on a little lemon, maybe a dab of shoyu, and this is one of the best things I’ve ever consumed. I was glad that I thought to bring along a bottle of California sparkler, since champagne seemed the beverage of choice.
It was hard to know what to eat after that. Mitch suggested as a complete change of pace, his favorite dish, called van van. Hideo the sushi chef insisted van van was a local term, since it was hardly Japanese. Origin aside, this was one of those items that all sushi bars now seem to have: seafood in a mayo sauce, wrapped in tinfoil and popped in the toaster oven. This one was far better than most, the seafood being cut from the same case as the sushi fish—salmon, white snapper, shrimp and a big slice of avocado, all done up in a sauce that was mayo plus tobiko plus secret ingredients. “They won’t tell me,” protested Mitch. But he was right: It was good.
Challenged to come up with one more round, Hideo made two maki rolls, one negi toro and the other a perfect digestif, an ume-shiso roll.
Then we finished with miso soup, each bowl with half a lobster head and claws. I pulled mine apart. My friend declined to do so, so Mitch patiently took all the meat out for her. She, however, had nothing but praise for the soup itself, with its dash of sake. “This is the best miso I’ve ever eaten,” she said, any soup being much improved by being simmered with a rich load of lobster.
Mitch’s is not inexpensive. In fact, “inexpensive sushi bar” is probably a contradiction in terms. But it is reasonable, first, because it doesn’t sell liquor. You can bring your own beverages, glassware and ice buckets cheerfully provided, no corkage charged. This dinner for two was $118, but that included $40 for the lobster. You could skip the lobster, but it would seem a shame.
I talked to Mitch about expanding the place, at least taking out the old poke display refrigerator and putting in a few more seats. He shook his head. “Oh, no,” he said. “This is just a fun thing for us. I am independently secure, we’re not doing this for the money. Besides, if we got any bigger, I couldn’t give everyone the attention they deserve.”