What You’ll Find in the All-You-Can-Eat Buffet at Pier Nine by Sam Choy
Can a college cafeteria get an upgrade from a local chef? We tried it out.
A selection from the hot bar at pier nine. clockwise from the bottom: kālua pig, wild mushroom pasta, orange chicken, sloppy joes, mixed vegetables and cauliflower.
Photos: Terri inefuku
I’ll admit, it’s been a while since I ate in a school cafeteria.
I look back on the days I gained my Freshman 15 (who am I kidding, it was 20) and cringe. My younger self wouldn't think twice about loading multiple plates with salad, hot food and dessert while sneaking pizza slices and bagels into plastic bags in my backpack for midnight munching.
So I was intrigued when Hawai‘i Pacific University recently opened its cafeteria at Aloha Tower Marketplace to the public, designed in partnership with longtime chef and restaurateur Sam Choy.
According to HPU’s press release, Pier Nine by Sam Choy allows diners “to create their own salad or panini sandwich for a lighter meal or delight themselves with a featured special meal from Chef Choy, whose custom menu items will be featured throughout the restaurant.”
An all-you-can-eat dormitory cafeteria that also caters to the public with flavors from a locally renowned chef. How would that work? After two visits, my impression was: more of the former and not much of the latter.
When my family and I stopped in for Sunday brunch, the dining hall was quiet with just a handful of diners, most appeared to be students. The space, which seats 142, felt surprisingly intimate with tables aptly placed along a wall of windows overlooking the harbor, each cluster arranged to seat parties of two to four with longer tables on either end of the room. There’s also a patio that allows customers to soak in the scenery while dining al fresco at umbrella-adorned tables.
But the view couldn’t satisfy a growling stomach. We came ready to eat, and to the food we went. The first area we stopped at was the made-to-order grill station that, for brunch, served up burgers, omelets and pancakes, along with sausage, bacon, fries and a selection of pizzas. This is also where we found the only dish we could find that had Choy’s name on the sign: kālua pig.
The weekend brunch selection includes made-to-order omelets.
A serving area at the center of the restaurant consisted of a salad bar and hot entrée section with a selection of items: wild mushroom pasta, orange chicken, sloppy joes, cauliflower and mixed vegetables. There were also desserts—a few slices of pie and cookies—soup, chili and a panini station, with beverages and dry cereal in the back.
Most of the food was, unfortunately, underwhelming. We found the pasta undercooked, the chicken bland and the vegetables mushy. The made-to-order burgers were passable, but the omelet lacked flavor and the problem with both, we observed, was that while the grill was hot, the ingredients were stored cold and did not sufficiently warm up during the cooking process.
Our entire table was in agreement: The kālua pig was the clear winner. Choy clearly knows his flavor profiles; the tender bites of juicy pork packed quite a punch. The salad bar was another highlight, according to the buffet aficionados at the table, with its wide array of crisp, fresh produce, toppings and dressings.
the salad bar was a hit for many at our table.
Overall, Choy’s touch, at least where the food is concerned, appears light-handed. An email inquiry to restaurant management Aramark revealed Choy is responsible for two dishes per meal service, though both times I visited, I could only find signage for one. When I returned for lunch on a Friday, I enjoyed moist, flavorful (though a smidge salty) slices of shoyu chicken that I assumed was Choy’s, since the tray was next to the same sign that, now incorrectly, advertised kālua pig.
And what about Choy’s poke bar, which was widely touted when the restaurant first opened to the public? I'm told it’s only available for Wednesday lunch service. I missed it on both visits.
At $10 for breakfast, $15 for lunch and weekend brunch, and $18 for dinner, there’s no denying Pier Nine by Sam Choy offers a solid value. Unlike most other buffets, it provides takeout containers, so uneaten food doesn't go to waste. The interior is bright and clean, the staff friendly, and the waterfront location offers a peaceful respite from downtown Honolulu’s daily bustle. Parking is free for the first hour with validation, then $2 per hour up to six hours.
nice weather makes dining outside a nice option. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself gazing at the side of a boat. (this is honolulu harbor after all.)
But in matters of taste, the restaurant seems to reflect more function than flavor, and understandably so considering the crowd of students I had to weave through as I left Friday (I opted to visit before the noon rush).
While Pier Nine offers a somewhat elevated version of what I remember, I think my days of cafeteria dining are officially behind me.
Too bad my midnight-munching appetite never got the memo.
But that’s another story.