Whenever the economy tanks, I always worry that I'll run out of new restaurants to talk about. That hasn't happened, proving one axiom of business: No matter how tough the times we face, the one certainty is that people gotta eat.
And eat we did, so there was no lack of new places to discover, though it was not a year big on innovation and excitement. Instead, the uncertain economy and the large number of unemployed sent people looking for inexpensive comfort.
Just as last year, basics of burgers and pizza were big, touching on another trend of connoisseurship. Because even if diners are scaling back, they want to be assured they're getting the best that money can buy.
This was history repeating itself. During the throes of the late 1980s-early 1990s recession, I predicted that the day of the large, middle-market restaurant was over, and what would emerge would be smaller niche specialists. My rationale was twofold. First, diners were growing more sophisticated and unwilling to put up with vast menus of mediocre fare. Smaller entities allow food purveyors to focus on the one or two things they do best, whether cupcakes, tacos or shrimp.
What I didn't predict was what form some of these businesses would take. Although Hawaii has had a long history of lunch wagons, I didn't think businesses could get any more streamlined than offering a simple menu of plate lunches, but even on the road, specialists emerged so that 2010 can officially be called The Year of the Food Truck.
Plate lunches were deemed passe in light of their sexier new counterparts, which sold everything from tacos (Gogi Korean BBQ, Shogunai Tacos, Zaratez, T.A.S.T.E.) to pizza (Impossibles, Inferno's) to classic grilled cheese sandwiches and patty melts (Melt). The aim, I suppose, is to eventually put down roots. Soul Patrol made the leap, with Sean Priester now serving up his style of Pacific soul cuisine at Soul Cafe at the base of Waialae Avenue.
Here's a look at some of the other ways we ate in 2010:
>> Cocina Mexicano: In addition to taco trucks roaming the streets of Oahu, Mexican restaurants put down roots across the island. Among the welcome additions serving comfort fare from south of the border were Luibueno's in Haleiwa, Mexitlan Grill in Kaimuki, Pablo's Cantina at Ward Centre and El Charro Mexicano in Aiea. Meanwhile, longtime Kaimuki neighbor Jose's Mexican Restaurant drew old friends in marking its 37th anniversary, and many a diner discovered the joy of paletas, Mexican-style savory frozen treats, via OnoPops' menu of local-flavor paletas, like Ume-Thai Basil and Caramel Shoyu. If you haven't discovered these, look for them at Blue Hawaii Lifestyle at Ala Moana Center, Whole Foods Kahala, Kokua Market and Muumuu Heaven in Kailua.
>> Dining in the dark: If what's on the table wasn't very new, restaurateurs had to drum up excitement in other ways. Over in Kailua, Formaggio Grill created a stir with its "Dining in the Dark" format of blindfolding diners and allowing them to put their sense of taste to the test. Those who typically gobble their food without tasting had a hard time, but those to take time to savor each bite had no problem identifying the mystery foods, even when chefs tried to fool diners by wrapping fish in prosciutto (squishy texture with pork flavor)!
>> Openings of the year: One other way to stir up excitement is to introduce a star chef, and "Iron Chef" Masaharu Morimoto certainly fit the bill, making a splash with his lavish new restaurant in The Edition Waikiki Hotel. Even if you have to be rich to eat here regularly, the curiosity factor kicked in, and all foodies had to try it just once.
Longtime favorite Boulevard Saimin (now Dillingham Saimin) led the way to another family operation, Tanaka Saimin, which opened in the former Weyerhaeuser building on Nimitz Highway. It's a palatial, glossy restaurant, but at its heart, its food and servers are pure old-school local, local, local.
Over in Waipahu, there were equally huge crowds and lines for the recent opening of Jollibee's, a Philippines-based fast-food chain, serving up American-Filipino style spaghetti, burgers, fried chicken and palabok.
>> Locavore goes mainstream: The push to eat local produce started with farms and Pacific Rim restaurants more than 20 years ago. It continues to evolve with a focus on using all-local ingredients, difficult in a state that must import such staples as flour and cooking oils, excluding our own macadamia oil. Even the most ambitious practitioners, such as chef Darren Demaya at Kai Market at the Sheraton Waikiki, believe 80 percent local is currently the highest goal we can achieve.
For the most part, the locavore dream is an ideal at the high end of the marketplace. But this year the movement came down to earth with the opening of Honolulu Burger Co., serving burgers made only with Big Island-raised beef, topped with local produce. It's not 100 percent locavore either, but it starts the conversation on the street level.
This comes at a time when shipping costs have gone up, leading many to start thinking about how our food supply might be cut short, considering that 80 percent of all we consume arrives via ship. In a recent interview I had with Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia and one of the world's leading voices on recycling and sustainability, his advice for Hawaii was, "Grow taro."
>> Healthy eating arrived: There's long been a dearth in healthy choices in the marketplace, but with an aging population and with more people starting to call themselves vegetarians or vegans, a handful of restaurateurs have responded. This year saw the openings of macrobiotic restaurant Peace Cafe, two vegan Loving Huts and Simple Joy.
The latter two employ soy and yam root products that are getting better at mimicking meat and seafood, but what I really long for is a restaurant that can be creative with fruits, vegetables and nuts, the sort of gourmet raw vegan cuisine made by 'Licious Dishes' Sylvia Thompson on a weekly meal-plan basis. It takes a big commitment and learning curve to turn out the kind of fare she makes, which is why most people don't eat that way. I'm hoping she can open a restaurant one day.
I'm also hoping Waianae's Kahumana Cafe will be able to open a second branch in Honolulu, or that some other restaurateur will follow their example in bringing simple, farm-fresh fare to the table.
>> What's coming: Two decades ago, we worried about "turning Japanese" when every new business in Waikiki sported a Japanese sign. Well, now it looks like we're turning Chinese. Basic chop suey doesn't stir much enthusiasm these days, but new entries to the dining scene seem primed for an influx of Chinese visitors to the state. Just open at Ala Moana's Ho'okipa Terrace is Jade Dynasty, offering dim sum and a full lunch and dinner menu.
And set to open next month is Jin Din Rou (near the newest Panda Express on King Street) which will introduce many a diner to the joys of xiao long bao, or Shanghai soup dumplings.
Oh, heart be still! Not a bad way to start 2011.
Nadine Kam's restaurant columns run Wednesdays in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.