Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Eateries rolled with comfort cuisine plus a dash of innovation in 2010

By Nadine Kam

NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: Masaharu Morimoto, in glasses, brought his "Iron Chef" persona to Morimoto Waikiki.

More Photos

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.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Jollibee joy creeps through the long lines

Nadine Kam photos
The line was 60 people deep on a rainy Sunday at Jollibee's Waipahu, Hawaii, site during opening week, on Dec. 19, 2010.

Now we know that neither rain nor flooding nor fear of crowds will keep diners away from Jollibee.
The new Philippines-based fast-food restaurant opened in Waipahu last week and drew lines from Day One.

I knew it would be especially crowded over the weekend when families could get together, but I took the chance of going early Sunday, hoping that all good Catholics were in church. Or Christmas shopping.
They weren’t. They were feasting on fried chicken, palabok and spaghetti, the mainstays of Jollibee’s American-style menu.

For work, I had risked my life in pouring rain and whiteout freeway conditions to be there. I would’ve preferred to stay warm and comfortable at home. Common sense would tell people to stay home and not risk an accident or getting in the way of cleanup crews. But the drive for food is primal, made all the more strong by the drive for entertainment and novelty. A trio of lines, 60 people in all, awaited when I got there for lunch at about 10:30 a.m. When I left, there were another 60 people inside and even more waiting in line outside to get in.

Jollibee's Palabok Fiesta.

Waipahu Shopping Plaza, 94-300 Farrington Highway (next to Golden Coin) » 671-7448
Food ** 1/2
Service *** 1/2
Ambience ** 1/2
Value ***
Hours: 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily 
Cost: About $20 for two

Ratings compare similar restaurants:
**** - excellent
*** - very good
** - average
* - below average

I didn’t time the wait because it would have just made me sad to think how much of my life was wasted in line. I just tried to stay calm, and the lines did move fairly quickly. I was already eating at 11:15, so figured I had made it up to the counter in about 20 minutes, and had food in hand in another 10.

Near the head of the line, there was a person assigned to write down orders so that by the time I got to the counter, all I had to do was hand over the slip of paper with my order. Having been in business for a while, each option is numbered for ease.

At first, I didn’t think it was helpful that the person taking the order wasn’t able to call in the orders, but just writing it down forces people to be decisive and not waste time studying the menu only when they got up to the counter. Everything is premade and packed to go, so the person at the counter simply had to grab and stack orders.

That is often no easy task, considering there were a lot of families with numerous orders. Right next to me was a woman walking out with about four entrees and a bag of 10 burgers. If you can’t carry a tray stacked with plates, burgers, drinks and cups of halo-halo, they’ll call for an assist, someone to carry your tray for you, which is above and beyond what I’ve seen at any other fast-food operation. The young, novice staffers deserve kudos for keeping the operations running smoothly from the start.

The company has had a lot of practice in perfecting its system, having started in 1975 as an ice cream parlor. And although many Asia-based businesses make Hawaii their first stop when heading West, with no language or culinary barriers to break down, there are already 26 Jollibee restaurants from California to Queens, N.Y.

Jollibee's spaghetti, studded with slices of hot dog and diced sausage.

THE FRIED CHICKEN, dubbed “Chickenjoy” here, is crisp on the outside and juicy throughout. It’s the star of the menu, available on one-, two-, or three-piece plates in combination with one side and a soda ($5.99) or two sides and a soda ($8.99). Those side options are steamed rice, instant mashed potatoes, french fries, macaroni salad or buttered corn. You can also get a single piece of Chickenjoy in combination with spaghetti ($6.75) or palabok ($7.75).

The palabok is one of a handful of nods to the restaurant’s Philippine heritage. It’s only for those who aren’t averse to the smell of seafood. It’s a pancit dish in which the rice noodles are layered with an orange garlic-fish sauce, a handful of bay shrimp, a couple of boiled egg slices and a sprinkling of crushed pork rinds. I liked it a lot, but it will be an acquired taste for many.

More timid diners might want to stick to the hamburgers, from a basic cheeseburger ($1.09, $3.09 with fries and a soda) to the “Amazing Aloha” ($4.95/$6.95) topped with bacon, pineapple, lettuce, cheese and a honey-dijon sauce. The beef patty is nothing special, leaving the heavy labor to the toppings to convince you it’s delicious.

The spaghetti can only be described as child-friendly, having more in common with Chef Boyardee than any Italian restaurant. For one thing, the tomato sauce is saturated with sugar, then it’s dotted with thin slices of hot dogs and sausage.

For those in need of holiday potluck options, a spaghetti family pack that feeds four is $13.65; palabok family pack is $14.65; and Chickenjoy buckets are $11.49 for six pieces, $22.55 for a dozen pieces or $29.99 for 18 pieces.

Because of the lines, you’ll have to order dessert at the same time as the rest of your meal. These include Peach Mango Pies ($1.99 each) that are a ringer for McDonald’s-style pies, with more canned cling peach than mango flavor.

There’s also halo-halo ($3.99) topped with a cube of leche flan and two small scoops of ube (purple yam) and langka (jackfruit) ice cream. You don’t have to worry about the ice cream melting while you finish your entrees because a thick layer of shaved ice is enough to keep it chilled. At the bottom of the cup is an array of sweet treats including mung, azuki and white beans, and fruit gelatins. It’s another menu highlight.
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. E-mail

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Italian done deliciously at 2 Arancinos

Nadine Kam photos
Beef carpaccio topped with arugula, pine nuts and Grana Padano at Arancino di Mare.

Now’s the time for caterers, as well as restaurants, to shine. Two of my recent leads have come from catered events. Going to a new restaurant is always a risky proposition when you don’t know whether it’s gonna be good or bad, but there’s comfort in having already sampled and liked their food.

Case in point: Arancino, a restaurant that has been on Beachwalk for 15 years, which I’d never set foot in. Somehow, when in the area, I was always en route to a Japa nese restaurant, and every time I passed by, Aran cino was packed, making it too much of a bother to consider. I hate waiting.

Ironically, Arancino is also Japa nese-owned, but they do a convincing Italian job, from never failing to greet customers with a “buon giorno” or “buona sera,” offering fresh-baked focac cia with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and shaving Parmesan into your dishes if desired.

Of course I picked a fine time to visit the restaurants, when both were busy, Dec. 5 through 11, enticing Hono lulu Marathon runners to carbo-load for the opportunity to win gift cards and Aran cino T-shirts. My heart sank as I stared at the legion of Japa nese runners with deadline approaching. Which made it all the more impressive that they could handle the extra traffic while maintaining high food quality and serv ice levels.

The menus are essentially the same, although Aran cino di Mare has a breakfast menu of frit ta tas, salads and outdoor crepe station that isn’t available on Beachwalk. Of the two, the Beachwalk restaurant is a smaller, 48-seat charmer. I was a little outraged that some of the pasta dishes are being offered for $20 to $35, putting it on par with steakhouse prices. For pasta? But at Beachwalk, I could reason that it’s half the size of most restaurants, so it has to double its prices.

In comparison, the Marriott site has the look of a cafeteria that seats 54 inside and 62 on the sidewalk “terrace,” complete with miniature Venus de Milo sculpture. Less ambience, but you might be seated more rapidly, and the food is just as good as at Beachwalk.

Spaghetti alla Pescatora at Arancino di Mare.

IF YOU’VE got Christmas gifts to pay for, you’ll make the least dent in your wallet by sharing a 10-inch pizza, at $13 for one with gorgonzola, mozzarella and sliced green apples or $15 for the Sant’ Angelo with asparagus, tomato, gorgonzola and mozzarella. On the higher end there is the cheeseless frutti di mare ($24) topped with shrimp, calamari, mussels, clams, capers and a mild homemade tomato sauce. Or choose the Owner’s Favorite ($23) on a Napoli-style thin crust with the double crunch of crisp garlic chips, shrimp and onions.

A nice companion to your pizza is the antipasti platter ($15), which is more of a salad dish, with a trio of caprese, shrimp and avocado on field greens, and the pro sciutto with papaya.

Sadly, you will probably end up spending more than you intend just because every item on the menu reads so deliciously. Do you decide on a starter of prosciutto wrapped around sweet papaya ($11) with a spot of mint tempering the sweetness and melding the two flavors? Or choose between car pac cio di cape sante ($16), scallops topped with crisp, briny sea asparagus, red onions, caviar and a light champagne dressing, and beef carpaccio ($18), thin-sliced filet mignon topped with arugula, sliced mushrooms, celery, pine nuts and shaved Grana Padano cheese. Both are exquisite, but I’d give the nod to the more savory latter dish if you have to choose.

Arancino photo
Arancino's Beachwalk exterior.

Al dente pastas hit all the right notes as well, whether you like creamy, pesto, garlic-wine or tomato sauces. One creamy basic is the penne al gorgonzola ($12), and if you like it fancier, there’s spaghetti with blue crab meat and zucchini ($22) with tomato concasse in a heavy, sinful cream sauce.

If you like to keep your meals simple, there’s spaghetti alla checca ($16) with basil in a homemade tomato sauce, or get it con polpette ($19) with three large pork-and-beef meatballs. Then, billed as a guest favorite, there is spaghetti alla pesca tora ($29), with a garlic, white wine and olive oil sauté of shrimp, calamari, clams and mussels.

I also liked the dessert menu, which offered something beyond the typical tira misú ($9). For starters, there is a frozen orange crème brûlée infused with Grand Mar nier ($8) finished with a slice of candied orange. For a lighter touch there is refreshing champagne sorbet drizzled with a thin fig sauce ($7). Go with the former if you like your desserts rich. Other desserts are doused with liqueur, such as vanilla ice cream and mascarpone drizzled with Baileys and cinnamon ($10) or sorbet finished with Sto lich naya, almost guaranteeing you’ll leave with a smile on your face.
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. E-mail

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Better than cocoa

Nadine Kam photos
There's a reason the Aztecs considered chocolate to be a gift from the gods. Ahh!

Blue Hawaii Lifestyle makes good use of Twitter whenever the company is testing new products and needs to mobilize a focus group to say "yay" or "nay."

The latest group came together Dec. 3 at the downtown cafe, which didn't have to pull any arms to lure people in for a tasting of a new chocolate drink.

Waialua Estate Coffee & Chocolate's sales and marketing manager Derek Lanter was there to mix the drinks, made with Waialua Estate 70 percent dark chocolate, with cinnamon, Samoan vanilla, Hawaiian chili pepper. The result is a rich, smooth, foamy drink better than any cocoa I've ever tasted.

Cacao pods on display at Blue Hawaii Lifestyle Cafe's downtown outpost, at 1111 Bishop St. (underground, near Hawaiian Island Stamp & Coin).

BHL owner Michael Zhang had to wait, like everyone else, for a sip. He said he's sure the drink will eventually make it on to the holiday menu, but the only question is how to speed the process when it can get busy at the cafe. Lanter's already thinking ahead to Valentine's Day possibilities.

Another drink about to land on the menu is one of strawberry and mango, with the green of spirulina. It was created by BHL vp Matthew Olson, and in spite of the green, tastes of the fruit. It's one way to get the benefits of the blue-green algae (it's full of protein, vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids), without any of the ick factor associated with spirulina. Try it if you have the chance!

Derek Lanter mixes a new drink for Blue Hawaii Lifestyle, made with Waialua Estates dark chocolate.

Cinnamon, Hawaii chili pepper and Samoan vanilla is built into these chocolate bars, which unfortunately, are not available for retail, yet. Lanter may make it available in some form, perhaps with a separate spice packet, for those who want to recreate the drink at home.

Lanter pours the drink, a slow four at a time, and among those waiting for a sip was BHL owner Michael Zhang, a former nuclear physicist, who thought he might do more good for the planet by promoting an eco-conscious health and wellness lifestyle. He's pictured below with his children.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Le Bistro dressed for the holidays

Usually I take a break from writing a Thanksgiving column to (a) avoid overtaxing the opu, and (b) considering that most people gorge on turkey, ham, pumkin pie and all the trimmings on Thanksgiving Day, I’ve always assumed few can stomach more feasting the day after.

Black Friday is typically more about shopping than food, but with the festive Christmas season officially under way, I figured a visit to Le Bistro would be a good way to remind people to start making their holiday reservations, lest they end up with their second or third choice of restaurant.

It was really the first time in my life that I’ve gone to a restaurant the day after Thanksgiving. It just goes against my upbringing of not being wasteful, seeking out a fresher option when perfectly good leftovers were sitting in my refrigerator.

Somehow, I wasn’t surprised to find the restaurant was packed. Le Bistro has long been an under-the-radar favorite—chef/owner Alan Takasaki isn’t a big self-promoter—of many
 a foodie in town, and over the years, several people have told me so. Yet, I’d never reviewed it.

Yes, I was there when it opened nearly a decade ago, but the opening was a little rough and I never found the time for a retry. That just shows, good times and bad, there’s been no shortage of new restaurants vying for attention. I was reminded Le Bistro was long due when Takasaki and his general manager Ron Kano did an impressive job catering a party I recently attended.

Christmas decorations at Le Bistro went up on Black Friday, but it’s not the season’s flourishes that make it so festive. The warm, intimacy of the room and staffers invite conviviality year ’round, making it a popular spot for special occasions, and I don’t believe other guests had entered Christmas mode yet. When I was there, two parties burst out in choruses of “The Happy Birthday Song.”

TAKASAKI, WHO counts Le Bernardin and restaurants in Bordeaux on his CV, before stints at Sam Choy’s Diamond Head and Alan T’s at Honolulu Club, is true to the bistro concept of French comfort food of the sort that sends diners into swoon mode. Even dieters must relax their inhibitions and know that one evening of pure pleasure is worth 364 days of sacrifice. You’ll find the real question is not what to order, but what not to order, when just about every dish is a winner.

Dinner might start with a French onion soup gratínee with a cap of gruyere ($7.80) or appetizer of escargot de Bourgogne ($9.80) in garlic-spiked olive butter. I was afraid for my heart when my dining companion, made queasy by the idea of eating snails, refused to try one, leaving me to finish them all! What? I already said I was raised in a household where food never went to waste.

A fricassee of shellfish ($12.80) was transportive, bringing back memories of dining in Seattle with a taste of plump, juicy Penn Cove mussels that were the star of the dish. Ah, it also made me long for a dish of moules frites. Something to add to the menu, perhaps? Manila clams in the dish were small and minor in comparison. If you want to go all-mussel, try the roasted version in Bordelaise sauce ($16.80).

Cool appetizers are available as well, including an ahi tartare ($14.80), Pacific Northwest oysters on the half shell ($16.80), and seared ahi ($16.80) given Euro treatment with a horseradish crust, a touch of goat cheese, the sting of Spanish vinegar and savory Bordelaise with a little spray of baby greens.

Whether you prefer la viande or fruits de mer, you’ll find plenty of dishes to satisfy. From the sea, there is pan-roasted sea bass ($29.80) topped with mushrooms, asparagus and truffle essence. Or choose New Zealand organic salmon ($28.80) grilled with gorgonzola and walnuts, or seared day boat scallops with lardons of Kurobuta pork ($32.80). Then there’s pan-roasted opah ($29.80) with Nicoise olives, thyme and tomatoes. There’s not a bad dish on the list, though it was the Maine lobster ($25.80 per pound) that was sold out the evening I was there.

Meat is generally cooked to a rosy medium, unless you have another preference. There is a rack of Colorado lamb with thyme jus ($39.80), caramelized bone-in Kurobuta pork chop ($32.80) with onion, red wine and balsamic vinegar, and twice-cooked breast of Muscovy duck ($28.80), which is pan seared, then grilled with steak-like results, then topped with porcini mushrooms and circled with a medley of tender diced turnips, baby carrots and chopped asparagus.

Beef lovers will be hard-pressed to choose from Black Angus ribe-eye with wild mushrooms, cognac and Roquefort butter ($29.80), a filet mignon with port wine sauce ($34.80 or $39.80 depending on portion), or red wine and peppercorn short ribs ($19.80 or 23.80). You could visit three times, or Takasaki generally offers an easy option in the form of a frequent dinner special. That is, a beef quartet featuring tasting portions of the filet mignon, rib-eye with marrow sauce, and shortribs, with the addition of a juicy Kobe slider with foie gras, and all the fixings—tomato, onions and lettuce—served in a little cup on the side. The melt-in-your-mouth shortribs were easily my favorite, though others will have a hard time picking one.

For dessert, you might want to try the house specialty, a thin apple tart built on a circle of puff pastry, with the thin-sliced apples coated in a glassy sugar glaze. It was accompanied by a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream and a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds. In Greek mythology, eating pomegranate seeds condemned the goddess Persephone to Hades’ underworld for part of the year, but here, it just added to the heavenly experience.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Restaurants get real in offering Mexican fare

Through the years, I've heard people complain about the dearth of authentic Mexican fare in Hawaii. Well, they can now put their money where their mouths are. All of a sudden there are two new entries to the scene, both authentic and rather equal in scope. The one you gravitate to comes down to a matter of style and/or geography, with the glitzier Pablo's Cantina in Ward Centre, and the other, El Charro Mexicano in the Aiea Shopping Center.

I love that at both restaurants you'll find nothing generic, but sauces rich with the flavor of toasted chile peppers, everything made from scratch.

Pablo's street-style tacos.


A year ago I learned of plans for a Pablo McGinty's Mexican-Irish restaurant to open on the site of the former Compadres at Ward Centre. It sounded dreadful.
The deadline for the restaurant's arrival came and went, and by the time the restaurant finally opened a few weeks ago, it had undergone a name change to the less questionable Pablo's Cantina. Even so, its menu and signs still refers to a namesake character, Pablo McGinty.

They didn't have to try quite so hard when at its heart, Pablo's cuisine is as authentic as it gets. In the past, that would have been all the selling point needed to draw a crowd, but given the size of this restaurant and the reality that people are not dining out as much as they once did, it's going to be more difficult filling this space than it was in Compadres' day. The result is a restaurant with a split personality, and it'll be tricky trying to bridge the gap between the slow pace of authentic cuisine and the fast demands of the Taco Tuesday set.

Beyond mere tacos and burritos, the restaurant -- with a casita-inspired setting full of pottery from various regions of Mexico -- pays homage to Mexico's diverse food culture, featuring regional specialties from around the country, with everything prepared fresh daily on the premises by chef Mario Lopez (not the actor), who hails from Mexico City.


     Ward Centre » 591-8307
     Food ***1/2
     Service ***
     Ambience ***
     Value ***
     Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily Cost: $30 to $35 for two without alcohol

For starters there is queso fundido chorizo, melted Jack cheese layered with spicy chorizo sausage and served with pico de gallo and flour tortillas ($9.95). Who doesn't love cheese? Try to balance that with the better-for-your-health ceviche de la casa ($10.95), the marinated fish strong on lime with a little kick from cilantro and serrano peppers.

If dishes are not spicy enough, take your pick of hot sauces from the restaurant's wall of flame. And if that's not enough, the kitchen staff can also whip up a batch of chopped habanero to add at your own risk.

If you like pork, look no  further than to an entree of Jalisco-style, fork-tender roast carnitas ($13.95), better than our state favorite of kalua pork. Cubes of pork also figures in chile verde ($13.95), in a rich, pleasantly tart tomatillo-chili sauce.

Chiles rellenos ($13.95) in a red chile sauce is another highlight. It comes stuffed with your choice of spicy beef, shredded chicken or cheddar/Monterey Jack. Even so, there can be inconsistencies. The first time I had it, it arrived hot and plump; the second time it arrived cool and deflated.

Speed is an issue with dishes cooked from scratch. On a second visit it took a good 15 to 20 minutes for any food to arrive, and when it did, two appetizers and two entrees arrived at the same time. At a Mexican restaurant, you don't want that much food in front of you at once. Also, during the wait you can easily fill up on chips and salsa, which defeats the purpose of ordering appetizers in the first place.appetizers in the first place.

If you're really hungry or are in the mood to share, steak a la Tampiqueria ($24.95) is a platter the size of a banana leaf laden with about six ounces of grilled Angus steak, a chicken enchilada, a cheese chile relleno, grilled nopale cactus (a little similar in flavor to cooked green bell pepper with a more rubbery texture) and all the usual sides of Mexican rice, refried beans, guacamole, sour cream and tortillas.

Similarly, for those who like pupu-style grazing, the molcajete ($24.95) is something I would have loved to try. They weren't serving it because the proper bowl hadn't arrived. It would have been filled with green sauce for dipping its other contents of grilled beef, chicken, chorizo, green onion and cactus, served with avocado, cheese and tortillas.

Of interest to bar hoppers, star mixologist Joey Gottesman had a hand in developing Pablo's bar concept. Continued heat in winter months calls for the refreshment of Roasted Pineapple Margarita made with fresh roasted and caramelized pineapple, and the Chipotle with roasted jalapeno, tequila, triple sec, house-made sweet-and-sour, and fresh orange and lime juices.

Chase straight shots of tequila with the traditional Guadalajara sangrita, a tomato-based nonalcoholic shot with the flavor of a Bloody Mary, meant to complement the pepper and citrus flavors of agave tequila.

"Taco Tuesdays," initially established by Compadres, returns next Tuesday. Other specials include "Monday Madness" happy hour with beer, drink and appetizer specials coinciding with football night, pau hana happy-hour drink specials from 4 to 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday nights, and "Sunday is Fun Day," during which kids under 12 eat for $5.

Pablo's carnitas.

The wall of flame.


El Charro Mexicano's Parillada.


Aiea Shopping Center between Dirty Lickin's and Aiea Bowling Alley » 488-9727
Food ***1/2
Service **
Ambience **1/2
Value ***1/2
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays Cost: About $25 for two

At El Charro, whose owner comes from Mexico City, English is a second language. This requires patrons proficient in understanding a menu because it may be difficult to get servers to answer questions.

Aside from that, I enjoyed the food here immensely, though the ambience is strictly understated mall.

Just as at Pablo's, you'll find a starter of queso fundido of melted jack and mozzarella cheese ($5.50), with chorizo ($6), shrimp ($8) and scallops ($9) as topping options. Again, it's easy to polish this off while waiting for your entrees, but try to resist or you won't be hungry when your entree arrives.
Similarly, ceviche ($8.99) also comes with shrimp or mahi options.

Pork lovers have the option of chile verde or chile rojo ($10.99). The pork flavor comes out stronger with the green tomatillo sauce than the red, in which the flavor of Anaheim chiles dominates. More of the character of Mexican cuisine is revealed in the depth of chocolate, chiles and spices that go into the chicken mole sauce ($10.99).

It's not just the entrees to get the attention. The Mexican rice accompanying entrees is perfumed with garlic, and guacamole and pico de gallo is always fresh and vibrant to the eye and palate.

One of the major dishes, for those who find ease in communal dining, is the Parrillada ($21.50), a platter that easily feeds three adults or perhaps a family of four (two adults and two young children). The menu described grilled chicken, steak and chorizo, which is quite different from what it really is, more like a glorified fajita platter, with chopped steak sauteed with shrimp, scallops, bell peppers, onions and mushrooms, all intended to be wrapped with accompanying rice, guacamole, pico de gallo, refried beans and sour cream on corn or flour tortillas.

It wasn't as great as the smaller a la carte plates, but if you're on a budget, it's quick and easy, and the sizzling platter is dramatic.

Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. E-mail