Pau Hana Patrol: OnStage spices up atmosphere
A good neighborhood bar can be a tricky thing to define, especially in Hawaii. Local culture reeks casual, but that can range from the shorts-and-slippers crowd that just came in off the beach to the khaki-and-aloha-shirt bunch straight from the office.
At OnStage Drinks & Grinds on Kapahulu Avenue, you’ll see both and more during the 5-to-7 p.m. weekday happy hour. The performance venue/bar/ grill, which features Mexican comfort food, opened almost nine years ago and will certainly welcome you in for a beer on the way home.
ONSTAGE DRINKS & GRINDS
802 Kapahulu Ave.
“We’re like a ‘Cheers’ bar,” said proprietor Dave Young, referring to the long-running television show. “Everybody knows each other’s name, that kind of thing.”
In such a place, one expects an easy-going mood where the talk can go anywhere, and that was the case here. OnStage was empty when I first came in about a half-hour after opening time, but then a group of guys walked in and started chatting. Within minutes, the conversation had somehow turned to eels — “really freaky-lookin’ dragon eels.” One could easily imagine Cliff Clavin trundling out some inane trivia about the slithery creatures.
While it’s easy to see why some people might call the place a “dive” — a description found in many Yelp! comments — the early evening ambience is pleasant and relaxed. There’s a dart board and three big-screen TVs tuned to sports, but the action on this particular evening was focused on the two pool tables as two young women and then a couple started to play.
Players seem to naturally separate into the more expert shooters, who face off to claim rights to one of the tables, and the less experienced players, who usually wind up sharing the cue with whoever wants to play, Young said. That is exactly what happened that night, as soon a young man joined the two women at the less-competitive table, and the play was more serious, but still accompanied by good-natured kibitzing, at the other table.
Happy hour is pretty basic. Pints of Bud or Bud Lite from the tap are $1.50 and pitchers $5. From the menu, Nachos Azteca are $6 and stuffed jalapenos $1 apiece. Kirin and Steinlager are $3.75 a bottle Mondays and Tuesdays. That’s it for the drinks, but really the food is so affordable it really counts as pau hana pricing all the time.
Over the years, Young has served various types of food, but in May, “Lulu” Esquivel walked in and offered to cater for Cinco de Mayo. It worked out so well that
Esquivel now prepares OnStage’s food five nights a week.
Esquivel grew up in Mexico City, had a restaurant in California before coming to Hawaii 19 years ago, and ran a food truck that was a favorite among North Shore residents for six years. So one could say her food is plenty authentic, but more importantly, it’s really good.
I had the nachos first, which come with either beef or chicken. The delicately seasoned chicken was excellent, and I’m sure the beef is, too, but what was the best were the thick chips, fried to perfect crunchiness but not burnt. They stayed crispy to the last one, well after the sour cream and salsa would have turned most others limp.
Lulu’s menu has burritos and tostadas, offered as plates with rice and beans for $10 or $12, but you can also order ala carte for $6. I got the tostada molida with beef. On the menu, it had a little chili by it, indicating spicy, but that may have been referring to her pico de gallo. The tostada itself was tasty with just a burst of pepper that lingered on the tongue. Definitely something to have again, along with her other speciality, exotic sauces, which she makes out of chili and mango. My bill for the evening, which included a beer and a soft drink, was $15.
A favorite for those in the know is the “wet burrito,” an off-menu item. It’s one of her huge burritos, sitting in a chile verde sauce, dressed up with sour cream. For $15, it’s easily a meal for two or even three.
A previous owner of the space tried to open up a strip club but failed, and one can hardly imagine such a thing in the neighborhood now. Young, a musician, does feature live entertainment nearly every night, but he keeps it low-key.
“It’s mostly centered on blues, local music, country, bluegrass, most of the acoustical stuff,” he said. “We’re in the residential area so we don’t really have hard rock or metal or punk.”
OnStage is near the Safeway Center but don’t make waves for Young by parking there. Instead, there is a dirt lot cater-corner from the grill that is open and free.
– Steven Mark / email@example.com