Rave Reviews: Betty Shimabukuro
—Honolulu Star-Advertiser “By Request” columnist.
SALT BAR AND KITCHEN & 12TH AVE GRILL
These two Kaimuki restaurants exist in parallel universes: One mellow and sophisticated, the other bright and edgy. Both a reflection of chef/owner Kevin Hanney’s commitment to deliciousness merged with innovation, with that farm-to-table, locavore vibe going strong.
At 12th Ave, I order based on the premise that they’re always going to do a fine job with the protein at centerplate, so I pick based on the “with” — the sauces and sides. Yeah, that beef tenderloin sounds succulent and it comes with goat cheese on a crostini, but the short ribs have a Surinam cherry-honey glaze and I also get citrus confit and shaved fennel. Sweet, tart, assertive and beefy. I’m happy. For dessert, I don’t even read the menu. It’s straight for the afogado — condensed milk gelato and espresso, which sounds too simple to be so sublime, but take my word for it.
At SALT the draw is the charcuterie, meaning sausage and such, cured meats made in house by Doug Kocola. Go with his daily selections, then share a few small plates from chef Quinten Frye’s repertoire, filled with such diverse nibbles as oxtail empanadas, flash-fried oysters, or chicken-fried rabbit. Still hungry? Cobble together a light meal of salads and sides, or aim for a full dinner of fresh catch, flat-iron steak or salted, dried and cured Shinsato pork. Menus change with the seasons, so be flexible.
As I write this, 12th Ave is on the move, headed up the street to the former Victoria Inn location, which means more space to do what it already does so well.
$$-$$$ SALT, 3605 Waialae Ave.; 744-7567; salthonolulu.com. Dinner.
$$$ 12th Ave Grill, 1120 12th Ave.; 732-9469; 12thavegrill.com. Dinner.
Yes, it’s a Thai restaurant in a strip mall in suburbia. But don’t confuse Thai Lao with run of-the-mill Thai restaurants, so similar it can seem as though a machine produces them. Not so Thai Lao, despite its ordinary facade and the nondescript building it shares with a nail salon and a Starbucks. Thai Lao rises above, with vibrant, fresh flavors that provide new profiles for familiar dishes, as well as items you won’t find on typical Thai menus.
Go with a crowd so you can try all kinds of things. Try to talk everyone out of the usual summer rolls, green papaya salad and pad Thai. These are all done well, but be a pioneer, make a discovery.
Instead of papaya, have the eggplant salad, yum ma kheua, smoky with soft strips of grilled eggplant and minced pork, bright with lime juice. Instead of tom yum soup, try Thai-style pho; instead of pad Thai, order gung ob woon sen, a casserole of shrimp and bean thread noodles. Still need your tom yum fix? Have the tom yum fried rice, packed with the spicy, direct flavors you know from the soup.
If you are defeated by decision-making, pick something straightforward: beef with tomatoes, a simple saute of the title ingredients, plus green onions and garlic. Not fancy, but so satisfying.
That could be the mantra of Thai Lao.
$-$$ Halekuai Center, 563 Farrington Highway, Kapolei; 674-2262; thailaorestauranthi.com. Lunch, dinner.
MONKEYPOD KITCHEN BY MERRIMAN
For too long, Peter Merriman was my favorite chef whose food I never got to eat. One of the original Hawaii Regional Cuisine pioneers, Merriman is a walk-the-talk advocate for local farms and does fabulous things with their produce in the kitchen. The problem: His restaurants were on the neighbor islands. OK, so that’s more my problem than his, but the point is, it’s a problem no more.
Merriman opened Monkeypod this year, not just on my island but in Ko Olina, practically in my neighborhood. So my new problem is getting past my favorite thing on the menu, the Pumpkin Patch Ravioli, pillows of pasta filled with butternut squash topped with goat cheese and wilted greens. Luscious and squishy, they just make you happy.
Wood-fired pizzas are a good follow-up, in a number of choices, including that butternut squash again. Or one of the specialty salads, organic kale, perhaps, with Maui onions.
Saimin is another great choice, with chewy noodles in a rich broth, topped with kalua pork, broccoli, green beans and bean sprouts. It’s like a mash-up of saimin and pho, with a sprinkle of peanuts that call oxtail soup to mind.
If you can get here between 3 and 5 p.m., take advantage of happy hour half-price deals on the food. A few of those visits should get me past the ravioli.
$$-$$$ Ko Olina Station 92-1046 Olani St.; 380-4806; www.monkeypodkitchen.com. Lunch, dinner.