The Weekly Eater

Nadine Kam

Sunday, April 6, 2003

Phonexay Phoummaly, from left, son Patrick Chang, daughter Manivanh Phoummaly and Patrick's wife, Sansane, show off market and menu items from their market/restaurant. Sansane displays a shrimp salad , while Patrick shows an assortment of vegetables and Phonexay and Manivanh hold flowers.

Humble shop’s Thai fare
pleases palates, pocketbooks

This year will mark 15 years since I've written about restaurants for the Star-Bulletin, and in covering at least 50 local restaurants a year, that adds up to 750 of them. That's a lot of restaurants but not all the ones I visit get written up. Sometimes it's due to a lack of inspiration; others, plain old disgust.

I guess I learned something from one too many phone calls from homicidal/suicidal maniac managers who would freak out over a lukewarm review. As a former boss said, "The bad ones ain't worth it." Readers don't want to be led to a bad restaurant and it's better to let them fade away on their own accord rather than take the rap for their inevitable demise.

This was one of those weeks when I was facing a spate of restaurants of the sort where themes get in the way of good food. Luckily, after helping one reader with a meal plan before an airport run, he returned the favor with a recommendation for Bangkok Chef inside the Nuuanu Open Market. There's no grandiose theme there, just, as the menu advertises: "Thai Food!"

In spite of the dual businesses, the "restaurant" is a humble affair, with a mere three tables inside a tidy little open market featuring papayas, apple bananas, green onion and the like, as you'd expect at any produce market you'd find in Chinatown (except it's cleaner here).

Patrick Chang buys and stocks the produce and canned and bottled Thai sauces and curries and mans the cash register while his wife Sansane whips up a mean curry in the back.

They would be overwhelmed if more than 10 people showed up at once, but the food service is actually a logical extension of their grocery business. What a showcase for their products! If Sansane needs additional ingredients, she just calls out her order to Patrick, who dutifully picks off items from their shelves. That might explain the freshness of the flavors.

Service starts at 10 a.m. and continues through 8 p.m. for early diners from nearby apartments. Unfortunately for the couple, their popularity has led to dinnertime creep, with guests lingering past quitting time. Try to leave them some family time by showing up before 7 p.m.

It's mostly a young crowd at night, drawn, no doubt, by inexpensive lunch plates running a mere $4.25. It's an amazing price for a huge serving of jasmine rice accompanied by the likes of Thai red curry with chicken or Panang curry with pork and potatoes. And to think I've paid $13 for the same order elsewhere! I'll stop here instead from now on. The food is just as good, if not better, than many of the more formal restaurants around town.

A single plate will serve two, but it's easier to do take-out if you have plans to divvy up the booty due to a lack of "proper" china and flatware.

Sansane has a nice light touch with pad Thai so it arrives fluffy out of the wok instead of drenched with sauce.

There wasn't enough lemongrass on fried chicken to make anyone take notice of this specialty, but it was otherwise excellent fried chicken.

A la carte items range from $3.95 to $6.95 and include all the basics of tom yum ($6.95), green papaya salad ($4.95) and merely passable spring rolls ($4.95) with accompanying lettuce leaves and mint.

Kaffir lime leaves go a long way in flavoring the curries, and these are cut into matchstick widths to permeate the dish but for me, they're too tough to digest. They could cut prep time by skipping the slicing or simply halving the leaves so they're easier to spot and remove. But that's my only complaint.

What's more, unlike many a small restaurant, they even offer dessert of tapioca pudding ($1.25) or apple bananas ($1.50) simmered in a mixture of coconut milk and palm sugar, served hot.

Thanks for the suggestion.

Bangkok Chef in
Nuuanu Open Market

1627 Nuuanu Ave. #4 (building on Nuuanu side of Hungry Lion complex) / 585-8839

Food StarStarStar1/2

Service StarStarStar

Ambience StarStar

Value StarStarStarStar

Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays

Cost: About $15 for two

See some past restaurant reviews in the
Columnists section.

Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants:

very good, exceeds expectations;
below average.

To recommend a restaurant, write: The Weekly Eater, P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, Hawaii 96802. Or send e-mail to

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