The Weekly Eater

Nadine Kam

Sunday, December 21, 2003

Say cheesecake for a
dose of holiday cheer

BEFORE heading out to The Cheesecake Factory, pack a snack. Sounds counterintuitive, but if you're hungry before heading out to Waikiki, you'll be starving by the time you're seated.

To say this place is popular is an understatement. I've been writing about restaurants for 15 years, visiting at least 600 of them, and I've never seen crowds this huge. And the wait wasn't just for opening night. The restaurant draws a crowd EVERY NIGHT because with seating on a no-reservations, first-come basis, EVERYONE is showing up to chance 'em.

I know, I know; you're optimistically thinking, "How long can it be when there's room for 600?"

You have no idea. Think 1 1/2 hours for a party of four or less. Any more people and you're looking at two hours. By 5:30 p.m., there's usually a 10-minute wait. According to Howard Gordon, the company's senior vice president of business development and marketing, the restaurants continue to draw lines years after opening-day curiosity has dissipated.

There's just something about cheesecake that causes grown men and women to become giddy. Mention the word and you can almost see their minds spinning as they respond with a dreamy, faraway smile. It's as if a mad scientist is going around injecting endorphins into the sunny yellow mounds. Who needs Paxil or Zoloft when a hit of cheesecake can bring so much joy to the world?

Obviously, cheesecake should not be considered part of a steady diet, but the menu is certainly not limited to said dessert. Far from it. And that's another reason for The Cheesecake Factory's popularity. There really is something for everyone to enjoy. The problem comes if one member of your party is indecisive. Imagine the trauma of having to choose from some 200 items, about 36 of them cheesecake slices. If you've waited in line, you aren't going to want to wait again. So study the menu while waiting.

Julie deVera offers a tempting German chocolate cheesecake, at left, and a huge Laua salad at the newly opened Cheesecake Factory in the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center in Waikiki.

ONCE YOU'RE in, you'll find a large and wondrous, cavernous maze full of dark wood and cozy booths. Trying to describe it is akin to the tale of "The Blind Men and the Elephant." You'll get a different vantage depending on what area opens up.

The Cheesecake Factory started in L.A. in 1971 as a wholesale bakery founded by Oscar and Evelyn Overton. Son David Overton founded The Cheesecake Factory restaurant in Beverly Hills in 1978. The chain celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, so in spite of its monumental dimensions, time and know-how has made this one slick machine.

If you can't be seated immediately, you're given a pager so you don't have to watch each other grow facial hair. Walk around; get to know the streets of Waikiki.

Once you order, you'll find dishes arrive in a timely manner, AND, waiters have all the orders charted so that your entree is placed right in front of you, no "who ordered what" questions asked.

YOU MIGHT start with chicken pot stickers ($7.50), Buffalo wings ($8.95), or a fire-roasted artichoke ($8.50) topped with spicy vinaigrette. Fried calamari ($8.95) was bland and not quite crisp enough. If you like cornbread, you'll probably like the sweet corn tamale cakes ($8.50), emphasis on the sweet.

A lot of sugar goes into these dishes, even in a Jamaican black pepper shrimp ($17.95) entree that's described as "very spicy." Sure, you can taste the cumin and cilantro, but the overall impression is caramelization to the max. That's not a bad thing when you're seeking mass appeal. Like our waiter said, five people at one table ordered this dish and they were all in heaven, raving, "This is sooo goood!"

Meanwhile, an herb-crusted salmon salad ($13.95) will appeal to any Atkins fan. A whole fillet is laid out on a bed of mesclun drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette. Nice indeed.

On the opposite end of the Atkins scale, there are heaping plates of pasta -- oh yeah, I forgot to tell you, don't get too carried away with the appetizers because meal portions are as huge as the restaurant itself. The Cajun jambalaya pasta ($16.50) is popular, but beyond the delicious chicken, shrimp, onion and tomato sauté that tops this dish, the mound of linguine is quite dry. It may work better with the more traditional rice, another option.

One of the best dishes sampled was the Chino-Latino steak ($17.95), thin slices of skirt steak marinated with a Thai tamarind sauce then grilled with onions and tomatoes and served with steamed white rice. It added up to a wonderful fusion of flavors.

There is much more to try, including pizzas, a "Tons of Fun" burger, salads, tacos, fresh fish, sandwiches and more steaks. They even offer desserts of carrot cake, apple crisps and fudge cakes in case anyone doesn't want cheesecake. (Is that even possible?)

They had sold out of the passionfruit colada cheesecake I wanted to try. I settled on a luscious, creamy tiramisu-flavored version. A tablemate went the plain vanilla bean route and that was incredible as well.

Alas, it could take a year to discover all the menu -- including Sunday brunch -- has to offer. No wonder the lines are so long.

The Cheesecake Factory

Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center, Diamond Head end / 924-5001

Food Star Star Star

Service Star Star Star Star

Ambience Star Star Star Star

Value Star Star Star

Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, 11 a.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays, and 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sundays

Cost: Prices are the same day or night at about $8 to $9 for sandwiches; dinner for two about $45 to $55 without drinks

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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