The Weekly Eater
Nadine Kam

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Affordable luxury

IT'S a good thing that Elmer Guzman, in his first act as an independent chef-owner, planted his Poke Stop business in the middle of a parking lot in low-key Waipahu, a good place for startups to get their feet wet before plunging into bigger, deeper waters.

As it is, he's been overwhelmed by wave after wave of crowds. If he were anywhere in Honolulu, he'd be facing a tsunami.

I don't think Waipahu's changed much since the olden days of my childhood there. I still recognize it as a family-centric place without a voracious appetite for restaurants. My friends and I would have loved to eat more pizza and McDonald's french fries back then, but chowed down instead on our parents' cooking almost every night. Finances had something to do with that. So did nutrition. It all worked out in the end.

Many restaurateurs, in dreaming about their first businesses, tend to go for the glamour of the glossy dine-in spot with menus full of unfamiliar ingredients and French words. Guzman has tried to keep his business simple, and that's what has drawn people out of their houses for a peek. It really is a takeout Poke Stop, where families can casually pick up a few dishes to supplement a cooked-at-home meal. No big commitment of time or expense is needed. It's affordable luxury.

The problem for those who work in town is that Poke Stop closes early, at 7 p.m. Sheesh, Waipahu people stay out at least as late as Kailua people, 9 p.m. Leaving my office a couple of hours early, at 5:30 p.m. before back-to-school traffic started up, there was still enough of a jam to keep me on the road till 6:45 p.m., so that I just made it before closing time.

But looking around, I could see the reason for the early closing. Even with help packaging and ringing up sales, Guzman -- formerly the executive chef for Sam Choy's Diamond Head Restaurant -- is pretty much a one-man act. He's there before dawn and prepares food throughout the day. Gotta rest sometime.

There are lots of pre-packaged salads, bentos and poke to go, but at night he's the one cooking up entrees to order, front and center, in a kitchen space for one behind the counter. It's an ambitious undertaking that calls for customer patience when picking up hot entrees for four or more. About three picnic tables outside the restaurant await those who can't wait to dig in.

Chef Elmer Guzman of the Poke Stop in Waipahu posed with some of his fine finned friends and plates of Portuguese crusted oysters and crab-crusted shrimp.

IN WAIPAHU, Tanioka's is still the fish market to beat for poke, but they close even earlier than Poke Stop. It's good to have a choice for the end of summer fetes and your everyday poke fix.

In addition to usual ahi and tako poke selections, Poke Stop adds shellfish in a variety of crab poke, whether tossed with ginger and scallions ($8.95), inamona ($7.95) or kim chee sauce ($8.95). Oysters on the half shell are available at $7.95 per half-dozen, and hard-core seafood aficionados might also find large opihi for $30 a pound.

For quick snacking, half-pound plastic containers on the counter offer ahi pepper jerky, chili pepper ahi jerky and delicious smoked swordfish for about $6, measured by weight from $14 a pound.

But it is the hot entrees that truly set Poke Stop apart from the competition. I've had cravings for oyster po' boys ever since indulging in a particularly good one in a now-defunct bar in Portland, Ore. There has been no decent po' boy in town until now. Here, the oysters are fried up light, crisp and golden ($8), served on a 6-inch Kaiser roll with chopped lettuce and Hawaiian chili pepper remoulade. It's not fancy but it hits the spot. If N'awlins is your thing, he's also got beignets and Tulley's coffee.

Equally impressive was the tempura-fried spicy poke roll ($6.50), crisp on the outside, with chewy rice, ahi poke and a tart bite of pickled ginger at its center. It's great alone and even better with spicy mayo for those who can take the heat.

Borrowing a trick from his former boss, Guzman sears poke and pairs it with grilled wasabi-sesame salmon ($7) for a winning combination plate.

If you don't have time to wait for the food to cook, just pick up one of his bentos to go. The Shoreline Chef bento ($10.95), named after Guzman's book, offers Cajun-Asian spiced fish garlic shrimp and furikake salmon over rice and is served, like the other dishes, with Puna's red potato salad.

Don't forget your vegetables, packaged as a Caesar ($5.50) or Mediterranean ($6.50) salad, the latter with feta, olives, peppers and sun-dried ahi.

There's meat, too, but bouncy, Korean-style short ribs paired with garlic jumbo shrimp in a Surf and Turf plate led me to believe seafood is really the strength here. So stick with the fish and you'll be fine.

Poke Stop

Waipahu Town Center, 94-050 Farrington Highway, E-4 (middle of parking lot in the Safeway/Long's complex, next to Sizzler's) / 676-8100

Food Star Star Half-star

Service Star Star Star

Ambience N/A

Value Star Star Star Half-star

Hours: 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays; to 5 p.m. Sundays

Cost: About $20 for two

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 nkam@starbulletin.com

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