A new approach to Filipino cuisine
IF you compare Hawaii's immigration profile with restaurant growth patterns, you might find some correlation. The early arriving Chinese and Japanese are well-represented on the food scene. Koreans followed, and you can find pockets of other cuisines, with Mexican cuisine suddenly coming on strong.
Who knows what happened to the Portuguese, whose main claims to local fame are the ubiquitous malassada and bean soup? And the Filipinos, one of the most populous groups, but in terms of restaurants, are no match for the number of Thai and Vietnamese offerings.
It doesn't help when a majority of non-Filipinos say they have never tried, and furthermore, have no desire to try, Filipino food. Tough crowd.
In the days before Vietnamese dishes caught on, I believed people stayed away because of the bagoong and patis, the strong fermented shrimp paste and fish sauce, respectively, that figure heavily in the recipes. Fish sauce is also a mainstay in Vietnamese cooking, but that didn't stop people from trying this fare. And anyway, the Chinese also always cooked with the shrimp paste harm ha.
So that wasn't it. It has to be the stigma of dinaguan, the blood dish. But people, you don't have to order it. There are many other dishes to enjoy, many even comprising known and healthy vegetables.
That said, Luis Butay Jr. is out to revolutionize Filipino cuisine in Hawaii at Loulen's, the first "continental Filipino" restaurant on Oahu. His aim is to bring a "touch of class to the Kalihi area."
It turns out to be the equivalent of a sparkling clean coffee shop, though with an American-Filipino twist. It's brave to try such a risky concept; a handful of dishes are double the cost of what they'd be at a mom-and-pop establishment.
In trying to make Filipino cuisine more appealing to others, he's stripped strong or challenging flavors from dishes. For me, it just seemed watered down, but maybe this is what a majority really want and expect. It wouldn't be the first cuisine to be watered down to suit local/western tastes. Pancit, for instance, is more like fried saimin.
RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Loulen's Restaurant in Kalihi is a family affair that includes chef Luis Butay Jr., left, Len Butay (holding Beef Steak Tagalog), Lei Butay Sison (Fried Rice Classical), Lori Butay (Drunken Crustaceans) and Jon Butay (Open-Face Frittata).
START WITH good ol' American breakfasts of three-egg omelets or open-faced frittatas ($7.95). Two eggs prepared any style cost $1.99, and a choice of traditional breakfast meats runs $3.99.
Fried Rice Classico ($5.95) is topped with two eggs prepared to your liking and served with your choice of Portuguese sausage, Filipino chorizo or smoked fish.
Buttermilk pancakes and Belgian waffles are also featured, though I had the feeling some of the servers don't quite understand the menu. When I asked whether the "Hawaiian egg bread" French toast ($4.95) was made out of sweetbread, I was informed it was. Of course I was disappointed when it was plain white bread.
The menu is the same for lunch and dinner, divided into Filipino and American specialties, but with such an ambitious scope, both sides suffer in some way.
The size of the room and greater cost of stocking the varied ingredients translates into higher prices than one expects.
Fire-roasted salmon ($15.95) appears poached and given a brief rest on a grill for decorative marks. It's sprinkled with garlic and capers and served atop rice with steamed broccoli. It was OK, but for the effort, I can think of dozens of restaurants that can bring this dish in at less than $10.
I found more satisfaction with a one-third pound bacon Swiss cheeseburger ($6.95) on a Kaiser roll.
Lechon kawali (deep-fried pork, $8.95) comes out unscathed. Bouillabaisse Cavite ($9.95) is big name for a pleasant humble, clear soup of mussels, shrimp, crab legs and fish.
"Fresh" fish escabeche ($10.95) turned out to be a deep-fried fish patty drizzled with a spicy Thai chili sauce. It tasted fine, but again, wasn't the garlicky, vinegary dish I was expecting.
And I also saw no reason to justify the $14.95 price of sizzling shrimp gambas, splashed with beer and sauteed in garlic and ginger. The shrimp were small and just about any Chinese restaurant could bring a similar dish out at $9.95.
Even dessert of the shave-ice treat halo halo had only a third of the assorted fruit content offered elsewhere.
So far, Loulen's is best for breakfast and simple fare of burgers and sandwiches, and possibly, as a special occasion place for those in the area who want to stay close to home.