NADINE KAM / NKAM@STARBULLETIN.COM
The flavors of Malaysia are presented at the Green Door, awash in a green glow.
Loyal patrons follow the Green Door to Kahala
When Betty Pang moved her restaurant from Pauahi Street in downtown Honolulu to Kahala, the uninitiated were taken aback, unsure of what they were witnessing.
"I think there's something like a food Nazi in this new restaurant," one person muttered nervously to me in a near whisper.
Another was much angrier. "I'm never going back there! We waited so long, and when we asked about our food, she told us to get out."
I could envision the scene unfolding in my imagination ... and had to laugh. "That's just Betty," I tell people. "She'll never change."
The stories just amplify her growing reputation as one of Honolulu's colorful restaurant personalities. She might appear temperamental, but it's only because she cares about food above all else, and so what if pleasantries fall to the wayside. What are you here for anyway?
There are lesser lights from whom such behavior would be intolerable, but I get Betty, whose straight-talking ways -- an acquired taste -- match her no-nonsense, give-it-all-you've-got cuisine. I've followed her changes of address for years, ever since she was in the kitchen of a tiny hole in the wall off Kapahulu Avenue, Tsuru Diner, cooking up local fare. She headed to Malaysia after that and came back stronger than ever with a whole new repertoire that helped her to introduce local palates to an explosion of flavors. Prissy, sissy food it's not, so if you can't stomach fish sauces and a pantry load of Asian herbs and spices, forget coming here. Stick to Blandville. Those who can take it, however, will be rewarded.
Betty had been running Green Door Cafe in downtown Honolulu for about 2 1/2 years when she made her move to the revolving-door space behind Kahala Mall. Considering the brief tenure of tenants, when she told me she was considering taking the space, I warned against it.
Her downtown space was too small to accommodate all who wanted to eat there, but Betty being Betty, I envisioned the change would mean a shortage of labor, slow turnaround in the kitchen and a personality clash with Kahala denizens. Feedback I received from diners in January confirmed my predictions.
What I didn't count on was the extent to which her downtown clientele would follow her to suburbia. Scanning the room one night recently, she beamed, "About 80 percent, all my Chinatown crowd," she said. "And now they're bringing their friends. Before, they couldn't bring their friends."
That, I believe. There was barely room for 12 in her old space, and twosomes had better odds of being seated than larger parties. Now a group of 12 could easily commandeer three tables, with plenty of room for the other guests. And the traffic of people and plates flowed steadily. It seems that Green Door Cafe has found its groove.
The new restaurant doesn't look like much from the outside, but once it gets dark, the interior glows with the color of Midori or absinthe, punctuated by the red of a hanging lantern.
The eco-conscious will be happy to note that she no longer uses Styrofoam boxes as plates, replacing them with proper china.
And the food remains as addictive as ever. I went there with a stomach sore from a lunch encounter with bread pudding. When that happens, its best not to overindulge, and I worried about what the Green Door's food would do to me. I ended up being quite unwilling to stop eating, with no ill effects. That's the spell of Malaysian chicken curry ($8.75) saturated with the flavor and grittiness of fresh ground spices, and fish steamed in banana leaves ($14.75) and topped with diced celery, tomato and cilantro.
As much as I try to appear invisible to restaurateurs, Betty makes it a point to get to know her clientele and their tastes, so I was surprised when she directed me to a new entree of mushroom chicken ($13.75). How boring is that? But this is not the mild-mannered dish one would imagine. Here, organic Big Island mushrooms loom like penne in the sauté of garlic and white wine, liberally doused with black pepper.
Every menu has those dishes incompatible with various individuals. A lot of people like sweet-sour dishes; I don't care for them, and Singapore chili shrimp ($11.75) turned out to be one of those dishes. But even this I could not stop eating due to rich texture of the sauce, thickened with bits of egg.
Betty has the space for a year, so try it while you can. Hopefully, her next move will be closer to where I live.