Lemon Grass offers food of minorities


POSTED: Wednesday, April 29, 2009

In the online world, the wisdom “;Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,”; is alternately credited to Jesus, Confucius and authors unknown. No matter who thought or said it first, I believe it holds up to this day, and so does the staff at Pacific Gateway Center. They're actively putting this idea into practice as a nonprofit “;community development financial institution”; that helps low-income entrepreneurs start and run their own businesses with the aim of becoming self-sufficient, contributing members of the community.




Lemon Grass Cafe


        83 N. King St. » 851-7010

Food: ;*;*1/2


Service: ;*;*1/2


Ambience: ;*;*;*


Value: ;*;*;*1/2


Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays to Fridays Cost: About $6 per plate, about $3 more for dessert


Ratings compare similar restaurants:
        ;*;*;*;* - excellent
        ;*;*;* - very good; exceeds expectations
        ;*;* - average
        ;* - below average.


Five years ago, the center opened an incubator kitchen to help aspiring food purveyors bottle and package their products, while meeting state health food-safety requirements. The center has since opened a retail incubator storefront on King Street, between Smith and Maunakea. here, shoppers can purchase hand-crafted items such as wood turned bowls, ceramic ware and jewelry, as well as incubator-developed food seasonings, lilikoi syrup, coffee and fudge sauce. And a month ago they opened Lemon Grass Cafe within the same space to help bring traffic to the small shop.

It's a beautiful space, cool and cavernous with the tall ceilings and red brick walls of old Chinatown. The cafe part of the equation is in the back of the room, while up front left is the shop area and at right is the Pacific Gateway Center “;office,”; a series of desks where they conduct the business of teaching others to fish.

“;It's part of our social enterprise strategy,”; said Executive Director Dr. Tin Myaing Thein. “;Whatever income we get supports our social services projects, including providing emergency rent, language interpretation and helping refugees.”;

Chances are, asking questions at the food counter will get you several dozen responses. I tried to ask several people about the operation, but maybe because they are tired of explaining, want to simplify the answer or just don't know the whole story, the information was invariably incorrect. I was initially told that the cooking was done by aspiring entrepreneurs who were given a day to cook to hone their business and kitchen skills before making the leap to opening their own restaurant. That is false. Cooking is done in the incubator kitchen by Pacific Gateway Center staffers, even with Thein pitching in to cook Burmese chicken and pumpkin curry on Mondays, Indonesian beef on Thursdays and various curries on other days.

“;Times are hard so we gotta do everything,”; she said, happily adding, “;We all love food here, and we all get to enjoy each other's food.”;

CARE WAS taken to avoid competing with other small entrepreneurs—such as the Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai and Filipino restaurants—nearby, so you'll find a covey of other minority cuisines represented at Lemon Grass Cafe, a different cuisine Monday to Friday.

Monday is Burmese; Tuesday, Singaporean; Wednesday, Laotian; Thursday, Indonesian; and Friday started as Shrimp Day (”;because we like shrimp,”; Thein said) but has turned into shrimp and chicken day. On Monday a special dish of coconut chicken noodles will be on the menu to help celebrate the Burmese New Year.

The food is plentiful, good for the price and none too exotic. If you already like Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, you'll find much of the food here mild in comparison. I started with the Laotian menu of lemongrass barbecue chicken, yellow curry fish, green papaya salad, tofu salad and rice, which was fine but didn't taste very authentic. This was when I still believed the story about grooming young chefs, so I inquired about the cook for the day and was told he is from Laos. I later asked him myself and learned he is from Micronesia. It's not that you have to be from a place to cook in a particular style, but the dishes were too generic to be described as Laotian. Lemongrass, for instance, barely registers on the dry chicken. Red ruby tapioca was like no other restaurant tapioca but was a sparse helping of big Boba pearls in thin, milky coconut water.

At $6 for a plateful of food, though, I don't think many will complain. At first, looking at the list of dishes available, I thought we were supposed to pick one, but you get every dish described. You can also substitute items. Those who don't eat meat, for instance, can substitute a vegetarian dish.

I can't speak to the authenticity of cuisines with which I am less familiar, but I did enjoy the sweet-savory shrimp and pumpkin curry served on Burmese day, as well as the garlic shrimp on Friday. I'd need a couple of more long lunch days to get to the Singaporean and Indonesian menus.

On any given day, you might find surprises await, such as complimentary slices of Kau oranges contributed by a local farmer, and “;young”; coconut ($3) on the dessert menu one day. I was really looking forward to that; the coconut turned out to be middle-age, but even so, it's not often you can get a coconut cracked open and sliced for you.

The biggest benefit of eating here is raising the next generation of fishermen. We need 'em more than ever.