The Weekly Eater

By Nadine Kam

Thursday, January 7, 1999

The bubbles
will get to ya if
food doesn’t

IF any local celebrity's name could sell a restaurant, it's Don Ho's. The man is a living symbol of all things Hawaiian to outsiders, even after all these years. I can easily envision Don Ho's Island Grill invading the mainland someday.

The Grill exudes 1940s-'50s ambience in the thoroughly modern setting of the updated Aloha Tower. There's faux thatch and a small canoe doubles as a salad bar. And talk about more kitsch (no quiche here), tabletops are draped with luau-print plastic.

The food manages to evoke the same era. To a degree, the notion of a Trader Vic-style restaurant reincarnated for the 21st century is a charming premise. In the same way that we look to Andy's Drive-In for pale yellow "secret sauce" and slush, we could have turned to the Grill for our surf 'n' turf needs. If only there was a little more "surf" in the recipes. Nearly everything I sampled was dry. Perhaps this sells more brew from Ho's Tiny Bubbles Bar?

Star Rating

Said beverages occupy two full pages of a seven-page menu (excluding cover pages) full of pictures of Don -- There he is with Milton Berle. And Johnny Cash. And Duke Kahanamoku! For an extra $3 to $17 -- the latter for the gigantic Volcanic Eruption glass bearing a $15.50 concoction of Absolut vodka, Bacardi rum, pineapple juice, coconut and strawberry puree -- you get to keep the various glasses.

Have one of those, and you won't care what you're eating, but I expected a little more from the people who brought us such trendy themed eateries as Rodeo Cantina, Dixie Grill and Maui Tacos. But maybe "more" is the problem. While the aforementioned restaurants tended to specialize, Don Ho's Island Grill takes a broad approach and some dishes suffer because of it.

Take the stir-fry portion of the menu. Like I said, the idea of a family recipe, such as Roast Pork with Ong Choy served on Look Fun ($9.95), is cool, but this close to Chinatown, there's no room for error -- at least for nontourists who know better. In my house, the roast pork would have been of the crisp-skinned variety, straight from Chinatown, not the dried-out stir-fried stuff I was served. The fat noodles held up well in spite of the weight of the pork and greens.

Shanghai Crab and Pork hash Dumplings ($7.95) were pincushion-size grease bombs, instead of being delicate as dim sum.

SWEETENING up the mix was Shep's (as in foodite Shep Gordon) savory Secret Sweet Onion and Ginger Soup ($3.95). And the most successful dish by far was also a most unlikely offering of the Pacific Rim, Sashimi Pizza ($9.95), delivered on a mini surfboard propped on two pineapple cans.

Although our waiter told us it's a big order of sashimi, I found it's probably no more than the typical appetizer portion pounded thin, carpaccio-style. I didn't mind the thinness. It was delicious with the wasabi aioli, but I wish they'd use a few more pieces of ahi so there'd be at least a shred of fish on every bit of the crackery crust.

Luau Roasted Ahi (market) with Hawaiian salt, roasted garlic and tomatoes, was full of flavor, but was also so dry I tired from chewing. It was the same with a specialty of spit-roasted pork, marinated in lehua honey, pineapple, soy sauce and herbs,.

By now I suppose some of you will be saying, "It's just a bar. What do you expect?"

A lot, I guess. I wasn't exactly bubbling over when I left.


Don Ho's Island Grill: Aloha Tower Marketplace

Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight Mondays to Thursdays; to 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Prices: About $10 per person for lunch; dinner for two $30 to $50 without drinks

Call: 528-0807

See a listing of past restaurants reviewed in the
Do It Electric!

section online. Click the logo to go!

Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews run on Thursdays. Reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants:

-- excellent;
-- very good, exceeds expectations;
-- average;
-- 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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