The Weekly Eater

Nadine Kam

There’s nothing second-rate
about this White Elephant

Watching through the picture windows at White Elephant, it's quite entertaining to view the Waialae Avenue parade -- residents out on their evening walks or jogs, students headed to and from extra-curricular activities, and bus passengers arriving and departing.

It's obvious that they know the neighborhood. Anything new offers ample reason for an open-mouthed gawk, and therefore the quizzical looks that greet the White Elephant sign. Or maybe they're just trying to make sense of it. Where are the "Suck 'em up" glasses or the shaka ashtrays?

It doesn't help that the new Thai restaurant is situated in an area that is home to resale furniture and fashion boutiques. A white elephant may be revered in certain regions of Southeast Asia and India, but for us Westerners, the term means something totally different, referring to items of little value or no longer wanted by their owner, or, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition: "an endeavor or venture that proves to be a conspicuous failure."

Luckily that definition doesn't fit White Elephant. In fact, I predict it will be a conspicuous success. So much so that I told my friends to go BEFORE this review comes out and the crowd arrives. All I can say is, go easy on the proprietors, Pravit and Chutima "Nu" Luechaikarm. This is truly a mom-and-pop operation.

The restaurant doesn't offer much in terms of decor. In fact, it rivals some of Chinatown's dingiest, but be not afraid.

Chutima and Pravit Luechaikarm, owners of White Elephant in Kaimuki, show off their Pad Thai (Thai noodles), left, Spicy Spring Rolls, center, and Poh Taek (fried seafood).

THIS IS THE restaurant that Pravit had always dreamed of opening. His previous eatery, King Okazu-ya at King and Alakea streets, was a compromise, serving a mix of okazu-ya, Thai and local specialties to a downtown lunch crowd in search of quick meals to go.

So maybe he got carried away in creating a menu with 150-plus dishes, larger than any Thai menu I've seen here. He also seems to have been carried away in writing the menu. Who could resist a pla salad when it boasts a "combination of flavors chili-hot, citrus-sharp, and salty flavor to tease and revive jaded palates"? The ebullient, evocative descriptions are the start of a cookbook he's working on.

Naturally, I had to have the spicy dark broth version of tom yum (the other choices are a clear or milky broth) served with a sweetened chili jam that starts with jarred chili paste, to which he adds a touch of sugar, garlic and herbs to create a paste that's "diabolically good and exceedingly hot and spicy." The soup -- you can choose main ingredients of shrimp, chicken, fish or seafood ($6.95 to $8.95) -- was perfect, with the sweetness cutting some of the chilis' effect to render it less painful. The chili jam ended up having a second life as a dipping sauce for other dishes as they arrived.

The variety of offerings encourages experimentation. Breaking out of the usual spring roll ($6.95) and satay ($6.50 to $7.50) mode, we sampled the spicy beef and potato spring roll ($6.50), which tasted like a cousin to Indian samosas. Crispy shrimp rolls ($6.95) are whole shrimp wrapped in a spring-roll wrapper and deep fried. While White Elephant has most Thai restaurants beat, I'm afraid that Montien on King Street does a better job with a much lighter wrap.

Next up was Boxing Chicken ($6.95), seasoned boneless chicken that was a hit at the couple's former restaurant. The chicken is fried and double-cooked to achieve an airy texture before being painted with a sweet chili sauce. The puffy chicken became the basis for a tabletop Rorschach test as we saw in them the shapes of scorpions, seahorses and ogres -- this with no alcohol whatsoever.

Curries red, green and yellow ($6.95 to $7.95) are all represented here. We opted for the Indian-style yellow Mussaman curry with chicken, with its infusion of tamarind juice and coconut milk.

A dish of garlic shrimp ($6.95) was rather plain, but the shrimp had a wonderful, glossy, slow-cooked look and texture and I appreciated that fresh garlic, rather than the jarred stuff, was used.

I later spotted a couple of noni leaf red curries on the menu, which those with health concerns might sample. It could take up to a year to try all White Elephant has to offer. Interestingly enough, with all the attention heaped on the spicy dishes, the simple pad Thai was forgotten. You can still order it -- here it's topped with whole plump, sauteed shrimp as one of the barometers of Thai cooking.

Funny that Nu asked us about this particular dish. I guess I had a sour expression when I started "too ..."

"Sweet," she finished, and we laughed.

"You knew already," I said.

"Yes, I watched him make it," she said.

I expect the recipe will be perfected by the time you visit.


3404 Waialae Ave. / 732-7433

Food Star Star Star Star

Service Star Star Star 1/2

Ambience Star Star

Value Star Star Star Star

Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m. daily

Cost: About $25 to $30 for two to four people

See some past restaurant reviews in the
Columnists section.

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


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