The Weekly Eater
Nadine Kam

Cafe’s food is
simply delicious

It's official. I am the last restaurant reviewer in town to drop in on the Green Door Cafe, and although I could have put off my visit longer, readers wouldn't let me do it.

My review of Grand Cafe, for instance, was met with several remarks of "Wow, I read your review. I want to go but I think I'll wait," followed by the query "Have you been to Green Door yet?"

In many of those instances, I requested that the inquirer simply go and report back to me instead. But no, they kept insisting, "I'll just wait 'til you go."

At least four other critics have already given this little cafe their vote of approval and you were waiting for my 2 cents? Thanks! But you really needn't have waited. My vote makes it unanimous in naming Green Door Cafe as one of the few places every critic in town loves. Let me count the ways.

1. It's unpretentious. The red lanterns outside, set off by vivid chartreuse doors, are about as colorful as it gets here. You'll eat off Styrofoam plates from Styrofoam take-out boxes cut in half for the sake of conservation. (Green types might consider bringing in their own bowl or something.)

2. Personal attention. Right now, the restaurant seats only 12 at a time, ensuring the personalized attention of partners Betty Pang and Glenn Nitta.

As busy as Pang may be, she makes every effort to know her customers and their preferences, the better to customize her dishes for such difficult pairs as a husband who finds no curry too hot and wife who can ingest no chiles. Pang's very direct, which some may find off-putting, but it's clear she loves food and loves to cook for others, so she probably wouldn't want to be in a big kitchen, walled off from customers.

Her approach is so intimate, that even if you hear about the cafe from 100 others, you'll still feel like its discoverer.

3. It's inexpensive. Even starving artists can feel like princes here. Some HPU students have tried to take advantage of Pang's good nature by playing poor and requesting student discounts, but come on, the woman's got to clear a buck, and good ingredients cost.

To date, there's nothing on the menu more than $9.50 (yet) and two dishes for two people offers plenty to share, family-style. If you're really scrimping, just share the Malaysian chicken curry ($5.75) with an order of coconut rice ($2.75). The curry, with the grittiness of fresh ground spices, is so good, you'll want to drink it up. Most people end up ordering the roti canai (flatbread, $1.50) to make the task easier. Just scoop up the curry with the bread.

4. The food's delicious. Everything else would be for naught if the food were so-so. Instead, this is the kind of place that people have no reservation recommending to others.

Green Door Cafe partners Glenn Nitta and Betty Pang offer Singapore Malayasian Nonya fare.

WHEN SHE'S not at the stove, Pang spends most of her time patiently explaining her Singapore-Malaysian concoctions and a bit of the history behind nonya cooking, which developed with the marriage of Malay women and Chinese traders beginning in the 15th century, and the resulting union of Chinese technique and Malaysian spices. Trade routes also brought in Dutch, Portuguese and Indian influences, and the result is every bit as chop suey as Hawaii cuisine, which might explain our affinity with this small cafe.

Green Door Cafe's menu may be small, but each dish is distinctive. Its signature spicy red chili jumbo shrimp ($8.50) is served in a silky tamarind sauce, while seabass ($9.50), served with long beans and vegetables in a tamarind sauce, may look the same, but accents of lemongrass and galangal set it apart from the other. The layers of flavors give the sauces an intriguing depth that will put your mind to work trying to decipher the recipe. Or not. Some people just like the devouring part.

Also winning raves is a tender nonya-style pork loin, soaked in scallop marinade until its as tender as pork hash, dusted with chestnut powder and lightly fried, making it better than any tonkatsu you'll ever taste. It's topped with a garlic and yellow bean relish.

Pang is very good at reading individual culinary comfort levels, so will guide you to suitable items. The most daring may be offered a condiment of blachen, a thick shrimp paste combined with lemon juice for dipping pieces of deep-fried fish (pomfret, $8.50). Others might get a taste of soup with an intense shrimp stock made with five pounds of whole shrimp, not just the empty shells.

Ideally, the cafe would expand to feed more, but Pang's last Hawaii restaurant, Tsuru Diner -- before a restaurant stint in Malaysia -- also provided an intimate experience. I think she just likes welcoming people into a place like home.

Green Door Cafe

1145 Maunakea St. (entrance on Pauahi Street, between Maunakea and Smith streets / 533-0606

Food Star Star Star Star

Service Star Star Star Half-star

Ambience Star Star

Value Star Star Star Star

Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. until lines end, Tuesdays to Sundays

Cost: About $20 for two

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 nkam@starbulletin.com

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