The Weekly Eater
Nadine Kam

A meal dat hits
da spot

A dollar doesn't go far when you're out in the world. Many times I've checked my wallet before going out only to find a lone one and some change. At those moments, I'm forced to hit up my boyfriend for a $10 bill for security. Otherwise, what would happen if I couldn't pay enough to exit a parking garage, or if I couldn't get to a bank before lunch?

There's a reason presidents have to be dead before their portraits appear on United States currency. Why, if I were George W. -- the first one, not the one in office -- I'd be embarrassed to be seen on something people don't value enough to save. The dollar bill is the new penny when it comes to saving for anything substantial, like a car or house.

At Da Spot, husband-and-wife owners Ahmad Ramadan and Ako Kifuji think differently, and their corner of the world in McCully, is all the better for it.

A dollar means more when you're 8 or 9, and a lesson in value is reinforced as the couple plays informal baby sitter to the latch-key kids who stop by after school at Lunalilo Elementary and Washington Intermediate. Da Dolla menu is within reach of the youngest patrons.

Da Spot's DVD player runs anime cartoons and action-adventure films, while kids pick up such crowd-pleasing fare as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chicken nugget bowls and chili-cheese rice bowls that are not much different from parent-supplied meals.

"The kids are cool," said Ramadan. "Every year we meet a new crowd, see how they grow."

Da Spot's vibe is relaxed and with a motiff of reggae colors, beaches and macaws, this little take-out spot would be right at home on the North Shore. McCully residents and the University of Hawaii crowd are probably glad the couple settled where they did.

Da Spot has been a secret haven for foodies since it opened a year and three months ago, so it's hard to give this one up, but with the ever-increasing menu and some high-profile catering jobs for Cinema Paradise and Quiksilver, word is already out, though I would hate it if they lost that laidback vibe.

Because it's a small operation, people haven't minded waiting for meals. As Ramadan says, "We know a lot of customers by name. It's a personal feel. It's not about 'Here's your order, can I take your order?' "

Da Spot proprietors Ako Kifuji, left, and Ahmad Ramadan offer a plate to go of their Egyptian chicken and vegetable curry, with dessert of baklava and a serving of Egyptian salad.

CUSTOMERS COULD easily pick up their plates and drive off, but many end up staying, lined up against the walls in metal chairs -- sort of like at the DMV, except for the tray of food on their laps.

Turn around when you walk through the door to see the list of daily specials on the wall behind you. This is the part of the menu that gets strangers talking to each other about the dishes they've tried and the ones that you must try. Specials change daily because Ramadan and Kifuji enjoy surprising their customers, and are immensely patient when it comes to explaining the menu.

You'll see a lot of Egyptian-inspired dishes based on Ramadan's mother's recipes, but the couple is open to all world cuisines, enabling your tastebuds to explore flavors of Malaysia, Thailand, Japan and India, as well as America. No passport necessary

For $6.50, you'll get a generous entree portion with about four small scoops of rice, a salad (Greek or Caesar are frequent offerings), and dessert, often baklava.

Newbies tend to start with the exotic-sounding Egyptian baked chicken, slow-cooked for a minimum of two hours for maximum tenderness. No added oil is necessary to give this dish flavor because the chicken's coated in a mix of 20 spices including cumin, coriander, red chili flakes and cardamom. The only downside is that it's so tender even the chicken skin -- which I usually rip off and cast away -- melts in your mouth before you can stop it. Fat avoiders will be in anguish for days when it happens to them.

The lemongrass, chilies, cilantro, coconut milk and curry flavors of Thai Penang chicken may be more intense than many are accustomed to because they're similarly concentrated right on the chicken, without the soupiness of most curries.

Chicken dominates the menu, but you'll usually find at least one beef dish and a vegetarian dish.

"We have a lot of return customers so they kind of know our system is whatever we feel like cooking that day we're going to make," Ramadan said.

You'll also find a long list of sandwiches for about $3.50 each, and you can cool off anytime with smoothies priced at $2.75, $3 and $3.75 for 16, 20 and 32 ounces, respectively.

The couple chops and freezes most of the tropical fruit for smoothies as fresh as homemade. When sherbet is called for, Tropilicious rules. They're now pushing a mango and lichee combo. Go with it.

Da Spot

908 Pumehana St. / 941-1313

Food Star Star Star Half-star

Service Star Star Star

Ambience Star Star Half-star

Value Star Star Star Star

Hours: 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays

Cost: Less than $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

See some past restaurant reviews in the Columnists section.

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