Waikiki cafe a surprise find


POSTED: Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Hawaii Tourism Authority keeps tabs on visitor satisfaction levels, and in January this year, I noticed that those numbers are down, on top of a decline in visitor satisfaction in 2007. There are many areas of dissatisfaction, from transportation issues to lack of aloha spirit, but the area of interest that pertains to this column is the poor value for cost of food that they perceived. All the while I wondered, what took them so long to notice?






        408 Lewes St., 2nd florr / 923-5320


Food: HHHH


Service: HHH


Ambience: HHH 1/2


Value: HHHH


Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily


Cost: About $30 to $35 for two



I don't like walking into unfamiliar Waikiki restaurants because, after many a disappointment, I have been conditioned to steer clear of the unknown (except when it involves work.) The opposite has been true in my coastal travels. I can walk into almost any small, unassuming cafe in any major city and feel assured of getting a good to great meal.

I've long been aware of the attitude that Waikiki restaurateurs could ignore bad reviews because they attract a mostly itinerant clientele. In the print-only days, there was no consequence when the next jumbo jet brought in the next crop of victims.

These days, the reviews are multiplied by the thousands who go home and feel compelled to write about their own good and bad experiences online. It's unfortunate that diners are not as forgiving as in the past, just when these restaurants need them most.

  FEELING THE WAY I do about the unknown Waikiki restaurant, I almost didn't go to Siam Square. I was visiting friends in Waikiki when it started getting late and they invited me to dinner. At first I declined, but having other plans unravel, agreed to check out this small cafe down the block. I'm glad I went.

I wasn't expecting much, but now I wish it were somewhere outside of Waikiki so I could visit more often. The restaurant has no parking, so on a return trip I took my chances on the street and got a parking ticket after staying 15 minutes past the meter expiration time. I got a ticket the first time as well. That doesn't mean mealtimes are unduly long. It just takes me a while to consider all the alternatives for sampling the menu's breadth.

The restaurant is housed in what I imagine started as a cozy residential walk-up, so the room has homey appeal, tastefully dressed in sunny golden tones with a wood floor and narrow wrap-around balcony for those who might prefer al fresco dining.

I love Thai coconut curries so one of the dishes I started with was what I assumed would be a mild green curry like all the others in town. I asked for medium heat which is translated locally as no heat as all, so I was pleasantly surprised to find their medium on par with what other restaurants deem hot. Wow. I hope they never bow to timid local palates, and perhaps they'll never have to cater to kamaaina alone. This marked the only Thai restaurant where I've seen a roomful of blond tourists.

To put the food in perspective, if you like Green Door, you'll find the same depth and intensity of flavors here, though in a different cuisine, of course.

Breaking from the usual starter of spring rolls or summer rolls ($8.99), I tried the fish patties, dotted with green but lacking the zing I expected from what I thought at first were pieces of green onion I associate with Chinese-style fish cake. On closer inspection, these were tiny rounds of sliced green beans, a nice, unobtrusive way of adding more veggies to one's diet. A lot of the dishes, like this, are accompanied by a sweet and sour dipping sauce, but I never acquired the taste for sour foods, so I'm glad it's optional.

This was followed by a red curry dish, Siam jungle curry ($10.99 with meat; $12.99 with shrimp or seafood).

Compared to the richness of the curries, almost any dish would pale, so I was at first unimpressed by plainer dishes of a basil stir-fry with pork ($10.99) and Drunkard's Noodles ($10.99 with chicken, beef or pork; $12.99 with shrimp or seafood), but as I left the curries to focus on these dishes, I picked up on the blend of oyster, hoisin and chili sauces and garlic stirred in with the ground pork in the former dish. The latter I first perceived as a stodgy noodle dish, a post-hangover variation of regular pad Thai, made with thick ribbons of Chinese-style funn, but the pillowy noodles stirred with garlic, tofu basil and chilies was thoroughly addictive. Even after I became too full to eat anymore, I was looking forward to the leftovers. Siam Square's fried chicken ($8.99), marinated in a blend of black pepper, garlic and onions, with a crisp cornstarch coating, is similarly addictive.

When it comes to fish dishes, you have a choice of “;fillets”; ($12.99) or a whole fish (market). Pick the whole fish if you can afford it because the breaded deep-fried fillets get soggy under the weight of red curry sauce, or in the case of the garlic fish, a vinegary sweet-sour sauce that overpowered the garlic.

For dessert, I enjoyed the Thai version of banana lumpia, a banana springroll ($5), split in half and served atop your choice of ice cream.

This is one of the most organized Thai restaurants I've seen around town, so if you have any questions about the menu at all or want to see photos before visiting, you can check out menu descriptions online at


Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin.