Thai diner satiates Manoa


POSTED: Sunday, February 08, 2009

Bangkok Chef, one of the pride and joys of lower Nuuanu, has found a second residence in Manoa and appears to be an instant hit. I don't know whether the crowds that fill the small restaurant are new customers or those who knew Patrick Chang and crew when they were just starting out on Nuuanu Avenue in a small garage-y space that was more grocery store than restaurant.





        2955 E. Manoa Road / 988-0212

Food: ;*;*;* 1/2


Service: ;*;*


Ambience: ;*;*


Value: ;*;*;*


Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays


Cost: $15 to $25 for two




It's nice that the menu at the Nuuanu eatery spells out Bangkok Chef's success story, the only restaurant to so publicly credit the media with helping to spread word of its cuisine. So, thank you for that.

I, for one, was most charmed by Chang's can-do spirit and out-of-the-box thinking—that, even though this was a grocery store, they could also sell prepared foods.

The hot meal service, beginning in 2002, presented a good opportunity to showcase the curries and produce sold there. Over time, three tables doubled to six, and now most of the space once taken up by shelving and bins has been surrendered to tables.

I found it less quaint as the crowd grew. I'm just too impatient to wait twice, to order, then for the meal. So, because I live in the area, I find it easier to call in an order, pick it up and eat at home. I hate crowds. Some people flock to them and imagine food only tastes good when there's a line.

The newest Bangkok Chef has been able to skip this entire adolescence and spring full-fledged into a bustling casual restaurant with the same order-at-the-counter service as at Nuuanu. I think the food in Manoa is even better than at Nuuanu, but the Manoa restaurant lacks Nuuanu's charm. It's just a box, so not much of a destination at all. But if you live in the neighborhood, I can see that it must be exciting to have adult fast food at relatively low cost.

The Bangkok Chef in Nuuanu started with just a handful of curry and other plate-lunch offerings, but since the formula was perfected years ago, the menu here is fully realized, with nearly 40 selections, from appetizer to dessert.

Where many Thai restaurants have entrees that start at $7.95, Bangkok Chef offerings start at $5.70. The $2-plus difference adds up when spread across three or four dishes. And now that budgetary constraints are forcing some to eat less, many of the plates are self-contained, served complete with jasmine rice (it's 50 cents extra for sticky or brown rice).

There are an equal number of a la carte selections, though you still have to maneuver around all those Styrofoam boxes.

The fast-food format might not appeal to those who love the Thai restaurant experience of enjoying many varied dishes. The plate meals require that you stick to one entree, whether red chicken curry or basil chicken. Of course, if you're a party of two who enjoy sharing dishes, your little meal for two will cost less than $15. How many other places are able to offer grown-up fare at that price these days?

As a result the restaurant is already drawing a diverse cross section of people, from university and high school students, retirees, professionals and families with kids in tow. It's actually great to see young kids with no culinary inhibitions, especially in light of such powerfully flavored dishes as chicken larb ($6.95 a la carte), in which the minced meat is sprinkled with herbs, a touch of spice and cilantro, with a generous dousing of lemon.

Curries here are child-friendly, smoothed with coconut milk, with none overly spicy. Even the panang pork curry of pork loin, potato and basil, described as “;medium spicy,”; is no spicier than an all-American beef stew.

I love just about any Thai curry, but here, one of the other standouts is the eggplant chicken, the eggplant sauteed in such a light mixture of oyster sauce, bean sauce, chili pepper, garlic and basil that the flavor of the eggplant comes through. That is so rare for a vegetable that is more typically a sauce sponge, its own flavor drowned by the ones it soaks up.

You can get a shredded papaya salad ($6.75 a la carte) here, but more unique is the mango salad, in which the barely ripened, shredded fruit is tossed with carrot, shallots, cilantro, chili peppers and cashews, with the pucker-inducing sharpness of tamarind juice.

A traditional dessert of sticky rice and fresh mango is substituted with a quick, shortcut “;House Delight”; version ($3.50) that isn't as good as the fresh version. Here, a chewy rice cake is topped with a mound of rather flavorless mango ice cream. Finish with herbal iced tea ($2.10), which is better than the herbal coffee, and skip this dessert.


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