Disclaimer: These reviews reflect my own prejudices & personal experiences. Be your own judge - try them yourself & create your own experiences.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Island Lava Java

Best for: Brunch with a view
Location: Kailua-Kona
Foodgasmic dish: Smoked salmon benedict

I only had three prerequisites when choosing the restaurant for Anthony's birthday brunch; it had to be 1) beachfront, 2) in Kailua-Kona, and 3) not too expensive, since I had splurged on his birthday dinner celebration. After reading countless reviews, Island Lava Java, a small, casual restaurant facing the bay,  became the clear winner. Since some pictures on Yelp showed its tables covered in white table cloth, I figured it couldn't be that informal. However, other pictures were taken of a long counter inside the restaurant for orders, implying that wait service was nonexistent and customers instead stood in line. I didn't know what to expect, but everyone raved about the food, so I returned to OpenTable and made our reservations.

On our final day on the Big Island, Ian (our favorite cabbie again!) dropped us off in the parking lot and made plans to pick us up later to take us to the airport. Island Lava Java was packed when we arrived, so I'm glad I had made reservations. Much to my relief, the restaurant had white table cloth and wait service.

We were seated at the exact table we had been eyeing while weaving through the crowd. It was perfect - in the shade, close (but not too close) to the live music, and offered a direct view of the coast on Ali'i Drive, the winding, beach-lined road that I had quickly become fond of.

Anthony and I both wanted the smoked salmon benedict on a buttered croissant (wouldn't you?). Is it ironic or completely predictable that Anthony, the birthday boy, was the one to cede the benedict and order a ciabatta burger instead? Children in Western society (the only society about which I can justifiably make claims) are taught that on their birthday, self-absorption is condoned, even encouraged, and that every desire should be satiated - usually by an eager parent. Perhaps it is a mark of maturation when we become more selfless on our birthday, or at least act more selfless (is there a difference between being and acting selfless?). It is precisely because of that ingrained sense of entitlement that the older we get, the more steps we take to consciously act the opposite way. Somewhere between a spoiled six-year-old and a jaded adult embarrassed by his age lies the better part of decorum.

How did I get from croissants to social norms? I'm not quite sure what point I was trying to make, especially since Anthony probably let me have the smoked salmon because the burger really did sound just as enticing.

Anthony's burger - not a bad alternative at all
My smoked salmon benedict was wonderful. Forget English muffins (once again, England, an item you've produced proves to be subpar); I want my poached eggs served on buttered croissants from now on.

My smoked salmon benedict on a buttered croissant, served with potatoes
The ukulele music was a lovely accompaniment to our morning; when you're beachside brunching in Hawaii, nothing else can really top Jack Johnson. Or a more socially-conscious spinoff of that "I wanna be a billionaire..." song.

Despite the staff ignoring my note on OpenTable that we were celebrating Anthony's birthday, just like at our dinner at Honu's (what's going on, Big Island restaurants?!), our Island Lava Java brunch was the perfect meal to conclude our weekend in Kailua-Kona. After a few more hours of playing tourist, i.e. gallavanting around hotels, checking out tacky shops, and snacking on too many Hawaiian treats, we caught our final cab back to the airport and headed home.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Ken's House of Pancakes

Best for: Late-nite
Location: Hilo (where the 19 turns into the 11)

After a day of exploring the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park (and getting lost in the dark for the last half hour of our hike), Anthony and I anxiously returned to Hilo on our way back home around the island to have a late-night dinner at Ken's House of Pancakes, the final stop on our new friend Ian's list of restaurant recommendations. I'm always up for 24-hour diners because they are guaranteed to offer breakfast all day long, and who doesn't love breakfast when you're not supposed to be eating it?

We pulled into the parking lot around 8 pm, which is pretty late for this town, so I'm guessing that those who were out and about at this time were probably right here at Ken's. The restaurant was crowded, and looked a lot like Shari's, a 24-hour diner that I had once tried in Portland during one of my all-nighters in the library, during which one person always brazenly calls for a much-needed break, resulting in a group trip to the first place we can think of that could possibly replenish our empty stomachs and exhausted brains.

Anthony's steak
Despite the crowd, Anthony and I were immediately seated at one of the few remaining tables and handed two plastic-covered 8-page menus. I didn't even bother looking at the last six pages; my eyes went straight to the breakfast section and found what I had been craving since Anthony started driving to the restaurant. There are two things I always crave at diners: corned beef hash from the can and hot chocolate topped with whipped cream, both of which would disgust me at any other type of restaurant.

Ken's offered a few options for my corned beef hash craving; I could get it with the typical eggs and rice, on a benedict, or - and this is what eventually won - in a loco moco. I figured I was on the Big Island; I might as well go all out "Hawaiian," whatever Hawaiian means (do any of us actually know what Hawaiians really ate before the Asians and colonists came over with their cuisines?). By the way, Ken's has an entire section of its menu dedicated to loco mocos. That's right - an entire section. Besides corned beef hash, you can get your loco moco with spam, teriyaki beef, chili cheese, Portuguese sausage, or kalua pig. It's a good thing I had my mind set on corned beef hash; otherwise, I could have easily spent an extra twenty minutes trying to decide between the Portuguese sausage and kalua pig.

my corned beef hash loco moco
My corned beef hash loco moco was served in a large, plastic bowl, with rice, gravy, and two over-easy eggs, and was to be eaten with the large spoon provided. No pretenses here, just straightfoward practicality. I love it. I also made sure to order a hot chocolate, which was, as expected, filled to the brim, had that unmistakable diner flavor, and was topped with a generous dollop of whipped cream.

Why is diner hot chocolate so good?
In Honolulu, we have a Zippy's in every neighborhood, but it's nice to know that if I was, for some reason, living in Hilo, my 24-hour diner fix would be satiated.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Honu's Bar and Grill

Best for: Seafood buffet
Location: Kailua-Kona

A couple of weeks ago, Anthony and I hopped over to the Big Island to celebrate his 25th birthday. Yep, he's now a quarter of a century old. It was his first time on another island, and it was my first time in Kona since middle school. From what I remembered, Kona was exactly what we were looking for - touristy, relaxing, and the perfect size for a three-day getaway.

I had spent the week before our trip doing extensive research for Anthony's birthday dinner. Or at least I thought I did. My original plan was to take him to Beach Tree at the Four Seasons, an elegant restaurant/lounge right on the beach, with live entertainment. It was a little pricier than what I had wanted to spend, but I justified it by reminding myself that we didn't have a Four Seasons back in Honolulu, and, thus, it would be a while until I'd have another chance to dine at one. So I made reservations using OpenTable, one of my favorite internet sites, after Amazon and that site that lets me watch Gossip Girl for free.

It wasn't until the day before the trip that I finally looked up the exact location of the restaurant. Turns out the Four Seasons is almost an hour away from our hostel and is inaccessible by bus, which only runs twice a day anyway. Damn. Toto, I have a feeling we're not on Oahu anymore. Since we wouldn't be renting a car until the following morning, and I assumed cabs were too pricey for us, the Beach Tree seemed out of the question. I quickly went on yelp, a site that I use, not for the reviews, but for finding restaurants categorized by locations. I made sure to narrow down my search to restaurants in Kailua-Kona, the "urban" section of Kona, which would be on our way to the hostel.

I finally stumbled upon Honu's Bar and Grill, a beachfront restaurant at the King Kamehameha Hotel that offers a seafood buffet every Friday and Saturday night. Seafood buffet. I knew Anthony would love a buffet, so, unless he preferred one of the two pizza places also on my list, it looked like Honu's would be the selected venue. I was right. For once, he passed on the pizza and was excited for a buffet. I returned to OpenTable and booked a table for two.

We arrived in Kailua-Kona about two hours before our reservation, allowing us time to explore the main street and even indulge in an iced Kona coffee beverage at one of the many coffeeshops sprinkled throughout the city. We headed back to the sprawling King Kamehameha Hotel (think Hilton Hawaiian Village, without the obnoxious zoo animals roaming about) and finally entered Honu's. After choosing a table partially inside and outside, we went straight to the buffet line, eager to stuff ourselves with seafood.

Those of you who know me probably wonder why I even bother with buffets; I get full about halfway through a plate. However, like a good American, I appreciate the concept of buffets - lots of choices and unlimited portions must be good, right? - never mind that quality and service tend to be sacrificed.

For my first round, I filled my plate with clam chowder, dinner rolls, and seafood pesto. The clam chowder was wonderful, probably my favorite part of dinner. My next round consisted of crab legs. Only. My mom wasn't around to crack the crab legs for me, so I put the birthday boy to work (I knew he'd come in handy!). As expected, the quality of the crab was somewhat inconsistent, but was, as are all things that require work and come in small packages, still perfectly satisfying.

our epic pile of crab legs

We had come at 6 and thus dined through the sunset, a glorious sight even though it happens every night. I only had a few more pieces of sashimi because I wanted to save room for more important things in life, e.g. dessert. The dessert table at buffets never disappoints! I ordered my second Kona coffee of the day (I could get used to this town...) and piled on the desserts. They had the requisite cakes, pies, and cookies.

My only complaint about Honu's (and another place in Kona, Island Lava Java) is that the restaurant ignored my little note in the Special Requests box on OpenTable that we were celebrating my boyfriend's birthday. It wasn't a big deal because I hate singing in public anyway (I'd need one more glass of wine for that), but, still. Anthony could've gotten a bowl of complimentary ice cream that would have gone perfectly with his dessert of choice from the buffet -- a simple chocolate chip cookie.

Service was attentive and the view was just as I'd hoped. In the end, I'm glad I chose Honu's over Beach Tree; Anthony, who is not impressed by stuffy, five-star restaurants, seemed to have enjoyed his dinner, and that was all that mattered.

The Fish Hopper

Best for: Breakfast
Location: Kailua-Kona

Anthony and I met Ian on our first day in Kona, when he picked us up from the airport and dropped us off at what he assumed to be our hotel (the King Kamehameha Hotel) in Kailua-Kona. He was an awesome cab driver, overwhelming us with restaurant suggestions and driving advice on how to get to the volcanoes, all in a delightful British accent. His first restaurant suggestion, since he considerately instructed us in chronological order, was the Fish Hopper.

After spending the week prior to our trip conducting restaurant research, I recognized the Fish Hopper. It had been on my "Anthony's Birthday Breakfast" list for a couple of days, but I had eventually taken it off because I'd noticed a breaded-and-fried trend on its menu. However, Ian was very convincing, and, much to my relief, I found it easy to avoid fried seafood, especially during breakfast.

On Saturday morning, our hostel owner Annie was generous enough to drive us all the way into town and dropped us off right by the restaurant. We were seated on the balcony, with direct views of the bay. I ordered the macadamia brioche french toast ($9.95) and another cup of Kona, while Anthony had pancakes, eggs, and spam, with a side of rice -- he's such a local. My portions were tiny, which meant that, for once, it was the perfect size for me. Encrusted with macadamia nuts and topped with whipped cream and maple syrup, my two slices of french toast were a perfect start to a day of exploring the volcanoes.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Tex Drive-In

Best for: Malasadas
Location: Honoka'a

After a successful breakfast at the Fish Hopper, Anthony and I were eager to follow more of our cabbie Ian's restaurant suggestions during our excursion to the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. His next suggestion was to stop by Honoka'a to pick up a half dozen of the best malasadas of our lives at Tex. Actually, Ian said "Tex's," which led me into thinking he said "Texas." A malasada shop named after that monstrous state? Interesting.

Fortunately, Anthony was paying attention while driving and turned left into the parking lot of Tex Drive-In. Like all malasada shops, you stand in line, order the number and type, and wait for your box of fresh malasadas. The malasadas at Tex come with a variety of fillings, from guava to apricot. We decided to order two plains, two Bavarian creams, one apple, and one chocolate cream. You can guess who got the apple and who got the chocolate.

I was slightly disappointed when I opened the white cardboard box. Unlike the malasadas at my favorite malasadaria (yes, I'm going to make that a word), Champion's on Beretania, Tex's malasadas are pale and square. However, my disappointment faded as soon as I tasted the bavarian cream filling and felt sugar all over my chin. A few hours later I tried the chocolate cream malasada. Much better than I thought, especially after Ian's warning to avoid the chocolate (apparently no one, not even Ian, can convince me to avoid chocolate).

Tex's malasadas are definitely better than Leonard's, which I've always believed to be merely overhyped, soggier versions of Champion's. For the classic malasada (spheres of sugar-coated fried dough, crispy on the outside and warm on the inside), Champion's is still, as its name suggests, the champion. There's no point in arguing that one. But for a new spin on these Portuguese treats, Tex offers a softer, more square, cream-filled alternative. If I'm ever back on the Big Island, I'll be sure to make up any excuse I can to pick up another half dozen.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Honolulu Coffee

Best for: Macarons and coffee
Location: Waikiki, Ala Moana, Downtown

Honolulu Coffee is similar to Island Vintage, specializing in Kona coffee beverages and sprinkled throughout Waikiki, catering to tourists who don't mind paying the price. While I tend to prefer the coffee at Island Vintage, Honolulu Coffee definitely has a better selection of pastries.

chocolate mousse in the shape of a cup!

Unlike Island Vintage, Honolulu Coffee has a branch in downtown, which is really convenient. Macarons during your lunch break -  need I say more?

peppermint macarons
So far, these are the macarons in the state. And these are no typical macarons. There are lilikoi, Hawaiian salt, and Kona coffee flavored macarons - only in Hawaii!

lilikoi, pistachio, and caramel & hawaiian salt maracons
pistachio, kona coffee, and caramel & Hawaiian salt
studying at Bishop Square
at the Moana Surfrider Hotel

Friday, January 27, 2012

Lobby Bar

Best for: Drinks, Late-night
Location: Modern Honolulu

Pinot noir and a geisha ($11)
Margarita and rosé
I absolutely love this bar. That is all.



Best for: Italian
Location: Kailua

After months of wanting to try Prima, a small Italian restaurant that opened up last fall, I finally made the trek to Kailua with Anthony and his friend Justin last week. Prima was exactly how I expected it to be... sort of reminiscent of some of my favorite restaurants in Portland, e.g. Broder, St. Jack, and Grüner -- I'm not sure if it's due to the typewriter font and lack of decimal places and dollar signs on the small menus or the cutesy minimalist decór, but Prima does share characteristics with town, my favorite restaurant in Hawaii. It had to be a good sign.


The restaurant looks like a chic cafeteria, with an exposed ceiling, robin's egg blue desk chairs and light recycled wood tables, and an open kitchen that showcases a wood-burning oven.

I had a glass of pinot grigio and shared a boquerones pizza and veal parmesan with Anthony. The boquerones pizza had thyme, white anchovies, chili water, and garlic. The crust was a little dry and too burnt (try JJ Dolan's for the perfect crust), but the toppings were fantastic. Gotta love those anchovies and thyme.

We had reluctantly ordered the veal parmesan because we figured we may still be hungry after just one pizza, and, ironically, this dish turned out to be better than the pizza -- not because of the veal, but because of the spaghetti. It's always exciting when pasta is properly cooked al dente in Hawaii.

Justin had the fried jidori chicken leg and thighs, which came with mashed potatoes and collared greens. Just like my al dente pasta, fried chicken that has flavor beneath the bread brings tears of joys to my eyes.

I regret not trying dessert here, because apparently the pastry chef is a Nobu alum -- is this the same chef who used to create the dolce mascarpone at Nobu that I still fantasize about?? I guess I'll find out next time.