Eating in a garage on King Street isn’t exactly my dream dinner spot. Seedy karaoke bars, ample drugstores and a 10-minute search for parking are all things I typically shy away from when dining out.
Industrial-style seating on my left and “too good” graffiti on my right–I thought to myself, where am I, the Real World?
Da Spot sounded about as interesting as the restaurant’s name. But I’d heard that this resurrected “vegetarian” restaurant was bonafide good eating, a destination spot; “they” even told me it was–and I trust the “they” in that equation–the best Mediterranean food on Oahu.
The restaurant has an interesting backstory. We know Ahmad and Ako Ramadan from the UH-Manoa campus, KCC and other farmers’ markets, and a year ago, they had a storefront on Pumehana Street. They’ve made a name for themselves serving up global cuisine like Moroccan and vegetarian curry dishes and Greek-style pasta salads. They’re known for their casual, no frills attitude and food that’s fresh and easy to please.
It sounds cliché, but Da Spot is literally a hole in the wall. Like, they cut open an old garage and stuffed a kitchen inside. Were it not for the outdoor diners, I would’ve passed right by, or at least parked my car there. Instead, the scent of roasted lamb and garlic lured me in, forced me to breathe in curry and before I knew it I was sitting at a beautiful table with stained glass lamps on each one. I’m still concerned that those lamps will all be stolen before Labor Day.
My first time at Da Spot, I ordered a chicken gyro with Greek sauce and a single square of baklava. An embarrassing first choice considering the epic behind-the-counter buffet chockfull of piping hot vegetarian fare. But I’m a rebel in that way.
In short, the gyro was huge, hot and juicy ($8). The baklava was flaky, sweet and cheap ($1.50). Not a bad night out if you ask me.
Back in the restaurant for a second time, I decided to go for it. I ordered a whole mess of curried things and it wasn’t until I was back in my car and headed over the Pali that I realized for the very first time in my life–I was a 25-minute vegetarian.
And I liked it.
I ordered Thai veggies and stuffed grape leaves. Curry this and curry that (they had no take-home menu and I can’t find a menu online so this is pretty much a guess). These dishes were intensely flavorful, filling, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t say they were really…saucy. Now imagine that sauce dripping into a platter of yellow rice and what you’ve got is a classic combo of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean etouffee (all for $10).
I’m not usually keen on food that sits under heat lamps. And I’m not in love with cafeteria-style dining. Maybe it’s the 30-plus smoothies (made with fresh ingredients) or the warm walls painted the colors of an Abu Dhabi spice market, or perhaps it’s the Egyptian style lighting and décor–whatever it is, the food is anything but bland, anything but dry, and the staff is anything but stoned.
My favorite part of the restaurant is the refrigerated display case filled with piquant mango salad, imported cheese and olives, Egyptian pickled eggplant and three different kinds of hummus. Every salad looks as if it were thrown together in a wooden bowl on an island with no name. These salads are rustic, colorful, and they’ll make you sweat olive oil.
What doesn’t work for Da Spot is the illusion that it’s fast food. A behind-the-counter buffet sets their menu up for timely failure. Expect to wait if you order anything beside ready-made curries or morning-made baklava. The people working there are, umm, Zen, and I wouldn’t say their only objective is being “snappy.” They talk to each other, and they take their time, and if you didn’t catch the hint earlier, I’m pretty sure they’re having a really good time. It’s inspiring.
I can’t say it’s the best Mediterranean food on the Island, but I will say it’s the best garage I’ve eaten in, the best vegetarian curries I’ve tasted in a long time, and the chicken gyro is perfect for first-timers.
There are vegetarians. And then there are vegetarians who eat bacon. I tend to favor the second group. For the same reason, I like Da Spot–it’s a non-pretentious restaurant that serves something for those who prefer to eat in the closet, or the garage.