Greeted with a smile by the friendly staff at Lemongrass’s take-out counter
Image: Jaimie Gusman

Lemongrass satisfies spicy cravings

The tradewinds have picked up again (thank heaven), just in time to allow things to cool off enough to satisfy my intense curry cravings. I’ve tried curries all over the island and nothing makes me feel quite as cozy as Lemongrass Vietnamese & Thai Cuisine in Kailua.

This small restaurant, located next to Madre Chocolate, is family owned and operated, which makes for friendly service and reliable recipes that keep customers coming back. The décor, while nothing to gawk over, is a little quirky. A fish tank, which greets you head-on, seems only noteworthy because kids gather around it from time to time while their parents are busy ordering and eating. On weekends, you’ll find a packed dining room. Every table is full for dinner–from families with their aunties in tow to individuals enjoying meals on their own.

Although I try and dine in once in a while, my modus operandi is take-out–at least once a week. Every time I mosey in, I’m reminded that Lemongrass loves their regulars as much as their new recruits. Just the other day, while picking up my embarrassingly large order for one, I heard someone say to a family who was on their way out after a meal, “I told you: it’s hard to keep away from this place!” Tell me about it. My credit card statement looks something like a Lemongrass takeover.

If you’re like me, when frequenting a restaurant enough times, you quickly learn your favorite dish and make it your go-to comfort meal. After adventuring through the pan-Southeast Asian menu of pho (Vietnamese rice noodle soup, $9.95 for a large, with anything from tofu to tripe), fried rice ($8.45), Pad Thai (sweet noodles, $9.45), and banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches, $6.95-7.95), I’ve decided–and my heart and stomach are both in agreement– go curry, or go home. And with Lemongrass’ prices, it’s never a bad idea to get a couple dishes. Once of the best reasons to get too much curry is that it makes excellent leftovers.

When eating in at Lemongrass, it’s hard not to start with their summer rolls (vegetarian–tofu or eggplant for $5.45, chicken or pork $6.45, and shrimp $5.45), accompanied by a light peanut sauce, topped with ground peanuts and bearing hints of pineapple flavor. The greens–lettuce and mint–are fresh, and the rolls themselves have a perfect protein-vegetable-carbohydrate ratio. Don’t you hate when your summer rolls are all lettuce or all vermicelli?

Other notable appetizers include the tom yum soup ($8.45, unless you add shrimp, $9.95), an addictive hot-and-sour broth loaded with lemongrass, ginger, chili, and tomato; the deep-fried tofu sateh ($6.45), a goodly portion of tofu triangles and a creamy peanut dipping sauce, and the “House Special” edamame, a unique take on this most common pupu with soybeans sautéed in ginger, garlic, chili, and soy sauce.

While the starters are great, I’m always sure to save room for the headliner: Curry. I’ve tried both vegan and non-vegan versions of these dishes at Lemongrass, and while the more earthy Massaman curry ($9.95 for chicken, pork, or tofu; $11.95 for calamari or fish; and $12.95 for shrimp)–an Indian inspired dish served with potatoes, carrots, coconut milk, and cashews–is one of my Lemongrass faves, I prefer to go back to my tree-hugging roots.

What’s really unique about Lemongrass is they offer tons of yummy vegan options without falling into fad-ism. I love Lemongrass’s unintentional resistance to the vegan craze, where the trend becomes more important than the philosophy. The real intent behind a person’s choice to stay away from animal products and byproducts ought to be deeper than just being the latest cool thing to do.

Although I’m not personally allergic to meat, lactose-intolerant, or on a mission to save all the caged chickens of the world, I like the health benefits of eating vegetable proteins. And at Lemongrass you can get anything from curry–yellow curry ($9.95), red curry ($9.95), and vegan prik king curry ($9.95)–to noodle dishes such as Pad Thai, made vegan. With a side of brown, white, or sticky rice, you’ll be surprised how easy it is to lay off the “other white meat” and other carnivorous treats. My only request is that they offer a vegan or vegetarian pho. Right now, broth choices are either chicken or beef, and fresh veggies are not included.

Alas, I’d be a liar if I said I never asked for a side of shrimp with my meal, which only means that Lemongrass may be awesome for serving the best vegan Thai I’ve ever had, but their meaty dishes are equally delicious. If you’re into chicken, try the Lemongrass chicken, which is heavily marinated in onions, chili, lemongrass, fish sauce, and yellow curry. It’s flavor combat.

Lemongrass has been around for about two years. The two chefs are brothers, and they also own the restaurant. Everything is made fresh and cooked to order. Another thing: They buy all their herbs locally, which is probably why their dishes are consistently packed with powerful flavors.

Lemongrass Vietnamese & Thai Cuisine is something of a neighborhood secret, one that I’m reluctant to reveal in print. But as one food lover to another, I suppose it’s only fair to spread the good news about this amazing Vietnamese and Thai food. For those of us in Kailua, it’s a neighborhood gem that you will welcome into your dining rotation–maybe even more than you think. And for those who have your own favorite Thai spots just around the bend, abandon your own comfort zone for once. With its affordable prices and delicious vegan options, Lemongrass is worth the trip to the Windward side.

Lemongrass Vietnamese & Thai Cuisine
20 Kainehe St. Kailua No alcohol; corkage fee $1 Lunch and dinner: Tue.–Sun., 11am–3pm; Tue.–Thu., Sun., 5–9pm; Fri.–Sat., 5–10pm, 261-0222