Fast Food for Gastronomes
At quick-bite (okay, fast food) restaurants, one often gives up fresh, healthy ingredients in exchange for ease and low cost. Thankfully for the time-pressed and hungry, the owners of these recently opened restaurants are prioritizing food quality while somehow finding a way to speed the time from order to plate.
Honolulu Burger Co.
After Honolulu Burger Company opened on South Beretania Street in October 2010, and the 100-percent grass-fed Big Island beef burgers met a slew of positive reviews and welcoming mouths, owner Ken Takahashi looked into opening a second location. The result–HBC on Waialae Avenue across from Kahala Mall–is just hitting its one-month anniversary. As befits a quick-bite spot, HBC retains the white-on-white color scheme of the previous occupant, a pizzeria.
Around 7 p.m. one week night, my friends and I found several families crouching over red-and-white checkered burger trays. There was little to no chatter in the air, as every mouth seemed to be full. We slid into a booth and tried not to gawk at the epic burgers piled high with various toppings that arrived, wafting finger-licking smells.
Takahashi is a Big Island-raised boy whose memories of eating grass-fed, local beef helped shape the focus of his business today. “We try to do everything . . . to support the Hawaii food industry,” he says, “so we work with 10 to 12 different cattle ranches along the Hamakua coast . . . to me, [the beef] is healthier.” Not to mention tastier, too. HBC’s burgers were all memorable, like the tangy Paniolo BBQ with jalapeños that mounted in spice attack as the meal progressed ($9.89). The mile-high Hawaiian Brian burger is stacked with candy-sweet pineapple salsa ($9.89). And the Latin-fusion-inspired mocha java burger is rubbed with organic Kona coffee and topped with mole sauce ($9.89). All stood out as winners among winners. Fresh beef is acquired, ground and formed into patties every day.
As for the other ingredients: HBC also supports various local farms, such as aquaponics hub Mari’s Garden for greens, Naked Cow Dairy, Sugarland Farms for tomatoes and more, as well as local bakeries including The Patisserie and Hawaii Star Bakery. Takahashi has managed to achieve a second location that is consistent in product, despite the unpredictability of the local market. “We try to make the same quality available for people to come out, maybe once a week even, and enjoy.”
Just up the hill, in ancient Kaimuki, Shaloha has found quick-fire fame for its homemade pita bread. Think on an edible version of a plush pillow, incredibly light with pockets of air dotted throughout. The taste, verging on semi-sweet, is attributed by owner Sagi “Sage” Asiskovich to the similarity between Hawaii’s water and that of “the Sea of Galilee.”
Asiskovich raves about the bread of his childhood. “I’m not an artist or writer, but I bake pita. Pita is where I write.” And that ardor overflows into the rest of Shaloha’s fare. The hummus ($5.50) was a creamy, mild-flavored beany paste with just the right amount of olive oil. The golden brown falafel ($6.50) was a delectable feat of engineering–exceptionally moist with no oil coating the tongue. Shaloha’s other dishes, like the turkey-and-chicken shawarma ($8.75), the side of herby tabbouleh ($4.50), and the non-saccharine baklava ($3.50) are all made fresh. The cuisine tasted true to Asiskovich’s Israeli roots.
In ambience, Shaloha feels like a bona fide community spot. Paintings by a local artist hang on display and everyone seemed to be getting extra, complimentary helpings of pita chips, hummus and lemonade, the latter made fresh with mint leaves ($2.75). Like the owner, patrons are friendly and happy to chat. Not that they have to pass the time: Shaloha rustles up quick fare for those on the go.
In a cafeteria, efficiency usually prevails over quality of food. Café Blue shakes off the stereotype. An upscale lunchroom on the sixth floor of the main Bank of Hawaii branch on South King Street, Café Blue’s open layout is strikingly contemporary: floor-to-ceiling windows, stairs lined with blue LED lights and chrome railings.
Chef Brian Nagai attributes the quick success of Café Blue, since its May opening, to his customers–hasty, hungry downtown Honolulu workers. News spreads, he says, when people “like what they eat,” and “it’s pretty cool to tell to your friend about a bacon, mac and cheese sandwich ($6.95), then say you have to go to a bank to get it.” While I found the BMC more comfort-food than gourmet, the cheesy noodle filling was crispy and the whole wheat toast was a welcome nod to health, along with the veggie panini ($6.95).
The fresh catch of the day sandwich ($7.95) was mahi-mahi, flaky and moist, nestled between avocado, tomato and caramelized onions: Suddenly, everything in the world was good. Nagai says he insists on having fresh fish delivered every morning. All plates come with a salad or fries; sandwiches feature ‘Nalo greens and other local produce in season.
Despite the rush of customers flooding the café, the cashier took my long order with a smile, and it arrived within minutes. My brief, happy encounter with Café Blue proved that speed and culinary excellence do go together.