Cover Story continued

The staff of one still-with-us dineries: Helen’s Hawaiian Food. Alas! Helen (second, left) is no longer with us, but her recipes are.

Twenty years ago, where were we eating?

On July 17, 1991, the Weekly published its first issue. The restaurant review? Thai Taste on King Steet. It was one of a series called “Formica Tables” and it characterized the kind of food report we intended to offer: inexpensive. Out of the way. Often ethnic. New to many. Sometimes a bit hard to find.

What you wouldn’t find was Hawaii Regional Cuisine. It being born: Roy Yamaguchi had his flagship restaurant in 1988; Alan Wong was at the Canoe House on the Big Island but would jump to Oahu in 1994. George Mavrothalassitis was still in the hotel system but had dreams.

But what came to be called “The New Cuisine of Hawai’i” in Janice Wald Henderson’s 1994 book, was being born precisely from the ingredients, techniques, tastes and textures that were being found in those “Formica Tables” places. Mavrothalassitis would make fish breading from dried mochi cakes. Wong would create a killer li hing vinaigrette. Sam Choy would serve up a meal any longshoreman would recognize (except for maybe the price).

“Formica Tables celebrates restaurants within the city that serve delicious varied food for prices that won’t spoil the meal,” wrote sometimes-critic Alan Young.

He, along with other guest critics, would write many such pieces: From a detailed guide to finding the best and cheapest product in Chinatown to a list of the People’s Open Markets (before creation of the Farm Bureau markets, which require the produce be grown locally by local farmers). Organic? Sustainable? We didn’t know from nothin’.

We told you about the little mochi shop, Chikaramochi Store, at River Street and Vineyard. The specialty was conventional bean-stuffed puffy little steamed cakes, but they were experimenting with chocolate and strawberries and something called “milk-based” mochi; we call it “butter mochi” now. This place, like so many we talked to, was its second generation, one that was aging. They saw the end coming; they were ready to innovate.

“Unless we can train the haoles to like the stuff,” Armis Tsuchiya said, laughing ruefully, implying they’d go out of business.

Most of the restaurants reviewed were ethnic spots: El Burrito on Piikoi (a big bowl of chicken tortilla soup for $3.50; still in operation), Tokkuri Tei, just beginning to charm people with its oddly named Japanese bar snacks, Champion Malasadas, Ba Le Vietnamese sandwiches, Crepe Fever.

Hale Vietnam, the restaurant that taught us to eat green papaya salad and la lot, was reviewed in January, 1992. It’s still there, virtually unchanged.

Helena’s Hawaiian Food, 1364 N. King St., came in for attention in January, 1992, when rumor had it they were losing their lease, possibly closing. It was buzzing more than ever after receiving the 1990 James Beard Regional Classic Award. The picture brings a tear: The late Helena Chock, sitting amidst her aging staff, looking a little tired, a little overwhelmed by all the attention, the home-smoked pipikaula hanging from the stove top behind her. It’s still there, with the aid of her grandson and faithful employees. But she’s not.

Writer March Egerton, who went on to write a book about where to find cheap eats in Hawai’i, raved intelligently about the French-accented Vietnamese food of Diem.

Some writer masquerading at The Spam Brothers wrote of breakfast at Michel’s, still in operation, still one of the most beautiful rooms in the city. Still worth a repeat visit.

Young was an adventurous type. He wrote of one hole in the wall where “the washroom was reached thorugh a sea of cats out back.” We’ve all been there. We still go there.

Because, for foodies, there’s nothing, nothing, better than finding a new cool spot that doesn’t cost a paycheck. Even if you have to navigate cats.