Thursday, August 5, 2004
Hawaiian-born Kimo Watari and his Thai wife Venus knew they had developed a loyal customer base when people kept asking them, “Where’s your restaurant?” at their noodle and rice bowl stand at the Marina Farmers’ Market. The Wataris graduated from noodle stand to restaurant a few weeks ago, as the doors to their Pacific Grove restaurant, Thaiwaiian Bistro opened.
My friend Sandra suggested that we try Thaiwaiian along with our spouses Laurent and Bruce. The menu selections reflect Hawaii’s diverse society, drawing from the cuisine of its indigenous Hawaiian inhabitants, as well as that of its Japanese and Southeast Asian immigrants.
Sandra started her meal with the Thai pumpkin and coconut soup ($5.95) made with a coconut milk base seasoned with lemon grass lime juice and fresh chili. Chunks of pumpkin, prawns, and mushrooms added substance to this sweet-tasting soup. It is easy to eat things that are good for you when they are this tasty. Bruce had a generous helping of ahi tuna sashimi (market price), which he ate with relish while recounting his business trips to Kyoto. Laurent and I shared an order of large mussels that appeared to be steamed in coconut milk and flavored with sweet basil. The seasoning made the already sweet mussels all the more flavorful and gave me ideas for cooking at home.
Our waitress’ timing was off with the appetizers and with the main dishes. Bruce got his sashimi immediately while the rest of us had to wait fifteen minutes for our appetizers. Our main dishes arrived with intervals between them, too. I rack this up to opening week glitches. In any case, the food was worth the wait.
I ordered an Island Mix Plate Bento Box ($8.95) that came with Kahlua pig, grilled salmon and teriyaki chicken, lomi salmon, macaroni salad, and a bit of kimchi along with Spam musubi ($2.50). Kahlua pig and lomi salmon usually show up on luau menus in Hawaii. Both dishes are indigenous to Hawaii, according to Ann Kondo Corum’s Ethnic Foods of Hawaii. The shredded pork seasoned with soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and grated ginger was so rich that I could have eaten that alone. I cut the salty pork with bites of my macaroni salad that had crunchy bits of celery in it. The lomi salmon made with salted salmon had me reaching for sips of my Hawaiian Kona Fire Rock Ale ($3).
Chopped onion, tomatoes, and green onions added panache to the lomi. The grilled salmon and chicken teriyaki tasted fine. I ate them first, so I could end with the lomi salmon, my favorite dish in the box. A few strips of spicy Korean cabbage kimchi rounded out the box, along with a ball of rice.
Spam is a World War II legacy that has entered the cuisines of the Pacific Rim from Hawaii to the Philippines. Spam musubi looks like sushi with the canned meat taking the place of fish. Watari told me that you can find Spam musubi all over Hawaii from restaurants to 7-11 markets. The tropical heat may explain why Spam’s saltiness would appeal to Pacific Islanders. I probably will not make this dish at home, but it was fun to taste Hawaiian comfort food.
Sandra chose Pad Thai ($6.95) as her main dish. Thaiwaiian makes a version of this stir-fried dish with rice noodles, prawns, chicken, bean sprouts, tofu, green onions, ground peanuts, and cilantro. Sandra rated the Pad Thai as “okay.” I liked the peanut flavor in the dish that characterizes several Thai specialties like the Satay kebabs, which Thaiwaiian also features on its menu.
Bruce ordered two appetizers as his main dish: Coconut Crab Cakes ($8.75) and Thai Stuffed Chicken Wings ($5.75). Bruce said the crab cakes tasted good, but decided that the basil-coconut aioli served with them was too spicy. But he said his plump chicken wings stuffed with ground chicken, water chestnuts, and Thai seasonings were outstanding. Both looked appetizing to me. Since I like spicy dishes, I thought that I would venture the crab cakes on a future visit.
Laurent ordered the Pacific Surf and Turf special: Pulehu Steak and Prawns ($18.95). Thaiwaiian marinates boneless chuck steak in Thai herbs and then charbroils it along with the prawns. The tender steak almost melted in my mouth. I liked its salty, tangy taste. I thought the Pulehu steak was a prime example of how good fusion cuisine can be.
Watari brings thirty years of restaurant experience to his new venture. At one time, he owned a night club on Maui, where he was born and raised. After cooking stints at the Blackhorse Golf Course and the aforementioned Marina Farmers’ Market, Watari and his wife Venus have opened a restaurant that definitely adds to the Peninsula’s dining diversity.
Watari is putting some of his night club expertise to use.
On Sunday evenings, Thaiwaiian hosts a “Lil Hawaii Fest” with
Hawaiian entertainment. Appetizers only are available on that
night, but who wants to eat a big meal when you might start
singing and doing the hula.
1184 E. Forest Ave., Pacific Grove (in Forest Hill Plaza)
11am-3pm; 5-10pm Mon-Sat, 11am-3pm; 5-9pm Sun