Sunday, April 29, 2012

If Can... Vernas

There are several Verna's restaurants on the Big Island of Hawaii. Yes, It seems strange to find a review about Verna's in a dining blog, after all, it's fast food. But, since eating is eating, and I occasionally eat there, they deserve mention. Like most restaurants, it takes navigating the menu to find the gems, and weed out the stones. But, I can say that food at Verna's is probably a bit more than you might expect. First, the thing I love about Verna's is that they are the only ones, big restaurant to small, to get mac salad right. It's actually not only edible, it's tasty and I like it. The onion rings are done just right. Today I had fried chicken there for the first time and it was quite nice. I asked them to hold the rice and give me a larger helping of mac salad, which they graciously did. I've been to about 4 Verna's but the one I go to regularly because it's near my home is the one tucked away in the small shopping center across the street from Kea'au Elementary school. They once occupied the restaurant in front, which is now J&J's, and they now operate in the small strip mall in what was once an adult book store, and before that the last video store in Kea'au. The location, tucked away in the back, has me a bit concerned about their future prospects. But, people who like Verna's I'm sure will seek them out like I've done. So, in keeping with other reviews, where not everything is wonderful, I would recommend staying away from anything that says chili. The chili is homemade, apparently not from a can. I once made the recommendation that they might consider just buying the canned stuff. But, the burgers are nice, the hot dogs are yummy, there is a host of local plate lunches. They have seating inside and out, and I always sit outside because it's so rare in Hilo. Sometimes we get the food to go and sit at the lunch tables at the Herbert Shipman Park at the end of the street. If can Verna's.

Friday, April 27, 2012

A sad end to Pearl's Bakery

If you happened to be driving toward Volcano from Hilo on the Big Island last year you might have noticed a metal building with the name, Pearl's Bakery. I know they had great difficulty opening up due to zoning issues, but when they finally did open, the lunches were nothing short of awesome. I drove way out of my way to eat there. It appeared to be a two pronged attack at business, bakery and lunch. I think the lunch won out. I wrote great reviews in TripAdvisor about it, and really tried to support their success by dragging everyone I knew to eat there. Then, it closed. I don't know all the details but I know it had something to do with the County of Hawaii. I kept waiting for it to open, as I not only enjoyed the food, I enjoyed the owners, the Robeson family. So, this week I happened across their business card and I shot them an email. It turns out they sold the place and are planning on moving to the mainland at the end of the school year, and the really sad thing was this, "The final straw was having our chainsaws stolen while we were having a free community feeding...enough is enough."

I am both sorry to see them go and sorry they had so much trouble trying to start and run what I thought was a great place to eat. I wish them the best of luck on future enterprises. If they do them half as well as they did this, they will go well.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Hilo Bay Front

This is not a normal dining experience blog post. Today, I helped two other people walk into every single store and restaurant along the Hilo, Hawaii bay front. We were handing out a piece of paper with basic sign language signs on it in preparation for the deaf cruise ship that will arrive next Saturday. I am writing this because of a few "dining" experiences I had throughout the day.

First, I want to say that for the most part the store owners along Hilo Bay Front were gracious and excited that someone cared enough to prepare them for this upcoming visit. After all, Hilo is heavily dependent on tourism and our goal was to make Hilo the most deaf-friendly city in Hawaii. We want visitors next Saturday to go back to the mainland or Canada and tell people what a special place Hilo is. We were very sensitive to how busy people were and tried to spend a very limited amount of time telling them about the upcoming cruise, and hand them a piece of paper, and if they had time, teach them a couple of easy signs. Overall, it was well met, and people were anxious to learn.

The most positive of those experiences was at Wilson's By the Bay. This is a small ice cream and shaved ice store. The woman there was so appreciative of what we were trying to do she offered us complimentary shaved ice. Living in Hawaii I've had a lot of shaved ice, but I have to tell you, this was no ordinary shaved ice. First, the ice was finely shaved and well-packed. The syrups were very nice, but then the crowning glory is the cream poured over the top. It took a good shaved ice and made it a memorable experience. It's not often that something as common as shaved ice in Hawaii becomes a memorable experience. So, Wilson's by the Bay was not only the friendliest of places, but also served a truly memorable product. If you are on the Bay Front you HAVE TO STOP HERE. This is a must experience.

We ate lunch at Reuben's Mexican Food restaurant. This is always an iffy experience. Most of the people I know won't eat there. But, I am a fiend for Mexican food, good, bad, or indifferent. So, I made the decision of where to eat by offering to pay. I had the carnitas torta, which was surprisingly nice. The bread was authentic torta bread, and the pork was done nicely. My friend had the chipotle chicken torta and liked it as well, and my other friend had the cheese enchiladas. That is normally my staple at Reuben's because it's hard to get cheese, tortillas and enchilada sauce terribly wrong. I've never gotten sick from the food here and the taste is ok, which is a lot more than I can say about other Mexican food experiences I've had in the past in Hilo. Luckily, those places no longer exist.

Walking back to our car we realized we had missed one place because it didn't open until 11am, that was Cronies. Now, I don't eat here very often because it's kind of a sports bar, and that is usually not a draw for me, but when I did it's because their hamburgers are pretty decent. So, I went in to give them the sign paper and tell them about the cruise. It wasn't too busy, but I headed for the bartender so as not to bother the waitresses. I laid the paper on the bar and said, "There is a cruise ship coming next Saturday with about 350 deaf people." In the next instant, a woman wearing both a black person and a personality to match, swooped down on me trying to get me away from the bar telling me the bartender was busy and that she was the manager and if I had any "questions" I should speak with her. And believe me, she was not telling me this because she wanted to "answer my questions." This was the most unfriendly experience I've had in a long time in any place that serves food, was completely uncalled for, and in my mind, a black eye on the wonderful aloha we experienced along the Bay Front. You won't find me reporting any further on Cronies because with all the other places to get a burger, I certainly don't need to go where I'm not wanted. In the future I will be posting suggestions for good burgers in Hilo so if you feel you want to go to a place where you're not likely to get mistreated, you might want to try one of the alternatives. Hilo Burger Joint isn't a bad alternative to Cronies. Of course the best hamburger on the entire island can be found at Village Burger in Kamuela, (Waimea) in the shopping center food court, but we can save that review for another post.

Happy eating and aloha to all the people who were wonderful to us today. And a special thanks to Wilson's By the Bay.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Lucy's Taqueria, Hilo, HI

Lucy's Taqueria in Hilo gets it right. It's not perfect, but very few restaurants get everything right all the time. Yesterday I ate there for lunch and shared the carnitas plate and the carne asada plate with a friend. Of course I had the wonderful horchata to drink. No one in Hawaii does carnitas better than Lucy's. No one else seems to get it. Perhaps they have never been to Mexico, or even California. By the way, the best carnitas I've ever had was at a small carnitas restaurant in Tijuana. I've had the burritos, and the tacos (a tiny bit small for my taste), and a few other menu choices. Where Lucy's falls down is in salsa. Their salsas are just not that good. A nice salsa fresca is in order here. Along with salsa, a reasonable pico de gallo with my carnitas and carne asada plates would have been nice. Tasteless chopped tomato and the salsa bar onion and cilantro didn't quite meet the demand for good pico de gallo.

The music is always too loud. So, if you're going for a relaxing experience, and you don't happen to be deaf, this might really start to bother you. The music also tends to be what I will call cowboy aggressive salsa. If you're not drunk and dancing on the table this kind of music is just annoying. Speaking of drunk, Lucy's has a full bar. This can come in handy, as the wait can sometimes be quite long. Since it's opening, it remains quite full and popular. I like the food here. I will continue to eat here regularly. It's better than other options. Will I hope for more? Of course. Will I get it? Probably not. Will that stop me from eating here. Never.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Hokulani's Steakhouse, Keaau, HI

I eat at Hokulani's pretty regularly, not because I like the food, but because other than local and international fast food chains, that's about it. I continue to eat there successfully because I have learned which items on the menu are least offensive. The veggie burger, for example, is a double pattied veggie burger that fills you up, comes frozen from somewhere that knows how to make veggie burgers and requires little more than heating it up. It's nearly impossible to bring up Hokulani's without bringing up what I consider to be the biggest failing of nearly every single restaurant in Hawaii, mac salad. How can you go so wrong? In most cases it's macaroni and mayonaise. In some cases it's potato-mac salad and cooked potatoes are thrown into the mayo. Every once in a while someone will get brave and throw in a little sweet pickle relish. BORING!!! It comes to mind because to me, Hokulani's mac salad is not only boring, it's wretched and I won't eat it. I've tried the onion rings a couple of time and if they are ever forced on me again I'll take them and wring them out and sell the oil to a biofuel company. Whew! They must need to add oil to the fryer after every batch. I tried the steak and forget it. It will only disappoint you. The fish and chips has a fairly nice flavor, with a pretty nice cut of fish in a nice batter, but there is something about it that doesn't agree with me and I start feeling sick after eating the first battered piece of fish. Again, oily oily oily! But, I suppose that is somewhat the nature of fish and chips.

Look, the name builds expectations beyond what it really is. It's not a "steak house" it's a bar that also serves food. It's bar food.

Now some positives. The wait staff have been there a long time and they are very friendly. It has outdoor seating, which in Hawaii is  rare. The restaurant is clean and nicely appointed as a surf-bar. The prices for food are right at what they should be for most items until you start getting up into the steaks. That's when you might start feeling ripped off. Lastly, the burgers aren't too bad. So, a safe bet is a burger and pay the dollar extra to get the baked potato instead of anything that sees the fryer, and you're good to go. Oh, and they generally have nice musicians. If you have to do laundry, you can eat here and do your laundry next door. I know many people that make this a regular habit. Who knew that the laundromat would be a draw for the "steak house?" I guess you're starting to get the picture.

UPDATE: Today I ate the Reuben sandwich and it was served on a marbled rye, and came with a lot of meat and tasted very nice.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Kaleo's Pahoa, HI

It's birthday for Thijs and we ate at Kaleo's in Pahoa. It's one of the nicer restaurants in East Hawaii, and they have the awards to show for it. Opened in 2008 in a quaint old Hawaiian town, who knew this restaurant would require more than flip flops and hunger. Today, it's a "dress up" restaurant. The food in a word, is delightful. If you like mozzarella sticks, you'll love their mozzarella appetizer, big knobs of battered cheese served with the most incredible tomato bruschetta-like topping. I've eaten here several times in the last year and have enjoyed a nice array of the menu. I haven't been disappointed once, in anything. Great service, nice atmosphere, INCREDIBLE music, well stocked bar, and a nice variety of food at, what I have to say, is a considerable value. I nearly caught myself telling the staff they didn't charge enough. If they read this blog they'll know. Most of the entrees are around $15 with a few of them topping out around $20.

Tonight's dinner for me started with a nice chicken tortilla soup. It was perfectly seasoned and just the right amount of everything, even chicken, which I often find missing when I order chicken tortilla soup. I shared the mozzarella with the birthday boy. Then I ordered something I almost never order in a restaurant, spaghetti bolognese. I usually steer clear of this because basically it's just spaghetti with hamburger in meat sauce, and how special could that be. In most cases, not very special. It can often range from Spaghettios (tm) to Ragu and cheap burger. Tonight was different. When I first took a bite my mouth was ready for a big flavor, and my first reaction was "hmmmm, where's the flavor?" But then after a moment, the wonderful fact that I tasted a delicate cheesy flavor with just enough tomato sauce to call it a bolognese made me smile. I don't think they make fresh pasta, but it tasted like it could have been made just moments before, so kudos on the pasta making. I did mention to the staff that a cheese grater and some nice parmagiano reggiano would have been a nice touch and they agreed.

They have a nice wine list, and plenty of seating, although reservations, particularly on the weekend are recommended. I've seen people turned away by a potential long wait. What they did instead is beyond me. What do you do after you get dressed up and go to Pahoa and then not eat at Kaleo's? Burger King? There are a couple of other nice restaurants in Pahoa but we'll save those for another post. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Tina's Gourmet Garden Cafe

I ate at Tina's in Hilo last night. I had eaten there nearly a year ago and had the hot pot menu, served Thursday through Sunday and obviously was not in a rush to get back. But last night we had their standard menu, which is Thai-ish, without being a typical Thai restaurant. I had the hearts of palm salad and it was filled with so many exciting and unusual things I think I would go back just for that! I had the specialty "pizza" which is really a crepe, filled with yummy fish. They should call them crepes not pizzas and I think more people would order them. I don't really like pineapple cooked with anything, so the flavor for me was a bit "off" but that's my personal taste concerning cooked pineapple. I had a smoothie too which had some very nice mint and other flavors added that really made it stand out as a refreshing difference from all the other local fruit smoothies. I thought the meal was a bit overpriced. They don't serve alcohol so the $65 with tip was a bit much for a shared appetizer salad, two entrees and two smoothies. We didn't even order the most expensive things on the menu. Sometimes you pay for ambiance but remember this is a hole in the wall along the Bayfront, so ambiance is not something you'd either expect or get in this case. So if you really need a change in your flavors to awaken your mouth, and value is not a consideration, I would highly recommend eating here. A light meal on a budget could be a shared salad and two smoothies. Enjoy!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Casa de Luna, Hilo, Hawaii

I thought I would start a personal blog about my restaurant experiences rather than simply posting them on TripAdvisor.

Tonight we ate at the newly opened Casa de Luna, on the corner of Mamo St and Keawe St. Hilo, HI. It claims to be a Spanish and Mexican food restaurant. The appetizers (antejitos) were all Tapas and the entrees were all Mexican, so the mix was a bit strange. They are just getting going and willing to listen to feedback. So, I will hold off on any negatives about the food since they are just ramping up to the official opening. I will say that the place has a nice decor and open air, which in Hilo is unheard of. The service was excellent, the prices reasonable, and there is a full bar. The place was full when we arrived but we were seated in a short amount of time. It's nicely located, nicely appointed, and the owners seem to have a great attitude. So, I give this place high marks for the first week, and predict long-term success for the business. We will definitely be back.