It took several weeks, and a concerted effort to score a table, to sample the menu and ambiance at Chef Chai Chaowasari’s newest Waikliki eatery, KALO Hawaiian Food.
In the heart of Waikiki, on the ground floor of the Courtyard by Marriott Waikiki Beach, it’s located at a busy intersection at Royal Hawaiian and Kuhio Avenues.
The restaurant has a casual vibe and projects similarities with Chai’s Bistro, the signature eatery on Kapiolani Boulevard, across nearby Blaisdell Center.
There’s indoor and outdoor dining space. The menu is extensive but confusing, because our waiter said the best way to order is to select your entrée first (lau lau is the centerpiece of of the fare), then do the add-ons.
Since KALO is the Hawaiian word for taro, the staple starch in Hawaiian culture, and the focus of the restaurant, one might be somewhat puzzled that there are a couple of non-Hawaiian signature dishes – primarily the excellent steamed sea bass, from the Bistro’s menu, along with island style BBQ chicken, lobster curry and oxtail soup.
And it becomes understandable why.
While a Hawaiian menu might seem like a surefire hit in visitor central, there were perhaps three tables of visitors who might have wanted to sample a Hawaiian menu who perused the choices…then decided to leave. Confused by choices? Prices? Not adventurous to try Hawaiian food?
Understandably, luau kau kau should entice more visitors but the hesitancy seems odd. A primer might be handy; this is not the kau kau served at luau shows here because no matter what, poi should be a gotta-try but winds up not particularly likeable (though small) element of the visitor dining experience here. The fish and the BBQ chicken might be the go-to items, since these are stand-along entrees that do not need starters.
Uncertainty is a possible villain here, since the menu seems still a work in progress.
What’s good: the lau lau entrée (moist and chockful of pork flavor) and the haupia dessert (a sweet climax).
But you get neither in a $45 sampler that includes small portions of kalua pig (too dry), lomi salmon (too much lomi, not enough salmon), ahi poke (familiar flavors and a satisfactory portion for newbies), chicken long rice (pleasant taste, but the rice noodles are almost as large as udon, not the usual thin variety), pipikaula (looks better than it tastes, sinewy and tough to chew), poi (very tiny portion) and rice (too flaky, like Chinese restaurant fare, when it should be the customary rice you get two scoops of at nearly every other joint).
I adore and applaud Chai’s endeavors of the past, from his original Thai menu up to his Bistro selections, but KALO shouts for his immediate and inevitable adjustments.
It seems sensible to bump the marginal kalua pig and even the rice, and substitute with a very mini lau lau like the one Willows used to serve in its buffet; large enough to enjoy the flavors and texture of taro leaf cuddling pork. That would add value to the $45 pricetag.
The sampler is enough to share with a partner; I ordered the lau lau while my wife opted for the succulent steamed bass. The sampler provided her “sides.” (Two other couples in our party did the same thing, selecting the mixed mini-plates). Because haupia is something most folks seldom make at home, I ordered a larger portion, enough to share; the dessert was sweet and moist, with the precise creamy texture.
And who doesn’t like pipikaula? A better grade of meat would ramp up its appeal and be a worthy sider/starter at $22.
What’s worrisome: if locals don’t give a stamp of approval of the fare here, they won’t make a trek to Waikiki to give it a try; visitors are already in Waikiki, and by ramping up flavors or elevating some of the fare, they’ll help spread the word that KALO is the real deal.
The interior dining space is airy and modern with views of both avenues and visitors wandering; there is splendid old-fashioned Hawaiian music, which transforms you to another era in a simpler Hawaii, if you close your eyes. The walls have images of island folks and places.
The $52 steak and lobster curry choices on a Hawaiian menu seem out of place but serve as life savers in case of an emergency; surely Chai knows his way around his exotic flavors and plating, and these options appear to cater to those who dodge the traditional Hawaiian dishes. Chai also sneaks in his delectable flan and familiar heart-shaped chocolate/gelato truffle desserts, for brownie points. But the question is: why visit a Hawaiian food restaurant if you order alternatives
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KALO HAWAIIAN FOOD
Hours: 4:30 to 10 p.m. daily
Location: 400 Royal Hawaiian Avenue,
at Kuhio Avenue, on the ground floor of the Courtyard by Marriott Waikiki Beach
Valet parking: $6 with validation, access via Royal Hawaiian Avenue