Waialae Avenue Hot Spots

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - February 04, 2009
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If you want a taste of Hawaii’s culinary diversity, you need drive no farther than Waialae Avenue. There’s 3660 On the Rise on its perch at the top of the hill, and midway up (or down) the street, there’s the incredibly good town. And it’s surely one of life’s lovely coincidences that on a street where so many restaurants are BYOB, there’s one of the city’s best wine stores. Who needs a wine list when you have Tamura’s Fine Wines?

It’s Chili in Hawaii owners Beverly Matsuura with son Jordan Khan, husband Mike Khan and staffers Isabelle Sweeney and Nico Lopez

The culinary melting pot of Waialae is on a tiny strip between Waialae Avenue and St. Louis Heights, where crazy parking and a haphazard group of owner-occupied restaurants mark the spot. Sabrina’s is the oldest. It’s an Italian restaurant run by husband-and-wife team Sabrina Collo and Stefano Cianfrini, who’ve gained a reputation for serving family-style Italian food to small groups with a casual, come-as-you-are approach. Their food mixes popular dishes from various regions in Italy and it usually feels more like dinner at a friend’s house than an evening in a restaurant - always the mark of a great neighborhood spot.

Next door to Sabrina’s, Kabir Chowdhury and his wife Hosneara Nitu opened Café TajMahal at the end of last year. I love their Indian food. They make Northern-and Southern-style dishes - all from scratch with sauces that are rich and fragrantly filled with Indian spices. The naan bread is light and puffy, vegetable samosas are oversized, and pakora is as crisp and light as any I’ve ever tasted. Lamb dishes are a must, and there’s a marvelously moist, juicy tandoori chicken that’s well worth a try. Service - Chowdhury is front of the house and Nitu is in the kitchen - is friendly, and as fast as a two-person operation can be. But don’t go to rush. Take a bottle of Riesling or a crisp India Pale Ale and enjoy ...

In front of Café TajMahal you’ll find the newly opened It’s Chili In Hawaii. Yes, it’s the same store that was a longtime fixture on South King Street and, yes, it still has more than 100 of the world’s hottest sauces. The restaurant just had its official “grand” opening, and husband-and-wife team Beverly Matsuura and Mike Khan are excited by the response of heat-seeking customers.

“For so long our customers would ask us to make more food at the store,” says Matsuura, “now they seem happy to be able to get the food and the hot sauces in one place.”

It’s Chili in Hawaii is very casual and serves a variety of home-cooked, Mexican-inspired dishes like carne asada, chicken chili verde and nachos, all with any number of hot sauces you’d like to add. For most of us, a dash of heat on a soft taco is fine, but don’t be surprised to see some serious chili heads dining on the lanai.

“We had a guy come in yesterday and ask for three habaneros on his one taco,” says Beverly.

That’s serious heat. It’s Chili in Hawaii also carries hot sauce made from the hottest pepper on earth, the Naga Jolokia.

Mexican, Indian or Italian not going to do it for you? Then how about some dolmades or a side of hummus? The Fat Greek completes the culinary landscape of this delightful restaurant strip. The fresh food, friendly counter service and reasonable pricing deserve more than a few lines at the end of this column, so watch this space next week for more.

Wine and beer to go with Indian, Italian, Mexican and Greek food may all be found at Tamura’s Fine Wines, where there’s a collection of truly amazing wines for under $15 a bottle.

Happy eating!

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