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[January 16, 2013]
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser Weekly Eater column
Jan 16, 2013 (The Honolulu Star-Advertiser - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- I was happy to get an email suggesting a visit to Thai Lao in Kapolei, a restaurant I would never have discovered on my own.
The email came from one of the two people, both men, I trust 100 percent with restaurant recommendations. They'll match me reason for reason, a rare thing because, as objective as I try to be in accommodating others' dining history and breadth of experience in my reviews, taste is subjective, as unique as a thumbprint.
So that made it worth the long drive to check out the little mall restaurant. Finding it is tricky. Staffers instructed me to look for Starbucks and a gas station. What could be more generic Heading west on Farrington, you'll know you're getting close when you see Walmart's "Outdoor Living" sign to your right. Cross Makakilo Drive. Kapolei Shopping Center will be on your right, and you'll see a Chevron station on your left.
The restaurant is in the complex behind the gas station, with neighbors Starbucks, Jamba Juice, Sumo Ramen and Papa John's. But don't judge the restaurant by the fast-food company it keeps. I left as a fan, and it was only on follow-up calls that I learned that the family behind the endeavor also is connected to Siam Palace in Kaimuki, and Siam Square in Waikiki, one of my favorites.
I was won over from the start by the restaurant's eggplant salad ($9.95), which starts with smoke-scented barbecued eggplant, the flesh scraped from the skins and tossed with minced pork, shrimp, tomatoes, cilantro, onions and lime juice.
At a glance, shrimp and bean thread casserole ($11.95) does not sound particularly inviting, but I had to trust my guide, who said this was one of his favorite dishes. It became one of mine, too. Simmered in a light, sweetened soy sauce, it wasn't soupy wet as I expected, the thin, glassy noodles clumped together with a nice toothy, chewy texture. You'll have to try it.
His other favorite dish is the whole deep-fried fish (market price) presented on shredded cabbage and layered with a thick sauce of deep-fried garlic, cilantro and green onions. The fish is almost invisible under this crunchy and green coating, and the flavor is addicting. On my visit the fish was opakapaka, at $34.95.
The fresh fish beats the deep-fried fillets, but you can save a few dollars going the latter route. The fillets are uplifted by a savory red curry sauce ($11.95) that's much better than the coconut-enhanced version actually served as red curry ($10.95 with chicken, beef or pork; $11.95 with shrimp, fish or seafood) on the curry menu.
I also enjoyed the green curry fried rice ($9.95 with your choice of meat; $11.95 with shrimp or seafood), the curry enough to moisten the rice without being overpowering. And, they also make a plain but excellent fried chicken ($8.95), served with sweet-sour sauce on the side.
For a break from the usual pad Thai noodle, try rad na ($11.95), a thick stir-fried fun noodle like that used in Chinese-restaurant look fun rolls. Here it's stir-fried with broccoli, yellow bean sauce and your choice of meat ($9.95) or seafood ($11.95).
The restaurant is more Thai than Laotian, the rationale being that more people are familiar with Thai cuisine.
The flavors of Laos are most evident in the noodle dishes, including kao sai, the Laotian version of pho. This soup also makes use of the thick fun noodles, with slices of beef, beef balls, vegetables and a dollop of crispy fried garlic in a light anise broth.
Given that the restaurant has built a good following, including west-side vacationers coming from Ko Olina, it may be time to start showing off the Laotian aspect that is part of the restaurant's name.
---- Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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