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Food Feature: Eating Honolulu

Go off the tourist path and get culinarily lei'd

Editor's note: A food critic may take a vacation, but a food critic never takes a vacation from critiquing food. Even in Hawaii, CL's Elliott Mackle put his tastebuds to work.

Honolulu heaven, or my idea of it, consists of fried rice, fresh-fruit desserts and sensationally garnished grilled fish and meats, the latter caught or grown in the islands. Like good men, these delights can be hard to find, at least on Oahu.

Waikiki Beach, where most packaged tourists sleep and hang out, offers all the culinary depth of a California food court. Strolling half a block outside my waterside, Japanese-owned hotel last August, I encountered an Outback Steakhouse and a Chart House. Fixed-price smorgasbord operations, burger and chicken chains, cheap noodle stands, casual dinner-house units, anything-goes sushi bars and standardized hotel dining rooms round out the choices.

That's why I either rent a cheap car or ride buses and shuttles when I hit Honolulu. On my last trip out, I scored four memorable meals.

INDIGO, 1121 Nuuanu Ave., 808-521-2900. places.com/indigo/. Glenn Chu's maze of Balinese gardens, Thai spirit houses, banana flowers, pergolas, umbrellas, splashing fountains, blue batik-clad waiters and rehabbed downtown storefronts is simply gangbusters. Happy crowds of aloha-shirted locals lap up zippy East-West food (oh, those lobster-mousse potstickers) in a reseeded Chinatown neighborhood near the docks. Valet parking is offered at night. This being a port city, Indigo serves until at least 2 a.m. While I lunched there, a TV crew arrived because Chu had just applied for a cabaret license to stay open later.

The bite-size potstickers, served with chili soy sauce and soba noodles ($8), top a list of unusual dim sum items such as mousse-stuffed shrimp lumpia, tempura ahi tuna, lemon grass chicken brochettes and steamed bao buns filled with eggplant and dried tomatoes. Choosing an entree is no easier. Going with grilled island chicken breast with peanut sauce, pineapple salsa, pickled vegetables and steamed rice ("our most requested dish"), I was bowled over by the perfectly modulated layers of curry-like flavors and degrees of peppery hotness ($13.50). By night, I'd have chosen from among Shanghai mahogany duck with raspberry hoisin, Hawaiian fish with ginger and lemon grass roasted in a banana leaf, Sumatra-peppered beef rendang and island-grown shrimp with green papaya slaw and tomato sambal.

To finish, and because they were out of Many Times Rich Goat Cheesecake with ginger-lime sauce, I settled for citrus-scented coconut cream pie ($5.50). A chilled bottle of Australian, naturally brewed Bundaberg ginger beer ($3.50) saw me through from potstickers to coffee.

ALAN WONG'S RESTAURANT, 1857 S. King St. 808-949-2526. www.alanwongs.com. Perched atop a low office building, its open windows facing the residential mountains rather than the touristic sea, this high-end, Hawaiian regional cuisine paradise beats everything in terms of chic clientele, consistency and determined staffer cool. Honored by the James Beard Foundation in 1996 as the region's top chef, owner-chef Wong offers delightful complications such as duck nachos on tapioca-scallion chips, grilled mahi with wasabi sauce and Thai butter-poached lobster with capellini noodles and heart of palm. This being a return trip for me, I sat at the counter overlooking the grill and expediting station, happily letting the sous chef describe every step.

My Caesar salad was king-like — thin-cut romaine leaves with anchovy-scented dressing served in a cheese-cookie basket positioned on a mound of shredded kalua barbecue pork, with side servings of croutons, poi vinaigrette and a single anchovy ($8.50). Coconut-macadamia crusted lamb chops with garlic mashed potatoes, lamb gravy, dots of coconut cream and (useless) Asian ratatouille was just the kind of hearty, delectable entree a man needs after a long day of surfing, swimming and sightseeing ($38). The chocolate sampler yielded up more memorable puu puus — chocolate creme brûlee and melted chocolate cake with Jack Daniel's vanilla ice cream among them ($10.50).

HOKU'S, Kahala Mandarin Oriental, 5000 Kahala Ave., 808-739-8780. I'll be blunt here. The fried rice at this signature restaurant of Honolulu's ultra-upscale resort is worth the trip — subtly seasoned, studded with savory bits of vegetable greenery, each grain of rice separate yet bound to the whole with ineffable Asian magic. I enjoyed it at lunch topped with barbecue pork loin and ribs ($16.75). A salad of Waimanalo Valley greens made me feel virtuous ($6.50), as did skipping — this time — the melting chocolate cake with espresso bean ice cream. Hoku's internationalist intentions are clear from the dinner menu, which sweeps from a symphony of Ahi (sushi, tartare, poke mousse, kiawe grilled) to osso buco with preserved lemon.

MARIPOSA, Neiman Marcus, Ala Moana Center, 808-951-3420. Of my four unforgettable meals, only one occurred within walking distance of Waikiki's beachfront. Served in a ravishing setting (fifth-floor Pacific view, ceiling fans, masses of orchids, bejeweled shoppers), it was a glitzy rip-off, easily the least enjoyable. Lunch began with a tiny cup of instant-tasting chicken bouillon and a tough, room-temperature popover. My grilled ahi sandwich had two flavors, burned fish and scorched bun ($10.50). Half the greasy French fries were edible. Service favored the house. After asking if I wanted "a little more Coke," waiter Darin Ma brought it — and charged me for a second glass ($1.75 each). Aloha oy!

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