The Weekly Eater: Good food, friendly service abound at Ripple of Smiles
In an age when customer service is in short supply, owners Hung “Frank” Nguyen and Huyen Le are charming, gracious and humble hosts at The Ripple of Smiles in Kaimuki.
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We’re all looking for signs that this will be a better year, so on Day 2 of the new year I was drawn to a restaurant with the curious name, The Ripple of Smiles. Psychology on a plate?
The name alludes to the effect of an object dropped into water that sets off expanding ripples across the surface. The meaning has been expanded to refer to economic power as well as the psychology of social interactions. Smiles are described as contagious in their power to brighten the day of those on the receiving end, who are likely to pay it forward, sending a ripple effect of happiness into the world. What a great way to set the tone for the year.
In an age when customer service is in short supply, owners Hung “Frank” Nguyen and Huyen Le are charming, gracious and humble hosts. At first, I didn’t realize Le was an owner, as she waited on tables, soft-spoken and all smiles.
The couple is new to Hawaii, arriving just six months ago from Vietnam — he hails from Ho Chi Minh City, while she and her parents are from the southern Mekong Delta region. Le’s mom does the cooking in this family-run operation at the base of St. Louis Drive, in the spot formerly home to The Fat Greek. The space has been transformed into a casually elegant dining room with open-air patio seating.
THE RIPPLE OF SMINLES
3040 Waialae Ave.
Food: *** 1/2
>> Call: 354-2572
>> Hours: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays
>> Prices: About $30 for two without alcohol; no fee BYOB
Ratings compare similar restaurants:
**** – excellent
*** – very good
** – average
* – below average
Being this new, their food has not yet been muddled or watered down by local predilections and styles of cooking. Their menu bears the words “The Missing Ingredient,” which I thought might have been the name of a previous restaurant, but first-time restaurateur Le explained that it refers to the taste of home they’d found missing upon arrival here.
I was looking forward to seeing what that would be like and wasn’t disappointed when one of the first dishes ordered was an appetizer of crab spring rolls ($14). Different from typical tube-shaped spring rolls, these rice-paper-wrapped rolls resembled thick crabmeat-filled puff pastry, cut in half before hitting the deep fryer to achieve a brittle golden crunch in contrast with the juicy, succulent filling.
The dish is easily the best thing I’ve eaten since the new year began, which could be a funny assertion just nine days into 2019, but I have a feeling it may remain atop my list of favorites for a while. Like other spring rolls, these were accompanied by lettuce leaves and cold vermicelli noodles for making wraps. Perhaps depending on who’s in the kitchen, the rolls may also be accompanied by sprigs of basil or mint. Either works fine.
Regular spring rolls ($9) are also nice and crunchy with a light filling of chopped rice noodles, carrots and scant egg and ground pork. These are nice as an appetizer or topping on a bowl of chilled vermicelli ($13.50) in combination with your choice of grilled beef, pork or chicken.
The restaurant has a short list of five bowls of pho, from the typical rare steak ($10); to a seafood combination ($13.50) of shrimp, squid and fish balls; to tender oxtails ($14.50). But what caught my eye in the soup category was an offering of crab vermicelli soup ($13.50), a mild broth filled with shrimp, a quartet of sweet crab meatballs and pressed pork.
At this point, diners will probably notice that the cuisine of southern Vietnam leans toward the sugary. Fresh juices ($5) here have added sugar even when none is needed, such as with a glass of orange juice. It almost defeats the purpose of ordering vegetarian sour soup ($14), when sour elements of lemon and pineapple are diluted with sugar.
For the most part, local diners with savory palates can strike their own balance by adding Sriracha or chili sauce to dishes they deem too sweet, including pho broth.
Elsewhere, flavors are an intense blend of sugar and salt, as with fried chicken wings coated in sticky sweet sauce ($11) on par with the concentrated mirin and soy flavors of more familiar Nagoya-style chicken wings. This is another dish likely to find local fans, as will a rice plate of fragrant lemon grass chicken rice ($13.50), and fresh veggie-filled banh mi ($8) with pork and pate. A grilled beef banh mi sandwich is also available ($8), although I haven’t gotten around to trying it yet.
Also at the heart of this cuisine is a kho (simmered) stone pot of fish (saba), pork or chicken, rich with nuoc mau, or caramelized sugar ($14). It arrives bubbling hot and appetizing to look at, the pride of the Mekong Delta, just as sweet as it is savory and meant to be eaten with lots of rice. After this, rather than opting for dessert of tapioca pudding ($5) you can refresh your palate with lemon beef salad ($12), with sheets of thin-sliced beef topping a heap of chopped lettuce, and slivers of pickled carrots and daikon.
I really hope they are able to find an audience in this spot that has never been easy for parking.
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.