The Weekly Eater: Olena’s move to Kalihi proves wise
If you liked chef Ron Simon’s food at the UH Medical School, chances are you’ll like it even more at Olena’s new location in Kalihi.
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The last time I caught up with chef Ron Simon and his wife, Rose Ling, they were operating out of Cafe Waiola at the John A. Burns School of Medicine in Kakaako. Seemed like a good gig, but the cafeteria closed last summer for a two-month renovation project that left them temporarily homeless.
When the project wore on past the completion deadline, the couple started looking for other temporary quarters, thinking they would eventually return to the medical school. They moved into Kalihi, where a hungry lunch crowd welcomed their casual-luxe to-go plates and rice bowls. Now the couple says they’re not budging from the spot. Their landlord and neighbor is the Hawaiian Chip Co., and the two companies, plus temporary tenant Dipped by Dee, have a symbiotic relationship, sending customers back and forth for visits that may include samples of banana poi bread, chips and chocolate-dipped strawberries.
If you liked Simon’s food at the medical school, chances are you’ll like it even more here. The focus has changed from light options, geared toward an audience of medical school faculty and students, to heavier fare suitable for the cafe’s current industrial environs, though still with an emphasis on fresh, high-quality ingredients as reflected in its name. “Olena” is the Hawaiian word for turmeric, known for its medicinal, purifying properties.
Lack of cooking facilities at the medical school had also limited hot options to a handful of items that could be prepared in a lineup of multicookers. The Kalihi facility forces no limitations on what can be cooked. The downside is that there’s no seating, so you can’t enjoy your meal on the spot, unless you’re willing to stand, as I did, to devour a sometime special of beer-battered shrimp. It was the only way to enjoy the crisp, airy coating, still hot from the fryer. I feel sorry for those — including former patrons from the medical school — who make a 15- to 20-minute drive back to their home or workplace before they can bite into it. Still good, but not the same as when eaten immediately.
To start, the cafe’s namesake turmeric appears on the small menu in a salad dressing option, and the spice is also infused into empanada dough. These large savory pastries ($7.95 each) are filled with varying combinations of sweet potatoes and meat, from shredded chicken to Kilauea Fire BBQ-sauced pulled pork.
Because dishes are arranged so beautifully, they come out of the kitchen with covers off, to acknowledge those who can’t eat without first photographing their food. It’s a shame, for instance, to smoosh down a gorgeous poke bowl ($12.95) topped with a tangle of fried ogo and slices of avocado. A sous-vide chicken salad ($10.50) is the leanest item on the menu, the sliced chicken topping a bed of organic greens with choice of turmeric-citrus, papaya, balsamic vinaigrette, or Caesar dressings.
Even though I crave deep-fried foods, I would usually steer clear of an all-deep-fry meal of fish and chips ($13.95) but after sampling the beer-batter shrimp special I couldn’t resist a repeat experience of that light, crispy batter. The chef uses auction-fresh mahimahi served with tartar sauce, but those with a continental preference for malt vinegar can have that, too.
Rice bowls take the place of plate lunches here. You have the option of brown or white rice, or swap it out for greens instead. Current protein choices are pulled pork ($9.95), beef brisket ($10.95) or Oink and Moo ($11.95), a combination of mini beef patties and braised pork belly adobo. I tried the burger first, which was plenty tasty, but it’s hard to go back to beef after sampling the juicy, flavorful pork. Those in the know are requesting an all-oink bowl.
The same protein options are offered as jumbo sliders at $4.50 to $5.95 each. Bowls and sliders are topped with coleslaw with pineapple to brighten and lighten the flavors.
The full plate experience comes via an order of classic red-wine beef stew ($11.50) with a choice of rice and organic greens or, for $1 more, sub mac ‘n’ cheese for the rice.
You can still get Illy coffee here, or another popular refresher is Filipino lemonade ($3.95 to $5.95), filtered water flavored with a dice of pineapple and squeeze of calamansi.
Due to demand, the couple has introduced prime-rib Thursdays, and more menu additions are coming as they continue to listen to what their diners want.
OLENA BY CHEF RON SIMON
1933 Republican St.
>> Call: 745-7777
>> Hours: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays
>> Prices: About $15 per person
Ratings compare similar restaurants:
**** – excellent
*** – very good
** – average
* – below average
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at email@example.com.