Pau Hana Patrol: Kakaako’s Pioneer Saloon serves up tasty dishes
Among the cluster of trendy storefronts vying to satiate your hunger and quench your thirst at SALT Kakaako is Pioneer Saloon, a small corner cafe fronting Auahi Street.
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Among the cluster of trendy storefronts vying to satiate your hunger and quench your thirst at SALT Kakaako is Pioneer Saloon, a small corner cafe fronting Auahi Street. There are no swinging doors or anything cowboy-related at this saloon. The place is country in name only, and serves a menu comprised of local plate lunches with a Japanese sensibility.
This is the eatery’s second location. The original Pioneer Saloon, located on Monsarrat Avenue, has cemented its status as a popular bento stop over the past 10 years, while the Kakaako location opened in mid-2018. They both carry a similar menu, with the biggest difference being that the newer spot serves alcohol, while the former — despite its label as a saloon — does not.
Approaching the shop, several benches covered by umbrellas are available for outdoor seating, but alcohol can only be consumed inside. The shiny glass and slate of the storefront windows contrast with the corrugated metal exterior of the building.
There’s something attractively understated about walking into Pioneer Saloon Kakaako. I feel under no pressure to engage. The staff smiles to acknowledge my party of two and then stays busy with an air of quiet efficiency, until we reach out to ask a few questions about the happy hour menu and to order.
Inside, the walls are made of shiny wood paneling, and techno-funk beats give the place a hip vibe. Shelving featuring vintage items for sale might hearken to the Wild West concept, except that these antiques have an island theme to them. A series of mini paintings of stylized waves are on display on the walls. Manager Reese Kato mentions that new artwork for purchase goes up every month or so. He says he likes nurturing community partnerships; for instance, he sometimes displays photos from Treehouse camera shop upstairs.
Seating is available at the diner’s 10 barstools and seven two-person tables. I can see pulling a couple of them together for a party of three or four, but looking around, I only see singles and couples. They seem to be an even mix of tourists and folks who just got off work, all aged about 30-something.
The happy hour menu lists nine items, most of them a markdown or slightly altered version of dishes on the regular menu, but there are a couple of happy hour-only items. When we ask for the most popular happy hour choices, our server recommends Shishito Peppers ($4) and Cajun French Fries ($5, normally $8).
Shishito Peppers are not on the regular menu, but they’re sometimes on the day’s special menu for $5. They’ve been pan-seared in a shoyu sauce until browned, and then topped with a handful of paper-thin bonito flakes. The peppers look alive when they arrive. The freshly sprinkled flakes writhe and wriggle in reaction to the heat.
“They’re mild for the most part, but some of them can be spicy,” Kato warns.
They’re warm, salty and juicy, and the browned areas are especially tasty. Kato is right, some of them pack a bit of heat, but it’s never overwhelming. My dining companion and I agree that they’re delicious, but that we’d want to order them with a bigger party as the serving is generous and the flavor dense. After relishing several of these long green peppers with bites that are sometimes crunchy, sometimes tender, we are ready for our fries.
The fries are perfect, with texture and spicing that make them irresistible. They are piping hot, with a crispy outside and the steamy softness of mashed potato inside. Despite the Cajun flavor, we still like dipping them in ketchup. We finish off our dollop that comes on the side and ask for more.
The regular drink menu features a modest selection of wine, and local and Japanese beer in the range of $4-$7 for a can or glass. Happy Hour offers red or white wine for $3 (normally $4) and Asahi Super Dry for $2.99 (normally $5), which is on draft. I choose the Asahi, which provides a frothy, rich counterbalance to my salty finger foods. It’s a pleasantly sweet, grainy beer that I sip from a festive tiki glass, and it goes down smooth.
SALT has its restaurants and its drinking spots. Pioneer Saloon exists at a juncture between those two. It’s smaller than a restaurant and doesn’t have an extensive drink menu. But the corner niche is a great stop for a casual drink and a bite to eat.
SALT at Our Kakaako, 675 Auahi St.
Happy Hour:2-6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays
>>$3 glass of wine, $2.99 Asahi draft beer
>> $2-$6 happy hour dishes