Many New Year’s resolutions revolve around dietary plans, but surveys have shown that resolve fades away after 12 to 17 days. Change isn’t easy, but short-term lapses shouldn’t lead to abandoning good intentions. That Salt & Pepper Cafe exists is a testament that change is possible. The restaurant is the result of a complete lifestyle overhaul for Solomon “Kai” Kaimimoku.
Kaimimoku partnered with Realtor Jeffrey Samuels in the endeavor, a hybrid restaurant that is half-traditional, half-vegan. (Samuels was also the owner of Yum Cha Hawaii, which formerly occupied the space.)
The concept reflects Kaimimoku’s difficulty finding a restaurant that met the requirements of his journey to health, and would also accommodate his family and friends who were not vegan. He remembers the difficulty of being surrounded by meat eaters and “having a breakdown at Ala Moana Center” on the 29th day of his diet, when he couldn’t take it anymore and left the table to walk home alone.
This happened in 2016, when he said he started to feel sick and was diagnosed with diabetes, high blood pressure, early stage heart disease and stage 2 colon cancer. Seven men in his family had already died from colon cancer but he didn’t want to leave his young son without a father, so he was determined to beat it, though without chemotherapy.
“My relatives all did chemo, but it didn’t work. They all never had a chance to enjoy life.”
At the time he weighed 350 pounds, at 6-foot-2.
“My grandparents owned a catering company specializing in local food and I was the only grandchild who stuck around, watching them cook, watching my parents cook and learning from them,” he said. In the process, he learned to enjoy all that was made.
“I was eating a lot of meat, sometimes two or three plate lunches at once, and to be honest, I never drank water in five or six years. Everything was soda or juice. I would drink four cases of soda a week. I was smoking 2-1/2 packs of cigarettes a day. I was basically killing myself. It’s kind of crazy to think about it now.”
He started juicing, following the Gerson Therapy method of consuming 13 glasses of fresh, raw carrot-apple and green-leaf juices a day. But he found his world had turned flavorless, and he had to quit his job at a burger restaurant to avoid temptation. Instead, he found a job at Vegan Hills and immersed himself in relearning how to cook without meat.
After 11 months the cancer was gone, his health was restored, and he had lost 127 pounds, “a whole person,” he said.
Different from most other vegan establishments in town, Salt & Pepper Cafe brings a local twist to a vegan menu, duplicating its nonvegan menu by subbing out meat products for vegetables or vegetable products that mimic the look, texture and flavor of meat.
So instead of ahi poke, the v-eaters can opt for a beet poke bowl ($10) or beet poke nachos ($17) drizzled with an aioli of wasabi and vegan mayo, and vegan unagi sauce, to give it the flavor of fish poke.
“It’s a place that’s meant to be inclusive, where everyone can come and feel at home and enjoy good food,” Kaimimoku said.
TOWARD THAT end, the restaurant veers from the shabby chic aura associated with vegan/vegetarian establishments in favor of a more general contemporary restaurant vibe. And true to his expectation, the crowd is one of the most eclectic I’ve seen at any restaurant, a mix of surfer types, construction workers in their neon shirts, families of all ethnicities, couples of all ages, and office ladies.
I see it as a transitional outlet for those seeking to make a lifestyle change without going cold turkey, or a place where vegetarians and vegans can share a table with carnivore friends, without anyone having to compromise their lifestyle choices. Dual kitchen facilities keep ingredients and color-coded cookware segregated.
To date, the restaurant is offering only breakfast, lunch and brunch.
Omnivores might be relieved to find such classic day starters as eggs Benedict ($16), and basic omelets of chorizo ($15), mushrooms with Swiss cheese ($15) or ham and cheese ($15).
Counterparts on the vegan side might be an artichoke “crab” cake Benedict ($18) or tofu scramble Benedict with tempeh bacon ($16), or a burrito of tofu-Soyrizo (soy-based product with chorizo flavor) scramble with mushroom gravy ($15).
Vegans and omnivores alike can enjoy such items as ube-stuffed French toast ($18), papaya half filled with acai ($11), or pancakes topped with jam and wild berries ($14).
The menu becomes much more interesting at lunchtime, with an eclectic mix of starters and entrees that on the omnivore side includes a skirt steak salad ($15), lobster mac and cheese ($21) and Mama’s Meatloaf ($19) served over mashed potatoes.
On the vegan side, there are crispy Brussels sprouts ($8), avocado toast ($9) and vegan mac and “Cheesy” ($17) with three types of vegan cheeses.
The vegan loco moco ($17) uses an Impossible Burger patty, and vegan brat sausage dogs ($14), use Beyond Burger’s mixture of pea protein, mung beans and brown rice to duplicate the texture and flavor of pork link sausages. The sausages also top a vegan risotto ($17).
ON BOTH menus are an island tomato bisque ($6 cup/$9 bowl). Without cream, it’s a little more sour than you might find at a conventional restaurant.
While I like the idea of healthful choices and am glad that the option exists, I was still more drawn to the traditional side of the menu, with its fish tacos (market price, recently $18) and house shrimp ($15), a bowl of Kauai shrimp with garlic sauce over rice and served with a mixed greens salad.
The fish tacos force you to eat less animal protein, because for $18 I found the portion of fresh ahi to be skimpy — one aproximately 2-ounce piece of fish on each of the two tacos. It just goes to show how much we need to recalibrate our mindset when changing our diets. U.S. Department of Health recommendations for consumption of meats, poultry and eggs for those at the 2,000-calorie- a-day level is 26 ounces per week, less than 4 ounces per day.
STILL, meat lovers won’t have to skimp when it comes to the house stuffed burgers ($16), 8 ounces of beef stuffed with your choice of three ingredients from a list that includes bacon, Maui onions, mushrooms, cheese and jalapenos. They are as satisfying as you could hope for anywhere, though I do have one word of caution. When ordering jalapenos, be prepared for spicy. Unlike ingredients placed on top of a burger, those folded into the patty are much harder to remove.
Some of the dishes Kaimimoku created were in response to his wife’s longing for the familiar after she also converted to a vegan diet in sympathy with his plight.
“The one thing she misses is seafood, so I came up with a ‘crab’ cake using artichokes ($15), which has the flakiness of crab, and it’s something she loves,” he said.
At the restaurant, the vegan “crab” cakes are bound with potatoes and studded with minced carrots, green bell peppers and fennel seeds, with a touch of ogo to bring the flavor of the ocean to the plate. It’s equal to a typical local crabcake that tends to have more filler than crabmeat anyway.
The drink menu includes a short list of locally inspired cocktails and mocktails, and local wines.
For the start of the year, the cafe offers a welcoming space for anyone starting a journey toward better health.
SALT & PEPPER CAFE
Uraku Tower, 1341 Kapiolani Blvd.
>> Call: 744-0137
>> Hours: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily
>> Prices: About $50 for two without alcohol
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.