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Found: Mochiko chicken and fried saimin at Sam’s

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I’m always looking for really good mochiko chicken and fried saimin — and for two reasons.

One, I haven’t really had good, flavorful mochiko chicken except at potlucks — and I can’t seem to perfect my own recipe, either. And two, my mom loveslovesloves fried saimin, like no one else.

So you can imagine my utter delight when I found a place that sold stellar versions of both.

Sam’s Delicatessen on Nuuanu Avenue next to Bangkok Chef has been in business for years. And while it serves Korean takeout — one of my favorite things to eat — I had never been there until recently.

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Outside the eatery on Nuuanu Avenue.

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The usual suspects for banchan, or Korean side dishes.

Sam’s, which has a small dining area, serves typical Korean dishes such as kalbi, meat jun, bibimbap and mandoo kook soo in regular, combination and mini plates.

But there are a few interesting additions to the menu like tofu katsu, chicken wings and a Hawaiian plate with laulau and kalua pig with cabbage.

And then I saw it: mochiko chicken, fried noodles.

OK, so here’s the deal about these two dishes for me: the mochiko chicken has to be flavorful — and I’ve found that isn’t always the case. The batter is bland, the chicken isn’t salty enough, it just falls flat.

And when it comes to fried saimin, it has to be simple. I’m not into heaps of cabbage, bean sprouts, shredded cabbage and seven different kinds of meats cut up into small strips. Nope, give me just some kamaboko (fish cake) with green onions and I’m set.

Sam’s does a great job with both. The mochiko chicken (top photo) is sort of like popcorn fried chicken, the pieces are bite-sizes and perfectly fried. The fried saimin (below) is well seasoned and not complicated.

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The price seems high — $7.85 for a fried noodle plate, $8.05 for a mochiko chicken plate — but you do get rice and four sides. Plus, these plates are easily sharable.

Oh, and yes, Sam’s takes credit cards! Bonus!

Sam’s Delicatessen, 1627 Nuuanu Ave., Hours: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, closed Sunday. Phone: 808-524-7777.

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Coming soon: Fresh Cafe Downtown

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Five years ago Tiffany Tanaka started Fresh Cafe in Kakaako, and it quickly became the hot spot for hipsters, college students, young entrepreneurs, art lovers, and WiFi-seeking cofficers in town.

Now she’s opening a second location, aptly in burgeoning Chinatown, bringing the same kind of unique-gathering-space concept to the downtown area.

“It’s going to be Fresh Cafe 2.0,” Tanaka said at today’s media preview of the restaurant. “We’re trying to bring Fresh Cafe up another notch, to another level.” (Don’t worry, the Kakaako location will still remain open.)

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Fresh Cafe Downtown will open in stages starting in a couple of weeks. It occupies the huge space — more than 5,000 square feet — that was vacated by the beloved Indigo’s, which closed in September 2013.

There will be several components to the new cafe: a pizzeria that will serve pies at lunch and late at night, a coffee bar with pastries (below), and an indoor and outdoor dining area with new and unique menu items.

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Here’s the cafe’s coffee bar, which was also serve pastries and desserts.

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Here’s the main dining hall, which will feature art by local artists — very in line with Fresh Cafe’s philosophy on promoting creativity and local talent.

Because of the largeness of the space, Tanaka said she will be opening the pizzeria first, maybe in a week or two, with service until 3 a.m. (“When you have no place to go at 3 a.m., we’ll be here,” she said, laughing.) Next will be the coffee bar — where the old Green Room was — and the actual restaurant will open in a month or two.

Several dozen media folks in town were invited to a preview of the restaurant today, to sample some of the menu items and browse the space.

Here’s what the event looked like — and what you can expect from Fresh Cafe’s second location:

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Sangria and Bloody Marys got the event started.

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Sarah Honda, editorial director at HILuxury, and Martha Cheng, food editor at HONOLULU who pens the blog, Biting Commentary, were both there, among the dozens of media who turned up for the lunchtime event.

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Tiffany Tanaka, one of the co-owners of this space, addressed the crowd in the main dining hall. She said she was nervous and read her thank-yous from her iPhone.

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Here’s the Lime Jello with haupia and diced mango tossed in an Earl Grey-and-lychee syrup.

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This is a Chinese rice cake with apple mousse, bacon and a black sesame puree.

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Here’s the arugula pizza with an herb cheese spread, chia seeds and coco nibs.

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Finally — a REAL Hawaiian pizza! This was came topped with kalua pork, Portuguese sausage, lup cheong, lomi tomato sauce and spinach.

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This is the spinach artichoke pizza with marinated artichoke hearts, roasted bell peppers, spinach, cream cheese, Parmesan cheese and Prosciutto.

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Of course, everyone got a swag bag, packed with oatmeal cookies and reasons to come back!

Fresh Cafe Downtown, 1121 Nuuanu Ave., Suite 105. Will be open in stages starting in a couple of weeks. Visit the site for updates.

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#FUUD: MW Restaurant near Ala Moana

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The rave reviews were in months ago, but I just never got around to checking it out.

It’s not that I didn’t want to dine at MW Restaurant near Ala Moana Center in the old KGMB building. Oh, I did. It was one of the most highly anticipated openings last year. But for whatever reason, maybe I was saving it for some special occasion, I never went.

Until this month.

The special occasion: to be honest, I didn’t want to cook.

I had just managed to pack away two full bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom and a living room of junk — 38 years of accumulation — and moved to a house in Nuuanu. I was just tired of seeing boxes and eating takeout. It was time to dine in style.

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Here’s inside the restaurant at the bar.

The restaurant is run by the husband-and-wife team of Wade Ueoka and Michelle Karr-Ueoka, both long-time alums of Alan Wong’s Restaurant and Rising Star recipients from StarChefs.com.

Not only that, but both worked at the uber-swank The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. Those are some major creds.

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Here’s Chef Wade and me!

And add to that that of the 30 contenders for prestigious 2014 James Beard Foundation Awards given to restaurants and chefs, MW was nominated in the Best New Restaurant category and Karr-Ueoka among the 20 candidates for Outstanding Pastry Chef.

“Party of two?”

“Yes, please.”

Here’s what my first meal at MW looked like — and trust me, it won’t be my last:

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Turned out that night was packed and we lucked out with a 7 p.m. reservation because another party had cancelled. It was nice to see a new, locally owned restaurant hopping like this!

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We went with the chef’s tasting menu, which offered a sampling of some of the restaurant’s most popular dishes.

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As part of the appetizer sampler plate, this was a bite of pickled beets grown at Otsuji Farms in Hawaii Kai with local goat cheese. Completely perfect.

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Next, we tried the ahi nachos — just a bite — with an avocado salsa and rice cracker balls on a fried won ton pi. The flavor combination was unexpected but delicious.

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Here’s the restaurant’s “fried chicken,” made with pressed Jidori chicken topped with a garlic shoyu sauce and Hawaiian hearts of palm.

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Next up was the sampler of one of the restaurant’s popular entrees: the mochi-crusted opakapaka (pink snapper) with a yuzu kosho soy vinaigrette. This usually comes on a bed of somen noodles.

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Here’s a tasting of the Kauai shrimp with seafood ravioli. (It’s under there.) This came with a spicy uni (sea urchin) sauce, soy katsuo and shiso.

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Here’s the final entree of the chef’s tasting — and the one I was looking forward to most. This is the oxtail stew and rice; really, a piece of oxtail (it’s a stuffed roulade if you order the entree) on beef stew risotto with peanuts and mushrooms. I love the playfulness of this dish, taking something so “local” and elevating it. Nice job!

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I ordered a REAL entree: the twice-cooked pork tonkatsu with a vegetable panchan from Ho Farms. I’m not sure what it means for this pork cutlet to be cooked twice, but it was juicy on the inside, crispy on the outside, and all-around delish. Then pickled veggies and kim chee were a nice touch.

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One of the desserts here was part of the Localicious Hawaii menu, offered by various restaurants during the month of March with proceeds from these dishes supporting local ag education. This was a Meyer lemon creme brûlée, which was utter perfection. (I’m biased since I love both flavors separately anyway.)

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But what I really came for was Michelle’s signature ice cream sandwiches, carefully crafted (and wrapped) with a housemade chocolate caramel praline crunch ice cream that was spectacular. I think the restaurant should have a chef’s tasting menu of DESSERTS ONLY, too. (I’m so there.)

MW Restaurant, 1538 Kapiolani Blvd #107 near Ala Moana Center. Hours: Lunch, 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; dinner, 4 to 10 p.m., closed Tuesdays. Phone: (808) 955-6505. Reservations highly recommended.

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Good service goes a long way

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It’s rare that I encounter such bad customer service at a restaurant, I feel like blogging about it.

And while I’ve been tempting to outline everything that happened to me at a particular establishment recently, I decided not to. And here’s why.

It wasn’t the wait staff or food was bad. In fact, I didn’t even sit down at a table. I got poor customer service right at the front door — and that prompted me to never book a reservation there in the several months the restaurant was open.

Oh, I wanted to blog about it. I’m a big believer in sharing accurate information, even bad experiences, because people should know what to expect.

But in this case, I didn’t. I felt it wouldn’t be fair to everyone else who worked there, particularly the chefs and owners, to let this one person influence my view of a restaurant at which I had never dined. It wouldn’t be right.

So I bit my tongue as I browsed photos of crab cakes and short ribs on Instagram, hoping my experience wasn’t shared by others — and cursing the fact that the food looked so ridiculously good.

And then I broke down.

I called one afternoon and booked a table for that evening. When I walked through the door, there was no sign of the worker who had left such a bad taste in my mouth about the place. And the restaurant, as anticipated, lived up to expectations, churning out well-crafted dishes from start to dessert.

It’s interesting how influential bad customer service can be. As someone who writes about food for a living, I’m supposed to try new restaurants, yet this one experience with a front-of-house staffer caused me to put it off for months.

I was reading a blog by New York Post restaurant critic Steve Cuozzo who bemoaned the poor service he received at several new restaurants in the city. And these restaurants knew who he was!

“That I encounter at least as much amateurish, clueless or downright hostile service as I did in my ‘anonymous’ days speaks to the current state of restaurant staffing. It makes it easier to write funny reviews, but it’s nothing to laugh about when regular customers are treated worse.

Exactly.

Service can make or break your business, restaurant or not. I eat at certain restaurants almost exclusively because the people who work there are nice and attentive. The food can hover above mediocre.

And poor service can start from the front door.

But what I’ve come to realize, though, is this: you can’t always judge a restaurant — or any business — by one person who might be having a bad day. Yes, I agree workers shouldn’t bring their personal issues to work. But we’re all human, too, and it happens.

That said, repeated bad service or a business that doesn’t care about the poor treatment you received — well, I’d close that door and never come back.

It may have taken awhile to finally book a table at this restaurant, but I’m glad I did. The food was stellar, the ambiance was perfect and, yeah, the service was up to par, too.

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#CatTravels: A weekend in Volcano

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Even though I travel to the Big Island fairly often — oh, about three times a year — I rarely make it to Volcano, the sleepy little village that borders Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

When I was attending the University of Hawaii at Manoa, I took a ton of geology classes. (In fact, I worked in the department office for several years.) I was completely obsessed with rocks growing up, so geology tapped into that passion. I took as many classes as possible — without having to take four semesters of physics and a mineralogy class that most majors dreaded — and seriously considered ditching my dreams of being a writer for a career in rock science.

(Plus, I dig science guys.)

That didn’t happen, clearly, but I did satisfy my desire to play with rocks during college.

And part of that was tagging along with the Geology 101 class field trip to the Big Island to witness the world’s most active volcano.

After college, though, I probably only visited Hawaii Volcanoes National Park maybe once since. That had to change.

So when I got an assignment to do a story on the Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods forest project in Honokaa, I decided to find a place in Volcano for the weekend.

And I couldn’t have a more perfect place to relax and unwind than at the uber tranquil Volcano Village Lodge. This luxe bed-and-breakfast opened in 2006 with just two guest rooms. Today, there are five beautifully designed lodges that sprawl over one acre of land, surrounded by koa and ohia lehua trees and 200-year-old hapuu ferns. You feel like you’re camping — in luxury, of course — in the middle of a Hawaiian rainforest.

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This was our lodge, Hale Manaluna, nestled amid ohia lehua trees and hapuu ferns. This is the newest addition to the B&B’s suite of lodges and includes a private jacuzzi bath, in-room breakfast, a fireplace and a great covered deck where you can listen to the native birds singing in the trees around you. (Rates are about $320 a night here.)

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This is what our front porch looked like. We ate dinner here on the first night, with views of the rainforest just outside.

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Here’s what inside one of the lodges looks like. I love that the dining area is set up right at the large picture window. There’s nothing better — save for an ocean view — than eating dinner with a bottle of wine with views of the forest.

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Here’s what it looked like just outside our lodge. Talk about secluded! And we woke up to the singing of apapane, a Hawaiian honeycreeper endemic to the Islands.

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The in-room breakfast is stealthily placed in the room during the afternoon, ready to be warmed up in the morning. On the first day, we had a spinach frittata with a plate of fresh fruits. On the second day, we had French toast (above) with chicken-apple sausage and fruits.

The lodges come equipped with all the amenities you need: private bath and shower, robes and slippers, a kitchenette with a microwave and toaster oven, covered lanais with views of the forest, large picture windows that invite the outside in, umbrellas, flashlights, a basket of snacks like bananas and cereal, a bottle of wine (with opener), and one of the most comfortable beds I’ve ever slept in.

Oh, and did I mention free WiFi?

It was the perfect place to recharge before spending an entire Saturday morning in Honokaa, about a two-hour drive away.

And I couldn’t think of a better place to crash after planting koa trees in the forest.

But that’s tomorrow’s blog!

Thanks to the Volcano Village Lodge for putting me up for two nights! If you’re interesting in booking a lodge at the Volcano Village Lodge, call (808) 985-9500 or click here. Rates start at $280 per night based on a two-night minimum stay. Includes breakfast.

Follow me on my #CatTravel adventures on Twitter @thedailydish and Instagram @catherinetoth>.

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