Drawing the local crowd: Aulani Asian Café opens as a new option in Honokaa

  • Brandon Winslow and Chef Curtis Taylor bring their creative talents to the Asian fusion restaurant. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
    Brandon Winslow and Chef Curtis Taylor bring their creative talents to the Asian fusion restaurant. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
  • Miso marinated pork chop, ahi poke nachos and blackened fish tacos are among the most popular dishes at Aulani Asian Café. The Asian-inspired restaurant opened in Honokaa in late November and has been well received by locals. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
    Miso marinated pork chop, ahi poke nachos and blackened fish tacos are among the most popular dishes at Aulani Asian Café. The Asian-inspired restaurant opened in Honokaa in late November and has been well received by locals. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
  • The Café’s bar aficionado, Brandon Winslow, creates cocktails using a variety of fresh juices, herbs and housemade raw sugar extracts. Favorites include Kung Pao Mary, Thaipirinha infused with ginger, lemongrass, cilantro and Thai chili peppers, and the Mai Thai made with his own allspice macnut simple syrup. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
    The Café’s bar aficionado, Brandon Winslow, creates cocktails using a variety of fresh juices, herbs and housemade raw sugar extracts. Favorites include Kung Pao Mary, Thaipirinha infused with ginger, lemongrass, cilantro and Thai chili peppers, and the Mai Thai made with his own allspice macnut simple syrup. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
  • Brandon Winslow and Chef Curtis Taylor bring their creative talents to the Asian fusion restaurant. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
    Brandon Winslow and Chef Curtis Taylor bring their creative talents to the Asian fusion restaurant. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)

HONOKAA — In California, it would be called “Asian fusion” and cost twice as much. But in Honokaa, it is affordable local food with an Asian influence that is drawing record crowds.

Residents have been waiting to see what would go into the unique treehouse-like space in Honokaa after Green Market & Cafe closed in early 2016. In late November, after eight months of renovations, Aulani Asian Café opened.

So far, diners have been impressed.

“We’ve literally been at capacity every night since opening,” said Shelly Espin, the restaurant’s general manager. “It’s been so much more than we imagined. The majority of our customers have been Honokaa residents waiting for another place to go.”

It hasn’t been just one kind of customer.

“We’ve had everything from Waipio surfer kids to Ahualoa famers and hospital ladies. Construction guys come for to-go foods. People feel like anyone can come,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of repeat business already too. We’re local-centric. Visitors from Kohala, Hilo, Waimea and Kona have been an extra bonus.”

The menu features a variety of options.

“We have many ‘small plates’ as well as entrees. There is something for everyone,” Espin said. “We kept the menu small and simple, but diverse. We have everything from Pad Thai to pulled pork sandwiches, as well as dinner offerings.”

Small plates range from $8-12 and entrees begin at $12.

Chef Curtis Taylor studied at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and worked most recently at Blue Dragon in Kawaihae. Nearly 70 percent of the ingredients he uses in his dishes come from local farms and meat shops.

“We get our organic greens and romaine from Mother Nature’s Miracle in Paauilo and Ano ‘ano Farm on the Hamakua Coast for green beans, cilantro and green onion,” he said. “Our pork chops come from farmer Lloyd Case at Hawaiian Hogs in Waimea for one of my favorite dishes made from a family recipe. That, along with Pad Thai, fish tacos and poke nachos, have been the bestsellers so far.”

Brandon Winslow, Aulani’s assistant manager and bar aficionado, created a full beer, wine and sake list, and a “cocktail fusion” menu using housemade raw sugar extracts, fresh juices and herbs. The Mai-Tai, made with his own allspice macnut simple sugar, has been popular.

“Kung Pao Mary — our version of a Bloody Mary — is made with homemade tomato juice infused with sambal and soy reduction, and a Szechuan pepper and salt rim,” he said. “The Thaipirinha – a twist on aclassic caipirhina – uses coconut rum and fresh lime juice, along with a raw sugar extract of ginger, lemongrass, cilantro and Thai chili peppers.”

With the renovation, the restaurant now offers three distinct dining areas.

“The front area used to be a market so we turned it into a cafe with windows added along the entire wall and big comfy chairs,” said Espin. “We updated the bar and utilized the space better. There is also a lanai area, with a wrap-around bench and views of the neighboring gulch, where a small waterfall can be spotted after rains. The indoor/outdoor dining room area is lined with large paned windows that also overlook the gulch.”

The restaurant’s owner, Sue Segler, felt instantly drawn to Honokaa during a visit from San Diego last February. Shortly thereafter she purchased the space and bought a little plantation house in Papaaloa, that she moved into permanently in September.

“Sue feels that the restaurant is her purpose and she was meant to be here in Honokaa. She sees this as a way for her to provide a service to the community,” said Espin. “Sue likes the simplicity of life and the people here.”

In addition to meals, the restaurant is also available for special functions and events.

“We have already had a few requests for rehearsal dinners and special events,” Espin said. “Honokaa is such a special little town, but there aren’t many spaces available for people to celebrate special occasions. We have a large open space in the back of the restaurant that could be utilized for events as well. We want to try our best to accommodate any requests.”

She added, “Our main goal is to become a real part of the community, involved in community events and a place where everyone feels welcome.”

Aulani Asian Café is open Tuesday-Saturday from 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Reservations are suggested.

Info: Call 775-1288 or go to https://www.facebook.com/aulaniasiancafe/?fref=ts

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