Last week, I told you about Hawaiian Chip Company and how owner Jimmy Chan renovated the two lots across the street to make his part of Republican Street in Kalihi a new destination. Well, 'Olena by Chef Ron Simon is his first tenant, serving up hot lunches with gourmet flair.
You may remember Simon — I had blogged about his first lunch spot at JABSOM — as a popular booth at the Blaisdell farmer's market and before that, at the Pacific Club. He's worked at other high-end restaurants in town, so he had to shift his thinking a little when he opened this lunch spot. It's all grab-and-go, as there's no space to sit and eat (although you could stand at the counter, New York-style, if you want to), so he had to get used to the concept of people taking his food to go instead of eating it hot and fresh. I assure you, it's still delicious eaten at your desk or even (gasp) warmed up the next day.
It's already popular with a wide range of diners, from area industrial workers to office types making a special trip, and even tourists who find it because of the Hawaiian Chip Company. My first visit was with our movie blogger Myong Choi, and on another visit, I randomly met the Ramos family, whose daughters Rita (dark glasses) and Geraldine (clear glasses) made it their first stop after their plane landed. Here's a look at some of the things I tried on my varous visits.
Always get the Filipino lemonade with your meal! This is Simon's special blend of lilikoi and calamansi, with bits of roasted pineapple at the bottom. My favorite part is the pineapple's caramelized flavor, but I love that the calamansi comes in from all over the island every day. Here, the large one is from Manoa and the little one is from Kalihi. We decided the best ones are from Waipahu, though.
One of the more popular items is the red wine beef stew, which is a classy version of the one in most other plate lunches. It's hearty without being too heavy (I guess the mac and chees will take care of that!) with a beautiful balance of flavors.
I like that you can get sliders, so you can get small versions of Simon's meats without overeating. My new favorite, recommended by Rose Simon, is the brisket. It's tender and fatty, smothered in Hawaiian Chip Company's lilikoi BBQ sauce and topped with fresh pineapple slaw and papaya dressing. It's a total flavor bomb in your mouth, yet a little too easy to eat. Hmmm, maybe you do want something larger, after all.
If you do want something bigger, you can turn any slider into a rice bowl. This is the "oink and moo," which features their braised pork belly adobo and little beef patties. It's served with pineapple slaw and pickled onions, which help cut the richness of the meats. Okay, thie one is heavy! It took me two days to plow through it. But a guy would be able to eat it with no problem.
A "lighter" alternative to that bowl is simply to order one protein, like my new favorite brisket.
Lighter still, you can get a poke bowl on rice or organic greens. This poke is always fresh, and Simon gets his fish from Wing Sing, straight from the auction. Since Simon has worked in the restaurant industry for so long, he has some of the best connections, so he knows how to get hooked up with the good stuff! The poke is made only one way, and the menu lists several ingredients, so it's very deluxe.
They sell out of empanadas every day, so go early or reserve yours. I was lucky to get the last one on this day, beating out the couple behind me. Is it because the turmeric-infused crust is soft and buttery? Or because the filling is comprised of Kilauea Fire BBQ pulled pork and Big Island sweet potatoes? Or because it's easy to eat? Whatever the reason, you're lucky to get one. I like to eat mine there at 'Olena so I can drizzle different barbecue sauces on it before each bite.
The banh mi is an occasional special and I don't remember how much it cost because Myong bought it for me. But if they have it on special again, I'd totally get it. You know how the French roll at other places cuts up your mouth? 'Olena's bread is soft, but has a whisper-light crunchy crust so you can enjoy the sandwich without hurting yourself. Life is hard, your bread shouldn't be.
Don't leave without getting some of Simon's signature poi-banana bread! It's super moist and is so well received, the Hawaiian Chip Company offers samples of it across the street.
Parking can be tight at peak hours, but since it's not dine-in, traffic moves quickly. Plus, as you can see, the lot is big. Hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday, but if there's sometning you really want to eat, like the empanadas, call ahead to reserve it or show up early to ensure they still have it.
'Olena by Chef Ron Simon
1933 Republican St.