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Hawaiian revival: Sundance Kitchen presents well-conceived island fare 

Wednesday, Dec 2 2009
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It feels like some distant corner of the terminal at Reno International, a concrete box with exposed mechanicals and an awkward step-down to seating near a scuffed-up open kitchen. But the food? From an unlikely location in the blandly named Sundance Kitchen, manager Pat Da Silva and her cooks are producing Hawaiian plate-lunch dishes that are among the tastiest, most meticulously plated you're likely to encounter. Maybe anywhere.

Take the loco moco ($9.95, available at lunch only), a staple of the rice-and-macaroni-salad genre. A typical version in the drop-ceiling, suburban strip-mall class of Hawaiian joint skews diner fry-up: a pair of fried eggs lapped against a hefty clot of rice with gray, overcooked hamburger patty and pale, starchy gravy. Not here. Sundance Kitchen's loco moco literally rises up, a soft circle of fried egg suspended over the grilled ground beef patty and molded rice. It's a vertical hobbit landscape, a fat toadstool glazed with shiny gravy dark as oiled teak.

And instead of the aggregate of bland proteins in the typical loco, this one organized itself around the charred hamburger patty's smoky burr. All the other elements served as frame — including the gravy, which was striking in a different way. And while it tasted processed, as if it'd started life in a packet, with cornstarch viscosity and the taste of preground black pepper, it also expressed a kind of sincerity. It was a reminder that, for all the kitchen's skill, Sundance is serving up fo' real grinds (pidgin for Hawaiian food), for which the factory-line ingredients of mid-20th-century America are as dyed-in-the-barkcloth an inspiration as the homey cooking of Filipino grannies.

But for all their vividness, the Hawaiian dishes are things you have to seek out here, or at least avoid the conventional Cal Cuisine dishes that pack the menu, especially at night. Pizza margherita, grilled chicken breast, orecchiette with prawns — you get the feeling Da Silva has to keep them there as a condition of running the show here, the house restaurant of Sundance's Kabuki cinema, where a couple of plasmas up near the host station show the status of the films rolling next door (Precious, 7:30, playing), so you can suck down the last of your lomi salmon and run before the previews wrap. Service is generally brisk enough to help you bolt.

Once upon a time, Da Silva had a place unequivocally her own. Honu's Island Grinds & Bar opened two years ago, a tiny sea-green place in the Buchanan Mall that sought to elevate Hawaiian food above lunch-plate basic. It shuttered in February, but not before Sundance Cinemas invited her to join as manager, to inject a smoky whiff of kalua pig into what'd been a bland exercise in lowest-common-denominator pizzas, pastas, and proteins. Which explains all those Cal Cuisine survivors.

Still, you have to give Sundance credit for taking a chance on a vision as particular and as deeply realized as that of Da Silva and her chefs, Sal Hsiu Chen and Anthony Tabi. Certainly there was nothing middle-of-the-road about Spam musubi ($2.95), which delivered big, salty flavors in a sharply tailored little package. Sandwiched between nori-wrapped slabs of sushi rice, the Spam was delicately rubbery and processed-meaty. A sprinkling of furikake — the Japanese seasoning of seaweed, fish flakes, and sesame — lent a breath of oceanic complexity to a dish often dismissed as a gag.

A similar complexity distinguished the lomi salmon ($11.95), part of the evening poke bar, a remnant of Honu's. It was a mix of rugged and delicate, big orange cubes of soft fish sprinkled with coarse Hawaiian salt, tomato, and an onion twofer: scallions and sweet yellow onion, soaked in cold water to leach out much of the bite.

Nothing nearly so subtle kept a mass of kalua pig cheese fries ($7.95) from being anything but an appetite bomb, a thick, curdled cap of tangy cheddar with a crossweave of succulent meat fibers. It was the vaguely evil sort of thing you can't stop eating.

Unless you grew up in the 50th state, chances are poi ($3.95) is something you won't be able to convince yourself to start eating. It tasted like a bowl of something forgotten on the kitchen counter with the fermentation that follows: a shiny, cocoa-brown mess of gelatinous sour. It wasn't badly prepared, just inherently hard for non-islanders to love. Lumpia ($6.95), on the other hand, were too pale and too bland to be interesting. The pinkie-size egg rolls needed another minute in the fry oil, and their filling of ground pork and shrimp was a tad too finely processed — a fumbled opportunity. So was the disappointing bowl of saimin called Da Hawaiian Soup Noodles ($9.95, available only at lunch), packed with slices of Spam and cumin-spiked Portuguese sausage. It's not that it sucked. It's that the dashilike broth wasn't distinctive enough to yield a soup better than the sum of its particulars.

By contrast, the dinner mains were a beautiful mashup of earthy and polished. Chicken adobo ($11.95) shattered into soft fibers and soy-stained skin, shedding bones into a pale, vinegary braising liquid. Likewise, kalua pig and cabbage ($10.95) showed up as a mass of moist, shreddy clots from which all traces of fat had rendered. The inevitable undercurrent of Liquid Smoke was restrained, compared to strip-mall boilerplate versions. Even sides of macaroni salad — farinaceous clumps of cool, mayonnaise-caked richness — had a flash of something like brilliance.

In a place where it might seem least likely, as the couple at the next table shares a pizza, you figure, before The Blind Side starts, it's a sunblasted taste of broke da mouth deftness.

About The Author

John Birdsall

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