Sam Choy's Kai Lanai: A Restaurant with Expansive Views of the Kona Coast
You know Sam Choy for his TV show. There’s also his many cookbooks. A frozen food line. A few restaurants--some long gone--and, of course, his crafty hand in creating Hawaii Regional Cuisine. If there is such a thing as a celebrity chef in Hawaii, it’s Sam. He’s won the James Beard Foundation Best Pacific Regional Chef Award. He’s friends with Chef Emeril.
Sam is a big man with a big smile and big love of food.
When I rolled into Keauhou recently, I swung a right off Mamalahoa Highway (Hwy 11) onto Kamehameha III Road and was all set to descend down the hill when a parking lot full of cars and a few trucks caught my eye.
On my last couple trips to Hawaii Island, I’d noticed construction going on at the long-shuttered Wendy’s. Yes, Wendy’s, as in the fast-food burger joint that just happened to come with fries and a multi-million dollar view. I’d been told Sam Choy was opening a new restaurant there, but I didn’t know when, and the trucks in the parking lot threw me off. I figured maybe they were putting the finishing touches on the place. I didn’t expect my timing and luck to be so good as to hit it just right. But it was.
Just five days before, Sam had thrown open the doors to his newest restaurant—Sam Choy’s Kai Lanai—perched above Keauhou Shopping Center.
Let’s just say it looks nothing like Wendy’s. Not a blonde-haired girl in braids to be found. But there is a teriyaki beef burger on the menu. And that view? Nearly 180-degrees of unobstructed ocean vista. This is where you want to be for sunset.
But I wasn’t about to hang around five hours for dinner. I put my name on the waitlist for lunch. The wait wasn’t long. In fact, it gave me time to take it all in.
The restaurant’s design and décor is simple. You don’t really need the Sam Choy of architecture and interior design when you have an ocean view that spans right to left and left to right. The best you can do is get out of the way. And, that’s what Sam’s done here.
The dining room is one giant room on two levels. Two walls roll back to create an open-air restaurant, evoking the feeling of a covered lanai and inspiring the restaurant’s name. Simple granite-topped, bistro-like tables and chairs fill the room, nearly enough seating for 200. A stained concrete floor cements the minimalist design. A three-foot lava rock wall with tiki torches runs the length of the actual lanai. And “The Short Bait” bar anchors one corner of the lower level, complete with the requisite marlin for Hawaii Island on the wall behind the bar. Only the head and shoulders of this fish appear to be coming out of the wall, as if it is breaking the surface of the ocean.
And there, behind a plate-glass window into the kitchen, was the chef himself, looking svelte in his chef jacket and shorts, feet stuffed into white crew socks and black, leather athletic shoes. Well, as svelte as Sam could ever manage to look. I mean, c’mon, he’s a chef.
I watched as Sam dressed a salad with shredded carrots, wedges of tomatoes, slices of cucumbuer and a sprig of cilantro.
“What’s that?” I asked a runner with her hands full.
“Fried Poke Salad.”
Sam is known for his poke. He founded the Poke Festival and Recipe Contest and has been called the Godfather of Poke.
I knew right then what I would order, but I looked at the menu anyway.
Sam Choy’s Kai Lanai is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Like the restaurant’s design, his new menu doesn’t intimidate. There’s Papa Choy’s Beef Stew Omelet and four kinds of Loco Moco—Original Hilo, Chair Siu or Smoked Pork, Fresh Island Catch and Veggie—pancakes and waffles for breakfast. Plate lunch Sam-style, salads and some basic sandwiches for lunch. Local favorites—saimin, bento, SPAM musubi and fresh fish and chips. For dinner, Sam Choy lovers will be happy to hear there is his famous Shoyu Poke and Babyback ribs with chair sui glaze. Entrée-wise, Sam brings back his award-winning Seafood Laulau and offers up lamb chops, duck, ribeye, pork loin, short ribs, New York steak and mac nut chicken, along with a fresh “Trio of Fish” choices daily.
I’d heard Sam boasting that 100% would be locally-sourced; however, I couldn’t tell that by the menu.
Around me, wait staff in blue and yellow flowered aloha shirts and black pants buzzed, refilling water and iced tea glasses. My waiter, obviously new to the menu, had to check his cheat sheet to remember what my choices were for salad dressing, and I had to wait a tad longer than I would have expected for my Fried Poke Salad to be delivered. But those are things that will get ironed out. What matters is the poke was seared just the right amount and there was plenty of it. I’ll be back. Next time, for the sunset—and dinner.