Kalihi Kai Eats: Ethel's Grill

Note to self: DO NOT attempt to dine at a restaurant anytime soon after it’s been reviewed and raved about by a major local media outlet. I should have learned that when I recently visited Dean’s Drive Inn in Kaneohe, where I was greeted by droves of customers, some of whom (including myself) were there on a tip from KHNL’s Cheap Eats.

In the case here at Ethel’s Grill, they were recently reviewed (again) by The Honolulu Advertiser, noting that this is a lunchtime favorite of local celebrity Chefs Roy Yamaguchi and D.K. Kodama.

Well the secret is certainly out now about this place, as when we arrived there last Friday at 11:30am, Ethel’s Grill was completely SLAMMED with customers. So slammed that a crowd began building outside the door…

Ethel’s Grill is another one of those hole-in-the-wall hidden gems that you could easily pass by without noticing if you never heard of them before. They occupy the ground floor of an inconspicuous 3-story walk-up apartment building on beautiful Kalihi street, surrounded by otherwise mostly industrial businesses.

There’s NO designated parking, leaving you to hunt along busy Kalihi street or the adjoining side streets for any parallel space that opens up. There was one what looked like a “guest” stall in the apartment garage next to the restaurant, although it didn’t specify on a sign as being specifically for Ethel’s customers.

The dining room at Ethel’s is small and cramped, making it a little challenging to work your way through the occupied tables towards the service counter in back if you’re there ordering take-out like we were.

Yet you gotta’ LOVE local style “joints” like this. Places like Ethel’s Grill completely define Hawaii’s cultural and social blend under one restaurant’s roof!

Once you get there, you’re greeted with this menu “board”…

Straight up! It doesn’t get anymore “hometown local style” than this folks. Just this alone has me thinking that if the Food Network’s Guy Fieri is looking for a future ‘Diners, Drive-ins and Dives’ spot to shoot in Hawaii, Ethel’s would be a GREAT choice! The reviews from everyone else (aside of this blog; see ‘Related Links’ below) certainly backs that suggestion up!

They also had a few more daily specials posted to the side here…

What we discovered after we had already placed our order, is that there’s much more to their regular menu not listed on those hand-written signs, but printed on a take-out menu flyer stacked on the side of the counter. Oh well.

As you can tell by their sign out front and the photos and mural inside, Ethel is a big Sumotori fan.

This has gotta’ make you hungry lol…

I didn’t get to ask, but this appeared to be a wrapped up, ready-to-go ham sandwich and a bunch of Teri’ Beef Sandwiches…

Ethel also sells her “secret sauce”, the same one used on the Tataki Sashimi, in jars so you can replicate the dish at home…

If there’s one thing that was clear to us on this visit, is that the staff and (very small) kitchen production capacity here are NOT ready to handle the onslaught of customers that hit them on this particular day. When we got to the service counter, Ban, the owner’s son, told us it would be a 40 minute wait for our take-out order, questioning whether we were willing to wait. Whoah! That’s a chunk of time. Well, we were intent on trying this place out, so Diner E and myself agreed and said go for it. If the food’s as good as they it is here, it should be worth it.Besides, I was hoping 40 minutes was just an overestimate and that it would take much shorter than that. That turned out being wishful thinking.

After killing some time taking a stroll up and down beautiful Kalihi street checking out some neighboring businesses, we get back and check on order, and nothing yet. There’s still the same crowd outside, albeit just a little smaller, still waiting for their orders. One guy inside on a table with his friend had so much time to wait for their order, he came outside a few times to take smoke breaks.

The downside for us take-out folks is they didn’t have any kind of name or number system, so everyone just stood around outside not knowing when to claim our orders. The only way to find out is by walking inside to the order counter every now and then to check on the status.

Forty minutes pass, and ours order isn’t even CLOSE to being ready yet. Fifty minutes, no deal. One hour, still nothing. Finally after 1 hour and 5 minutes, it’s ready. Gosh, that was almost as painful as my 1-1/2 hour long wait at The Counter burgers in Kahala when they first opened.

Why didn’t we phone our orders in you ask? Because this was our first time here, and we weren’t familiar with the place or menu except for what’s been reviewed online and wanted to see first-hand for ourselves before making a decision. Plus, we didn’t anticipate nor expect the kind of crowd that we encountered on that day (see first paragraph).

When I went inside to pick up my order (yay!), the braddah that was taking the smoke breaks finally got his food as well at the table he sat at, which he kindly let me take a photo of…

Ethel’s famous Tataki Sashimi

Man, that looks ONO! I should’ve got this one. I noticed just about every table in the restaurant had a plate or two of Tataki Sashimi, so you know it’s one of their most popular dishes.

Already half “whacked” (eaten), here’s the Jumbo Pork Katsu…

A partially eaten plate of Jumbo Pork Katsu

I must say, it really is JUMBO. Also really JUMBO was the Jumbo Rib Steak plate, which appeared to also be a popular choice amongst the diners eating in the restaurant. Buggah was “Flintstones” huge. Looked ono too.

So after that frustrating long wait, we finally get to sit down and taste if it was worth it, starting with Diner E’s Japanese Hamburger Steak…

Ethel’s Grill – Japanese Hamburger Steak, $7.00

Not shown in the photo above, this plate also includes a cup of hot Miso Soup (bowl of course if you’re dining in).

Here’s a cutaway view of the half ground pork, half ground beef patty…

Ethel’s Grill – Japanese Hamburger Steak (a combination of ground pork and beef) with grated Daikon and Ponzu Sauce

There you can also see the abundant pile of grated Daikon (turnip), all soaked with the included Ponzu sauce.

Well, what did Diner E think of this Japanese Hamburger Steak? Of course the first thing he noticed is that it was merely at room temperature by the time it landed on the table in front of him, having him believe his plate had been sitting on the side for a while back at the restaurant service counter amid the mayhem caused by the onslaught of customers.

As for the pork and beef patty, it didn’t wow him, nor did the combination of the ponzu sauce and grated daikon to go along with it. He didn’t feel it was the perfect marriage of ingredients I personally had hoped it would be. After finishing the plate, his opinion was “Glad I tried it. Next.” Not that he didn’t like it – he did eat all of it – but being a classic Hamburger Steak with Brown Gravy kinda’ guy, this turned out simply just not his style.

I was oh-so-close to getting the Jumbo Pork Katsu, but at the last minute decided on trying the Beef Tomato…

Ethel’s Grill daily special – Beef Tomato, $7.50

I was suprised when I was given the option to choose either rice, fried noodles or soft noodles for my starch. Nice! I didn’t stop to ask what soft noodles are, but just chose it radomly to try something “new”, to which you see here turned out being cooked, unseasoned saimin noodles.

Notice how well they pay attention to detail when packing their take-out dishes. The miso soup is packed in a styrofoam cup with a lid, so it gets to its destination piping hot and intact. Same for the beef tomato here, which also came separately in its own styrofoam bowl with a lid. This way the noodles it will evenutally be eaten with don’t become soggy.

The cup on the top left in the plate is the piping hot shiro miso soup included with the meal, which tasted authentic and very good.

The light green creamy dressing on the greens is said to be made of parsley, dijon and garlic. It tastes sort of like a creamy pesto with the garlic providing some bite. Delicious. The greens were also crispy, cool and fresh. Overall thumbs up on the tossed greens with Ethel’s house dressing.

Now let’s add some of that Beef Tomato over the cooked saimin noodles and have a taste….

Ethel’s Grill daily special – Beef Tomato

The Beef Tomato “gravy” had a good coat-the-back-of-a-spoon, cornstarch-thickened viscosity to it. The thin strips of beef were extremely tender and well-infused with the gravy’s flavor, although I did miss the presence of ginger in it, which I prefer to have in my Beef Tomato. It also could have used more green bell peppers, which I think is also a key element in a good local style Beef Tomato. It did make up for those shortcomings with abundant amounts of sugar snap peas, chunks of simmered tomatoes and sweet, caramelized onions. Overall, ono.

I’m not so sure about Beef Tomato with saimin noodles though. The sauce mostly seeped through it to the bottom of the plate instead of sticking to it like it would have if it were rice. Interesting texture constrast, gotta’ say that. Perhaps the fried noodles would have worked better.

It must be noted that a couple of regulars we spoke with while waiting for our order highly recommended the best way to enjoy the “Ethel’s Experience” is none other than to dine in there. Of course to be fair, I’d have to give every other restaurant reviewed here that was ordered as take-out the benefit of that notion, so I’ll still rate this visit just as I would any other take-out dishes we’ve had in the past.

Still, I really want to return here to try more dishes, as everything that was landing on the tables while we there looked and smelled so ono. Yet as counteractive as it may sound, I’ll just have to hope the hype from the coverage in the media simmers a little as time goes by and the next time I drop in there will be seating available and just the right amount of customers where I won’t have to wait another hour for lunch to be served.

On a future dine-in visit, I definitely got dibs on that Tataki Sashimi, as well as either the Oxtail Soup or Pigs Feet Soup. I dunno though, that Jumbo Pork Katsu and Jumbo Rib Steak looked really ono too, so it’s gonna’ be a tough decision!

Ethel’s Grill
232 Kalihi Street
Honolulu, HI 96819
(808) 847-6467

Business hours:
Mon-Sat. 5:30am to 2:00pm

Ethel’s Grill Menu (<—download PDF at that link; current as of 9/09)

SPAM Musubi rating:
(based on Japanese Hamburger Steak and Beef Tomato take-out plates)

(2) Good. I’m glad I tried it. (Ono)*

*See second to the last paragraph in review above for notes.

Related links:
Ethel’s Grill – ‘Ono Kine Grindz
Ethel’s Grill serves sumotori-sized portions – The Honolulu Advertiser
Cheap Eats: Ethel’s Grill – KHNL NBC NEWS 8 Honolulu
Hungry chefs head to Ethel’s Grill – The Honolulu Advertiser
Ethel’s Grill – Yelp user reviews


11 thoughts on “Kalihi Kai Eats: Ethel's Grill

  1. Pomai, why just two musubis? I try it out and give it well OK three. But I do like it still. One thing about blogging you can write what really Rock other bloggers. Last entry awesome and like all bloggers out there do not see it bad at all. There is a lesson to learn from it too. I pray for good things for everybody.


  2. I like this place better than Zippy or L&L for is like mom and pop. I always support small business and they got special I like. Hope you have more special entries to come. I heard it good feedbacks from other bloggers and they like happy ending too.

  3. You rated it too low. I been there off and on and not bad to me. Tomato Beef not bad over noodle but I prefer over rice . People just like what they to each their own. Man sure missed King Inn in Kalihi .

  4. Pomai, aside from this entry I readed there is a tsunami watch out. What do we need for our emergeny supply that is good. I got a portable stove and battery lamps and a radio and wireless laptop too. I always have canned tofus and canned product and dry products.

  5. Pomai, I know this place is near your office but just 2 musubis? Never been there but that tataki dish sure drew a lot of vote at work and now workers want to order takeout there. I got to try to head there myself too. My cousins trying to see this year no more blackout or power outage. Couldn’t use ATM or get gas in some areas. Learning to be perpare. Do you have a list of things that good I fail to do so last time so ended up at sister place most of the time.

    I check the menu and price not bad on pocketbook darn I worked in Manoa Campus so on my day off .They should promote Tataki Sashimi more since it their own recipe and this place is no Zippy for sure.

  6. Pomai I think this place is worthy of “Kalihi Kai Eats: Ethel’s Grill 2” the sequel. Maybe when the interest is not so high from the TV coverage you can rate it without time being a factor. Don’t forget to place a phone order…

  7. I readed online that Samoa was indeed hit with tsunami I very sad for them. Made me think we still OK. I do wonder what is good emergency supply to have on hand. Pomai do you have any suggestion? A Tasty Island Food Supply to have on hand. Ethel’s Tataki sashimi is reason I head there since it so special and so ONO. People out there give more it than 2 musubis if you think it deserve more.

    Bye Brah

  8. Pomai, judging from all the comments, I think you’ll definitely need to do a second visit! You’re very patient to wait that long for your food. Whenever a restaurant gets a good review in my area I try to stay away for a few weeks until the crowds die down. But then, I don’t have an awesome food blog to maintain! 🙂

  9. Kelike, Justin, Amy, Jenny and Diner A, as I stated in the write-up, I AM going back again to Ethel’s for the REAL experience of eating there. Based on the reviews at other sites about this place, I knew I’d catch a lot of flack for giving them just 2 SPAM Musubi.

    Yet I must clarify, as some folks seem to misunderstand: 2 SPAM Musubi on this blog are still considered “Good. I’m glad I tried it. (Ono)”. Some folks mistakenly equate my SPAM Musubi rating system with the standard STAR system, where 2 stars = fair or poor, which is not the case here. Please see this blog’s ‘About’ page for more details on that.

    Kimo, had I ordered the Tataki Sashimi, I’m most positive it would have gotten at least a 4, probably a 5 had I eaten it there in the restaurant where it doesn’t get any fresher.

    All our prayers go out to the people of Samoa, Indonesia and the Philippines who are under dire conditions as we speak.

    Stay tuned for “A Visit to Ethel’s Grill: Part II”!!!

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