Sam Choy’s Kai Lanai – 9/15/2011


I apologize for my writing  absence, however I have been journaling a recent trip   to San Francisco, Napa and Sonoma for a future blog – in particular a memorable excursion to Coombsville – the southeastern end of Napa Valley, where we enjoyed the people, the culture,  and some very spectacular food and wines.

Back to Kona!

At long last, Sam has arrived in Keauhou.  Ever since he closed the very popular Kaloko Industrial warehouse location years ago (remember sitting on your  alcohol-packed cooler in the parking lot suckin’ em up while waiting for a coveted  table??), the locals have been waiting patiently for a new venue.  And what better place than the hilltop perch  of the former Wendy’s at Keauhou!

Go on, admit it – you won’t be the only one that thought those magnificent views were wasted on a fast-food establishment.  If you’ve been to Wendy’s Keauhou, you know what view I am talking about!  The panoramic one that smacked  you in the face everytime you sat outside to munch on those square burgers.   Certainly the drive up window was handy for buying a few baked potatoes with all the fixings to go with your grilled steak on the lanai.  Sam, in his infinite wisdom, kept the window for those called in orders and quick pickups- if you can get through the tight parking lot, that is…

And today, faced with just such a situation and log jam of cars fronting the restaurant, I found a space across “Kam III” road, at the entry to Lifecare beyond the stoplight.  Parallel parking in Kona is practically unheard of and I found myself reversing a couple of times – each time running into that darn curb.  I finally wedged the Xterra in between a County vehicle (?) and a very pricey BMW convertible, trying not to tap either one.

Rehabilitating  most of Wendy’s building shell, Sam and his team have managed to create a paean to island-style indoor/outdoor dining with an edge.  Hard surfaces (reminding us that we live on a volcano)  such as concrete floors, granite tabletops, loft-high ceilings and metal rollup doors contribute to the industrial character.   On the lanai, the theme is carried through with   lava rock base tables, granite tops and metal firepits filled with glass marbles.  Outdoor cushioned wicker chairs   invite you to sit and savor a Tropical Sangria  while breathing in that spectacular view.

The bar is nicely outfitted with dark stained wood cabinetry and bamboo embellishments.  Beer taps are  integrated into the stern of a boat, aptly named “The Short Bait”.  I wonder if it’s one of the unfortunate tsunami victims of Keauhou Bay’s recent surge.

Behind the bar, glass panels feature whimsical paintings of most of the available fresh catch that will be featured at sometime or other in the restaurant.  Since this is Kona, the front half of a blue marlin ‘grander’ hangs above it all – probably a survivor of Don Drysdale’s in the shopping center.

Speaking of …  many of Sam’s employees are former Drysdale alumni, and seem mighty pleased to be mauka (uphill) and working again.  Their enthusiasm is infectious and makes small faux pas much more forgiveable by happy diners.  Our server today, Mehana, was all smiles and aloha as she busied herself around the floor.  Even our busboy cracked jokes while efficiently keeping our water glasses filled.

Four iced teas ($2.50 ea) appeared at the onset as Mehana circled the table for our lunch order.  The fresh catch today was Opah – aka Moonfish, and I opted for the plate lunch which featured two good-sized pieces of fish sautéed gently in a light shoyu butter, green salad and hapa-haole rice (a mixture of brown and white) for $12.  Plate lunch choices come with the following selections:  brown or white rice, mashed potato, green or potato salad.  Salad dressings today were Sam’s Sesame or Wasabi-Sesame.

Carol’s Noodle Mania selection contained a generous serving of tender pieces of marinated and grilled chicken, stir-fried crispy vegetables, tender chow mein noodles, all served in a large deep-fried fresh made tortilla shell for $10.

Wavering between the much-touted ‘Papa Sam’s Absolutely Incredible Beef Stew’ and ‘Fresh Fish and Chips’, Terri settled on the latter for $13.  The opah was dipped in house made beer batter and deep fried just enough to allow the batter to crisp and darken yet keep the fish tender inside.  Accompanied by cole slaw and skinny fries, the dish seemed to satisfy Terri – until she saw an enticing  bowl of beef stew at the neighboring table.  Vowing to return this evening for dinner with her hubby, she was crestfallen to learn that the Kai Lanai was already booked solid.

Mei only had eyes for the “Fried Poke Salad” served in a giant deep fried shell for $14.  Succulent chunks of gently marinated fish nestled in with fresh island greens on a bed of somen noodles garnished with crushed nori and sesame seed made this a winner.   And really, could you imagine a Sam Choy restaurant without poke?  He is, afterall, the godfather of the wildly popular poke contest that has frankly elevated the art of poke making to a fiercely competitive and grand level among chefs – both professional and amateur.

The menu is simple and uncomplicated, reflecting the casual tropical ambiance and flavorful dishes.  Laughter abounds as you are content to dwell over your meal and take it all in.  Staffers bustle around you and the kitchen hums behind a large viewing window.  There is so much to experience that you don’t want to leave.

The Kai Lanai is definitely the place to see and be seen.  Uncle Charlie Brown waded over to our table from the bar because he wanted to bestow his special aloha to “Charlie’s Angels”.  Something about his infectious laugh and large personality led Terri to mistake him for the proprietor – until she realized that Sam is at least 10 years younger, and many pounds slimmer after a health scare convinced him to lose his infamous girth.  Nevermind – we all had a good laugh and kept the ‘mana’ flowing all afternoon.

Sam the (svelte) man actually made it over to our table to get his well deserved kudos and happily basked in the compliments.  Joking that he hoped we’d all be around in six months after things settle in, we assured him that we would spread the word and be frequent guests ourselves.

Mehana tempted us with a decadent  ‘Waffle-Fried Ice Cream’ ($7):    Vanilla bean infused ice cream encased in waffle crust and briefly fried then drizzled with a creamy caramel sauce.  I could borrow adjectives from a D.H. Lawrence novel such as’sultry’,  ‘decadent’ or ‘wanton’ but it wouldn’t even come close.  You put it together and order one when you visit.

Post-meal Lua Report:

When Terri returned from the Wahine’s room, she informed us that it would  “blow our minds”.  With that statement, I will post the photos and you can see for yourself why I stood in front of the sink for a few long minutes, trying to turn the water on.   Absolutely a work of art, the vibrant sinks make the artful statement and dazzle on entry.  Glass mosaic tile borders, mocha travertine and riotously colored framed fish prints complete the package.

It’s always wonderful to see a local boy gain success in his endeavors.  It’s even better when they return home.  Sam Choy is so well-liked by just about everyone on island that most locals will visit Kai Lanai just to see him in person.  Of course, the views could entice them too!

Located at the top of Keauhou Shopping Center (yes-high above Long’s).

reservations:  808.333-3434 or online at

September 29, 2011

Mei returned (I believe she eats 3 squares a day at Sam’s because as she puts it I have been there many times, so close to my home :-)…. no more cooking…..breakfast is very ono too.”  Cindy, Joann and Carolyn were all able to join the party this week and had as much fun as we did the first time.  It appears that Sam now recognizes the Kona Babes (probably because Mei is a very frequent customer), and came by the table for his group hug and photo op.  Sam – you are really missing out by not hiring Mei as your P.R. person! 


Went back last night for dinner with friends and thankfully remembered the camera!  Sat at the bar waiting for friends as all the lanai tables were occupied, and met a nice man who works for Kimpton Hotels in San Francisco (the Prescott Hotel near Union Square).  He was very ecstatic to be on the Big Island – his first visit – and exclaimed that he now understood what the buzz was all about:  “…waking up to the smell of tropical flowers in the air …gentle breeze off the blue, blue ocean… a wonderful casualness about everyone… lots of smiles and friendly people…”.  He was staying downhill at the Sheraton on Keauhou Bay and the hotel staff recommended Sam Choy’s as an alternative to another meal in the hotel.  I forgot to ask him for his business card, but just googled his hotel and it looks fabulous!  I’ll have to keep it on my bulletin board for  (hopefully)  another trip to the Bay area someday.

After being seated by our friendly hostess, we were fussed over by our attentive server (who announced that she was so happy to be there  – another reason eating there is a pleasure).  She promptly took more drink orders, then returned quickly to announce the fresh fish offerings.  I noticed that it was much warmer at our dinner table than at the bar – probably due to the fact that the bar was close to the outdoor lanai and the dining mezzanine was closer to the kitchen.  Nevertheless, the energetic vibe of Kai Lanai was enjoyable and added to the evening’s enjoyment.

Steve, an old bird hunter from Alaska,  ordered the Ka’u Orange Duck ($22) – crispy roasted skin, yet tender inside, with Ka’u orange sauce: ka’u (valencia) oranges,  macadamia nuts, shoyu, five-spice and honey, and regrettably paired with a glass of Hogue Merlot.  A Pinot would probably have been a better choice given the honey and five-spice.

I really wanted to order the shortribs, however went light and did the  Seared Ahi Salad ($14)  that was quite filling with two  large servings of seared ahi, somen noodles, assorted stir fried veggies, shredded beets, carrots and daikon, sitting on locally grown lettuce and tomatoes – all nestled into a very large deep fried shell.  I thought it was a tortilla, however I stand corrected:  it’s a giant won ton pi chip!  My beverage choice was a glass of Mark West Pinot Noir.

The Braised Short Ribs ($26) did make it to the table on a serving of Chow Mein Noodles.  I didn’t get a taste, however the report is in:  spoon-tender, meaty flavor with slight nuance of – cinnamon?  The chow mein was stirfried with a generous portion of flavorful vegetables.  My dining companions agreed it was delicioso and paired well with the Long Board Ale, which is brewed locally.

A’u (striped marlin), Opah (moonfish) and Tombo (albacore tuna) were the fresh fish choices of the day, and all three were available on “Sam’s Trio of Fish” ($28), sauteed and plated with vegetables in a very “buttery” rich sauce – and paired nicely with a glass of Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc.

I sent Steve into the Kane’s room  (men’s) for a shot of the decor and also to “blow his mind”.  As you can see, the men received a darker theme, reminiscent of lava and volcanoes – probably to suggest a more manly, testosterone driven surrounding.  There were also volcanic prints on the walls to enhance the experience.

And finally – about the only complaint that we (or Steve) had was that the lighting, although romantic and candlelit, was not sufficient for anyone over 55 to see the very small font of the bill:

Think ya got their attention Steve??

Sam Choy's Kai Lanai on Urbanspoon

26 responses »

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    • Mahalo Becky, for your comments! At least we know that someone is reading our stuff! LOL! Glad you enjoyed Sam’s – we certainly do – and are so very happy that he has reopened at the old Wendy’s – can’t think of a better restaurant operator to occupy that space! Glad you got to experience it!

  3. Can I simply just say what a relief to discover someone that really knows what they are talking about over the internet. You actually understand how to bring a problem to light and make it important. A lot more people have to check this out and understand this side of the story. I was surprised you’re not more popular given that you definitely possess the gift.

    • @bmw: mahalo for your kind feedback! Our blog is probably not as popular because my postings are not as frequent as others…afterall, I’m a working girl! LOL – I will be posting about 3 more very soon – one fun fondue party and 2 local eateries. Thank you for reading & posting!!

  4. Update: Wife was able to get an earlier flight out of Honolulu. Picked her up from the airport & because of the time, she suggested we try our luck & go to Kai Lanai early. If we get in, great, if not, we go some place else. Got home, got ready & went. As we were passing Kahalu’u bch. it started to rain buckets! We arrived just after 5p.m.. I don’t know if it was the time, the rain or both, but not only did we find parking, we were seated right away. Found the staff very friendly. The restaurant is beautiful. Of course the food, delicious! We started w/ edamame & drinks. Followed by egg drop soup (yum) & small salad. Diane ordered Tempura Opakapaka (a special). The portion size was too big for her but it was awesome. I know because, (she had to twist my arm but…) I finished it for her. I had the Ahi salad. The fish combined w/ fresh greens etc., was perfect with the fresh Kona vinegarette dressing. We followed with dessert. She got the pumpkin cheese cake, (cheesecake is Diane’s kryptonite). She urged me to get something, but I told her I was full & probably wouldn’t eat it. I decided on, brownie ala mode. When I got it, I decided to have “just a little taste”. Next thing you know it was gone! We found the timing to be right on, & the server’s friendly, even “talking story” w/ us. Next time we go I’m going to have the Ka’u orange duck. This was one of the best meals we’ve had in a while! Also, about the phone/reservation problem I had. While at Kai Lanai, I spoke to a waiter I’ve known for years. I told Jerry about not being able to get through by phone. He told me that they were experiencing problems with the new phone system. So that answers that…

    Mahalo Sam for a great dinner!

    • Emil – am SO glad you got in, and got the phone straightened out. However their link with “open table” for website reservations still doesn’t work – never did, actually. Maybe they need a new webmaster. Love your comments! you should write a blog. The Kau Duck is awesome – and I love duck any which way. So the moral of your story is: take a chance, arrive early, and you won’t regret it! Mahalo, Emil!!

  5. Oh wow laulau! Sam – listen up! maybe you should have just one dedicated employee as a phone receptionist and reservationist. The hostesses are usually too busy to answer the phone!

  6. We have been loyal Sam Choy fans for years! Love the food, (our daughter has loved fried poke since she was little) & so, am anxious to try Kai Lanai. Well, we’re empty nesters now & I was hoping to treat my wife to a romantic sunset dinner this saturday. My problem is, I have tried multiple times in the last 2 days to make reservations. I called the number from the website but no one answers the phone, (once I let it ring over 20 times just to see what would happen)… I tried making reservations on-line but got a message that said, “this restaurant is not available”. I tried calling directory assistance to make sure I was calling the correct number, but they gave me Sam’s home number. Are they not accepting reservations or are they busy enough that they don’t need the business. The number I have been calling is 333-3434. Is there another number (or way) to make a reservation?

    • Emil – They have been very busy – bombarded to say the least! If you have time, I would stop by there during the day and make your reservation in person. You could try to email the manager:
      but if they’re not answering they’re phone – that’s kind of hard to believe! maybe you SHOULD call Sam at home and find out why? He’s a very personable guy! good luck on a reservation – but I think driving up there in person is the best way to assure a seat!

    • I had trouble reaching them by phone as well. Maybe you have to go to the restaurant to make the reservation? I called them at 8am and they answered then… but it still rang a long time.

  7. Look, I didn’t even want to post a public review… I wanted to just let the manager know of our bad night. I realize it was very likely a bad night, and I have heard similar experiences to mine from others. I was not saying it’s a bad restaurant. Maybe a cook was sick that night, maybe the manager was off duty, maybe … whatever. The fact is, they switched food on us without telling us. Raw fish was put on the salad, my fish all tasted the same, and dull- not that I am a food tester- I just wasn’t awed. There are no vegetarian options (except one salad if you ask to leave off the fish) Our drinks took a long time. I get it though. The server was fine, scared but fine (we were not rude to her I promise) I think it may have just been a rough night all around and she had been having a bad evening. I do not have a lot of time on my hands I promise. Much less than you do who has been there so many times. I run my own business, work part time else where, and have other obligations all the time. So to get out once a month… rare. To be able to go out with a group of friends was a treat. And I enjoyed that. You I’m sure have earned your free time, and some day I will have it too. But I don’t. I am a fast typer though. I did contact the manager with the provided email and never heard back. Oh well. Maybe she read it and can address any issues. Will I go again? Sure- for drinks. There is nothing on the menu that really excites me. I don’t like chunks of meat and that’s just my taste.. the wine list was great! The sangria I had was refreshing, the beers when they arrived were good from a good selection. The view stunning- though I could not see it without wrenching my neck (understandably a busy night and the luck of the draw). If this is a review board for only positive reviews then please, feel free to erase mine. I was able to get the managers email, that was all I wanted. I will go down the hill to eat at Bianelli’s then go to the beach and enjoy the view from there.

  8. This is a reply to Melissa’s posting: Are you sure that you went to the same Sam Choy that we went ? Cause I just came back from a WONDERFUL Dinner at Sam Choy, with my husband & a Birthday friend. As the review from Jamsie & all our friends, trust me I have tons of friends, we all went there for Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner, I have been there at least 6 times, & we have nothing but praises for the Restaurant, excelent servers, delicious food, love their salads, always so fresh, ( I was told it is from Waimea) great Wine List, the nice lady Manager came to our table 3 times, so, it is very dificult for me to understand that you had a negative experience there. Note that today is Friday night, they were very busy, & their service is still excelent, less than 8 minutes for the chilled wine to be served, pupus on the table right away & main course was served in 15 m. The best feature in Dinning at Sam Choy, is that you get to see all your friend there too. We run into at least 4 groups of friend tonight.
    Melissa, you must have a lot of time in your hands, cause you wrote an overwelming long review (twice) on our blog, very sad that is all negative.
    I am sure that Sam will be very successful in his new Restaurant, cause the majority of us just absolutely LOVE his Restaurant. Sam created 140 new jobs in his new Restaurant, the majority of them are former servers (with 5 or more years of experience) from Drysdale, Jamerson’s, Kona Village (that closed after the Sunami), image all the friends & family of these servers will for sure support Sam Choy. Aloha, Mei
    PS we even got to see the most gorgeus Kona sunset !!!!

    • OK- just to demonstrate my point I followed the link on this page to the Urban Spoon. The others are saying similar to me- about the food. No one has mentioned the service or any other eventfulness of the meal.

  9. Lol, I know it was likely a fluke, just a lot of flukes all at one table. And I know they are just getting put together. I just don’t like when companies attempt to meet goals over meeting needs. One should properly prepare and train the staff for their sake prior to opening, I even recommend (for a big place like this) a week of soft opening by invitation or limited guests. I’m not food savvy, nor restaurant savvy. My husband had worked in restaurants for years and was really taken back by our night. I will go back again, but more likely for drinks and pupu’s. I need lighter options on the menu than duck, pork, and beef. Fish is good, but I don’t always want to go to dinner for $30… I could get great sushi for that 🙂
    I’ll send my comments via email to the manager. Great suggestion. Like I said, I’d rather contact them quietly than make a loud posting!

  10. Ok- I know it’s new, I know that new restaurants have loads of hiccups to overcome when first opening. But I feel the restaurant made a grave error in not taking the time to train the staff prior to opening. When a restaurant opens on this island, it’s a big deal EVERYONE comes the first week. I’m no critic, and it takes a lot to make me even notice anything is wrong. Our table, much to our servers dismay had several major problems. One friend ordered the Ahi Special – stuffed Ahi. When her food arrived… it was not Ahi. The kitchen it seems ran out of Ahi and substituted… which would have been fine had anyone told us. Another friend got the Ahi Salad, with no Ahi- and a piece of raw white fish (though an attempt had been made to cook it) tossed onto it. The beer took a 1/2 hour to show up, and the drinks were not kept filled, and and and… oh, and we ordered fried ice-cream for desert and we were actually given a report before the food came out that the fried ice-cream was not holding together and was therefore not available. Nice of them to tell us.
    Is it our servers fault? No, of course not. The cooks should have communicated it to her when the order for ahi came up. Another surprise was that despite all going wrong with our table… no manager ever popped by to say hi and how can we make this a better experience? I’d complement the view, but we were stuffed into a tight table by the front door where I missed the spectacular green flash because I couldn’t see from our spot (I know thats because it was crowded, but perhaps a better view would have healed our moods). And not to be a whiner, but there is a very limited food menu and zero vegetarian options. Good thing none of us were strict vegetarians, I’m just not a fan of a slab of meat. I got the fish trio and all 3 peices looked and tasted the same, were bland, and the mashed potatoes were also bland… and on a separate dish on a table that could not accomodate the extra dishes. The rolls they gave us (with no plates) were dry and stale, the hummus was not hummus but looked like pesto with pita chips I KNOW came from a bag from costco. Overall, a thumbs down. Will I go back? Sure. I’ll go for late afternoon drinks before the crowds so I can sit on the lanai and enjoy the view and drinks. The food isn’t worth the price, the servers all looked terrified and overwhelmed and clearly the cooks don’t care. I have never written a review on a restaurant before because nothing has ever bothered me… I’m very easy going! I love bread, I could not eat these rolls (again, costco rolls I’m pretty sure). I’d have happily told a manager this instead of a public review- but none available. I’d have been much more keen to writing a private review to the restaurant- but there is no “contact us” on the website. I’m not looking for free stuff, or a huge comp., but want to let the restaurant know that if they continue in this fashion they will have no business before long. This place has enormous potential and they have not met it even close. Maybe I’ll check in on the place in a couple months, but really nothing on the menu even caught my attention, so why. Sorry Sam, you should have waited another week to open so your servers, cooks and staff were better prepared.

    • Whenever I go to a new restaurant, I am hopeful, but really don’t expect to be surprised by a great experience – and we were truly surprised! Everything was as I reported – terrific! Lots of the staff are rehires from closed restaurants, and also new graduates from HCC’s culinary program. So sorry you had a disappointing meal. Give them another try and let them know at the onset that it’s your second visit and may affect any future patronage. The menu remains similar to Sam’s defunct warehouse eatery in Kaloko, which featured mostly ‘local fusion’. I totally agree about the ‘fish substitution’ issue – freshly caught seafood is on the top of the list for most islanders, and sneaking a back-door alternative without informing anyone is a big sin in my book – particularly when most savvy diners can recognize the ploy. A ‘thousand lashes with a wet ti leaf’ for that one. I happened to pick up the manager’s card at the hostess desk. You should email her your comments: (Candace Kukita-Sasaki). I am sure that she would want any and all feedback – what better way to improve? Mahalo for your remarks – we like to get varied observations!

  11. Ono Ka Pono……ono food, great view, great service with smiles from Mehana…hard to beat all that!!!

    Proud of Sam….it is a casual but, elegant place to go..just what Kona needs. Hopefully, will have live entertainment…down the road…


  12. FYI, the fabulous art(flora and fauna) is mostly the work of famous local artist Shelly Maudsley White. She has owned and operated a gallery in Holualoa above Kona since 1992.

  13. Wow, Sam really outdid himselft on the decor! Fantastic finishes! Way to go Sam!!
    How I wish I could have been there with you Babes! Sure do miss that view! Looks like you got a Vog free day as well!

    Can’t wait to taste that fabulous looking food. Can you send some my way??

    Enjoy Kona!!! Enjoy!

  14. We are all so…so…happy for the new Sam Choy’s Restaurant, we all waited so long for this great Restaurant to open, I was driving by (lives near by) almost every day to check on the progress, & finallly, they had a soft openning last Friday. What can I add more, fabulous food, service, views, decent prices, just go & see for yourself. We had one of the most fun Lunches ever, just look at our smilling faces….. to our dear Snow Bird Babes, wish you were with us. Aloha, Mei

  15. OMG, I’m drooling. Everything looks so yummy. Thank God he renovated Wendy’s!!!
    Can’t wait to eat there!!!!! Gotta fly out soon :]

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