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REVIEW: Hilo Hawaiian – What the Heck Happened?

July 25, 2014, 2:54 PM HST
* Updated September 8, 12:32 PM
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Nate Gaddis is a 17-year food industry veteran. He gives his frank assessments in the interests of honesty and improving Hawai’i Island’s culinary scene.

Not that long ago, the Hilo Hawaiian “Queen’s Court” Restaurant appeared to be turning a new leaf.

After the hotel was purchased in 2010 by local investors for $17.3 million, the restaurant’s banquet and dining facilities enjoyed a major renovation. The change was welcomed by locals, who were growing weary of the operation’s 1970s dive-bar aesthetic.

Worn-out booths that once screamed “strip club!” were replaced by free-standing dining tables, while the wall that once divided the dining room was torn out in favor of a completely open, spacious design.  The lighting system was also updated, allowing diners to see more than just a shadowy outline of the food in front of them.

The dining room was recently renovated, with a pleasantly open-air feel. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

The dining room was recently renovated, with a pleasantly open-air feel. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

But best of all? The hotel hired a new executive chef. The results were not only refreshing, but fresh tasting. Local ingredients started showing up on the menu, while the restaurant’s cooks seemed increasingly proud of their work.

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Three or four years later, that chef is gone, and a lot has changed… not all for the better.

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We Can’t Believe That Is Butter

For decades, the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel has been dishing out weekend buffets to satisfy patrons bent on a steamed crab bender.

Roast beef, sashimi, lau lau and other luau-inspired favorites are also featured, along with a sea of side dishes and miscellaneous entrees. But take one look at where the buffet line bottlenecks, and it’s obvious: people come for the crab, and not much else.

A view of the sun setting over Hilo Bay, taken from the Hilo Hawaiian dining room. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

A view of the sun setting over Hilo Bay, taken from the Hilo Hawaiian dining room. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

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A word of warning: If you’re intensely vegan enough to think that “crabs are people too,” then best to stay away.

Previously frozen and shipped in by the case, Hilo Hawaiian’s Alaskan snow crab legs are given the usual hotel-grade treatment: a blast of steam, then dumped into a metal pan before getting whisked off to a warming tray on the buffet line, where eager patrons pile their plates.

Is there anything wrong with this? Judging by the bits of stray crabmeat being catapulted across tables as diners furiously mutilate their seafood… apparently not.

The only crab-centric crime being committed here had to do with what was being served alongside it. Although the pool of yellow-ish liquid housed next to the crustaceans was labeled “butter,” it tastes distinctly like partially hydrogenated soybean oil and artificial flavoring (aka “margarine”).

Butter? Not likely. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

Butter? Unlikely. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

Although the cooks tending the buffet line admitted as much to us, Hilo Hawaiian’s executive chef, when queried about the dipping liquid, insisted that it was, in fact, butter. He claimed the odd orange-hue was due to the stuff being “clarified.”

Seeking some clarification of our own, we decided to ask our waitress to melt us down some real butter. Without skipping a beat, she cheerfully zipped back to the kitchen, and returned with a bowl of rich, heavenly cow fat.

We compared the two liquids, and the contrast in flavors was glaring. We’d probably been told a lie, along with thousands of diners before us.

Ouch.

A Hot Mess

Butter-gate aside, the weekend spread is still extensive, if hit-or-miss in quality.

Roast beef, a buffet staple, was dry and tough on the multiple trips we made here. Even when cooked properly, the roast had been cut into much too soon. All the precious juices within had bled out, leaving behind nothing but a sad, wounded hero.

The roast beef seen here was either dry and/or overcooked on all three trips we made here. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

The roast beef seen here was either dry and/or overcooked on all three trips we made here. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

The ahi sashimi being served had also wept all over the cabbage beneath it, and boasted an unpleasant odor and texture. Just stay away.

Most of the items in the salad bar are pleasant enough, save for the macaroni-potato salad, which was oddly grainy on multiple trips here.

Other steam table entrees range from lau lau (“okay”) to a perfectly respectable Kalua Pork and Chinese-style steamed buns.

There are enough choices to ensure everyone in your family will find something agreeable, and the $42 price tag includes a never-ending flow of cheap beer and wine. Quantity is clearly the emphasis here.

Freezer-to-Table

Are those frozen beans and carrots next to a $26 steak? Why yes, they are. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

Are those frozen beans and carrots next to a $26 steak? Why yes, they are. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

The Hilo Hawaiian’s website proudly states that “Chef Khamtan Tanhchaleun emphasizes the use of locally-sourced produce selected from the Hilo Farmer’s Market and other providers on the island.”

By “other providers,” we assume they mean “warehouse freezers.”

The buffet’s dessert line-up is predictably laden with frozen cakes and frostings purchased wholesale… which were frankly rather enjoyable.

But it’s the Monday through Thursday “fine dining” menu that we didn’t expect to house quite so many pre-fab frozen goodies.

The Hilo Hawaiian's "Furikake Poke Cakes" ($12). Photo by Nate Gaddis.

The Hilo Hawaiian’s “Furikake Poke Cakes” ($12). Photo by Nate Gaddis.

The “Asian Style Potstickers” ($10) were straight from the icebox… a forgivable sin, but disappointing.

Although the fries that came with our 12-ounce ribeye steak were perfectly enjoyable, we were much less thrilled by the frozen string beans and carrots that were served up alongside them. For $26, diners deserve much better.

The Furikake Poke Cakes ($12) we ordered promised “local seasoned ahi tuna,” but delivered instead an overly sweet mix of swordfish, with a curiously tough, if crisp exterior crust, and so-so chili pepper aioli (read: mayonnaise).

The "Saddle Road Sunset": garishly great. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

The “Saddle Road Sunset”: garishly great. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

Helping to ease our pain was the restaurant’s star beverage: the “Saddle Road Sunset.” A blend of pineapple, guava, coconut and rum over ice, it’s a garish tribute to all the fruity preconceptions tourists have of what an island beverage should taste like.

It’s lethal… and we love it.

The Kalbi Medallions ($17) we ordered were flavored absolutely perfectly, with one of the best soy-sugar-sesame marinades we’ve ever encountered. They were a bit overcooked, but nothing a special request couldn’t fix (tell your server “medium rare” and they’ll likely arrive in better shape).

The Kalbi Medallions ($17) featured one of the best marinades we've had in recent memory. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

The Kalbi Medallions ($17) featured one of the best marinades we’ve had in recent memory. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

All of the servers we had during our visits here were nothing but helpful and friendly, and occasionally apologetic for the state of the cuisine. It’s a true shame that the food quality here isn’t better, as the dining room ambiance is lovely, and the view almost unmatched.

With sweeping vistas of Hilo Bay and Mauna Kea, and like-new facilities to work with, we’re hoping that Hilo’s premier oceanfront hotel can turn its food quality around someday.

Truth be told, we’d love to come back.

***Update: The food and beverage manager got in touch to say that the pastries are not frozen, but made by an on-staff pastry chef. Also that the standard accompanying “butter” is a 3:2 butter-to-margarine mix. Further, that the frozen vegetables will be replaced with fresh vegetables in future. In the interest of fairness, we publish these responses.

The Hilo Hawaiian Hotel is located at  71 Banyan Dr, Hilo, HI 96720. Phone: (808)-935-9361.

Dinner service runs from Monday through Sunday from 5:30 pm till 9:00 pm. Weekend buffets are on Friday and Saturday from 5:30 pm to 9:00 pm, with a Sunday Brunch available from 11:00 am till 2:00 pm.

Breakfast is served daily starting at 6:30 am.

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