The Peninsula doesn’t really lack for good food. Here and there, located anywhere between Mountain View and South San Francisco, we have some of the best restaurants available. I might say we’re missing a great steakhouse, but then there’s Town in San Carlos–quite delicious.
But what I do know is that the one aspect that is seriously lacking in the Peninsula is a good bar PLUS eatery. I don’t mean “bar” as in provides some beers and a few bottles of wine — but a good bar with good top-shelf liquor, mixed drinks and beers that don’t start with “Bud” and end with “weiser”. I don’t mean “eatery” as in provides bites from next door to go with your beer, but a solid and tasty menu cooked in-house that is both filling enough to be dinner, and varied enough to accommodate a group of friends eating out with a few drinks.
Then along came Noelani’s.
Offering a lovely patio in front with sofa seating as well as standard tables and chairs, the location would be ideal for warmer nights. With the overhead heat lamps, we were relatively comfortable on a brisk Bay Area evening in August. (Yes, it’s still cold here at nights!) The indoor space is quite large with a grand bar to the right of the entrance, fully stocked, it appeared, and all the tables fill the remainder of the room. The back of the restaurant leads to another outdoor patio — it’s smaller but very cozy. Since the restaurant was packed, I avoided taking photos of the inside. Walking about, it does get quite loud in here–something to keep in mind. Hawaiian music, mostly reggae-inspired, swooned through the speakers indoors and outdoors.
Just being a Hawaiian restaurant would have been enough for me to try it, especially since Mr. K is from Hawaii. Unlike some other Hawaiian options we have in the area, mostly consisting of plate lunch type offerings, Noelani’s offers a good selection of small plates meant for sharing, served family-style. Portion-wise, for one person, one order from the pupus and one from the “small kine plate” should be filling—but to really taste and experience as much as possible, I do recommend sharing. Unlike other Hawaiian restaurants we have here in the area, there are no “plate lunches” to be found on this menu; it’s actually geared more to be very filling bar food.
Upon entering, the restaurant was near full on a Thursday at 7:15 PM. I was greeted by Brad, one of the co-owners of Noelani’s. Accommodating and very pleasant, he brought an extra chair to the last four-top available in the restaurant (luckily out on the front patio) for my party of five. Later, while checking on us, he informed us that as the menu sort of conveyed, Noelani’s was originally conceived of as a “bar with food” rather than “restaurant with bar”.
The mixed cocktail menu was, as expected, very island-esque. To be a Hawaiian restaurant, it’s my opinion that good mixed drinks is essential. When one has island cuisine, even if you are in San Carlos, one wants to be whisked away even if only for one hour, to a nice clubhouse by the beach. And for this to happen, a good mixed drink is VITAL. VITAL, I tell you. And Noelani’s delivers this and then some. I had the Chi Chi (you gotta love the name) and towards the end of the meal, I tried the Lava Flow. The latter was delicious — but different from the Lava Flow I normally get in Hawaii as it was liquid rather than slushy. I’m not certain but perhaps they’re not using a blender and only mixing drinks?
To kick off a review about Hawaiian food, we have to start with the macaroni salad. I think almost every plate lunch in Hawaii will present itself with a scoop of mac salad, and it’s offered as a side item at Noelani’s. It’s different here than the sweet and tart flavors you’ve come to expect from mac salad–and I absolutely loved it. It’s rare for me to like any potato or mac salad due to the fact that past the sourness and sweetness, and sometimes overbearing creaminess, you can’t taste the subtle but outstanding flavors of potatoes and macaroni pasta. On their own, they have distinct flavor — but masked with so much “gunk”, it’s often hard to discern the taste of the carbs past the stronger flavors of the “sauce”. At Noelani’s — it’s a masterful mix of macaroni pasta, significantly large chunks of perfectly cooked (slightly underdone, which is ideal to give it good bite) red potatoes, bits of black olives with a sprinkle of scallions on top–and all mixed in what tasted like a very light sour cream base. Potatoes and macaroni offer plenty starchiness, and while the dill part of the salad was lesser, the inclusion of black olives offered a whole new tier to the flavor–a depth, if you will. Offered as side item for $4.95, it was enough for two people to share, though I would want the whole thing to myself next time.
I like ordering scallops at new restaurants JUST to see if they cook it properly. This might come off as a bit evil, but seriously — my take on this is simple: if you can’t cook scallops right, don’t offer it on your menu. There’s nothing wrong with a menu that doesn’t offer scallops. So, when I spotted it as item #1 on Noelani’s menu, I had to try it. You can’t go wrong with bacon-wrapped either.
Overall, the scallops were maybe 10 seconds overcooked from absolutely perfect, but they maintained their juiciness without becoming rubbery. The bacon was nicely fried to a soft crisp without being stiff. Laid atop a bed a piquant Asian seaweed salad that partnered well with the sweetness of the scallops, this dish was fun and pleasant. It was also beautifully presented with sprinkled edible flowers (I’m going to guess marigolds, as the kitchen did not specify) on top.
Kahlua pork isn’t usually offered as quesadilla in Hawaii, and not what I’d consider classically Hawaiian fare. But, the combination was actually quite interesting–a Mexican twist to a Hawaiian classic. The pork is cooked until it basically melts in your mouth, and with the sweet and tender texture and flavor of pork, the slightly sharper and creamy taste of three cheeses made it a rather decadent dish. Again, it’s a bit much to eat all the pieces on your own and ideal for sharing. Most notable was the guacamole—holy cow, they make some awesome lime-infused guacamole. I could have easily ordered a bucket of this and dipped everything in it! The salsa was rather plain, and against the strong pork and cheese flavor, it couldn’t hold its own. It needs something with a much bigger kick to hold its own against kahlua pork and cheese.
Did I mention how good that guacamole is!!?!
There are just some dishes you have to try that are authentic to that cuisine — and when it comes to Hawaiian food, how do you not order poke? The poke was ordered “Noe’s Style” which was wasabi-aioli based with hints of cucumber. The menu read “market price”, which turned out to be $14.95. What’s shown is a typical martini glass, layered with bed of greens and then the ahi is scooped in. If you like your poke – order it, it’s good and the tuna tasted fresh.
Char-siu being a Chinese method of cooking pork, I’m not sure how authentic or typical this is in Hawaii.
But I am absolutely positive this was delicious.
All five Asians consisting of three Koreans, one Japanese and one Taiwanese all approved wholeheartedly. Offered at $4.95 it’s a pretty decent-sized serving, and each bite is so packed with flavor.
What is wonderful about a lot of Noelani’s cooking is that it keeps the flavors simple. There is no mishmash, messy but delicious type of cooking; for this fried rice dish, it was clearly rice, char-siu pork, butter and green onions–with simple and clean seasoning. Period.
Do not miss out on ordering this dish. If you see a girl there on your visit who has three of these plates in front of her — that might be me.
Having a Hawaiian Noelani’s not serve SPAM musubi would be akin to a Korean restaurant without kimchee. (Actually, it just occurred to me that Noelani’s should offer kimchee, actually….goodness knows it’s popular in Hawaii!) Noelani’s offers three different types of musubi: SPAM, Portuguese sausage, or mochiko chicken (the latter of which they didn’t have on the night I visited). Of course to me, there is no alternative to SPAM musubi, so that is what we selected.
Now let me be clear — I love SPAM, I love rice, and seaweed is okay by me. But normally, I’m not a fan of musubi because I don’t like the use of teriyaki sauce inside the roll, and Noelani’s skips that part. Instead, there’s a light, flavorful layer of furikake (振り掛け / ふりかけ) where others normally spread the sauce and the teriyaki sauce is drizzled on the plate itself with only light hints of it on each sliced “piece” of SPAM musubi. Again, simple and clean!
But — this dish was entirely too expensive, especially compared to the price that other Hawaiian restaurants charge ($2.00 per roll, on average). It’s six “bite size pieces” but let’s be frank — that is, at best, two typical sized SPAM musubi, and that nori could have fallen from Jesus’ hands directly and still, the $8.95 price tag for basically rice, nori, and two thin slices of SPAM is REALLY hard to swallow.
THE HIGHLIGHT OF MY NIGHT
But this next dish was my absolute, hands-down favorite. There really are no words in the English language adequate enough to fully describe just how good this dish is; there are only guttural sounds that could convey the taste of this creation. The buns were perfectly toasted and warm, perhaps lightly buttered. They’re like slightly larger King’s Hawaiian-roll-esque soft buns that offer a slight sweetness. Then there’s a mild cabbage and onion slaw….and in between all that is savory, amazingly-cooked and thick slice of short rib meat.
Sorry, folks – I’m really at a loss for words. This was everything one would wish for in a slider. Each plate comes with three sliders with a pile of thinly-cut french fries. The fries were also notably light and crispy, mildly salted, and a dreamy companion to these sliders.
Noelani’s offers a choice of short rib, ground beef or SPAM sliders. I don’t need SPAM in my sliders, but I couldn’t miss out on original ground beef sliders. I want to make clear that these ground beef sliders were delicious. The patty was cooked just enough with a nice dab of mayo and a nice slice of tomato, it carried on Noelani’s style of clean, simple and delicious.
Very unfortunately for this dish, we ate it after the short rib sliders.
The only “miss” of the evening was the dish shown above: the fish tacos. Flour tortillas with snapper, salsa and a scoop of their delicious guacamole should taste good, but this one didn’t quite make the cut. The concept is divine, but one bite and it’s dry. The battered and deep-fried snapper chunks yielded no juiciness, and as mentioned, the salsa at Noelani’s was a bit bland, and was once again lost in this dish–and the guacamole alone could not save it. It needs a brighter salsa with large chunks of tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and maybe grilled fish, or less-fried snapper — and a sprinkle of freshly chopped jalapeno peppers with a large half-slice of lemon or lime offered with the dish. This, on its own, was lackluster.
Overall, this was a really good dinner. Five of us ate, each with two drinks each (though only I ordered island cocktails and everyone else had beers), and all of us were full with no leftovers. The final bill came to $50 per person which is pretty reasonable for a dinner and two drinks.
But it is Noelani’s soft opening, and it’s only been 2.5 weeks since they opened their doors.
For that reason, I’m not going to rate the restaurant as of yet. While I do expect food to be perfected by the time the doors open, everything else may require a tad more time to smooth out the kinks. Service-wise, there were some things I’d ordinarily rip apart, but I’ll revisit and see how it goes.
Location-wise, we all found parking within short walking distance from the restaurant. I suggest trying to get outdoor seating, and bringing a jacket just in case; even when it’s cold, it really does add to the “I’m in Hawaii” feeling.
Definitely give Noelani’s a visit soon. They are located at 1037 Laurel Street in San Carlos, and closed on Mondays. Check the website for hours.
And whatever you do, don’t skip out on the fried rice, mac potato salad and short rib sliders. You won’t regret it, I promise!
Addictive Factor: NA
Overall Rating: No rating during soft opening
Grace Keh is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to San Francisco" and the critic, editor and photographer behind San Francisco Food. In her regular day job, she consults for corporate clients in marketing and event strategy. Once the sun sets, she's on the hunt for great food in what she considers to be one of the world's greatest cities, San Francisco.