27 August 2013

Restaurant review: Eating with the aloha spirit in Windsor, Colorado

Windsor is a funny little town.  When we first moved here a decade ago, it was basically a collection of houses, some new, some old, and a couple of dumpy shops on Main Street.  By updating the downtown with a couple of good restaurants and some interesting shops, and centering on the large reservoir (we call them "lakes" in Colorado) just north of Main Street, it has since fashioned itself into something akin to a resort town.  It's worth a half-day trip if you're in the area visiting Rocky Mountain National Park or Fort Collins, and if you go, you should definitely stop by Okole Maluna for a meal.

Okole Maluna was opened a few years ago by two native Hawaiians with strong ties to the food industry, so they have an efficient system in place and real knowledge of the food they're producing.  The dishes are a mix of moderately priced (entrees run $9-$15 at night) high- and low-cuisine from the islands with some updates that pay homage to local ingredients. Like Windsor itself, the decor is moderately upscale, but with a casual, welcoming feel.  The night I visited, clientele ranged from business people and upper-middle class couples to young families with rugrats in tow (warning: it does get loud quickly when the kids come in to play), and the beautifully maintained salt water aquarium brought almost everyone to the back for a little gawking at some point during their meals.  Co-owner Juliet Higa, a registered dietitian with 25 years in the restaurant business, was waiting tables, greeting customers, and making the rounds to visit with customers about their food.

So, let's talk about the food.  I passed on the blue-collar Hawaiian classics like Saimin (ramen in a light broth with Spam and egg) and Loco Moco (hamburger with eggs, rice, and gravy), but I was happy to see them on the menu as a sign of authenticity.  The Hawaiian Pesto Udon was a satisfying bowl of thick-cut, chewy homemade noodles swimming in a macadamia-Thai basil pesto with golden baked tofu on top (chicken is also available).  The Kalua Pig sandwich had a generous portion of moist, smokey pulled pork piled high on a crusty white roll.  We actually had a view of the kitchen from our seat, where a clever little electric smoker was working overtime to produce all of the pork dishes on the menu.  And the Ali'i Plate was the real deal, with a mountain of that moist, flavorful Kalua shredded pork, two perfect sticky rice patties, a fantastically seasoned side of lomi-lomi salmon (thinly sliced smoked raw salmon and fresh tomatoes with onion and salt), and a tiny square of  dense Haupia, a traditional coconut custard, for dessert.    Everything was beautifully prepared with fresh, high-quality ingredients.  Menu items incorporating Ahi tuna are priced at market value, which changes depending on the season and availability, an honest approach to a rather precious ingredient here in Northern Colorado.

Ali'i Plate

Our server was knowledgeable about the menu and Hawaiian food traditions, patient in the face of some pretty corny jokes coming from our table, and food was ready in a reasonable amount of time.  The restaurant is definitely family-friendly, and in a town with a relatively high median income and a lot of young couples, that meant quite a few boisterous children wandering around and using their outdoor voices.  Dinner is served from 5-9, so if that's something you'd rather avoid, I would suggest edging toward the later side of service for some peace and quiet.

Okole Maluna is located at the corner of CO-392 (Main Street) and 5th Street, two blocks south of Windsor Lake.  It's a perfect stop after a little paddle boating at the lake, and if the weather is warm enough, you just might forget you're in the Rockies.