Prime Time For Tiano’s Restaurant

Tiano’s owners Jake, Mira and Joel Navasca

Year-end holidays have a way of seducing even the most disciplined diners into excess. With Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s just barely out of sight, the last thing you may be thinking about is food.

But we’ve all got to eat, right? So when your appetite returns and you’re looking for a good meal that fits your post-holiday budget, check out Tiano’s Restaurant & Bakery, where a highly varied menu (more than 50 offerings), homey setting and good food at reasonable prices make for a sensible (and tasty) way to start the new year.

Located in what was formerly Oki Diner on the Kuhio Highway end of Rice Street (just west of Bank of Hawaii), Tiano’s came about rather unexpectedly last fall, explains owner and chef Joel Navasca.

“As a chef, you always wonder when you’ll have a chance to open your own restaurant,” he says. “This opportunity came out of the blue.”

For Navasca and his partners/co-owners Mira (his wife), Jake (younger brother) and manager Cleo Kanai, that chance came when Oki Diner closed its doors, providing the Tiano’s team with a prime location in downtown Lihu’e, where folks were already accustomed to stopping for a meal.

From the beginning Tiano’s was meant to be someplace new and different, offering a menu that would attract everyone from families with children to late-night diners looking for a hot bowl of saimin after most places have closed.

Navasca, who was born into a family of bakers in the Philippines, began his culinary career after coming to the U.S. He developed his kitchen skills on an American cruise line, and cooking for Stuart Anderson and Big City Diner on Oahu.

More than 27 years of working in kitchens has taught Navasca what works and what doesn’t.

Roasted garlic shrimp with garlic mashed potatoes

He says too many restaurants cut corners by pre-cooking and microwaving, something he finds unacceptable. When Navasca and partners refurbished the restaurant before opening, they transformed a wall that formerly hid the kitchen into a large picture window, which allows diners to watch the kitchen staff at work.

“We want this to feel like a family place where you can enjoy a good meal without feeling rushed,” Navasca says. “And we wanted to capture the Island culture with a wide array of local dishes and comfort food.”

Those dishes include favorites such as oxtail soup, kalua pig, laulau, loco moco and banana lumpia.

Eager to see what the buzz is about, my family and I visited Tiano’s one recent Friday night. I hadn’t been in the building in several years, but I was immediately struck by how different it looked. The remodeled dining room is bright, airy, comfortable and welcoming.

Despite what you see (or don’t see) as you pass by on Rice Street, Tiano’s is not a small restaurant. The main dining floor can seat up to 120, and two separate banquet rooms, well-suited for parties and private functions, comfortably accommodate 100 people.

A covered lanai in the back has 11 tables with pleasant views of Nawiliwili Valley and, in the distance, the Ha’upu Range. It’s a wonderful little spot for a leisurely breakfast or lunch.

On our first visit we started with a basket of Tiano’s hallmark pan desal, a light, simple bread so good you might be tempted to stop there – but don’t.

For our 6-year-old we ordered mac and cheese with fries, which, like all kid’s items, comes with a small drink and scoop of ice cream afterward ($4.99). It’s a testament to Tiano’s kitchen that our son ate everything on his plate without prodding. He described his meal as “awesome and tasty.”

My wife and I enjoyed the very soft fried calamari with wasabi aioli ($6.99) and decided to split Tiano’s signature combination dinner called “combo to da max!” – a thick slice of tender prime rib and plate of roasted garlic shrimp with garlic mashed potatoes ($23.99). This dish was simple, but hot and flavorful, and really quite enough for the two of us.

We could have been satisfied there, but could-n’t resist the dessert menu, which features items from Tiano’s own in-house bakery. We ordered the bread pudding with bourbon sauce and a scoop of halo halo purple ice cream imported from Manila ($5.99). This was outstanding – so much so, that I recommend going in on an empty stomach just for dessert.

Altogether, dinner for three with dessert and coffee was just under $50.

Impressed with my first visit, I dropped in a week later during the midday rush for a quick lunch. I wanted to see if Tiano’s was suitable for a solo meal or even as a setting for a business lunch. The short answer is yes. With just over half an hour free for lunch, I was able to get a good seat on the lanai, order a fish sandwich (a salmon filet with miso butter sauce) and fries ($9.99), eat and be on my way, satisfied that I’d enjoyed a fresh, tasty lunch in a comfortable setting, and could continue my “in-town” errands without delay.

If all this isn’t enough, Tiano’s also offers special events catering and table service from 7 a.m. until midnight.

Next time I visit I’m definitely going to try the late-night menu (fried noodles, won ton min, ramen) and breakfasts (fish and eggs, loco moco, pancakes), though definitely not in that order.

Tiano’s Restaurant & Bakery, 4479 Rice St. (across from the “round building), Lihu’e. Open daily from 7 a.m. to midnight (breakfast 7-11a.m., lunch 11 a.m.-5 p.m., dinner 5-10 p.m., late night 10 p.m.-midnight). (808) 245-6909, www.tianoislandcuisine.com

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