One Friday morning early in October, my husband, Daniel Lane, was surfing Facebook. He came across a picture of an inviting plate of food posted by Liana Soong who wrote, “Bacon cheeseburger loco moco! So good I had to come back again!”
We were at Dani’s Resturant in Lihue the next morning. Inside, a boisterous crowd sat along five rows of tables, which seat 100 people. They’re not here just because of the affordable prices and generous portions of plantation-era and Hawaiian food. This restaurant is a Kauai tradition, built on hard work that goes back four generations.
In 1964, Akiyo Honjo opened her restaurant, Ma’s Place — just up Rice Street from Dani’s — and worked there until she was 94. Her daughter, Harriet, married Tsutao Morioka, and they opened Dani’s Resturant in 1981.
“When my parents opened the restaurant they decided to name it after me,” says Danny Morioka, who was 8 at the time. “They didn’t want to spell it Danny because it would be too close to Denny’s, so they came up with this variation.”
Growing up in a restaurant environment inspired Morioka to cook. After attending Kauai Community College, he went to Kapiolani Community College on Oahu.
“I got exposed to more things on Oahu,” recalls Morioka. “I worked with Jean-Marie Josselin and D.K. Kodama, who owns Sansei Seafood Restaurant & Sushi Bar and d.k Steak (House). Everything was exciting: I was introduced to exotic ingredients and my passion for food started growing.”
Danny and his wife, Julie, returned to Kauai in 2006 and last February, they assumed responsibility for Dani’s. He’s slowly making changes, such as printing a new version of the 33-year-old menu and adding two new dishes.
A combination of hunger and practicality inspired Morioka to create the Bacon Cheeseburger Loco Moco, listed on the menu as B.C.L.M ($9). Only perfectly straight strips of bacon are served for breakfast, but sometimes the bacon breaks in the package. One time while ravenous, he looked around the kitchen and saw bits of unused bacon, and a new twist on an old classic was born.
Fresh meat is always ground to make hamburger patties at Dani’s. For the B.C.L.M, Danny hand-shapes a large oval patty and places it on a mound of steamed white rice. Pan drippings from roast pork go into the gravy, which smothers two eggs. American cheese, crisp bacon crumbles and thinly sliced scallions are sprinkled on top.
The signature dish at Dani’s is Half & Half (small, $8.25), a combination of beef and tripe stew served with rice. Tripe is an animal stomach that is cleaned, cooked and eaten. Even though most cultures around the world have enjoyed this dish for centuries, it was my first time trying it. The lacy cubes are mild in taste and delicate in texture. In this stew, the tripe takes on the flavor of the rich tomato broth, which is studded with beef cubes, potatoes, onions and carrots.
“It’s one of our most popular dishes,” says hostess Naomi Wakano. “People like to put our chili pepper water on it.”
Everything on the Bombucha Luau Plate ($14.95) is made from scratch, including a hefty serving of tender pork shoulder wrapped in taro leaves that were grown in Hanalei. Dani’s version of pipikaula features red chili flakes that cling to juicy cubes of tender beef. Their succulent kalua pig has a good balance of salt and smoke. The dish comes with a side of fresh poi, a small bowl of lomi salmon and two scoops of white or brown rice.
Garlic Chicken ($8.50) is another of Morioka’s dishes. Chicken thighs are marinated in teriyaki sauce, tossed in seasoned flour, deep-fried and doused with a zesty garlic sauce that is also available in bottles for $7 each.
Morioka invented Flavors of Kauai when he and his wife tried to get their young daughters to eat vegetables. Flavor-Burst, a sesame and shoyu blend, did the trick. Miso Marinade is used on Dani’s Misoyaki Salmon ($8.50), which is a Tuesday lunch special. Danny says customers look forward to Tuesdays, but now they can make it at home. He recommends coating salmon filets in the sauce and baking them at 375 degrees, until the tops are golden brown, about 10 to 15 minutes.
“We want to take care of tourists as well as local people,” says Morioka. “But we mainly want to accommodate the locals. We’ve been around for 33 years and if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t be here.”
4201 Rice St., Lihue
Mon. – Fri. 5 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Saturdays – 5 to 11 a.m.
Marta Lane, a Kauai-based food writer since 2010, offers food tours and is the author of “Tasting Kauai: Restaurants — An Insider’s Guide to Eating Well on the Garden Island.” For more information, visit www.tastingkauai.com.