story by Danny Simon
photo by Sergio Goes
“You know, people will complain about anything, Dennis,” says Betty Pang, owner of the Green Door Café, referring to dealing with difficult customers—“I tell them ‘I don’t care. I don’t sell it to you, I sell it to someone else.’” Actually, the name’s Danny, but after correcting her twice, I concede the point. She’ll probably still call me Dennis even after she reads the byline. Betty’s not addled; anyone can see that she’s a food artist with laser-like concentration, but her absolute focus has earned her a reputation for being pugnacious, eccentric and absent-minded about anything not related to running her restaurant.
It’s totally forgivable—as are the long lines and the generic décor of loosely Asian motifs—because we all love her food; truly, a pig could meet no nobler end than to wind up in her Singapore Nonya pork loin with tamarind sauce.
Betty appeared in Honolulu during the 1980s real estate bonanza and, like many fellow gamblers then and now, lost her proverbial shirt. In the aftermath, Betty trained in different kitchens, going from volunteer dishwasher at a Buddhist temple in Salt Lake to working with David Paul at the Diamond Head Grill. She perfected her signature dishes such as her
spectacular fried noodles—“I went through 100 kilos of noodles to get it right,” she says in her thick Hong Kong accent. In 2005, Betty opened the first Green Door Café; the tiny space in Chinatown was Honolulu’s only source for Malaysian Nonya. Nonya is a 400-year-old cuisine born of the meeting of Chinese traders and the Malaysian women they married. Add Indian and later European influences, and you get what Betty calls “the original fusion cuisine.”
Betty’s fiery curries quickly drew a cult
following. The devoted lined the sidewalks, and if they were lucky (and patient), they crammed the tiny four-table Chinatown joint. Within
a year, Betty was hunting for a bigger space. When she opened seven months ago in
spacious new digs in Kahala, 80 percent of her clientele followed.
Betty runs the entire show at the Green Door Café, hustling between her tables, the counter and the kitchen without betraying a hint of fatigue (but perhaps a bit flustered by the irritations of cooking for a picky public). When I ask her what she does to relax, she rolls her eyes; clearly, there is no rest for the wicked. HH
The Green Door Café