Keo’s Remains a Kamaaina Favorite for Thai Cuisine
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In the 35 years and counting since Keo Sananikone opened the doors to his popular Thai restaurant in the heart of Waikiki, customers have grown fond of the authentic cuisine made with quality, fresh ingredients served at affordable prices.
Another key ingredient to the success of Keo’s Thai Cuisine is “consistency,” according to Paul Sananikone, Keo’s brother who manages the restaurant. “Especially when you deal with local people, you can’t fool Hawaii diners; they are very smart. A lot of people here are knowledgeable, especially when eating out.”
Keo’s welcomes diners into its open air atmosphere and garden setting complete with an array of fresh floral arrangements, and Thai statues and decor.
Cool breezes pass through the eatery, carrying with them aromas of sweet curries and tantalizing spices that are incorporated in a wide array of desirable dishes.
In addition to countless loyal local customers who dine at the Waikiki eatery on a regular basis, Keo’s has fostered a following amongst celebrities as well. As the enormous celebrity photo wall at Keo’s entrance attests, the restaurant has hosted hundreds of athletes, actors, recording artists and dignitaries including Mike Tyson, Tina Turner, Keanu Reeves, Michael J. Fox, Paula Abdul, Elton John, Will Smith and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. According to Paul, while high-profile figures are always stopping by the restaurant, the friendly staff goes out of its way to treat each guest like royalty.
“We try to do ordinary things extraordinarily well,” Paul says. “We try to treat everybody like a movie star. I tell my workers that when people walk in the door, they are coming to spend their hard-earned money. You have to give them what they pay for. In the restaurant business, you don’t get a second chance.” Keo’s popularity can also be linked to its signature dish, Evil Jungle Prince ($14.95 with chicken, $16.95 with seafood and $12.95 with vegetables and tofu). What sounds like a villainous movie character is actually the restaurant’s flagship dish that has been featured in publications around the world that tout Keo’s as the premier dining destination. The dish features one’s desired meat or vegetables combined with fresh basil, coconut milk and red chili pepper and served on a bed of chopped cabbage.
“Our Evil Jungle Prince bring in a lot of movie stars who come in just because they heard about this dish,” Paul says. “Everybody tries to copy it, but it’s never the same. We must be doing something right! The spices and basil, a lot of chili all come together to make a dish that people can associate with. When people think of Evil Jungle Prince, they think of Keo’s.”
Keo and Paul came from a family of eight children, and moved to Hawaii during their junior high school years. Paul credits his father, a successful businessman in Thailand, with giving him and Keo the tools to succeed via an American education.
“Our father invested in education for his kids rather than just giving us money,” says Paul of his dad, who sent all eight children to school in America. “Money can be taken away or stolen; an education can’t be taken away. As you get older, you start to understand what your parents are talking about. If you are willing to work hard in America, anything can happen.”
In addition to the restaurant and family grocery store, Keo also operates a farm in the Mokuleia area, where he grows most of the vegetables used in the eatery. This self-sustaining system allows Keo to both enjoy his hobby as well as provide fresh ingredients for the restaurant that go from the farm to one’s plate within hours.
“His farm is all organic and free of any pesticides,” says Paul of his brother. “Keo has a green thumb. He can grow anything!”
Some of the farm’s fresh vegetables can be found in Soft Shell Crab with Basil ($19.95) as well as another seafood favorite, Panang Shrimp and Scallops ($15.95), which incorporates kaffir lime leaves, fresh ground lemon grass, peas and coconut milk.
Keo’s also is known for its famous Sa-Teh Chicken ($9.95), four pieces of juicy, white meat chicken on skewers served with a spicy peanut sauce. Another favorite is Tom Yum Soup ($4.95), an eclectic mix of shrimp, lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, green onion, cilantro, mushrooms and lime juice.
“We know that a lot of local people like seafood, so we try to feature it a lot,” Paul says.
In addition to the regular menu, Keo’s is serving up a special Valentine’s Day Dinner ($29.95 per person) that appropriately includes a fresh rose for each couple. Each V-Day diner receives an appetizer selection, Green Papaya Salad, choice of entree — including the infamous Evil Jungle Prince — and a choice of white Jasmine, brown or sticky rice. End the night with ice cream or tapioca for dessert, and during the meal, Paul suggests ordering the Mango Daiquiri ($6.50) to complete the experience.
As is the case with most nights at Keo’s, the dining room fills up quickly, so reservations are recommended.
Keo’s Thai Cuisine
- 2028 Kuhio Avenue
- Honolulu, HI 96815
- (808) 951-9355
- 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.
- Open daily