As would be expected, the list includes well-known eating places in Atlanta, Athens and Savannah. But the 2012 prestigious list also includes the Little Hawaiian restaurant in Carrollton.
“A Hawaiian restaurant in Carrollton, complete with a tiki bar?” the magazine listing asks. “Chef Tano Phommasith, a Hawaiian native, and wife, Cristi, his manager and hometown girl, make it happen, with Southern friendly sweetness.”
While Georgia Trend magazine called Chef Tano a Hawaiian native, he corrected that part of the listing.
“I was born in Laos in a family with six siblings,” he said. “We moved to Hawaii when I was 9 years old.”
Awards are nothing new to this popular downtown eatery on Rome Street, since it has won several local honors, such as the Times-Georgian’s Readers’ Choice awards. Chef Tano has been recognized many times in American Culinary Federation competition. But it’s a first from a state publication.
“We’re very pleased and blessed to receive this recognition,” Chef Tano said. “We share this honor with our staff as an indication of our big sense of commitment as a team.”
Carrollton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Jonathan Dorsey says the award is well-deserved and exciting for the Carrollton Area.
“It’s rewarding to see such a prestigious statewide publication as Georgia Trend telling the wider world about the staff, service, atmosphere and, most of all, incredible food Carrollton’s Little Hawaiian offers,” Dorsey said. “Tano, Cristi and their staff exemplify the concept of Southern hospitality.
“Little Hawaiian is the latest local dining establishment to receive wide notice from statewide and regional media. The Sunnyside Cafe and its Moonshadow Music Hall have been featured recently in Georgia Music Magazine and Georgia Trend and are named among the top 100 places to eat in Georgia in this year’s official state travel guide,” Dorsey said. “Other restaurants downtown, as well as the entire downtown district, have been featured in Georgia Magazine and other newspapers and magazines with a regional reach.”
Chef Tano’s family was in the restaurant business and he picked up the trade from a very early age.
“My family refused any welfare,” he said. “After a few months in Hawaii, they decided to open a Thai restaurant in Honolulu.”
While Tano was not old enough at the time to be an employee, he noted that it was a family business and everybody helped out.
“I started out cooking and doing a little bit of everything,” he said. “As soon as I turned 15, the legal age there, I branched out on my own and started to explore more of the restaurant business.”
One of his first jobs was with Mick’s Fish Market, a prestigious eating place in Honolulu.
“I began washing dishes there, just to get my foot in the door,” he said. “I worked my way up and was assistant manager when I left in 1988.”
Tano’s first wife was from Chicago, so he relocated there with her and earned a culinary arts degree in 1994.
“I was working as executive chef at Stir Crazy Cafe, a pan Asian restaurant, and was promoted to corporate chef a year later,” he said.
Tano moved to Columbia, S.C., in 1999, where he worked as executive chef in Tronco’s Catering. It was there he met his current wife, Cristi, who was also in the restaurant business.
“She was born at Tanner Medical Center in Carrollton and grew up in Ranburne, Ala.,” he said. “She brought me back home to Carrollton.”
After relocating to Georgia, Tano first worked as executive chef at Classic on Noble in Anniston, Ala.
“We had a dream to own our own restaurant,” he said. “Cristi has about 30 years’ experience in food service.”
So the couple opened Little Hawaiian on Sept. 22, 2003, on Bankhead Highway in Carrollton, near Lake Carroll.
“It was tough at first, trying to run a Hawaiian restaurant in a small town,” he said. “Many people weren’t that familiar with Hawaiian food. We were fortunate to have such a good staff, who believed in us and helped us get the word out.”
Business eventually picked up, and Little Hawaiian outgrew the small building. They moved to their current Rome Street location after Thanksgiving in 2008.
The building they chose was built as a mule barn in 1903, and through the next 100-plus years, housed 29 different businesses, including most recently a workout gym and a restaurant.
“We fell in love with the building,” Tano said. “We decided to go ahead, spend a little money to preserve the building and fit it in with our Hawaiian theme. We kept all the original brick and mortar. I understand the same person who built the depot built this building. They made their bricks onsite.”
While the restaurant has a Hawaiian theme, Chef Tano said they still try to incorporate some hometown, southern recipes on the menu.
“We have Southern vegetables, such as okra and greens, and I’m just intrigued with Southern cooking,” he said. “My wife grew up with it, and I love to cook it. It adds a little extra for our customers.”
He said the style of menu at Little Hawaiian might better be labeled as “fusion,” including Hawaiian, Asian and Southern.”
“We’re very particular about our product selection,” Chef Tano said. “We don’t use any product that contains trans-fats or is partially hydrogenated. We also don’t use MSG and try to cook as healthy as we can. We try to use locally grown produce and meats.”
And, According to Dorsey, being particular is paying off, and the CVB can market Carrollton’s restaurants as a key attraction as a result of the collective effort Chef Tano and other the local restaurant owners put into their product.
“Carrollton has really become a dining destination,” says Dorsey. “Our restaurants’ incredibly diverse menu offerings so conveniently concentrated have created a unique attraction. You can experience the tastes of the world — including Italian, Hawaiian, Irish, Scottish, Latin, Southern American — within a couple of blocks’ walk.
Of course, all this variety and attention to detail requires a great deal of product coming into Little Hawaiian.
According to Chef Tano, the restaurant buys about 350 pounds of fish each week and about 160 pounds of shrimp. The menu also features beef, chicken, lamb, duck and occasionally wild game, such as elk, which was bought for a wedding reception.
Catering is a big part of Little Hawaiian’s business. Last Friday, it provided food for the wine tasting at the old Carrollton train depot.
“We do weddings from 40 to 500 people and corporate events, feeding up to 2,000,” he said. “We cater to a lot of local companies, such at Tanner Health System, Southwire Company and Decostar.”
He said Little Hawaiian has tripled its business since moving to its new location about four years ago.
Little Hawaiian is open Monday through Friday for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and dinner from 5-9 p.m. It is open for dinner only on Saturday, from 5-10 p.m. and Sunday for lunch only from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. The restaurant employs more than 50 people.
The Little Hawaiian phone number is 770-838-1220 and the website is www.littlehawaiianrestaurant.com.