Honolulu's historic Chinatown is one of the most rapidly gentrifying areas on O'ahu. Strips clubs are being replaced with hot, young chefs opening up their much fêted restaurants. We explore some of the hottest restaurants where you'll get a glimpse into Hawaii's current food scene.
In the 80s and 90s Honolulu's Chinatown was known as an area replete with gambling and sex workers. Now tattoo parlours and girly bars sit alongside artisan pizzerias, Korean and French Latin restaurants. Chinese variety stores sell everything from fruit, homewares and stuffed toys and the grand old Hawaii Theatre stands with its Art Deco marquee and enormous two-story theatre sign with red, blue and white lights flashing. The last time I came here was with Chef Mavro in 2015.
Retro signs are colourful and Honolulu Chinatown is the site of Hawaii's very first bar, Smith's Union Bar that predates Hawaii's induction into statehood by two decades. I take a peek inside - it's darkly lit with a rainbow of neon signs reflecting on the tight row of bar patrons sitting on bar stools. On the streets homeless women and men sleep rough curled up on the pavement. We watch as a shopkeeper hands a man a bottle of cold water on this hot, sticky afternoon.
Want to buy a fresh floral lei? Head to Chinatown where lei stores line every street. Or if you're itching to get a tattoo done, Chinatown's Black Cat Tattoo Studio has native Hawaiian tattoo artists on staff if you want an enduring memory of your trip.
We are biding our time because we have a booking at 5:30pm at The Pig and The Lady. We stop by Sing Cheong Yuan bakery for a quick snack. Actually I was drawn by the display of cookies in the window that reminded me of childhood holidays in Hong Kong. They're about to close in 4 minutes but they usher me in.
I ask what is popular and she points me towards a Manapua or a baked char siu bun (that's earmarked for a slow riser's breakfast). I ask about a tray of glossy yellow squares of cake. "That's butter mochi," she says and I buy a square as well as a delicious half moon glutinous rice pocket stuffed with diced water chestnuts and pork.
One of the hottest kitchens is the restaurant The Pig and The Lady where chef Alex Le serves up takes on classic Vietnamese dishes combined with influences from Hawaii and beyond. The Pig in the restaurant's name is Alex and the Lady is his mother. At 5:20pm everyone that has a booking (and it is best that you do although they do allow for walkins) lines up outside in anticipation of opening.
LE Fried Chicken Wings $19USD
You can go for classic Vietnamese flavours with his twice fried chicken wings (or Brussels if you're vegetarian). These are four crunchy crispy 3 piece wings in a bed of money sauce (like a sweet and sour nuoc-mam) with makrut, chopped peanuts and mint. We dunk and crunch on these crunchy fried wings.
Miso Eggplant Goi Cuon $15USD
If you prefer your food with a bit of a table show try the eggplant rice paper rolls. These are rice paper rolls filled with vermicelli noodles, Jade’s mung bean miso, shiso, lettuce, cucumber and mustard green pickles rolled up and cut up into six bite sized portions. They sit in a ginger wasabi soy nuoc cham dipping sauce with a slice of fried Ho Farms eggplant on top. They crisp them up at the table with a blowtorch. These bites are wonderfully fresh with an array of textures from the soft, slippery noodles to the fresh vegetables.
Bo Kho Bolognese Rigatoni $28USD
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The dish that made me want to visit here for dinner rather than lunch was the bo kho bolognese with rigatoni. And there it is, just like the offspring of both. It has a rich sweetness from the tomatoes, bo kho spices, lemongrass, beef mince with parmesan and crisp basil leaves on top. It's great for sharing although it could conceivably satisfy just one person.
P&L Sundae Funday $14USD
The Lady & The Pig's signature dessert is the soft serve with regularly changing flavours. As luck would have it, there is mango and sticky rice flavour available. You can have one or both swirled and we choose the latter. It can either come out as it is with the fish sauce caramel as an optional extra or you can get it as a sundae in a waffle bowl with all the fixings (cacao feulletine, whipped cream and fish sauce caramel which they pour at the table). We opt for the sundae, it seems rude not to and dig in. The fish sauce caramel is a strong one, taken quite dark, although more savoury than fishy in flavour. With the caramel you don't get that subtle aroma of the sticky rice but once that has been eaten, the subtle flavours of the sticky rice soft serve come through when eaten alone.
Nearby at Fete (pronounced Fet) award winning chef Robynne Maii serve up modern American food cooked with classic techniques with Hawaiian island ingredients. She most recently won the 2022 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northwest & Pacific. There is bar seating or table seating and reservations are absolutely necessary. They are known for their ever changing specials although I think if you threw a dart at anything on the menu you'd hit a bullseye.
Korean Fried Chicken $13USD
At Fete there are dinner sandwiches (yes that's a thing and I absolutely respect that as a sandwich lover). Unable to resist any form of fried chicken and or sandwich we share the Korean Fried Chicken sandwich with Asian pear slaw, garlic sesame aioli on a brioche bun. This is an exercise in textures and balanced flavours from the downy, sweet, buttery brioche bun and thick, crunchy chicken fillet with a sweet soy glaze and the refreshing nashi pear slaw.
They grow things bigger here and when our waiter tells us that the Kauai grown shrimp are smaller than normal we do a double take because they're about as big as our king prawns. There are half a dozen deep fried shrimp on a tomato compote with a drizzle of lemon aioli. They're designed to eat the head and all and have a satisfying crunch.
Mahi Mahi $45USD
We also tried another special that routinely features on their specials menu. The Mahi Mahi is a common locally caught white fish. Here the fillet is given the Veal Saltimbocca treatment aka wrapped in prosciutto with sage and basil and then fried. This comes on a bed of kale almond pesto with kale chips, crispy potatoes and lemon zest with fried capers. There's a lot going on on the plate but fortunately it all works although I did find the fish a little dry in texture.
Rocky Road Ice Cream $8USD
Desserts-wise the rocky road ice cream is a thick, creamy, chunky confection featuring a rich dark chocolate ice cream with plenty of chunks of house made marshmallows and nuts. Scoops are generous here as is the friendly attitude from all of the staff.
And I get the feeling that the next time we visit Honolulu Chinatown it will have completely changed.
So tell me Dear Reader, do you have a favourite Chinatown to visit or eat in? Have you ever visited Honolulu's Chinatown?
Meals in this post were independently paid for. NQN was a guest of Hawaii Tourism Oceania and flew to Hawaii as a guest of Hawaiian Airlines but all opinions remain her own.
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