Key to the City

Why You Shouldn’t Leave Honolulu Without Visiting Chinatown

ONOLULU'S HISTORIC CHINATOWN may only be four miles away from resort-laden Waikiki, but it can feel like another world. There’s no beach here, no nightly luaus, no sprawling hotel pool bars (nor an actual hotel, at the moment), no gleaming big-name designer shops, nor any massive tour buses crawling through. Stroll the neighborhood with its stone and brick buildings, frenetic market places, artist studios, and a good dash of off-the-wall edge and it can feel more like New York City than Honolulu.  

That’s part of why Chuck Bussler and his wife, executive chef Robynne Mai‘i, opened their farm-to-table New American eatery Fête on the corner of Nu‘uanu Avenue and Hotel Street in 2016. “We loved the building and the history. To me, the neighborhood looked like the East Village in about 1995 -- still on a heavy upswing. It had all the right bones to do something fun and interesting,” he recounts. “Honolulu is a very drive-centric town, but in Chinatown, you can park your car and just walk.”

When Fête launched, buzzy restaurants like ramen shop Lucky Belly, French-Latin-fusion Grondin (which closed last summer), and chef Andrew Le’s locally influenced Vietnamese hot spot The Pig and the Lady had been up and running for a few years and garnering more and more attention. (This was especially true after Le landed a James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year nom.) 

Whether it was the reasonable rents or just the “cool” factor, pioneering chefs and restaurateurs have officially created a growing culinary community that catered to a heavy local crowd.  “We didn’t want to depend on tourism,” says Bussler. “The tourists we do get are big-city tourists. A lot of New Yorkers, a lot of San Francisco, a lot of LA.”

Matthew Resich, who grew up on Oahu and left for several years to attend college and start his hospitality career on the mainland, said that he could feel a major shift in the neighborhood -- from a nightlife perspective -- after he returned in the early 2000s. It was initially centered around Indigo, a well-known nightclub that opened in the mid-90s, often cited as the venue that helped push Chinatown into the hip after-dark territory. (Indigo shuttered in 2013.) “I had already seen the first transformation,” explains Resich. “This whole block was full of people who weren’t normally in Chinatown coming at night taking notice of the neighborhood. So I had already seen the potential.”

A decade later when he and fiancée, the late chef Inthira Marks, wanted to open their dream Neapolitan pizza restaurant Brick Fire Tavern, the couple decided on a spot in the shiny new SALT complex in Kaka’ako. But the deal fell through. They’d been patrons of multiple Chinatown restaurants and passed by a boarded-up space on Hotel Street on their way back from dinner one evening. “We’re like, ‘What’s going on here? This looks great,’” Resich says. “We wanted a regentrifying area and to pair the old with the new. It seemed perfect.” 

Indeed, it came complete with exposed red brick walls dating back to the 1800s and had previously housed a brothel and a dive bar. It was also a stone’s throw from thousands of residents who live in the nearby high-rises and workers who fill up Downtown’s office buildings daily, many of whom have become regular customers. “I can name people who live in each of the buildings because they come here and they’re happy to be able to walk to so many places,” he adds. “We’re all kind of celebrating what is Chinatown.”

“Whereas Hawaii is very Hawaii, this feels like something different.”

And that means celebrating its cuisine. Walk these streets and you’ll find Neapolitan pizza topped with housemade mozzarella, Waimea farm-raised pork schnitzel, duck confit alongside a kimchi salad, or wild mushroom-stuffed vegan Korean mandoo. It’s clear that chefs here -- as well as elsewhere on the island -- are doing cuisine that goes well beyond Pacific Rim.

That expanding restaurant scene correlates with the area’s growing art scene. There’s a crop of new boutiques and a popular First Friday art walk and block party that attracts serious crowds. Just blocks from the historic center of Chinatown are long-standing Asian food markets, fishmongers, lei shops, and noodle factories. “There’s a lot of creative effort whether it be from artists or fellow restaurateurs or mixologists,” says Bussler. “It feels like most big cities. Whereas Hawaii is very Hawaii, this feels like something different.”

"Chinatown’s wild, storied history also sets it apart from other areas of the island."

Chinatown’s wild, storied history also sets it apart from other areas of the island. Beginning in the mid 1800s, laborers from China arrived to work on sugar plantations and, while workers from elsewhere followed, thousands of Chinese immigrants stayed after their contracts were up, settling and opening businesses in proximity to the harbor. By the turn of the century, the neighborhood had seen a bubonic plague and two massive, destructive fires; it eventually became a bona fide red light district catering to a mainly military crowd during World War II with its bars, brothels, and gambling dens.

honolulu chinatown
Honolulu Chinatown market | ja-images/ShutterStock

The good news is the area was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, which meant its unique low-slung buildings couldn’t be demolished by new development. The bad news was its longstanding reputation for hosting drug dealers, prostitution, and crime has been hard to shake.

“There’s still a perception of crime, and a perception of lack of parking, and both are actually not true,” explains Resich, who adds that while there is indeed a homeless population and you can certainly find drugs if you sought them out, the area is, for the most part, relatively safe. “If a purse gets snatched, we get attention in the media, but I feel it’s definitely way worse in Waikiki. The police have done a good job on these blocks where we have businesses,and we have lots of municipal parking. I do think the city has done their part, but I don’t think the perception has really caught on.”

As for the future, the consensus is that rents should stay reasonable, since many buildings and businesses are independently owned. But, like gentrifying neighborhoods around the country, change is afoot. An investor group is currently redeveloping the historic three-story Wo Fat building into the neighborhood’s first boutique hotel (a concept that’s been a hit in Waikiki with the modern Laylow, in addition to vintage surf culture-themed Surfjack).There’s also talk of a new Marriott mixed-use complex.Thus far, though, the revitalization feels far from typical, with slower changes centered around an organic artists’ community, local nightlife scene, and crop of culinary talent -- rather than the thoughtless redevelopment that we so often witness in other cities. Then again, you never know. “If the Marriott goes in right there, it could happen overnight. But there’s no John Varvatos down here,” says Busser. “Not yet.”

One thing’s for sure: Now is the time to hit up Chinatown on your next trip to Oahu. Here are 15 dining and drinking spots to get the most out of this one-of-a-kind neighborhood.

Maguro Bros. Hawaii

Ultra-fresh poke and sashimi lunch stall inside a market  
It’s not the easiest place to find, but make your way to the back of the colorful Kekaulike Market and you’ll see the line, especially at around high noon when local office jockeys descend upon the small stall for the poke dreams are made of. Here you’ll find brothers Junichiro and Ryojiro Tsuchiya dividing and conquering with one taking orders and the other swiftly slicing crazy-fresh locally line-caught ahi brought in from the morning’s fish auction. The result is stellar sashimi and poke bowls (starting at just $6.50 for a small) ranging from basic shoyu to ume plum-and-shiso versions. The brothers also have excellent offerings flown in from elsewhere like Japanese Hamachi or New Zealand King Salmon. The chirashi and poke combo will give you a little taste of everything for $16.

Fête
Fête

Fête 

Bustling bistro doing internationally influenced New American fare with local ingredients
With its countless windows, soaring exposed ceiling, brick walls, and sleek bar, the place seems like it would fit right in a more massive city. Maybe it’s because husband-and-wife team Chuck Bussler and Robynne Mai’i met while working in the New York restaurant world before moving back to Mai’i’s native Oahu in 2015 to open Fête. It’s here where executive chef Mai‘i focuses on local ingredients to give create New American dishes with a mix of Hawaiian, Southern, European, and Korean influences like gougères paired with a smoked ahi spread, Portuguese sausage Bolognese, and guava mustard-grilled lamb chops garnished with a mint pistou and local green beans.

The Pig and the Lady 

A Hawaiian twist on Vietnamese food by James Beard nominee Andrew Le
Chef Andrew Le’s first restaurant -- an offshoot of his family’s popular farmers’ market stand -- helped garner national attention for Chinatown’s burgeoning culinary renaissance when he was nominated for a James Beard Award in 2014. The CIA-trained chef did a six-month stint at San Francisco’s Rich Table to learn the ropes and says he simply wanted to serve the kind of food he grew up eating as an Oahu-born kid with Vietnamese parents. The result is a menu of innovative dishes like the signature ahi tataki and avocado on fried banh mi bread, fermented rice-cured whole local fish, and multiple pho options laced with ingredients like banana blossoms and lemongrass chili pork. The festive space, flanked by lanterns hanging from twisted tree branches, is also a good place to pop in for a creative cocktail heavy on spices and local fruit.  

Little Village Noodle House

Big BYO Chinese restaurant with an even bigger menu
Yes, it’s becoming increasingly famous for other fare, but there is still worthy traditional Chinese food to be had in Chinatown and the always-busy Little Village -- decked out inside with carved wood signs and a faux village-esque roofline -- is at the top of the list. The massive menu toggles from Chinese takeout stalwarts like crispy spring rolls, kung pao chicken, and beef and broccoli to signature dishes like a shrimp-and-roast duck fried rice, lamb stew hot pot, and pan-fried egg noodles topped with a variety of protein options (the minute chicken is a good go-to). There’s also a decent variety of vegetarian options including the hearty tofu stir fried with bamboo fungus and snap peas. 

Brick Fire Tavern

Authentic Neapolitan pizza with housemade mozzarella in a brick-walled space
Don’t just go to this bright, brick-walled eatery centered around a brick oven because it’s the state’s only Vera Pizza Napoletana-certified pizzeria. Go because the pizza really is that good. Owner Matthew Resich studied pizza-making with master pizzaiolo Enzo Coccia in Naples the year before opening, and the kitchen crew makes its own mozzarella and San Marzano tomato sauce daily. Plus, they have perfected authentically charred-and-crispy-meets-chewy crust. You can’t go wrong with the classic margherita, but there are plenty of topping-heavy pies, too. The meaty Mama Mia is piled with Italian sausage, sopressata, prosciutto, and hot peppers while the rich Carbonara is layered with a béchamel, smoked pancetta, and local egg yolk.

 

Encore Saloon
Encore Saloon | Minn Tun for Hawaii Business Photo

Encore Saloon 

Lively spot serving mezcal cocktails and street tacos
The name doesn’t exactly scream Mexican restaurant (nor does the DJ who was spinning some serious hip-hop during a recent First Friday) but this is actually the perfect stop for tasty street tacos on the cheap -- not a one over 3 bucks -- along with a solid selection of mezcals and a fun after-work scene with plenty of bar seating and a back patio that’s good for groups sharing pitchers of margaritas. The place also offers an unprinted “beer nerd” menu for, well, you know who you are.

Senia 

Chef-driven restaurant with pricey tasting menu at the chef’s counter 
The upscale Senia -- a modern Hawaiian collaboration between the chef duo of Chris Kajioka, a Honolulu native, and British-born Anthony Rush -- has been making a splash since it opened (just next door to The Pig and the Lady) at the end of 2016. Its meticulously constructed, $200-a-pop tasting menu is available at the eight-seat chef’s counter, but for a slightly wallet-friendlier experience, the a la carte menu is a good option with plates of crispy tako and sunchokes, local Thumbelina carrots and harissa, and some increasingly famous foie gras bon bons. The $35 lunch prix-fixe is one of the best deals in town.

Sing Cheong Yuan

Longstanding Chinese bakery selling sweet and savory bites
This packed Cantonese-style bakery is a solid locals’ spot to stock up on snacks. Snag bags of their fabled homemade sesame-peanut candy (the macadamia nut version is good, too), along with a case full of baked goods including outrageous almond cookies and intricate moon cakes. But there’s also enough savory stuff to turn a stop-in into a solid lunch on the cheap. Try a few of the manapuas (the Hawaiian version of bao) stuffed with barbecue pork or chicken curry, and the oversize shrimp dumplings for a dollar a pop. 

 

O’Kims Contemporary Korean Cuisine
O’Kims Contemporary Korean Cuisine

O’Kims Contemporary Korean Cuisine

Modern Korean in a no-frills space with hidden back patio
Chef-owner Hyun Kim has moved her modern Korean eatery from Smith Street to this small and sleek space. There are just a handful of tables inside but more out back on a tucked-away, covered lanai that’s just the spot for lunch or an early (BYO) dinner. Order one of her signature dishes -- the poached seaweed salad, short rib Bibimbap, or the hearty vegan curry boasting black-eyed peas and butternut squash -- or one of the rotating monthly specials like the recent melty miso butterfish. O’Kims is a good alternative to the usual brunch options with items like salmon musubi and an egg-topped kimchi fried rice plate.  

Lucky Belly 

Hip ramen restaurant equipped with late-night takeout window
This beloved ramen shop was one of the first eateries to usher in Chinatown’s new generation of restaurants when it opened in 2012 (and has since spawned upscale comfort food eatery Livestock Tavern and wine bar Tchin Tchin nearby). With its reclaimed woods, polished concrete, and exposed brick, it certainly looks the part of a quintessential trendy restaurant -- and it’s got the hours to match. Diners can feast on big bowls of ramen done up with everything from pork belly to togarashi shrimp to porcini dust along with plates of uni gnocchi and lamb lumpia in the restaurant (which stays open until midnight). Or grab to-go goods from the takeout window that pushes out an ever-changing limited menu of stuff like furikake rice and teriyaki chicken until 2:30am on the weekend. 

Manifest 

Art-filled coffee shop that transforms into a bar and club at night 
Another stalwart of the neighborhood’s new nightlife scene, this espresso bar and cafe by day and cocktail bar-cum-club by night has been slinging drinks for a decade and still packs in a cool crowd (be warned about the sardine-like situation on First Fridays). The industrial-style space’s brick walls are lined with rotating art exhibits and you can catch both full-on bands and visiting DJs from around the country on weekend nights. If brown liquor’s your thing, don’t miss the impressive whiskey selection. 

Tchin Tchin
Tchin Tchin

Tchin Tchin 

Good-for-groups upstairs bar with a big roof deck 
It bills itself as a wine bar, but both the barkeeps and crowd seem more focused on cocktails and beer -- at least these days (and we couldn’t find that menu of flights during a recent visit). No matter, since you’re at this upstairs venue for the scene, a buzzy one filled with groups huddled together on loungey couch seating, both inside and outside on the expansive outdoor roof deck. The streamlined menu focuses smartly on shareable plates with a crab-avocado tartine, a housemade charcuterie offering, and some super truffle fries. 

Bar 35 

Popular bar with good happy hour, live bands, and beer selection 
Another decade-old Chinatown drinking stalwart, this massive space with its big bar and high-top tables scattered around is a solid happy hour spot. Drink and food specials (heavy on super thin-crust pizzas) go till 9pm Tuesday through Friday and there are nearly 200 beers on offer. Bar 35 is not the best place for craft cocktail connoisseurs, but the prices are reasonable and it’s always a fun place to hit with a group and catch a local live band or themed DJ night. 

Skull & Crown Trading Co.
Skull & Crown Trading Co. | Jess T. Johnston

Skull & Crown Trading Co.

New, horror-influenced tiki bar with over-the-top drinks
There are few tried-and-true tiki bars left on the island (though La Mariana Sailing Club continues to represent) and this brand-spanking new business isn’t trying to fill that void. Instead, the place -- run by a duo best known for putting on annual haunted attractions and pop-up theme bars come Halloween -- have created an over-the-top tiki land with a nod to their horror-loving roots with skull mugs and jars filled with human heads alongside tiki carvings and hanging fishing nets. Expect Instagrammable drinks in gorgeous glassware garnished with fruit, flowers, and even Dole whip. The space is small, but there is spillover seating in the grassy garden out back. 

bar leather apron
Bar Leather Apron | John Hook

Bar Leather Apron 

Outstanding cocktail den with top-notch offerings in an office building 
It’s not technically in Chinatown, but this sliver of a space hovering above the lobby of the Topa Financial Center office building is a top pick to get a cocktail in Honolulu and certainly worth seeking out while you’re down this way (because trust us, you’re not going to stumble into it). The intimate bar, named for the outfits worn by the bar staff, is where (unrelated) co-owners Tom Park and Justin Park have created a menu of magical drinks with preparations that border on theater, making sure everything from the ice to the crystal glassware elevates the experience. As for what to order, Justin has won the World’s Best Mai Tai Competition three times over, so it’s an option worth considering, though any of the drinks that get smoked in front of you would be a smart choice. Do yourself a favor and ask whoever is behind the bar to make something based on your preferences. Trust us, they know what they’re doing.

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Lizbeth Scordo is a food, travel, and lifestyle writer who continues to prove to herself that poke and pizza are the perfect duo. Follow her haziness on Instagram @modlizbeth and Twitter @LALizbeth