Find the Best Rou Jia Mo (aka “Chinese Hamburgers”) at Xi’an Taste in Kaka‘ako
Chinese inventions: gunpowder, paper and ... hamburgers?
Photos: Martha Cheng
Along with paper, gunpowder and coffins, perhaps we should also credit China with inventing hamburgers. Maybe, instead of calling rou jia mo “Chinese hamburgers,” as they’re usually referred to, we should really be calling our burgers “American rou jia mo.”
Culinary history is tough to pinpoint, but it’s been said that rou jia mo—traditionally, braised and chopped pork belly in a clay-baked bun—dates back to 206 BCE, possibly even earlier, which would mean America’s claims to the sandwich are as young as the country.
We could go down the rabbit hole debating food origins, or even etymology (rou jia mo literally means “meat sandwiching bun”—was this Chinese irony or a prank or …?) but what you really need to know is that at the new Xi’an Taste, in the ‘Ohana Hale Marketplace, serves an excellent version.
Owners Ruiyun Qin, from Xi’an, and Jing Huang, originally from Fujian, serve a more modern take on the popular street snack—sandwiching pork ($5), beef ($7) or lamb ($8), stewed with a bit of green bell pepper, in a flaky, layered, pan-fried flatbread instead of a yeasted bun. The result: bread that’s as interesting as its filling. It manages to stay crisp while absorbing the shoyu, chile and anise-scented juices of meat that’s braised until yielding and then chopped into its final submission. The result, especially with the fresh brightness of cilantro, is more akin to a carnitas taco than a hamburger.
For now, Xi’an Taste offers a short menu, where the rou jia mo is the draw, supplemented by cucumber salad ($6), slippery and tangy pink cold noodles made with dragon fruit ($8), and all the duck parts you don’t see at your neighborhood bistro: head, feet, tongue and wings (ranging from about $1 to $4 a piece). Marinated in shoyu and five spice, these are classic Chinese snacks that, like the Chinese language, require work before they give up their secrets—but to me, the effort is absolutely worth it.
Huang, who has worked in places including Vintage Cave Café and JJ Bakery in Honolulu and 20 years in restaurants on the Mainland (his father also took over an Italian restaurant in Manhattan, Frutti Di-Mare, when the original owner retired), says he and his wife started Xi’an to introduce Honolulu to traditional Chinese street snacks, and to “bring better street food for everybody.” They make everything, from the duck to the buns, themselves. (Which also means they sell out quickly, so get there early.) They opened a month ago, at a time when no one else was making rou jia mo in Honolulu. Right around the same time, another vendor also in ‘Ohana Hale Marketplace (funny how that happens), also started serving it, but Xi’an Taste’s is the one you should seek out.
Xi’an Taste is hidden and away from the other food vendors—from the entrance, find it in the second row, to the right. You’ll probably spot it from the Chinese diners excitedly gathered around rou jia mo or a pile of duck wings or chopped chicken feet. Try to eat your rou jia mo there with a spoonful of the toasted chile oil that’s on every table.
Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., inside ‘Ohana Hale Marketplace, 333 Ward Ave.