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First Look: Yum Yum Thai’s New Downtown Honolulu Location

This Thai eatery returns to Chinatown with cheap eats.


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PHOTO: JAMES CHARISMA

 

In the road-turned-alley on South Pauahi Street at Fort Street Mall sits a small new Thai restaurant. Save for a few menus taped up on the glass doors, and a sign hanging out front that says “Yum Yum Thai,” it’s a mostly bare facade.

 

Inside, there are no menus or signage, but the food speaks for itself. A dozen or so pans line the main counter, filled with an assortment of dishes: Thai yellow curry with bamboo and chicken, fried chicken, green curry with white fish and broccoli, spicy chicken and mushroom soup, slices of roast pork, fishcake and stir-fried choy sum, ground beef and green beans, fried fish, braised shoyu pork belly with hard-boiled eggs and more.

 

THAI YELLOW CURRY WITH BAMBOO AND CHICKEN, FRIED CHICKEN, FISHCAKE AND STIR-FRIED CHOY SUM OVER RICE.

THAI YELLOW CURRY WITH BAMBOO AND CHICKEN, FRIED CHICKEN, FISHCAKE AND STIR-FRIED CHOY SUM OVER RICE.
PHOTOS: DIANE LEE 

 

The food is on a constant rotation—each day, different items. And the price is unbeatable: Plates begin at $3 for two scoops of rice and a single entree. A generous scoop of every subsequent item is just $1 more after that. You can walk out of Yum Yum Thai with a three-item plate and a can of soda for exactly $6.

 

Why so cheap? Behind the counter, Bee, the owner, shrugs.

 

“We keep the food affordable,” Bee says. “We make enough, no need to charge more.”

 

BEE VITA, SAN SRIPHANDON AND JUNE WHEELER.

BEE VITA, SAN SRIPHANDON AND JUNE WHEELER. 

 

Yum Yum Thai has been open in its current location for less than a year, but owner Bee Vita is no stranger to Chinatown or the restaurant industry. She was the owner of the former Yum Yum Thai on Bishop Street, open for more than 20 years before she lost the lease and closed it.

 

“But retirement is too boring,” says Vita. “I wanted to have a restaurant in Chinatown again.”

 

Originally from Thailand, Vita came to Hawai‘i in 1971 and enrolled in business school at Hawai‘i Pacific University downtown (then Hawai‘i Pacific College), and she was one of the first graduating classes of the new university, in 1975.

 

At school, she met her fiancé, Charlie, who was also from Thailand and tried to dissuade her from starting a business in Hawai‘i. His family owned a restaurant in Bangkok, and he knew how hard it was—the long hours, the cooking, the cleaning, the paperwork and taxes.

 

“I told him, if you’re gonna marry me, I’m going to open a restaurant.” Vita says. He did marry her. And she did start the restaurant.

 

Yum Yum Thai opened in 1977, with a name inspired by another local restaurant—the former Yum Yum Tree. “I liked ‘yum yum,’” Vita says. “I thought it was cute. So we became Yum Yum Thai.”

 

At their location on Bishop Street, Vita worked 15 hours a day, five days a week. Charlie was the chef, preparing the food each morning before he went to work at his regular job, as a car-parts deliveryman. Vita would manage the restaurant each day until Charlie met her after work and they left together for the day.

 

In 1976, before the restaurant, Vita briefly returned home to take care of her ailing mother after her father passed away. In later years, Bee would save up enough money to bring both her mother and her sister to Hawai‘i from Thailand. Bee and Charlie also have a daughter, now serving in the Navy.

 

“My husband originally wanted her to become a doctor,” Vita says. “But I told her to do what she wanted to do in life, and she wanted to be in the Navy. We’re very proud. A few years ago, she bought me a car, but I can’t drive! [Laughs] My husband drives us around.”

 

Cash only, 73 S. Pauahi St., open weekdays, 11 a.m. until the food runs out. 

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