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Chef Chris Oh’s Chingu Hawai‘i Brings L.A.’s K-Town Vibe to Honolulu

Plus, find out what the restaurateur will be making at this year’s Hawai‘i Food and Wine Festival.


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Chris Oh at the Hawai‘i Food and Wine Festival

Photo: Courtesy of Hawai‘i Food and Wine Festival

 

I first became interested in chef Chris Oh’s career when he competed on an episode of Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen, my favorite food show, a few years ago. He was someone I loved to hate—clearly talented but kind of cocky, calling himself a front-runner right off the bat and remaining confident even when challenged to create a kebab plate and serving a taco instead (“Who doesn’t love tacos? It’s like a party in your mouth.”).

 

But it’s that confidence that won him the episode, along with Season 3 of The Great Food Truck Race a few years prior when he ran Seoul Sausage Co. with brothers Ted and Yong Kim. He went on to open multiple restaurants in Los Angeles and continued competing on food shows, judging and hosting others. His cockiness was actually pretty charming.

 

So what brings him to Hawai‘i?

 

“The terrible weather, the terrible people and the terrible food, I don’t know,” he says with a laugh. “I grew up coming to Hawai‘i periodically and then did some pop-ups a couple years back with Seoul Sausage. I wanted to extend my brand and after The Great Food Truck Race we had a pretty large fan base out in Hawai‘i so I guess the next best thing was just to open a restaurant out there.”

 

Earlier this spring, Oh opened Chingu Hawai‘i—in the old Café Maru space next to Doraku on Kapi‘olani Boulevard—with Korean bar food, such as Korean fried chicken, kalbi and dukk bokki (Korean rice cakes).

 

“What we have in L.A. in Koreatown is a really cool, hip, edgy culture of drinking and eating, so I wanted to bring my brand, my flair, my food, my swag to the good people of Hawai‘i,” Oh says. “If you’ve seen the food at Chingu, we’re not really taking things seriously. Even the décor—the first thing you see is the big mural on the front that screams, ‘Look at us.’ Once you walk in you see all the cool art (by local street artists) and all the TVs playing K-pop. So we wanted to match the food with the vibe. And the food is playful.”

 

Ube Soju at Chingu Hawai‘i

No matter what else you order, make sure to get a bottle (or three) of ube soju.
Photo: Katrina Valcourt

 

On a recent Friday night, our party of five started with a bottle of ube soju ($20), which is made fresh daily and tastes like melted ube ice cream (in the best way). There was enough in there for each of us to have a few small glasses, but I could easily drink the entire thing myself, it’s that good. And it’s purple. But that’s when we realized: If you’re here for the ’gram, good luck. Overhead lighting and reflective tables make it difficult to take appealing photos of your food. Save it for Tommii Lim’s mural outside.

 

Fries at Chingu Hawai‘i

The “best fries ever,” according to the menu.
PHOTO: KATRINA VALCOURT

 

The “best fries ever” ($7) came out first and, though the kim chee Sriracha aioli was really tasty, we were expecting something mind-blowing, thanks to the menu description. If they’d just been called fries, we would’ve been happy. Instead, we were a little disappointed.

 

But then the tacos came out.

 

Tacos at Chingu Hawai‘i

The L.A. street tacos come three to an order.
PHOTO: KATRINA VALCOURT

 

Like Oh said on Cutthroat Kitchen, tacos are a party in your mouth, and this party featured tender bulgogi beef, pickled onions and kim chee aioli ($12 for three). We should’ve ordered more of these, rather than take a bite of one and pass it around. No one got a second bite. But we had plenty of other food coming, including my favorite—the Korean fried chicken ($14). The sweet and tangy wings, drizzled in aioli with a gochujang honey glaze, were just spicy enough for someone like me who doesn’t really eat Korean food anymore, thanks to a bout with what I thought was food poisoning from meat jun and kim chee a few years ago.

 

Kalbi at Chingu Hawai‘i

I also really liked the kalbi ($23), which is marinated for 48 hours and then flame-grilled. This is the only dish I wish came with rice, which you can order on the side for $2.
PHOTO: KATRINA VALCOURT

 

Chicken and Cheese at Chingu Hawai‘i

Mozzarella melts right at your table in the chicken ’n’ cheese dish. Make sure you eat it while it’s hot.
PHOTO: KATRINA VALCOURT

 

The chicken ’n’ cheese ($22), Chingu’s most popular dish, is just fun. Thai-gochujang-glazed chunks of cooked chicken are served on one half of a hot plate, with shredded mozzarella on the other half. Servers bring a portable camp stove to the table and turn it on to melt the cheese while you watch, mesmerized by the bubbling mozzarella. Once it’s melted, you can swirl them together or dunk each bite as you go. Unlike at Korean barbecue restaurants, you don’t have to worry about burning your food—the servers will turn it off when it’s ready. But that also means there’s no banchan, and we could only eat so much rich meat and cheese before craving veggies.

 

So we got the bone marrow corn cheese ($14). Close enough.

 

Bone Marrow at Chingu Hawai‘i

Scrape the bone marrow into the corn for an ultra-rich dish.
PHOTO: KATRINA VALCOURT

 

Often made with mozzarella, corn cheese is a Korean barbecue staple placed near the grill so the cheese melts as you cook, meat drippings accumulating in the dish. Here’s where Oh takes it up a notch: Since, again, this isn’t Korean barbecue, the meat drippings are added straight to the pot of creamy corn in the form of bone marrow, that gelatinous king of umami, and aged Parmesan and furikake add a certain depth you wouldn’t expect from a side dish.

 

Oh says his goal is to incorporate a lot of local flavors on the menu here, getting inspiration from new restaurants and holes-in-the-wall whenever he’s on-island (about a week every month) and creating new dishes. One of the newest dishes to hit the menu? “We get these manapuas baked specifically for us; we open them up, we put a nice sous vide egg in the middle, truffle oil, truffles and stuff like that,” he says. “It’s like the flavors that locals know already but we’re kind of taking it to another level.”

 

Our bill for five came out to only $122 before tip, so we considered heading into one of the private rooms for some dollar-per-song karaoke, but my throat was already getting sore from yelling across the table to my friends (it gets super loud). More ube soju would’ve fixed that. “We just want you to have a good time,” Oh says. “We want you to drink and eat and walk out of there definitely not sober, that’s for sure.”

 

Hawai‘i Food and Wine Festival 2017

Oh’s dish at the Spice Market event held at The Modern during the 2017 Hawai‘i Food and Wine Festival.
Photo: Reid Shimabukuro

 

Oh will be making his second appearance at the Hawai‘i Food and Wine Festival this year, held Oct. 6 through 28. “The way I describe Hawai‘i Food and Wine is like Coachella for chefs,” Oh says. (He’s also cooked at Coachella.) Last year, his Big Island abalone ceviche, served on a tostada with uni and tobiko, was my favorite dish at the Spice Market event. This year, he’ll be at Winederland on Oct. 26 on the rooftop of the Hawai‘i Convention Center, serving rice seasoned with tobiko and seaweed salad, stuffed into an inari shell and topped with uni, ikura and kampachi. “People love it; I’ve done it a few times. It’s visually stunning and it’s equally tasty,” Oh says. “It’s definitely gonna be a showstopper, that’s for sure.”

 

Hawai‘i Food and Wine Festival 2018

Hawaiian Airlines Presents Winederland on Oct. 26, where you can try Oh’s dish along with wines and bites by chefs that include Roy Yamaguchi, Masaharu Morimoto, Jonathan Waxman and more.
Photo: Chris Oh

 

He’ll also make an appearance at Keiki in the Kitchen, Oct. 28 on the rooftop of the convention center. “When I told my parents I wanted to become a chef, they were like, ‘No. You gotta be a doctor or lawyer or something like that.’ Seeing aspiring chefs starting so young is very inspirational. I just wanna keep paving the way for these kids because it’s not these old white guys cooking in the kitchen anymore. You have a lot more immigrants and people of different races and cultures getting in the kitchen and it feels like nowadays they’re excelling very well so I’m just trying to do my part. If I have an opportunity to trail-blaze the way for these young aspiring chefs to pursue their dreams, it’s more power to them.”

 

Chingu Hawai‘i, 1035 Kapi‘olani Blvd., open 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily, (808) 592-1035, chinguhawaii.com. Learn more about what’s happening at this year’s Hawai‘i Food and Wine Festival and purchase tickets at hawaiifoodandwinefestival.com.

 

READ MORE STORIES BY KATRINA VALCOURT

 

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