7 New Restaurants in Honolulu’s Chinatown to Try Right Now
Whether you’re in the mood for hip new culinary adventures or under-the-radar gems, here are a few of our current Chinatown faves.
Bun rieu and char siu banh mi at Rice Paper.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
1. Rice Paper
Chinatown regulars will remember the old Pho My Lan, which served up hearty bowls of pho for a decade on Maunakea Street. Its owners wanted to sell the restaurant, but, early in 2016, daughter Quynh Mar Chong and her husband Daniel raised their hands to take the place over instead. They’ve reinvented it as Rice Paper and, while it’s still a French-Vietnamese joint with a menu anchored by pho, banh mi and rice and vermicelli plates, they’ve thrown in a few new twists. Our favorite is the huge beef bone that often shows up at the table on Fridays around 7 p.m., filled with decadent bone marrow ready to be spooned out and savored. (Show up at 6:30 to ensure your spot.) As of this writing, Rice Paper is still working on its liquor license, but, with Maunakea Liquor & Grocery directly across the street, BYOB is a cinch.
1160 Maunakea St., 528-3663, ricepaperhawaii.com
2. Bethel Union
Bethel Union emerged late in December in the former Brasserie Du Vin space. This iteration comes from the folks behind JJ Dolan’s and offers simple Italian-inspired dishes. Think comfort food such as spaghetti and meatballs and chicken cacciatore, but with interesting additions, including salads with beets, hearts of palm and blood oranges. We’re told executive chef Lucy Han expects to add some subtle Asian touches. It’s a brighter, more open space, with craft beer, cocktails and a wine bar that won’t break the budget. The outdoor area somehow feels nautical. While we confess a wistful fondness for the darker, quirkier old place, we’re ready to give this one several chances with these downtown pros at the helm.
1115 Bethel St., 525-0447, bethelunion.com
SEE ALSO: First Look: Bethel Union
3. Brick Fire Tavern
“Soft and pillowy, with a nice chew,” is how Brick Fire Tavern co-owner Matthew Resich describes his signature Neopolitan-style pizza dough. Resich and partner Inthira Marks moved to Naples for a year to train with masters. Now their pies fly out of a 900-degree custom-made wood-fire oven; done in 60 to 90 seconds, they’re perfect platforms for seasonal, local produce (Wai‘anae herbs, Mari’s Gardens greens and Kamuela tomatoes) complemented by traditional Italian imports (Caputo flour, pepperoni and pancetta, San Marzano-brand tomatoes). For a quick trip to Italy, try the Pepperoni drizzled with local egg yolk ($16.50) or the delicate margherita with house mozzarella pulled daily ($14; $11 for a 9-inch lunchtime mini). Top sellers are Da Shrimp Truck (white shrimp, besciamella, roasted garlic, mozzarella; $19) and Mamma Mia! (San Marzano tomatoes, soppressata, pancetta, Italian sausage, hot peppers, mozzarella; $17). Desserts include an ethereal pistachio cheesecake ($6) by Cake Envy and a Nutella calzone ($11).
16 N. Hotel St., 369-2444, brickfiretavern.com
SEE ALSO: First Look: Brick Fire Tavern
To say there’s been a lot of hype over Senia, which opened in December next to The Pig & The Lady, is an understatement. The New York Times dedicated ink to Senia 18 months ago, and people have not stopped talking since. It’s the creation of Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush, two very different individuals, distinct in culture and experience, held together by shared devotion to technique. Humble ingredients are elevated: Take the charred cabbage, which arrives as a craggy, clifflike wedge dusted with moringa powder and forested with fronds of dill, a shio kombu vinaigrette, a pool of green goddess emulsion and dots of buttermilk gel. Another must try: the hot, smoked king salmon, smoked fresh in-house with applewood chips, and plated with dabs of date purée, charred cauliflower, yuzu gel, fragments of toasted almond, curly pea shoots and creamy lemon confit. Every bite is surprising.
75 N. King St., 200-5412, restaurantsenia.com
SEE ALSO: First Look: Senia Opens in Chinatown
Encore Saloon, which opened in mid-October, bills itself as a tequila- and mezcal-focused bar serving Mexican-inspired food. And what food! The place is run by Danny Kaaialii, owner of Cocina, the now-closed Mexican fast-casual eatery in Kaka‘ako. Encore is a simpler take on the complicated food he once served at Cocina—no headcheese carnitas tacos or beef cheek burros to be found—but you may be even more satisfied with the new menu, which includes achiote rice and beans, tortilla soup, Baja fish tacos and massive piles of nachos. “We’re still about big flavors and delicious food, just not requiring so much knife prep,” Kaaialii says. Pro tip: start with the Mexican street corn ($4), a wonderfully tasty bowl of esquites-style (think more mature, not sweet) corn spiced with chili powder, crumbly Cotija cheese and lime mayo.
10 N. Hotel St., 367-1656, encoresaloon.com
—Catherine Toth Fox
SEE ALSO: First Look: Encore Saloon in Chinatown
O’Kim’s Korean Kitchen.
O’Kim’s calls itself a contemporary Korean Kitchen, which means fast-casual Korean takeout, turned on its head just a bit. Owner and chef Hyun Kim grew up in Busan, South Korea and graduated from Kapi‘olani Community College’s culinary program before working in a poke shop, a sushi restaurant, and French and Italian local kitchens. Her broad range of influences shines through in the menu: The bibimbap ($8.99 to $13.99) comes with barley rice and apple gochujang. The kalbi steak ($9.99) arrives sliced and fanned out, restaurant style, on purple rice with a side of fried heirloom root veggies. The kim chee fried rice has mozzarella cheese and pancetta thrown in the mix. This is not your uncle’s Korean barbecue, and it’s all the better for that. The menu is updated monthly, so keep checking back for new additions.
1164 Smith St., 537-3787, okimshawaii.com
7. Maguro Bros.
Even after you’ve been there repeatedly, Maguro Bros. in Kekaulike Market still feels like a seafood speakeasy or a sushi chef’s rougher, cooler big brother. Sure, other places serve poke bowls, other places have fresh seafood, but we can’t think of many lunch places that will offer to add uni or ikura to a poke bowl that starts at $6.50 for small and $7.95 for regular. And not too many other places operate tucked into a sprawling market filled with shoppers. Or routinely deconstruct an entire ‘ahi on the back table between orders. There’s miso salmon and steamed clams some days, and hamachi, either as sashimi or grilled. Even Goose Point oysters show up. The menu is small but fresh and, at these prices, that somehow feels illicit.
1039 Kekaulike St., #113, 259-6901