Photo: Rae Huo
This year, we introduced a new Hale Aina category: Best Hole in the Wall. Because good eating in this state runs the spectrum from fine dining and oceanview settings to cheap and soulful eats in the most unlikely and humble places. Take V Lounge (Gold), which, four years ago, acquainted Honolulu with Neopolitan-style pizzas in a dark, hidden corner of Ala Moana. Since then, the owners have spruced up the place a little (just a little), added local and Italian beers on tap, and introduced some new pies such as the Diavola, a fiery pizza with fresh-pulled mozzarella, piquillo peppers, garlic and spicy pepperoni. The crowd favorite, though, is still the same as it was opening day: the Prima, topped with pancetta and egg yolk, drizzled with truffle oil.
It used to be that only truck drivers and construction workers would come to Ethel’s Grill (Silver) in Kalihi. But now, everyone eats here: downtown businessmen, Japanese tourists, and, based on the photos on the wall, former mayor Mufi Hannemann, chefs Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi and famous sumo wrestlers. They squeeze into the tiny space (cramped even without sumo wrestlers) for ahi tataki accompanied by shoyu-pickled garlic, and hamburger steak topped with grated daikon and doused in a snappy ponzu dressing. New dishes on the “specials board”—pieces of paper taped to the wall—include the taco rice: Mexican-spiced ground beef on rice, topped with tomatoes, cheese and a fried egg.
Sometimes we love hole-in-the-wall places because they remind us of the past. That’s the case with Palace Saimin (Bronze), which has been around since 1946 and is one of the last old-school saimin shops. And with Ray’s Café (Finalist), where the portions are as big as the dining room is small. Two-inch-thick slices of prime rib barely fit on the plate, and everyone comes for the generous portions of crispy fried chicken.
But there are still institutions being made right now, such as Your Kitchen (Finalist), where the star dish is a bowl of soft pork belly crowned with a panko-crusted, soft-boiled egg and Leoda’s Kitchen and Pie Shop (Top Write-In Vote) on Maui, with classic pies and a nouveau fried Brussels sprouts salad.