Hole-In-The-Wall Restaurants in Honolulu
We tour local spots where the napkins might be paper, but the food always satisfies.
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“A hole-in-the-wall is like pornography. You know it when you see it,” more than one person tells me when I ask them to define one. We all eat at them, but, when forced to pinpoint their characteristics, we have different ideas of what a true hole-in-the-wall restaurant might be. The only thing we can agree on is size: 20 seats or less, the more cramped, the better. Other than that, some think it must be cheap, while others name Mitch’s as their favorite, a place where it’s easy to drop $100 a person. Some think they must be at least a little dirty, with fluorescent lights and Formica tabletops; others cite designy, clean izakayas as their go-to holes in the wall. Some think they must be unknown, so, by writing this article, I am destroying them.
After visiting a number of small eateries, circling many a sketchy block looking for parking, this is the definition I came up with, and the reason I love them: Holes in the wall offer the feeling of something unexpected. They are places that could care less about magazine reviews. They exist for the neighborhood, for their regulars, rather than the adventurous looking for culinary gems in the rough.
Here are six to seek out, or perhaps revisit.
232 Kalihi St., 847-6467
Ethel’s Grill has it all: a nondescript location in Kalihi, kitchen supplies overflowing into the cramped dining room, most dishes under $8, mom, pop and daughter in the kitchen, a nonexistent namesake (Ryoko and Yoishi Ishii took over the place more than 30 years ago and, according to their daughter, “Mom and dad were too cheap to buy a new sign.”). The only thing it doesn’t have is obscurity: there are photos on the walls showing Mufi dining here, as well as chefs like Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi. Everybody eats at Ethel’s, even Japanese tourists. Minaka Urquidi, the daughter, says it used to be just truck drivers and construction workers, all men, but these days, everyone, even the women, come.
One detail I love about Ethel’s, capturing its nostalgic quirks: the ice. Included in your meal is a glass of iced tea or fruit punch, which will usually contain a single chunk of clear ice. Ethel’s Grill doesn’t have an ice machine or even ice cube trays. Here, ice is made with a pick and a Tupperware tub of frozen water. It is not as precisely shaped as the cubes and spheres in the ritzy cocktail bars around town, but something about it is beautiful—a mini glacier bobbing in an ochre, plastic cup.
I doubt the ice is a conscious aesthetic touch, or that Urquidi, who has to break apart the ice every day, feels the same way I do, but there are certainly other deliberate, delicate touches throughout the menu. Like the bright, Dijon parsley dressing drizzled on green salad; uniformly paper-thin slices of shoyu-marinated garlic, atop ahi tataki (seared tuna sashimi), the plate flooded with a sauce pungent with sesame oil. Or the hamburger steak, a blend of ground pork and beef, its richness cut with a mountain of grated daikon and radish sprouts, all of it doused in a snappy ponzu dressing. No viscous, gravy-drenched hamburger steak here. Portions can be sumo-sized, and yet you can sense a light hand in the seasoning.
The Ishii’s are in their mid-60s now, but they have no notion of retirement. “Dad says he plans to die in the kitchen,” Urquidi says. “He’s going to keel over the flattop and I’m going to have to peel him off.”
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