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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2033 N. King St., 841-2771
In the middle of Ray’s Café’s lunch hour, with a line out the door and the five tables crammed with businessmen and hefty, T-shirted diners (forced to share tables with each other), a man and two women walk in, all of them young, thin and tall. They have an aloofness that suggests they have wandered off the runway and inexplicably ended up here, in dingy Ray’s Café in the middle of Kalihi. But they are not lost. They parked two blocks away and came directly here. I am excited to see what they will order. Two-inch-thick slices of prime rib? Pork chops, the size of a small cat? A platter heaving with oxtail stew, mac salad and rice? Ray’s is famous for its huge portions. Everyone here is eating more than they probably should. (Overheard: “I’m looking for a gastrointestinal specialist," a man says over pork chops.)
The young man gets a cheeseburger, the thin type that can be held in one hand. One of the women, a Spam and egg sandwich on sliced white bread, the other, water.
They have somehow found the smallest items on the menu, items I didn’t know existed here. They are clearly not here for the menu headliners (say the fried chicken we named in our Best of Honolulu issue). For them, I am guessing, Ray’s is a nostalgic trip, the return to an old haunt, perhaps the memory of a Spam and egg sandwich from small-kid times. (As for the woman drinking water, maybe she’s a vegetarian.)
For the eaters with bigger appetites (which is everyone else in here), Ray’s has the usual plate-lunch favorites, but what really makes it noteworthy are such specials as a lobster omelet, prime rib, filet mignon. It reminds me of Vegas in the days of 99-cent shrimp cocktails and $1.99 steaks, though not quite that cheap (most plates are less than $10 at Ray’s; some, like the prime rib, top out at $15). The food is simply prepared—a wedge of lemon with your grilled, fresh ono, seasoned with salt and pepper; a side of jus that tastes like salty beef broth with your prime rib—and all of it well-executed. The pork chops are juicy, with a golden-brown sear, the fried chicken impossibly crispy.
1256 N. King St., 841-9983
We joke that if an eatery is in Kalihi, it is automatically a hole-in-the-wall. Palace Saimin, our third stop in the neighborhood, fits the pattern. It wasn’t always here, though. It started in 1946, on Beretania next to the Palace Theater, from which it took its name. It has been in its current location for more than 50 years. It looks like it, too, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. A diner-style neon sign advertises “saimin and Bar-BQ,” the floor is cement, the walls cinderblock, the communal table painted a light, ’60s-era blue-green. There are eight menu items, basically permutations on saimin, wonton, BBQ sticks and udon. There’s even saidon, a mix of saimin and udon noodles.
I have been disappointed by nostalgic saimin stands (namely, Hamura’s Saimin on Kauai), but I am not let down here.
The details that make a bowl at Palace Saimin great are the slightly alkaline noodles, slippery and chewy; the broth, which carries a whisper of fishy umami; the wontons’ thick wrappers encasing generous portions of meat. For the BBQ sticks, I expect wan, gristly meat, as is the case at other saimin stands. Instead, I bite into tender beef with crispy, charred edges. A glance into the kitchen, with huge, roiling pots of broth on the stove, reveals the secret: a cook flaming the BBQ sticks individually with a butane torch, the sort pastry chefs use to caramelize crème brûlée.