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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525 Kapahulu Ave., 737-4118
When we walk into Sunrise, set back in a bleak corner of Kapahulu, we find Ryoko Ishii, of Ethel’s Grill, dining in a boisterous party of four. By the end of the night, the sushi chef and server have left their posts to pull up chairs and sit down with Ishii. It feels like we are eating dinner in an Okinawan family’s house. (Albeit at the children’s table: We are fed and humored but not invited into the conversation. Granted, we don’t speak Japanese.)
The menu is classic, Okinawan home cooking, and I don’t say that in the way chefs these days riff on grandma’s dishes. I mean really homey, and Sunrise doesn’t even break out the nice plates and silverware for company. A stirfry of pork, tofu, egg and bittermelon is just that. The vegetable will certainly add some bitterness to your life, but a comforting bowl of Okinawan soba (thick, flatish noodles unlike the Japanese buckwheat soba) will suck it all out. Oxtail soup brims with meaty chunks in a full-bodied, silky broth replete with shiitake, peanuts and bamboo shoots. Specials get a little fancier: butterfish, fatty and sweet, with burnished edges. The sushi (six pieces and four rolls come with a combination dinner, all under $15) is not of impeccable quality—the fish is a bit mushy and the tuna has the unnaturally pink color of gassed fish. But part of the charm here is the convivial atmosphere, which, if you’re lucky, will be augmented by the owner strumming his sanshin, a three-stringed Okinawan instrument.
1423 10th Ave., 203-7685
There’s an art gallery next to Your Kitchen and, on the next block, a fishing and hobby shop and laulau wholesaler (which won’t disclose its restaurant clients). Together, they make up a two-block strip of commerce in the middle of residential Palolo. It’s the unexpected location that makes Your Kitchen the perfect hole in the wall—that and its size, not much bigger than a home kitchen, with a single table squished into the corner.
Two things should be ordered here: the pork bowl and the shave ice. Is it the soft slices of braised pork belly that are the star in the pork bowl, or the panko-coated, soft-boiled egg that, when broken, yields its golden, molten yolk? Hard to decide, but easy to devour.
Other dishes, such as the steak bowl, with thinly sliced steak and potatoes in a teriyaki sauce, or the Japanese loco moco are fine, but, really, just get the pork bowl.
Shave ice makes the perfect second act to the rich pork. When Your Kitchen took over Samira’s Country Kitchen’s space three years ago, it inherited its shave ice machine. You can drench it in the usual flavors of orange and lemon-lime, or you can choose from Your Kitchen’s housemade syrups: haupia, mango, green tea and passion fruit, intensely flavored, and the mango thick with pulp. If the pork bowl has merely inspired more gluttony, then perhaps the Fujiyama or tropical shave ice bowl should be your finale. For the Fujiyama, shave ice flavored with green tea sits on scoops of vanilla and green tea ice cream, the whole thing heaped with azuki beans. The tropical bowl is half mango, half haupia shave ice, with haupia ice cream, to be eaten sitting on the steps in front of Your Kitchen.
177 S. Kamehameha Highway
Wahiawa sprung up as a town to support pineapple plantations. These days, more people filter through Wahiawa from Schofield Barracks than they do from pineapple fields. I think El Palenque, along with other Wahiawa restaurants such as Molly’s Smokehouse and Maui Mike’s, exist to feed military who prefer a taste of home, like barbecue and roast chicken, rather than Hawaii’s plantation-influenced fare. There are no military personnel dining at Marilou’s Filipino restaurant, nor Shige’s Saimin Stand, but four out of the six tables at El Palenque are occupied by men and women in uniform.
El Palenque dishes out solid Mexican-American fare. Fresh masa (corn dough) is shaped into pockets for the gordita, stuffed with meat; into thick pucks for the sopes; thin discs for tortillas. The kitchen is probably one of the few on the island that has a tortilla press. Miriam Olivas, who runs El Palenque with her mother, sister, brother, aunt and niece, says the family has no plans to expand out of their hole in the wall, which they've occupied for 16 years; with greater volume, they worry they won't be able to make the tortillas to order.
The meat wrapped up in the masa—such as the chicken mole stuffed into tamales, shredded beef wrapped in tacos—can sometimes be a bit dry, but the flavors are strong and vibrant, redolent of smoky chiles, cumin and Mexican oregano. Olivas' mom travels to Mexico to bring back spices; she says what distributors import just isn't as fresh. Straight-from-Mexico cinnamon sticks are simmered for the horchata, fragrant, though just a touch too sweet. But there are not many places on the island with horchata; I am glad simply for its existence.
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