Hole-In-The-Wall Restaurants in Honolulu
We tour local spots where the napkins might be paper, but the food always satisfies.
“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.”
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.
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.