8 Kakaako eateries: The places in between

Exploring Kakaako’s plate-lunch past, diner roots, hidden Thai and Vietnamese spots, and its new, healthy-eating corridor


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Harry's Cafe, home of the 99-cent breakfast special.

There’s a lot that’s new about Kakaako, a vast urban district with the highest concentration of redevelopment in Honolulu today. Between Punchbowl and Piikoi, King Street and Ala Moana Boulevard, most of the restaurant buzz has gone to new-generation experiments like The Whole Ox Deli and Taste, to opulent 53 By The Sea on the makai edge and to Kapiolani’s new row of healthy eateries.

What about the others? The ones in between, some there for decades, some for only months? Here’s a look at eight places that make up Kakaako’s eclectic and evolving food scene.
 

Harry’s Café

I can’t tell if Harry’s Café is open. A block from the gleaming façade of T.J. Maxx, the windows in the cinderblock walls are dark, obliterated by signs proclaiming the “99¢ BREAKFAST SPECIAL, M – F 6 – 8 AM ONLY.” Even the open sign is dark. But the door’s not locked, so I push it and go in.

The place is packed. At 10 on a Sunday morning it’s a world of noise and light, TVs playing different shows on the walls, people at a diner-style counter waiting for takeout orders. I find an open seat among tables filled with teenagers, tourists and seniors reading the paper, and look around for a menu.

There isn’t one—all the items are plastered on the wall or scrawled on white boards. Steak and eggs, blueberry pancakes, kimchee fried rice, corned beef loco moco. And Harry likes numbers: 333 is three pancakes, three link sausages and three eggs; 222 is two strips of bacon, two link sausages, two Portuguese sausages, two eggs and two scoops of rice.

That 99-cent breakfast? A scrambled egg, luncheon meat and one scoop rice.

The 99-cent breakfast special.
Weekend breakfasts at Harry’s are bustling.


A customer brings me a glass of water. “The waitress called in sick,” he explains. Everyone, I notice, seems to know that the bathroom is through the kitchen. And some people are bussing their own tables, stacking empty plates at a window when they’re done.

A woman with muscular arms shoots me a raised-eyebrow smile. “You ready to order?”

I’ll have the saimin. And who’s Harry? I ask.

“I’m Harry,” she says. “When I bought the place, I kept the old landlord’s name. Here, I’ll give you my card.”

She writes my order on her pad and disappears. I look at the yellow business card next to my water glass. “My card,” it says.

1101 Waimanu St., 593-7798
 

Club Pattaya (Sabai Club)

At 5:30 on a weekday afternoon, Club Pattaya (known as Sabai Club until May of this year) is deserted except for us and the women on the video screens, who aren’t wearing anything. We focus on the menu. At first it seems to be one page, then I discover a second page stuck to the first and pry them apart. It’s three pages.

As is often the case at karaoke bars, the food here is supposed to be good, which is why we’re sitting in dark booths across Queen Street from the smoked salmon sandwiches and Illy coffee of pristine Panya Cafe. Our server switches the video to G-rated Thai pop and slides in to help with the menu.

Crispy rice, beef waterfall salad, tom yum goong soup. “You want mild, medium or spicy?” she asks. I know Thai spicy. It makes my nose sweat and my tongue lose sensation. In Bangkok, medium does this, too, but no one believes me and I’m outvoted. Medium it is.

My first bite of slightly chewy beef, seared and tossed in mint and chilies without a hint of sugar, wakes up the pores across the bridge of my nose, and I remember all those meals in Bangkok when I said I was full, but the truth was I couldn’t eat any more because of the fire in my mouth.

The soup helps, light on lemongrass and long on tang and fish sauce in an altogether homemade way. The crispy rice has bright crunches and tastes of briny salt and lime, a combination I love. It burns, too, but it’s a good burn, sprightly and vibrant.

On a whim I ask for pad khi mao, a spicy noodle shoyu stir-fry with basil and meat. It’s not on the menu, but any cook familiar with Thai street food can whip it up. This one passes the test, balancing soy, sweetness and heat in a floppy-fresh mound.

We’re eating Thai-style with fork and spoon, the soup served in blue plastic children’s bowls. Under the video screens on Queen Street, it’s Bangkok all over again.

708 Queen St., 597-9121
 

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