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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There’s a story behind the arc of Asahi Grill on Ward Avenue, about how it came to be and the older world it came from, but the most fascinating tidbit is what Gary Mijo, the former owner, tells me.
“In the 1950s, 80 percent of the restaurants this side of the Ala Wai were Okinawan,” says Mijo, who sold Asahi last year to open Asahi Grill Keeaumoku next to Sorabol. “And that includes Kakaako.”
He’s talking about Kewalo Inn, Flamingo, Columbia Inn and other diners that served the area with local and American fare, the old-time plate-lunch places like Tsukenjo’s and the lunch wagons that sprang up when Kakaako went industrial. Almost none remain.
Mijo, who was born in Okinawa, grew up hanging out in Kakaako’s mixed neighborhoods. In 1986, he bought one of those diners, Kapiolani Coffee Shop, where the Hawaii Convention Center is now, just before its lease ran out. He moved the diner to Kam Bowl in Kalihi and sold 3,000 pounds a week of oxtail soup—a straightforward bowl generous with beefy tails but without leafy greens or shiitake—and then he came back to Kakaako in 2006.
“I looked up and down Ward and there was no place to eat like the old days,” he says. “Things I wanted to eat. And I wanted a new name, because this was a new beginning.”
That’s why Asahi Grill, which means rising sun, serves dishes like chopped steak, corned beef cabbage and eggplant tempura curry. And Okinawan pig’s feet soup and bitter melon stir-fry—at both places, because when Mijo left for a space that could accommodate a liquor license, the new owner of Asahi Grill Ward kept his menu. And, at both places, you can still get that old-fashioned oxtail soup.
515 Ward Ave., 593-2800
Lin’s Hawaiian Snacks
I have no idea what kind of mango sits heaped atop my mango ice, but I do know the gold-orange cubes are fresh and ripe. The sight pleases me more than the small triumph of bringing friends into this corner snack shop of gummy worms and li hing mui, to a shave ice and bubble tea counter they never knew existed.
It’s good. And generous: My bowl, brimming with shave ice, mango syrup, condensed milk and fresh mango, is enough for two. The redolent chunks waft happy notes of summer.
How often do you have fresh mango ice? I ask.
“All year,” the manager tells me.
All year? Where do you get your mango from?
“From Hawaii,” she says. “We have a local supplier.”
I don’t ask any more, except to find out that fresh mango ice is the star of the counter at Lin’s Hawaiian Snacks, a second-generation business that’s migrated over the years from the old Ward Farmer’s Market to Ala Moana Center to this corner of Kamakee and Queen. The other bestsellers are milk tea, sweet li hing mui, pickled mango and dried cuttlefish.
Sometimes that’s all you need to know.
401 Kamakee St., 597-8899
Ngon’s bo bia, a rice-paper roll of vegetables and sweet lupcheong.
The combination rice plate at Ngon, with pork chop, shredded pork, meatloaf, fried egg and vegetables.
The menu at Ngon, an airy new space that replaced a commercial refrigeration business behind Kanai Tofu Factory, is two pages of mostly food photos. The requisite pho, spring rolls and banh mi sandwiches are there, but it’s what’s crammed in between that draws me in.
Ngon’s listings offer an abbreviated tour of street foods of Vietnam. Like the com suon, a plate lunch of fluffy steamed meatloaf, dried pork and fish sauce-marinated pork chop fanned out across the plate in a porcine showcase. All are satisfying and quickly devoured, but the broken rice clinches the deal. Hardly seen in local restaurants, fractured grains are the only kind served with true Saigonese com suon.
Or the banh xeo, a turmeric-yellow crepe stuffed with tail-on shrimps, slices of pork and bean sprouts. It doesn’t matter that the dish substitutes fresh mint for shiso and other herb garnishes, and romaine for swaths of mustard cabbage to wrap everything in (Vietnamese cuisine is picky that way, pairing each dish with a particular set of accompaniments). The thin, eggless crepe is crackly crisp as it should be, a rarity in Honolulu, where banh xeo is already a rarity.
I’m very happy now, too full for the bo bia, an unfried rice-paper roll of scrambled egg, jicama and sweet lupcheong. And the flan, a simple custard treat familiar to Vietnamese home kitchens, has sold out for the day. Ngon’s flavors skew more toward the Saigonese palates of its owners than local ones, which is fine with me. I’ll be back. What I’ve sampled has been delicious—which is exactly what ngon means.
941 Kawaiahao St., 593-9893