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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Chai Chaowasaree moves from Aloha Tower to Kakaako, but leaves the butter behind.
When I think of Chai Chaowasaree, I think of kataifi shrimp, deep-fried in a sheath of crispy noodles, and a rich, lemongrassy oxtail soup, both signature items at his now-closed Chai’s Island Bistro. What doesn’t come to mind: Healthy Stir-Fry or Vegetable Terrine with Green Curry Sauce, which top his new menu at Chef Chai.
What gives? Life, apparently. Chaowasaree swears his move toward healthy has nothing to do with the raw vegan offerings of his neighbors, Blue Tree Cafe to his right and Greens & Vines a couple of buildings to his left. He notes that Blue Tree started out as a coffee bar with sandwiches before morphing into its current menu, that there was no request from landlords for any menu focus at all.
It’s pure coincidence that three restaurateurs in mid-life separately opened their doors, one after another, within a period of four months, to turn this shiny, rejuvenated half-block along the Kapiolani corridor into Honolulu’s healthy-eating central. It’s about as far as you can get from the nexus of plate lunches at Cooke and Queen, and from the meaty, upscale comfort foods at Whole Ox Deli, Taste and Real a Gastropub down on Auahi Street.
Meanwhile, Chaowasaree is happy to open his updated menu with a page extolling the virtues of lemongrass and other seasonings that have replaced butter, to mark healthy selections with a bright red heart, and to offer sauteed zucchini noodles instead of rice for the carb-conscious. The kataifi shrimp is still there, as are the oxtail soup, Mongolian lamb chops and five-spice duck legs.
“I’m 50 years old, and my doctor says everything’s perfect—my heart, my liver, everything,” Chaowasaree says. “So I must be doing something right.”
1009 Kapiolani Blvd., 585-0011
Karen’s Kitchen and Cooke Street Diner
Salmon and garlic chicken plate lunches at Cooke Street Diner.
The intersection of Cooke and Queen streets holds a mystery: Why are five plate lunch places clustered in one place? Standing at the corner, I count Top’s Deli, Queen’s BBQ, Red Cafe Plate Lunch Express, Cooke Street Diner and Karen’s Kitchen. Until its owners retired at the beginning of May, there was a sixth, Tsukenjo Lunch House, the only one that never changed hands in all its 54 years.
No one—not plate lunch historians, old-timers or my own research—can solve the riddle of this nexus. But it’s important, because plate lunch is iconically Kakaako. I know Top’s, Queen’s and Red Cafe are relative newcomers, powered by entrepreneurs from South Korea and China. So I call Karen’s Kitchen and Cooke Street Diner, which face each other across the street. They give me part of the answer, and something better.
Karen Yamaoka was first. In 1993, she bought out a friend’s lease and opened with mammoth portions of foods she liked. Nine years later, she’d expanded and was about to lease the old Mizutani diner space across the way, then a vacant hole-in-the-wall, for storage when her friend Ken Akazawa called.
“Ken said he wanted the space. He said competition was good,” Yamaoka recalls. “I said OK.”
That’s how Cooke Street Diner was born. Karen’s still has eye-popping portions of sweet-sour spare ribs, chicken long rice and other comfort foods, plus whole opakapaka and flounder when Yamaoka can get it. Her top sellers are pulehu ribs and roast turkey with stuffing and gravy. Akazawa does well with his Korean chicken and a $5.55 loco moco. He offers fish with sauces like provencale and butter gravy, which is what he calls meuniere sauce.
“We help each other out,” he says. “The Tsukenjos would come over and say, ‘You got rice? We’re running out.’ Or I’ll call Karen and borrow some sugar.”
Sarah Ahana and Milo used to work in Kakaako; she still stops by Cooke Street Diner for lunch.
These separate interviews begin to feel like one, with both sitting at the table. “We’re always running across the street for stuff,” Yamaoka says. “Sometimes I’ll call Ken and say, ‘You want some catering? I’m kind of booked.’”
Akazawa knows Kakaako through the memories of his dad, who hung out on this same stretch of Cooke Street, going to movies and racing cars. He doesn’t see blight; he doesn’t see blanks in a mostly industrial landscape. He talks about his breakfast regulars and the give and take among the small businesses around him.
For the first time, I begin to see Kakaako beyond the buildings and restaurants. I see even beyond the generations of footprints that defined the area, that are coming in and redefining it still.
You’re talking about a neighborhood, I tell Akazawa.
“I always saw Kakaako as a neighborhood,” he says. “That’s what it’s always been to me. That’s what I like about it.”
Karen’s Kitchen, 614 Cooke St., 597-8195
Cooke Street Diner, 605 Cooke St., 597-8080