11 Hawai‘i General Stores You Must Visit
Hole-in-the-wall general stores dishing up their own eats— even if it’s just one ‘ono item—are a beloved part of Island life. Here are a few of Hawai‘i’s best.
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Ching’s Punalu‘u Store
Open Since 1935
You can’t miss the red walls or smiles at Ching’s: Brendan, Cindy, Precious and Patrick.
Photo: Olivier Koning
Ching’s feeds the eye as well as the ‘ōpū, popping out of the sun showers and rainbows like a Herb Kane painting of a country store. It’s too easy to drive by, though, falling between destinations if you’re heading to the North Shore or racing home to the south. So slow down, already. That’s what third-generation owner Patrick Ching did. “I was managing the parts department at a car dealership,” he says, before leaving to take over the reins of the store his great-grandfather, Yan Quong Ching, started in 1935. “This is more rewarding.” His wife, Cindy, does the baking and presses warm butter mochi into the palms of our hands. From there straight to the mouth, automatic, eyes closed to stay in the moment. Yes.
Brendan, son of Patrick and Cindy, mans the counter and runs around finding stuff for older visitors: fishing gear, bait, beer, ice and camping equipment for those tenting tonight on the beach across the street. “It feels really good to carry on since the first generation,” he says. “Oldtimers come in and tell me about my great-grandfather, how there used to be a game room in the back—arcades and stuff.”
The walls are covered with photographs and stories of the store and neighborhood and Yan Quong’s life and times: the old vegetable truck that started it all, the tsunami of 1946 that wrecked the first store, which Yan Quong rebuilt himself. “I like bringing neighborhood kids through the store, telling them about it, how it works, how to be responsible,” Patrick says. “My son is starting to understand that life is not about spending money but having a balance.”
Photo: Steve Czerniak
Indeed, the wall offers a balanced menu of “chicken with Korean sauce,” pasteles, “SS saimin with pork hash,” manapua, various combinations of hot dogs, pork hash, rice and chili. The freezer has more. All this, plus local Samurai Soft-Serve and a fax machine. (OK I work remote this week, boss?)
Picking one winner isn’t easy, and we can’t eat it all. But even with the mochi melting in our mouths, the two poke containers that we pack in ice in our car’s trunk—to taste test against the other pokes we’re hoping to find today—come out on top later. The house special poke is light and bright, the sauce not too oily; the tako poke, with green and white onion, is briny as an oyster on the half shell, a gift from the sea.
53-360 Kamehameha Highway, Hau‘ula, 237-7017
Fort Ruger Market
Open Since 1937
Fort Ruger’s chicharrone bites.
Photo: Steve Czerniak
Despite the maxed-out housing prices of the Diamond Head area, Fort Ruger Market still feels like it could be serving the GIs of From Here to Eternity or shirtless bodysurfers digging fragments of Sandy Beach out of their ears. “Every time I used to pass by, I’d grab some boiled peanuts,” says David Fan, a customer since the early 1980s. “Tell the truth, sometimes I’d go out of my way to grab some.”
A year ago, though, Fan made the ultimate impulse buy. A real estate agent, he noticed a listing for the store. “Some friends of mine used to own it over a 10-year period,” he recalls. “They’d sold it to this guy from the Mainland. He ran it for two years, and not very well, then put it on the market.”
Since Fan’s 2013 arrival, though, the joint is jumping—and with good reason. The lau lau, lomi salmon, pipikaula, poi and haupia plates are better than we remember from the 1970s, when they were our default dinner. And the boiled peanuts haven’t changed.
But Fan’s additions are what really move the needle. A serious Filipino menu offers, besides guisantes, adobo and pinacbet, daily specials (including a rare dinuguan sighting—savory offal stew and not for beginners). “Chicharrones are big,” says Fan, referring to Filipino pork rinds (aka chitlins or chitterlings). “But the new product is the end cuts that are left over.
One day my chef said, it’s like a chicharrone bite. So we put them out now and, my gosh, it’s flying off the shelves.”
Also popular: Smoked Meat Fridays. A lifelong student of barbecue, Fan has a regular menu board of jerky (‘ahi, aku, ono, marlin, tako as well as a variety of pipikaula), but on Friday morning the big guns arrive: Angus beef rib roasts, kiawe-smoked beef ribs and dry-rub pork butt, kiawe turkey tails, even a char-siu pork butt. Everything moves fast.
“Mornings we get a blue-collar, construction worker, Hawai‘i Five-0, Filipino crowd,” says Fan. “They come in early and load up on food and drinks for the day. Around 10 and 11, they may come back to get out of the sun.”
Finally, there’s poke. Says Fan: “We’re really proud of it. I kinda challenge anybody to find a fresher ‘ahi that’s being sold as poke around town. We’re selling grade two-plus and above. A lot of sushi restaurants don’t go that high.” The poke prices reflect the auction quality: $18 a pound on the days we visited. But it shows up in each bite.
Fan has kept Ruger’s traditional closing time at 6 p.m. “At night, it returns to a sleepy residential neighborhood,” he says. All we can say is: go early.
3585 Alohea Ave., Honolulu, 737-4531