Chinatown, Our Chinatown

Like the rest of Hawai'i, Honolulu's Chinatown has turned multicultural.


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Honolulu's Chinatown isn't Chinese. Unlike many Chinatowns around the world, except maybe those that haven't been Disneyfied into tourist attractions, Honolulu's Chinatown is not a Chinese enclave surrounded by a sometimes-hostile dominant culture.

There are more Island residents of Chinese ancestry living in the gilded ghetto of Diamond Head than in Chinatown. Makiki Heights, with its soaring views and stunning mansions, has an even higher percentage of Chinese.

Chinatown, that funky historical district with a tawdry past, belongs to all of us. That's especially true now that it's rapidly gentrifying.

Fortunately, it's not yet been sanitized. It was once Honolulu's semi-official red-light district. Even after scandals shut down the brothels in 1944, Chinatown remained the home of strippers, transvestites and taxi dancers.

The odor of that unsavory past lingers, making it as urban a district as Honolulu boasts. It's urban in the sense that its streets are home to all sorts and conditions of people-from young professionals hanging out in Bar 35 to the patrons thirsty for a 10 a.m. beer at Smith's Union Bar.

The pecan sticky bun is a signature item at Grand Café and Bakery.

Photos: Monte Costa

Chinatown feeds a lot of tastes. Fortunately for me, the new Chinatown includes a bevy of new and renewed restaurants, most of them not Chinese. Gentrification has its pros and cons, but it usually means you eat better.

Sweet Basil
1152A Maunakea St.
545-5800
Lunch daily 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Street parking, major credit cards

It didn't really dawn on me just how gentrified Chinatown had become until a Thai restaurant with a trendy name-Sweet Basil-popped up on the corner of Pauahi and Maunakea.

Immediately, I dragged a friend inside. The interior was all decorator shades of pink, coral and green. "I love it," she said. There were wall sconces full of flowers, flower prints on the wall.

How long have you been open? I asked the waitress. Two days.

The menu claimed to be "Neo Thai." It listed dishes I'd never had before. Unfortunately, we couldn't have any of them. Can I have short ribs? None today. Salmon? No. Curry pasta? Not that either. Finally, I just asked the waitress to tell me what they did have.

The Bangkok crab cakes sounded promising, but it was a promise unfulfilled. They were entirely conventional, heavily breaded crab cakes with a too-sweet chili sauce, the only interesting touch a salad of cucumber and red onion in a rice vinegar sweet-sour broth. The green seafood, curry with mussels and whole prawns (kind of messy to get them out of their shells) was pleasant enough, as was the green papaya salad with long beans and tomato.

Still, I felt cheated. I wanted this to be a discovery, an adventure. So I let Sweet Basil shake down for a few weeks, then returned, only to find it packed, difficult to get a table. Most of the patrons were chowing down heavily on a $8.95 Thai steam-table buffet that had appeared against one wall.

My friend Sam, who's 21 and impetuous, lunged at the buffet. No, no, I said. I want to order all the things I couldn't get before–three entrées, which was overkill, since each came with salad and rice.

Still, I had to have the generously sized pair of soft-shell crabs tossed in a seasoned flour mix and, I'm guessing, hot woked. There's nothing better than the crunchy and soft textures of soft-shell crab, and the range of flavors you get from consuming the whole crab and not just the sweet, fleshy parts. The only negative: a heavy slathering of a far-too-peanut buttery Panang sauce.

Orange chicken, from Little Village Noodle House.

Photos: Monte Costa

Far better was the heavily reduced red curry sauce that came on the sautéed salmon. It was sort of a spicy coconut milk version of the cream sauce on fettuccine Alfredo, a soft mouth feel with a red pepper back burn and notes of basil and kaffir lime.

Two entrées are enough for two people. But if we had stopped there, we'd have missed the short ribs. You can braise short ribs in almost anything and they turn out good. These were braised in a mussamun curry sauce, which serves up a whole chorus of spices–cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, cumin, pepper and chilies. It's a party for your taste buds, with guests from all over the world.

The entrées are $10.95 each. The buffet's a remarkable value, though it would be hard to enjoy it knowing you'd just passed up the soft-shell crab and those short ribs.

 

Maria Bonita Restaurant
15 N. Hotel St.
536-6185
Monday through Saturday,
11 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 to 8 p.m.
Street parking, cash only

Who do you take to a Mexican restaurant in Chinatown? A Malaysian chef, of course. The chef was Betty Pang, who'd hurt her hand and been forced to temporarily shutter her Green Door restaurant around the corner.

The Mexican restaurant was Maria Bonita, a narrow slice of ancient storefront just down the street from the boarded-up remains of Club Hubba Hubba. Just having a Mexican restaurant on Hotel Street, full of downtown types, is a sign of gentrification, I suppose. However, Maria Bonita is not quite gentrified. It's single-walled, painted the green, white and red of the Mexican flag, and it's un-air-conditioned, cooled only by fans. You might wait for a cool day to drop by.

It's also cheap. The standard plates–we ordered taco and enchilada–come with beans and rice and cost $7. Since I'd gotten in the habit of ordering too much food, we also got the two most expensive things on the menu, the grilled mahimahi ($8) and the garlic shrimp ($10). Both came with a green salad, heavy on the tomato and onion, as well as rice and beans.

The food? Good, not too spicy hot, since Pang and I both agree that too many Mexican-food chefs rely on what I think of as the nuclear option, blasting away your taste buds with jalapen~os on first bite so you can't taste the second. That would have been a shame, since we'd ordered the taco-enchilada plate made with carnitas, that wonderful Mexican twice-cooked pork, first braised, then nicely browned in (usually) pork fat. It's delicious and you want to be able to taste it, along with a dab of salsa fresca. Pang's sharp palate said the salsa had enough cilantro and chilies, but needed a touch more cumin.

There was a tad of cumin on the grilled mahi, and plenty of garlic on the garlic shrimp. The shrimp were still shelled, meaning that you either had to eat the shells (Pang's option) or get your fingers all covered with butter sauce trying to shell them (my option).

Our verdict. The $7 standard plates were the best. Stick with them. "If I pay this money for this food, I'm happy," said Pang. I couldn't have said it better myself.

Little Village Noodle House
1113 Smith St.
545-3008
Daily 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Limited free parking, major credit cards

Little Village is hardly a secret. It's probably the best known Chinatown restaurant since the glory days of Wo Fat. But it was in danger of falling into the Yogi Berra trap. You know, "It's so crowded, nobody goes there anymore."

Fortunately, the restaurant expanded into the neighboring noodle shop. The expansion yielded about 50 to 60 more seats, and also upscaled the look a little. Little Village was originally designed to look rustic, with arbors hanging with some improbable plastic grapes and some rough-hewn backless benches. The benches are, thankfully, history. These days, Little Village looks more like what it is, a modern, pleasant Chinese restaurant, one in which, as an added bonus, you can probably get a table.

I'd eaten lunch at Little Village dozens of times over the years, but never dinner, which is the time to do the restaurant justice. Little Village is a BYOB restaurant. And you can now pick up a bottle at a new, high-end wine shop called HASR Wine Co., right around the corner at 31 N. Pauahi St.

Grace Oh at HASR suggested a 2003 ZD pinot noir to accompany Chinese food. (She was right: deep, rich, fruit flavors, a nice backbone, $30 well spent.)

The food was as great as the wine, and more moderately priced. Service, especially service in English, is not a mainstay of Chinese restaurants. But when my friend and I ordered one of Little Village's nightly specials, a lamb hot pot, our waiter said, "Oh no. It's all skin, bones and fat."

We ordered a much better lamb dish, Hunan style, with ginger, garlic, peppers and leeks, those grown-up cousins of the green onion.

Little Village Noodle House offers a refreshing pecan spinach salad.

Photos: Monte Costa

All in all, the two of us put away four dishes. The Cornish game hen had an incredible, crispy, salty, maybe even a little five-spicey skin. I never thought I'd be able to finish this, but I just kept eating and eating and eating.

Equally addictive are the dried string beans. I know, they don't sound good. However, wok-ed up with pork and chilies and a touch of sesame oil, they are, like the game hen, hard to stop eating. I looked at them carefully and each bean seemed to have been tossed in some kind of white glaze. Salt? Sugar? Whatever it was, I hope it was legal, because I'm hooked.

The star of the evening, however, was the sea bass. The fish arrived on a sizzling-hot, cast-iron platter. When it arrived tableside, the waiter poured a tureen of garlicky black bean sauce over it. The aromas rose up in a visible cloud of steam. It was a dish you could almost breathe in. The sauce seemed to caramelize on the hot platter, giving the fish a deep, meaty opulence. It was a fish dish that made you glad to be drinking red wine.

Finally, we ended with an order–and, when one was not enough, another–of egg buns. Not those custard tartlets that show up in many Chinese restaurants, these are little dim sum buns filled with a rich, eggy mixture. They are most like those coco puffs people love from Liliha Bakery, except not as sweet and far more luxurious on the tongue.

Dinner-and really this was dinner for three or four, though we finished everything-cost $65 with tip. It would have been a damn fine dinner even if it had cost more.

Indochine Café
47 N. Hotel St.
534-0222
Lunch Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Monday through Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m.
Street parking, cash only

 

Vietnamese restaurants are hardly a rarity in Chinatown. But the new Indochine Café–with its orange and vermillion color scheme, its lauhala and wood accents–is a gentrified addition to the pho parlors. It's all part of the stunning transformation of the block of Hotel Street between Nu'uanu and Smith, which also boasts Maria Bonita, a new home décor boutique called INTO, gallery thirtyninehotel and a performance space called Next Door.

I liked everything about Indochine Café–except the five televisions. Everywhere you look there's a television, big, flat screens on the wall, and hardly smaller ones in the corners. At night, Indochine turns into a multilingual karaoke bar (liquor license pending), so the screens are functional. However, I was there at lunch and hate television when I eat. I got up and turned them all off. The owner said, OK.

Good thing, because undistracted by the TVs, I discovered that once you get passed the conventional pho and spring roll parts of the menu, Indochine is an interesting place to eat. There's great, crunchy rotisserie quail, lots of it for $7.95, served on a salad with cucumber and tomato. For $9.95, you get clams in a broth bright with basil and lemon grass, with garlic bread to sop up the broth. For $11.95, there's shaking beef: sirloin cut into little cubes so it can be sautéed rapidly. This is served with an elegant, simple sauce-you squeeze lemon onto salt and dip.

There are juices here from nuoc carot (carrot, of course) to rau ma (an herb called penny wort in English), and smoothies made with everything from sour sap to avocado. I apologize for my lack of adventure; I stuck with the Vietnamese ice coffee, which was especially good.

Grand Café & Bakery
31 N. Pauahi St.
531-0001
Breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday, 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.,
Saturday 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Dinner, First Friday only, by reservation.
Street parking, major credit cards

If there's any proof needed that Chinatown's for everyone, it's Grand Café, that retro 1920s café in the newly remodeled Wing Coffee Building, which also houses HASR Wine Co.

Grand Café and Bakery tempts meat lovers with this short-ribs dish, served with garlic mashed potatoes.

Photos: Monte Costa

While across the Mainland, diners are assimilating everything from pad Thai to kalbi, Honolulu's Chinatown now boasts a wildly popular bastion of Middle American comfort food. That's even truer, now that Grand Café has launched a series of specials featuring American regional cooking.

I was fortunate enough to get there when Grand Café's kitchen was putting out a highly credible Southern fried chicken. Just what constitutes the true fried chicken is a matter of considerable debate across the South, but Grand Café's kitchen chose a thick, seasoned flour coating, the kind you (well, I) love on chicken-fried steak.

At Grand Café, you only got a single chicken thigh for your $7.95, but it was, conveniently if not traditionally, boneless. It was enough, especially since it was accompanied by a heavy, highly seasoned white gravy fortified with sausage. The gravy was probably a meal all by itself. Also on the plate were mashed potatoes, grilled corn and cole slaw. What else could you ask?

Why, a mile-high piece of lemon meringue pie, a taste I haven't indulged since childhood, the tartness of the (presumably citric acid-boosted) lemon filling against the sweetness of the feather-light meringue.

Oh my, oh my. And in Chinatown. Just note that Grand Café now has the problem Little Village used to have: It's so crowded you either have to arrive very early for lunch or end up waiting.

Mini Garden Restaurant
50 N. Hotel St.
538-1273
Daily 10:30 a.m.to 11:30 p.m.
Street parking, major credit cards

More years ago than my children have been alive, I used to end late evenings with a plate of stewed noodles at Mini Garden.

Mini Garden was wonderful, open 24 hours, or so it seemed. It was stunningly cheap. And it was on Hotel Street, where people seemed impressed you were brave enough to walk at night. (Honestly, though, Hotel Street, even in the bad old days, always felt safer than walking to the laundromat at 42nd and Chestnut in Philadelphia, where I'd endured graduate school.)

I hadn't been back to Mini Garden in decades. It is, in fact, not the same place. It's been renovated, expanded, with a new owner–though the change happened four years ago, so this is not exactly breaking news.

Still, in a flashback to my younger decades, I found myself hanging out with some gentlemen of my acquaintance. We ended up drinking in the newly hip Bar 35, impressed that Honolulu had such a nightlife scene, when it occurred to me that, even in my youth, I had enough sense to eat sometime during the evening.

We wandered out to the street and there, like a beacon from the past, was Mini Garden. We ordered a flock of fowl–some duck, some shoyu chicken, more chicken stir-fried with vegetables. Stewed noodles, I insisted, but since we'd run out of available birds-no partridge, no goose, no quail–we had the noodles with char siu.

The food arrived almost instantly, the duck and chicken with crispy skins, the chicken stir-fry remarkably tasty.

The stewed noodles didn't bring back the old Mini Garden. Even nostalgia has its limits; these had a far better flavor. Oh sure, the duck and chicken were lukewarm and drippy, the stir-fry too heavy on mung bean sprouts. But we were in and out in about 20 minutes, all of $25 poorer–and fortified to face the rest of the evening. Mini Garden had come through again.

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