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
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.
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
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
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