Downtown Lunch Finds under $10 in Honolulu

Some of my favorite eating happens at lunchtime in the downtown and Chinatown neighborhoods; from 11 to 2 on weekdays, there is more variety in this five-block radius than anywhere else on the island. My go-to spots: Ahi and Vegetable (the spicy ahi and ikura bowl), Pho to Chau (beef pho, medium), Saigon Vietnamese Cuisine (duck or wonton noodle soup), Hunan Cuisine (smoked chicken or "Taiwanese rice box"), Bruno's Forno (veggie lasagna), Murphy's Bar and Grill (for pie day). I still mourn the loss of Downtown at the HiSAM, which was one of too few fresh vegetarian options around, but look forward to The Pig and the Lady when it opens on King and Smith later this year, and Marukame Udon, which opens next week!

And there's still so much more I haven't discovered yet, as evidenced by a few recent finds. Check these out if you're stuck in a lunch rut:

I walked by Shanghai Cafe many times before I finally stopped in, mostly because it looks more like a Chinese faux antique shop than a cafe. Now that I've gone in, I still think "cafe" is a generous term for a place with one table, a few food photos stuck in the window, and a closet that serves as a "kitchen." But here, I've found the best sheng jian bao in Honolulu. These pan-fried buns are made to order, not just cooked to order, but literally made—the dough wrapped around the pork meatballs—when you order them. So it's best to call ahead half an hour before you want to pick them up. They are uneven in appearance, but each is a flavorful package of pork surrounded by a denser, manapua-like dough. The Shanghai wonton are great, too—oversize dumplings stuffed with bok choy and pork.

$4.99 for four, 1047 Bethel St., 599-3767

Summer Frappe, already known for its fresh fruit smoothies, also makes a killer banh mi. They are not traditional (the pork and pate one comes with tomatoes), but they are delicious. My favorite is the avocado sandwich—what appears to be an entire avocado stuffed into a Vietnamese baguette, topped with a salad of veggies, pickled daikon and carrots and some Maggi sauce for seasoning.

$5.50, 82 N. Pauahi St.

Everything in Maunakea Marketplace's food court feels like a find. While I come regularly for the egg custard tarts at Rainbow Tea Stop, only recently did I discover the crispy rice salad at Malee Thai Cuisine, a dish of crunchy rice tossed with bright herbs, chilies, marinated pork and lots of lime juice, to get you out of a mid-day funk.

$8, inside Maunakea Marketplace, 1120 Maunakea St.

Ed Kenney first tipped me off to Sidewalk Deli, a little convenience store with a couple tables tucked into a corner of Fort Street Mall—he used grab a container of homemade kimchee here when Downtown was still open. (Though right now, I can't think which of his Mediterranean-style dishes required kimchee.) On a whim, I recently decided to sit down for the $5 kimchee fried rice, one of the few items on the Korean snack shop menu taped to the door. It's homey and comforting, as is the experience—the friendly Korean lady who runs the shop makes the rice on a plug-in electric griddle.

$5, Chaplain Lane at Fort Street Mall