Editor’s Page: Explore
Cooking up an adventure.
PHOTO: ADAM JUNG
It’s funny how much we can learn just outside our regular path. At the magazine, we’re fortunate to work in Downtown, steps from Honolulu’s vibrant, ever-evolving Chinatown.
Finding both the reliable and the unexpected just around the corner is part of the charm of a historic neighborhood, especially one amid another upswing. Sure, some of the challenges of urban life are apparent, but there are also deals, discoveries and decades of culture all within a tight cluster of blocks.
Few people know this better than chef Jesse Cruz and business partner Dusty Grable, who let me tag along on a recent shopping trip for our Insiders’ Guide to Chinatown. Both have worked in the area for years. Grable lives there.
The partners often shop nearby for Livestock Tavern, Lucky Belly and The Tchin Tchin! Bar, three popular Chinatown spots cited as key to this latest wave of revitalization. As we scout, they chat with merchants they’ve come to know.
“You have to support your favorites or they won’t be there,” Cruz says. They buy from a variety of vendors, source food locally but also from quality suppliers on the Mainland and in New Zealand.
Both appreciate the support of customers, merchants and their team. They take none of it for granted. “We try to buy the best quality, not the cheapest,” Grable says.
The morning I’m along, they buy food for that night’s family meal, which the managers take turns cooking, and will feed about 50 members of the restaurant team. We find much of the meal in Kekaulike Market and along Hotel Street, including 14 pounds of uhu, or parrotfish, shining bright in shades of blue, green and yellow. At $5.99 a pound, the fish are big, beautiful and telegraphing freshness with their clear eyes. Next, some shishito peppers. Then, fresh mushroom and shrimp look funn from Ying Leong Look Funn Factory.
Chef Jesse Cruz buys an uhu or parrotfish at a Chinatown market for their employee dinner.
Photo: Robbie Dingeman
“Every time we do family meal, it’s almost like a Chinatown challenge,” Grable says, as whoever’s cooking that night looks to concoct the best meal from food purchased around the corner.
Those who have only ventured to Chinatown for lunch or to buy mango or moon cake can discover fresh fish, meat and all manner of produce, simply by asking merchants about less-familiar ingredients.
“This is their livelihood, it’s their craft. They’ll stand by it and they’re going to help guide you to the right things, quality things,” Grable says.
“You can just buy a little protein. You can choose the best,” Cruz says—the best-looking carrot of the bunch, the exact-same-size potatoes. Grable just prepared a birthday dinner for his dad. “I love that feeling. I used everything I bought and it was fresh and great quality.” And the price was right, too.
“I used to think shopping at Costco was the best deal,” Grable says, “but not if you throw away half of it.”
We visit Chinatown Hawaiian Market, 88 Fish and Hoong Wun Market. We find dried scallops and abalone on Hotel Street.
If you’re open and adventurous, you can find things you’ve never tried. “When you show a level of interest in someone else’s culture and you do it with a sense of humility, they’re eager to share,” Grable says.
The diverse cultures—Vietnamese, Filipino, Chinese among them—offer access to a global table with just one simple question: How do you use this?
And that’s a big part of what the partners appreciate about their storied neighborhood. “I’m a better person now because I learned something of somebody else’s culture,” Grable says.
I can’t think of a better way to welcome this Lunar New Year.
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