First Look: Encore Saloon in Chinatown
The former owner of Cocina in Kaka‘ako brings his take on Mexican street food to Chinatown.
Three of the small plates—from left, tortilla soup, Mexican street corn and achiote rice—from encore saloon, which opened in October in Chinatown.
Photos: Catherine Toth Fox
Encore Saloon, which opened in Chinatown in mid-October, bills itself as a tequila- and mezcal-focused bar serving Mexican-inspired food.
And, while that’s true, that description seems to sell the place short a bit.
No doubt, this new restaurant has an impressive roster of more than 30 tequila and mezcal—a type of Mexican liquor distilled from agave plants—offerings, plus a slew of craft beers and handcrafted cocktails, including a handful of ’ritas and slushies.
But to think of the food at Encore as an afterthought would be a huge mistake.
First of all, know this: This new restaurant, located in the Real Office Centers on the corner of Nu‘uanu Avenue and Hotel Street between Fête and Brick Fire Tavern, is run by Danny Kaaialii, owner of Cocina, the popular Mexican fast-casual eatery in Kaka‘ako. Kaaialii started Cocina in 2013 with chef Quinten Frye—both from Salt Kitchen & Tasting Bar—as a pop-up concept before taking over the brick-and-mortar space vacated by the Whole Ox Deli when it closed, then moving around the block to ‘Auahi Street. Frye left Cocina last year to work in Washington D.C.—he’s now the executive chef at Dacha Beer Garden, Market and Supper Club—so Kaaialii decided to open a new concept that, he says, is a simpler take on the complicated food he once served at Cocina.
Encore Saloon opened in October in the ROC in Chinatown, between Fête and Brick Fire Tavern.
So, OK, you won’t find Cocina’s headcheese carnitas tacos or beef cheek burros, but you’ll be equally satisfied with Encore’s menu of classics, including achiote rice and beans—Kaaialii’s favorite—tortilla soup, Baja fish tacos, and nachos so massive you could feed an entire office (and we did).
Simple, though, doesn’t mean easy. Kaaialii remains committed to scratch-made sauces and tortillas, and complex flavors that aren’t as effortless as they may seem.
“We’re still about big flavors and delicious food, just not requiring so much knife-prep,” Kaaialii says. He adds that chef Lee Anne Wong of Koko Head Café served as consultant on the menu. “We wanted to be a little pulled back here.”
The indoor dining area of the 1,200-square-foot restaurant is narrow and dark; there’s definitely a saloon feeling here. But the back of the space opens to an outdoor communal area shared by its neighboring restaurants. Sitting under huge yellow umbrellas on long metal tables in this little courtyard makes you feel far away from the office.
My lunch partner and I started with drinks. She ordered the refreshing tamarind soda ($4) and I got the horchata ($4), a creamy, sweet drink that’s here served chilled with rice milk and cinnamon. I’m not especially an aficionado, but this is the best horchata I’ve had.
We agreed to share the Grime Time Nachos ($12), ironically listed as a small-plate option on the menu. (This was no small plate of nachos.) Extra-crispy chips are topped in a Tex-Mex cheese sauce with refried beans, a slightly smoky salsa roja, fresh cilantro and slices of pickled jalapeño peppers. (For a few bucks more, you can add pork, beef or chicken.) This was addictive, and filling enough to be its own lunch entrée.
The massive Grime Time nachos with refried beans, pickled jalapeño, house-made salsa roja and fresh cilantro.
Despite sitting outside on a warm Friday at noon, we ordered the tortilla soup ($8), a chicken-based soup flavored with pasilla chili, cilantro, tomato and onions. This isn’t your chain-restaurant tortilla soup that’s thick and heavy on the tomato—and we appreciated the bits of chicken, avocado and house tortilla strips.
I couldn’t resist ordering the Mexican street corn ($4), a wonderfully tasty bowl of esquites-style (think more mature, not sweet) corn spiced with chili powder, crumbly Cotija cheese and lime mayo. After we gobbled that up, we did damage to a bowl of achiote chili rice ($3)—sans the slowed-stewed pinto beans—tinged red from annatto and slightly spicy from the achiote.
We thoroughly enjoyed Encore’s Mexican street corn spiced with chili powder and topped with Cotija cheese and lime mayo.
This is the achiote chili rice, which can also come with slowed-stewed pinto beans.
The tacos are served in sets of two, so you can order according to your appetite. We wound up sampling all five offerings: barbacoa beef ($5.75), pork carnitas ($5), chicken mole ($5), Baja fish ($6) and veggie ($5), all on traditional tortillas.
The slow-braised beef chunks are fork-tender and accentuated with the brightness of fresh cilantro and onions. The slow-roasted pork is simply prepared with pickled red onions and cilantro. The roasted chicken thighs in poblano mole are aromatic with herbs, including star anise, cinnamon and chocolate flavors—but not cumin, incidentally. The tilapia is dipped in a batter made with vodka and beer, then fried, and paired with a chipotle crema, a crunchy cabbage slaw and pickled red onion. And the veggie option features a medley of vegetables—we noted eggplant and corn—in a cumin-lime vinaigrette and Cojita cheese.
You can’t go wrong with either the pork carnitas (back) or chicken mole (front) street-style tacos.
Churros—the perfect ending to a lunch at Encore.
Our lunch ended as every lunch should end: with churros ($6), crispy, cinnamon-y and unshareable, served with a rich Mexican chocolate sauce so good my lunch partner literally scooped up the rest of it with her fingers.
To anyone who says Hawai‘i has no good Mexican food, try this joint. Encore Saloon may just change your mind.
10 N. Hotel St., 11 a.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday, closed Sunday, 367-1656, encoresaloon.com
READ MORE STORIES BY CATHERINE TOTH FOX