First Look: Water Drop Vegetarian House

Buddhist-run vegetarian restaurant offers clean, simple flavors.
Four entrée choices, in addition to a starch, only costs $10 at this new vegetarian restaurant in Downtown Honolulu.
Photos: Catherine Toth Fox


I’ve always been empathetic toward my vegetarian friends.


At potlucks, they get stuck with platters of veggie sticks, fruit trays and iceberg lettuce. At restaurants, they resort to salads and pasta dishes.


There aren’t too many vegetarian—even harder, vegan—eateries on O‘ahu. Instead, Honolulu has a glut of places serving mounds of meat. (It’s better now than in years past, with restaurants such as Greens & Vines, Downbeat Diner & Lounge and Peace Café. But still … )


So when one such restaurant opened up downtown, just a few blocks from our office, on Dec. 1, my vegetarian-leaning co-worker gleefully organized a field trip for lunch.


Water Drop Vegetarian House opened in the building formerly known as the Tardus Financial Plaza at 801 Alakea St. The restaurant is operated by the Hawai‘i Buddhist Cultural Society, which acquired the two-story, 30,000-square-foot building in 2009 and started renovating it in 2012.


Many downtown workers will remember this space: It housed such eateries as Kafe Europa, Nippon Restaurant and Golden Bowl.


While the restaurant occupies most of the building’s first floor, the second floor boasts meeting rooms, offices and an ornate Buddhist hall with curly koa panels, hard-carved wooden trimming, Brazilian ipe (walnut) flooring and nine chandeliers made with Swarovski crystals.


Inside the main hall upstairs. It's a place of worship for Buddhist members.


The main hall is so ornate. The tiles behind this statue were handmade and hand-painted in Taiwan.


But that’s not why we were here.


The entrée choices for lunch at the Water Drop Vegetarian House, which opened on Dec. 1.


Water Drop Vegetarian House opened with a simple, abbreviated menu expected to expand to include more dishes, dessert, high-quality coffees and teas.


For now, it offers several options, served cafeteria-style complete with plastic lunch trays and paper plates.


Here’s how it works: You stand in line, then choose from either a four-choice plate ($10) or a two-choice plate ($7), which come with a generous portion of brown rice, fried rice or fried noodles.


The entrée choices change, sometimes daily. Recently, the restaurant offered jai, choi sum with mock beef, mock squid and vegetarian spring rolls. On the day we visited, it was serving fresh veggie fillet, bean curd roll, lo han zhai, seasonal vegetables, smoked gluten and mapo tofu.


Our vegetarian-leaning co-worker ordered (clockwise from top left) the veggie fillet, the bean curd roll, lo han zhai, fried noodles and assorted vegetables.


Our vegetarian-leaning co-worker said the food is very similar to what’s served at a Buddhist temple. Which makes sense since, well, there’s a Buddhist temple right above us.


The noodles—a Singaporean rice noodle loaded with veggies such as mushrooms, carrots, cabbage and celery—was a hit with the entire lunch crew, most of whom weren’t vegetarians.


I thoroughly enjoyed the mapo tofu with mock beef (made from beans, I was told) in a thick, gelatinous sauce. I really didn’t miss the meat at all.


My plate had fried noodles, lo han zhai and mapo tofu.


The bean curd rolls were filled with black mushrooms, edible fungus, carrots and cabbage wrapped in tofu skin. (The spring rolls, which weren’t available that day, have cabbage, black mushrooms, edible fungus, taro, carrots, vegetarian ham and mung bean noodles.) It comes topped with a thick, soy-based paste.


The veggie fillet was a talker. It’s a soy bean-based product that resembles fish in both taste and texture. It’s wrapped in nori, which gives the illusion of fish skin, and fried. It’s crazy how much this tasted like fish.


We also tried the lo han zhai, a vegetable dish with Chinese cabbage, edible fungus, bean curd, transparent mung bean noodles, fermented bean curd, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and baby corn. Everything tasted clean, fresh and simple.


I was impressed by how high-tech this Buddhist-run vegetarian restaurant was. Two flat-screen TVs hang behind the counter to be turned into digital menus. The faux reptile-skin seats were cushy and modern. And the restaurant uses Square and iPads for payment. Very hip.


A note about the name: Water Drop Vegetarian House, which is part of a chain of Buddhist temple-linked eateries, reflects on the idea that when you receive a “water drop” of kindness, you repay with a waterfall. Nice.


The restaurant will later offer desserts—think rice puddings and tapioca—and catering services. There are plans to expand the menu, too. But, for now, we don’t mind the simple offerings at the affordable prices.


Although we did grab boba-filled milk teas right after. I guess we weren’t that full after all.


Water Drop Vegetarian House, 801 Alakea St., 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays, 545-3455.