Honolulu’s Best-Kept Secret is Out: The 808 Center
The 808 Center may be hidden behind Wal-Mart, but its reputation as a food hub is picking up.
The menu at Pho Ca Dao in the new 808 Center features a variety of Vietnamese fare, from deep-fried spring rolls to grab-and-go bahn mi sandwiches to spicy bun bo hue.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
In 2008, federal agents and Honolulu police closed down an illegal casino operation that, at one point, had a game room at 808 Sheridan St., right behind Wal-Mart.
The following year, that run-down, 20,000-square-foot building, which housed, most notably, a cigarette store and a wedding boutique, went to auction. Olivia and Jack Ho, who have run a successful construction company in Hawai‘i since 1982, secured the building with a winning bid of $3.6 million.
Now, eight years later, this once-sketchy area on the corner of Rycroft and Sheridan streets, near auto repair shops, liquor stores and dingy bars that call themselves lounges, is a shiny, three-story complex of trendy restaurants and beauty salons.
Called 808 Center because of its street address, the complex quietly sprung up last year behind Wal-Mart near Ala Moana Center. At first glance, it looks like a squat office building with large glass windows and a parking structure towering behind it. But a closer look reveals a bottom floor of eateries ranging from a casual hot-pot restaurant to a breakfast spot that serves gourmet shave ice. The boxy parking structure is really a multimillion-dollar, automated vertical parking garage that can store up to 72 cars and SUVs. The technology comes from South Korea, and it’s quickly become a highlight of this complex. Valet drivers pull your car into a stall and onto a rotating platform. After pressing a few buttons, your car is automatically moved into an open slot in the vertical parking structure. It’s like a car vending machine.
THE 808 CENTER, A 20,000-SQUARE-FOOT COMPLEX ON THE CORNER OF SHERIDAN AND RYCROFT STREETS, ISN’T FULLY OCCUPIED YET BUT IS ALREADY CHANGING THE FOOD LANDSCAPE IN THIS POPULOUS AREA.
One of the quirks of this complex is the multimillion-dollar, automated vertical parking garage that can store up to 72 vehicles.
Construction on the center is now complete—but not without a few complications. Early last year, plans called for nearly a dozen eateries ranging from a high-end Japanese wedding cake shop to a Sichuan chain restaurant known for sizzling hot-stone noodles. But, by this March, only a handful of restaurants had opened. The cake shop, Cake M, was still under construction and Fortune Noodle has recently reopened as Hawai‘i’s first location for Chengdu Taste, a popular California-based chain known for its toothpick lamb, a secret menu that has only recently been published in English and hourlong waits for tables.
Meanwhile, the center continues to fill and evolve. When the complex is complete, maybe by this summer, the goal is to lure some of the thousands of people who trek to this bustling neighborhood every day with its eclectic offerings and snazzy parking experience.
“This is one location with different options,” says Olivia Ho, who owns the property with her husband and manages the tenants. “You really can’t get that vibe anywhere else in Honolulu. You can come here and eat whatever you feel like eating. That’s what Honolulu has been missing.”
The grilled misoyaki butterfish is one of the most popular dishes at this new sushi-ya.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
In a dark-blue, long-sleeved Miller Lite tee, Ryuji Murayama looks more like a shoreline fisherman than a skilled sushi chef who drapes masterfully sliced fish over rice like a fine fabric.
And when he talks, it’s even more disarming.
“Too bad where you sitting,” he says to me, as I pull out a chair at the sushi counter of his new sushi-ya, Sushi Murayama, one day for lunch, the only time I could get a seat here. He laughs and shakes his head. “You really asking for it.”
Murayama, who moved to Hawai‘i from Japan when he was 3, is nothing like the stern, intimidating sushi chefs of lore. He’s laid back, he teases his customers, he swears sometimes. I’ve even seen him sneak a piece of hakozushi, an Osaka-style pressed sushi with cured saba, crouched down behind the counter and out of the sight of patrons. (“What? It’s my restaurant,” he said, smiling, when he caught me watching him.)
Yet he has brought to this new restaurant a fiercely loyal following from his days at Yohei Sushi Restaurant, Tokkuri-Tei Restaurant and the now-defunct ZenShu. He knows fish suppliers by name, uses the freshest ingredients possible and never skimps or takes shortcuts.
When word got out in late November that he had opened his sushi bar, hidden on the third floor behind dark windows and barely any signage, this small space quickly turned into a by-reservation-only spot. Even 808 Center co-owner Olivia Ho couldn’t snag a seat. “My office is right next to the restaurant, so I went in and asked him when would be a good time to get in for lunch that day,” Ho explains. “And [Murayama] replied, ‘In two months.’”
This is Murayama’s first solo venture, and he relishes the freedom.
Hakozushi, Osaka-style pressed sushi with cured saba. Magurozuke, marinated ‘ahi.
“This is my dream restaurant,” Murayama told me. “I can do whatever I want.”
And he does. His omakase (meal with dishes selected by the chef) isn’t overly strict. The set meal usually starts at $75, though Murayama is accommodating about when you want to stop or how much you want to spend. (Sushi aficionados know how expensive omakase meals can get.) His offerings—there are dozens, and they change daily—are both classic and unique, with simple, on-point preparations for the melt-in-your-mouth fatty o-toro nigiri or the tempura butterfish. One of the most popular dishes is his magurozuke, or marinated ‘ahi, that comes as a whole, three-ounce slab of raw fish soaked in shoyu from Kyushu, topped with black sesame seeds and scallions and wrapped in seaweed from Kumamoto. It’s enough fish to make about four nigiri; he gives you the entire piece for $7.50. There’s even dessert: Both the natto ice cream—vanilla ice cream topped with corn flakes, strips of shiso and stringy natto—and the black-sesame gelato are delightful reminders that you should book your reservation now for your return visit.
Suite 307, 784-2100
Urban Bistro serves its take on popular comfort food, like the roasted garlic crème brûlée.
The first time I walked into Urban Bistro, I thought, “Man, this place would make great Instagram photos.”
And it’s true. On the back wall of the ground-floor restaurant, adjacent to an entire wall of plate-glass windows that allows natural light to stream in, is a huge mural of the historic Boston neighborhood of Beacon Hill, with its Federal-style rowhouses and brick sidewalks. You’ve probably already seen it in a background on social media, with customers sipping fruity punches or holding up small platters of grilled pizza.
That this was the first restaurant to open in the 808 Center in September worked out well for the complex, which has been slow to fill with the eateries it had promised. Urban Bistro became its first introduction to the public, its accidental ambassador.
Good thing the bistro is run by Margaret Lin, who owns a Mexican restaurant in Waikīkī. She started with a simple but interesting menu, a hip and photogenic décor, a full bar and a no-tipping policy because, as Lin says, “It’s our pleasure to serve you.”
“We’re leaning toward comfort food made unique, familiar food made fun, with an emphasis on freshness and creativity,” Lin says.
The bistro’s chicken and pudding is an example of this twist to a comfort-food staple. Grilled chicken breast is paired with a sweet-potato bread pudding and a drizzle of maple-mustard sauce, a play off the popular fried-chicken-and-waffles combo. And the Urban Pot Pie is its version of the classic chicken pot pie, with sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes, snap peas, carrots and herbs, topped with puff pastry and baked to order.
The sliders offer variations, too, with fresh fish, slow-cooked pork or barbecue chicken. The caprese version—with roasted tomatoes, arugula, mozzarella and Parmesan crisps finished with balsamic vinegar—is a pleasant departure from the typical meat-heavy sliders. (Though applewood-smoked bacon could have added some smokiness and much-needed salt. But I digress.)
The standout on the dessert menu is easily the roasted garlic crème brûlée, which comes with a perfectly glassy sugar crust and fried garlic chips. The smooth, creamy custard is infused with garlic—the flavor is sweet and subtle—and the caramelized sugar makes an unlikely partner, but it works.
Suite 109, 396-7000
Hawai‘i Hot Shabushabu House
Photos: Steve Czerniak
Who doesn’t love a conveyor belt in a restaurant?
In fact, I wish all restaurants had one, so you could just grab whatever tasty appetizer or entrée passed your table.
This has been the genius behind the kaiten (revolving) sushi chain Genki Sushi, which has, since 1968, been serving up instant-gratification nigiri and hand rolls, combining the traditional with conveyor-belt convenience.
And this is the concept behind Hawai‘i Hot Shabushabu House, the company’s second location and the only hot-pot restaurant in Hawai‘i that utilizes a conveyor. (Even its Kapolei location doesn’t have this.)
The restaurant is spacious compared to the others at the 808 Center, with both counter and table seating next to a conveyor belt that snakes through the dining area. Each seat is outfitted with an individual induction burner for your own pot of broth; tables have personal burners and a shared one in the middle.
As with other hot-pot restaurants, you start by choosing your broth. Here, there are several choices, from seafood to kim chee to a healthy vegetarian version, with the option to split the pot with two. The classic broth is clean and fresh, the best if you’re using a lot of dipping sauces. The fragrant Thai tom yum broth, which is most often prepared with shrimp, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and crushed chili peppers, is robust. Using this broth, there isn’t much need for dipping sauces, though the restaurant provides more than a dozen options.
Trundling through the restaurant on a conveyor belt are colored plastic plates filled with a variety of vegetables and other hot-pot staples: snow peas, ung choy (water spinach), lotus root, zucchini, shiitake mushrooms, asparagus, bok choy, Chinese cabbage, bamboo shoots, tofu, fishcake paste, clams. If you don’t see what you want, you can order it. Just like Genki.
The meat, though, has to be ordered. (It couldn’t be food-safe to have plates of raw beef and chicken parts circulating through the restaurant.) You can opt for premium beef, rib eye, pork belly, chicken, lamb or beef tongue in either four-ounce or 12-ounce portions. The smaller plates are just enough to eat on your own; the larger plate can feed a party of at least two.
Like Genki, the food is convenient and familiar, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, all you want is familiar. And this restaurant gives you just that.
Pho Ca Dao
I walked into Pho Ca Dao on the Rycroft Street side of the 808 Center wrapped in a scarf and coughing.
Without prompting, the server went over to the control pad for the air conditioner at this Vietnamese restaurant and raised the temperature a little. She instructed me to sit at a certain table that wasn’t in direct line of the cold air. Then she brought over a mug of hot water.
“You poor thing,” she said.
As for the food, while the pho is popular and uncomplicated—there are 10 different variations, with options to add more meat, vegetables or soup—Pho Ca Dao offers a few unique dishes, many of which are adapted from the owner’s family recipes.
We ordered the Ca Dao Special, a variation of com tam (broken rice), a traditional Vietnamese dish with fractured rice grains—hence the name—with grilled and shredded pork and cha trung hap, a meatloaf with shrimp, ground pork and mushrooms, topped with egg yolk. This version comes with an over-easy egg on the rice, making it a Vietnamese loco moco.
Another popular dish is the spicy bun bo hue, a Vietnamese pork-and-beef-bone-based soup with steamed pork, shin meat (chewier than brisket), pig feet, chunks of pig-blood curd and thick vermicelli rice noodles. This dish offers a unique combination of spicy, sour, salty and sweet flavors that contrast pho, which I love for its simplicity.
On this particular weekday evening, the 950-square-foot restaurant was empty, so I had the total attention of the thoughtful server, who turned out to be Tara Quach, one of the owners. She works as a registered nurse at Kaiser Permanente to run this restaurant—her first—joking that she really doesn’t see her kids anymore.
Lunchtime is much busier here, Quach says, with nearby office workers coming in for a quick bowl of pho, a bahn mi sandwich or the guilty-pleasure Vietnamese ice coffee with condensed milk.
Suite 107, 888-4156
Photos: Steve Czerniak
Fans of the now-defunct Ailana Shave Ice, known for its house-made syrups and powder-fine ice, can get their gourmet shave ice fix at Café Plumeria, a new breakfast spot on the ground floor of the 808 Center.
The owner, Tom Tsurutani, has a license to serve Ailana’s signature shave ice here, though under a new company name. The menu features both Ailana’s more traditional flavors—mango, coffee, strawberry, haupia—and its specials, such as the popular Uji Kintoki (ice cream, green tea, azuki beans, mochi balls and condensed milk), Strawberry Paradise (ice cream, strawberry milk and condensed milk) and Polar Bear (ice cream, salty caramel, Calpico and condensed milk).
While shave ice is the main draw, Café Plumeria has the distinction of being the only restaurant at 808 serving breakfast right now. There are fluffy pancakes, ice cream-topped green-tea waffles, sweet French toast, savory omelets and a strangely popular beef stroganoff—a dish usually reserved for dinner—on its morning menu.
The Japanese-style café also offers breakfast to go, including acai bowls, papaya-yogurt cups, egg-and-avocado sandwiches and a pitaya bowl loaded with strawberries, blueberries, bananas, almonds, avocado, kiwi, mint, coconut, granola and dragon fruit.
The chicken rice omelet is a personal favorite that harkens back to my first visit to Japan more than a decade ago when I discovered a dish called omurice. Simply put, it’s a thin, delicate omelet stuffed with fried rice and usually topped with a tomato-based or demi-glace sauce. The ingredients in the rice vary, from chicken to vegetables to Spam. Café Plumeria’s omelet comes stuffed with a flavorful rice with rosemary-infused chicken and veggies and topped with a demi-glace sauce, chopped bell peppers and tomatoes. I thought I was going to save half for later, but wound up eating the entire omelet.
Since every item here is made to order, the wait can be long. Best to call in an order if you’re short on time.
Suite 108, 955-8881
The 808 Center is not yet fully occupied, and there have been a couple of false starts along the way.
Though the sign for Flower & Spoon is still up, the owner decided in February to pull out and didn’t bother to remove the sign. And the two restaurants that pastry chef Praseuth “JJ” Luangkhot was planning to open by March—Jean Marc French Cuisine, an upscale restaurant meant to anchor the complex, and Jean Marc Patisserie, a French-style pastry and coffee shop—ran into construction problems in February.
Restaurants are not the only businesses opening here, either. There are two salons—Dada Salon, run by Chop Salon’s Richie Miao, and Khiet Salon by Khiet Luu—the popular nail salon Azumi Nail, Kupulau Jewelry and Hawai‘i Voice KTV & Lounge, a fancy 4,500-square-foot karaoke lounge with private rooms.
Owner Ho equates the 808 Center to the 35,000-square-foot McCully Shopping Center, located about a mile away. This highly visible complex, situated on the corner of congested Kapi‘olani Boulevard and McCully Street, boasts a similar mix of chain and family-run restaurants, salons and other service-oriented businesses. The 808 Center, though, will showcase slightly more higher-end options that can’t be found in any of its nearby restaurant-and-retail-complex competitors such as Ala Moana Center and Ward Village.
Right now, though, the 808 Center seems to be a well-kept secret that desperately wants to be shared. Nearby office workers flock to the new complex for lunch for the novelty; by dinnertime, it’s much slower, save for Sushi Murayama.
The 808 Center is still in flux.
“In the food business, it’s always better to have more restaurants than less, to attract customers to the area,” says Urban Bistro’s Margaret Lin. “It’s becoming known as the area for eateries and it’s building a reputation as the street where there are options of good restaurants. This helps, for sure.”
READ MORE STORIES BY CATHERINE TOTH FOX