Koreamoku Was Home to Life’s Dreams For These 3 Small Businesses
For most of us, the random-looking jumble of enterprises held places to eat, drink and shop.
An entire block of restaurants, bars and other small businesses along Ke‘eaumoku Street closed on Jan. 31 to make way for—what else?—a new condo development. The scene has played out repeatedly across urban Honolulu, but this time it scattered the heart of a neighborhood locals affectionately know as Koreamoku. Here are the faces and stories behind three of its former denizens: a decades-old Korean eatery, a short-lived experiment in Taiwanese street food, and a mom and pop store trying to navigate an uncertain future.
SEE ALSO: Afterthoughts: Who Mourns for Koreamoku?
Seven weeks after closing, the largest and oldest restaurant on the block reopened at a familiar address. Here’s the rest of its story.
The path from the old Sorabol to the new takes about a minute—it’s across the street on the same block—but the difference is like night and day. Old Sorabol was in a windowless building whose dark vestibule held a giant and lonely dragon fish and whose pre-pandemic booths filled at lunch and dinnertime. New Sorabol is all windows and light. It moved into the dining room and pavilions of the Pagoda Floating Restaurant (still open and serving breakfast in the ballroom), each space ringed with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Pagoda Hotel’s famous koi ponds. It’s one old-school icon tucked inside another. The effect—you’re eating kalbi surrounded by flashes of red-orange koi and a 360-degree view of urban sky—feels both weird and welcome.
If you’re like many Honolulu residents, you’ve been to Sorabol—whether for the signature dish of kalbi chim, the steamed butterfish, sizzling soondubu chigae soft tofu soup or roughly 120 other items on the menu, not including sushi options. You went to the 24-hour institution for lunch meetings, family dinners or late-night eats after clubbing or a night shift at another restaurant or bar. “Every customer, when we reopened after the lockdown, said thank you, thank you,” says co-owner Lisa Lee. “With the condos coming in, some customers thought we were closing. They cried.”
For 25 years it’s been Lee, vivacious and perfectly coiffed, who’s greeted customers and rung up their bills. Sorabol has been hers since 1997, when Lee outgrew her first Korean restaurant on Kapi‘olani Boulevard across from the Hawai‘i Convention Center and bought the windowless eatery. Aside from the most momentous decision of her life, to leave a newly industrializing South Korea with husband Sang C. Lee in the 1980s to give their infant and toddler sons a better education in the U.S., Lee hasn’t been big on change. The restaurant she owned before Sorabol was called Choi’s Yakiniku after the previous owner, a name Lee never bothered to change. When she bought Sorabol it was already named for the shining city of Korea’s golden age more than 1,200 years past; she kept that name, too. With 230 seats, it was more than twice as big as Choi’s Yakiniku, and one of Honolulu’s only 24-hour eateries. “First year, too much work. Every night after I finished at the restaurant, in the office I had to sit down and cry. I cried one year,” Lee says. Then things got easier. When her boys were teenagers, “Working time,” she says, “I was so happy. I cannot speak English, only a little, but customers would say, ‘Good service. Your restaurant is the best.’ My son said ‘Mama, how come every day you’re smiling?’ OK. I like it.”
She didn’t pull back on anything—not the size of the menu nor the hours—until recent years. Sorabol was a classic from an earlier age of family-oriented Korean restaurants. It predated the all-you-can-eat menus and pulsing neon of Korean barbecue spots that drew the 20-something crowds, and never embraced the molten cheese and spicy fried chicken of the city’s latest Korean eateries. Lee had already pared back Sorabol’s 24/7 schedule when the pandemic hit. It switched operations from 80% dine-in and 20% takeout to about 30% dine-in and 70% takeout, according to longtime head waitress Sue Tak. Staffing was cut to a skeleton crew and Lee, still perfectly coiffed, presided over a largely empty space.
The end of the road for Ke‘eaumoku International Village and its eateries, bars, Korean markets, massage parlors, taekwondo studio and hair salon was very nearly the end for Sorabol. Lee’s sons wanted her to retire after nearly 40 years of running restaurants. And there was nowhere to go—especially for a restaurateur with 122 menu items and 230 seats who wasn’t big on change. But customers, especially regulars, were bemoaning the loss of an icon and asking her to reopen somewhere. Then, with just over a month to go before the deadline to clear out, Lee saw hope: The Pagoda Hotel had just been bought by Rycroft Holdings, which shares the same local parent company as HONOLULU Magazine. Its restaurant space could hold about the same number of seats as Sorabol. Lee reached out. The deal came together late on the night of Jan. 20.
So the path from the old Sorabol to the new is about a minute. But it took years to get there.
Ben Dong Bistro
Yen Chang Su opened Ben Dong Bistro in July 2021, serving Taiwanese street snacks and comfort food near 88 Supermarket. Here, in his words, is the story behind its six-month run.
We’d been doing a Taiwanese street food truck for nearly a year. It was time-consuming—you load, drive 20 minutes, and setup would take two, three hours. One day I went to pick up stuff at 88 Supermarket, and Michinoku (a tiny Japanese restaurant) was gone. The space had all the infrastructure and equipment we needed. The landlord said they could offer a six-month lease and potentially another three months if things got delayed. My plan was to open for just a few months, just see how things went. Unfortunately for us and fortunately for the landlord, the development went on schedule and we just had to get out.
I was born in Taiwan. The food we served at Ben Dong was the kind of comfort food that I grew up eating (ben dong means “bento” in Taiwan). There are a few Taiwanese restaurants here but the food doesn’t taste like my grandma’s cooking.
Scallion pancakes, Taiwanese fried chicken, simmered minced pork belly rice bowls—we were trying to replicate that night market kind of feel. We had plate lunches too but ultimately we wanted to do more pūpū style.
Our plan right now, I’m thinking maybe I can consolidate this operation with my other operations and do something with a bigger store. We need a grease trap, a full commercial hood. The infrastructure is more costly. We definitely need to be more wise about the locations that we pick and the rent that we can handle, find out where is comfortable for us in this crazy market where rent can easily kill any food establishment.
All my friends say I’m conservative. They say I think like their parents. I tend to be more cautious because rent is something you gotta pay, no matter what.
I’ve been keeping my eyes open. There are some vacancies (around town), but all the good ones, people jump on it. It’s not as much of a tenant’s market as you would think. Plus small operations like us, we don’t get to negotiate with the landlord, where we can say, “I like the ‘Ewa wing of Ala Moana Center.” Small businesses, we kind of wait for the scraps of people’s leftovers and we try to make the best decision out of what’s left.
The Ben Dong location on Ke‘eaumoku did what it was supposed to do: test out the market and how people would react to our food. Based on our feedback, I think [the] majority enjoyed it and would eat our food on a regular basis—twice, three or even four times a week. We really appreciate the following.
We’re just trying to regroup. We just need a little time to figure things out instead of rushing into another operation.
Daniel Kim came of age with his parents’ banchan shop. Now two generations look ahead to the next chapter.
Daniel Kim is partial to the spicy octopus. It’s one of several dozen dishes that rotated through the banchan cases and prepared foods table at Ke‘eaumoku Produce, a mom and pop shop where Kim’s parents, Seong Hee and Chul Kyu Kim, are the mom and pop. Tucked at the back of a potholed parking lot behind Yakiniku Don Day, Ke‘eaumoku Produce held its own against Sorabol and 88 Supermarket and other modest powerhouses of this modest block, a food destination with its own loyal following. Fresh kim chee on Tuesdays and Fridays; handmade mandoo on Thursdays; and meat jun, fish jun and japchae every day: Regulars knew the rhythms of the week by heart. The most diehard wiped out deliveries of Kamiya papayas and fresh Wai‘anae eggs within hours. For them and for customers who miss the soy-simmered lotus root, mul (water) kim chee, Korean-style hamburger jun and other signature staples, the Kims have a message: Come back when they reopen.
Ke‘eaumoku Produce is the Kims’ legacy in Honolulu’s microcosm of Korean small businesses—a banchan shop they’ve owned since 2009. Before that, around the time Daniel was born in 1991, Chul Kyu drove a taxi, then found more stable income making deliveries for Koha Foods from 9 to 5 and staffing his sister’s liquor store in Waimalu from 8 p.m. until midnight. Seong Hee worked a kiosk inside Pālama Supermarket. They got their own business when they took over a friend’s plate lunch counter off Lagoon Drive, cooking hamburger steaks and dinuguan, until another friend in his Sunday soccer league told Chul Kyu he was looking for a buyer for Ke‘eaumoku Produce.
In that concrete bunker of a space—a tiny front room with a full kitchen in back—the Kims grew a following for the dishes they grew up with. At its peak before the pandemic they ran the store with three part-time employees, six days a week, making banchan and catering birthday parties and functions for the Center for Korean Studies at UH Mānoa. The store’s posted hours—8 a.m. to 7 p.m. at one point—belied the real hours. Mandoo, for example: On Wednesday nights Chul Kyu prepped vegetables, glass noodles and pork for the filling. Thursday mornings at 5:30 he was back to mix and season, followed in the kitchen by his sisters, who with Seong Hee and one other cook spent the next four hours stuffing wrappers and boiling mandoo. Most weeks, the 25- and 50-piece bags of fresh dumplings sold out by Friday.
In mid-March the site of the new Ke‘eaumoku Produce, a block away at Like Like Plaza, was still awaiting renovations. The forced downtime is the Kims’ first time off in seven years. “My mom and dad’s mindset is very old-school Korean. They have this business, they work at the business, they have customers, good,” says Daniel, whose parents, self-conscious about their English, deflected this interview request to him. “Everything’s gonna be the same. They’re trying to make the kitchen and everything else the same so they can pick up where they left off.” Which means regulars won’t notice many changes—for now. In a few years Daniel wants to step in to expand production and distribution of the kim chee and mandoo, signature items that put him and his sister through college and made him a teacher and her an accountant. There’s still some debate, because like other immigrants, his parents worked this hard so their kids wouldn’t have to. What Daniel sees: two parents in their 60s whose efforts produced a legacy. “They’ve been working physically demanding jobs for a long time,” he says. “I want them to take a vacation. At least.”