Two Former Senia Cooks Open New Chinese-Inspired Restaurant in Kaimukī
Three words: adobo fried chicken.
Photos: Catherine Toth Fox
The story of XO Restaurant, which opened Wednesday on Wai‘alae Avenue, is a long, winding one. So stay with me.
Kenny Lee is only 24, but he’s worked at a handful of great kitchens in Honolulu, from Chef Chai to Top of Waikīkī, before helping to open Senia with chef Chris Kajioka in Downtown in 2016.
SEE ALSO: Is Restaurant Senia Worth the Hype?
Aleina Chun, 31, worked in Las Vegas and San Francisco, then moved back home to open Max & Lucy’s in Downtown. She worked at Hale Ōhuna and Nanzan Giro Giro before taking a job at Senia a year ago.
The two became quick friends, helping each other out at their stations and bonding over Lee’s adobo fried chicken, a dish he would make for family dinners at the restaurant.
In the meantime, Lee’s mom, who operated a fish stall in Kekaulike Market in Chinatown, opened Taste of Thai Cuisine in Kaimukī about a year ago, in the site of the former Hung Won Restaurant. She couldn’t handle running the restaurant and the fish stall, so she started looking for someone to take over the restaurant’s lease.
That someone turned out to be her son.
Lee left his job at Senia and Chun followed. The friends opened XO Restaurant in two weeks—and Kajioka was there to support his former cooks.
“[Lee] asked me for help and I believe in his food,” Chun says, explaining why she so readily left Senia. “That was it.”
The menu at XO Restaurant, named after the spicy seafood sauce that hails from Hong Kong, is an interesting combination of Chinese-inspired comfort food and, well, just plain delicious dishes that have nothing to do with Chinese cuisine. Every plate is elevated and unique in some way: A bowl of salt-and-vinegar lotus root chips are dusted with moringa powder ($9), and the assorted pickles ($5) range from shimeji mushrooms to watermelon radishes to grapes (yes, grapes) pickled in different liquids.
“I tried to make this a representation of me on the menu,” Lee says.
Every dish we tried at a recent media preview had a little something extra, making it different and exciting. The torn tofu salad ($11) features both fried and soft tofu tossed with tomatoes, walnuts, watercress and red onions and is finished with a tasty dressing of fish sauce, garlic, Thai chilies, kaffir lime, lemon juice and a little bit of sugar. The buttermilk fried oysters ($17) are accompanied by a bowl of curry aioli that most of us agreed could be smeared on anything.
Other standouts include the house ginger fried rice ($14) that serves as a nest for two barely poached sous vide eggs, and the XO scallops ($27), perfectly seared and topped with a house-made XO sauce that gets its heat from Thai chilies that “can rip your head off,” Lee says.
The crowd favorite was the least Chinese of all the dishes: The loaded potato au gratin ($16) resembles a gold brick of luscious cheesy potatoes, served with a side of popular baked potato fixings including sour cream and bacon bits. The combination of cheeses—Parmesan, mozzarella and provolone—in the potatoes makes it crave-worthy. People literally fought over this dish!
The signature dish, though, is that adobo fried chicken ($21), which will lure you back again and again. It was such a popular family-dinner dish at Senia, it was served every Thursday. (The staff called it “KFC Thursday” for “Kenny’s Fried Chicken Thursday.”) Skin-on thighs are marinated in buttermilk, then breaded and deep fried. These golden pieces of juicy chicken are then topped with an adobo sauce infused with butter. A lot of butter. The smell alone is intoxicating.
The pair is still working on desserts. For now, they’re serving a brown-butter chocolate-chip cookie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream that’s drizzled with caramel made with fish sauce—just a hint to give it a little saltiness.
Lee wants to get rid of the existing stock of domestic beers by offering what he calls an “Extreme Happy Hour,” where they’re around $3 to $4 each. The drink menu will feature a more elevated lineup of brews, including some local suds by Maui Brewing Co. The restaurant has a small offering of spirits, including Jameson and Patron.
Dishes are served family style and the menu will likely grow and evolve in the next few months.
But that adobo fried chicken will always be there. Let’s hope, anyway.
XO Restaurant, 3434 Wai‘alae Ave., (808) 732-3838, @Restaurant_XO on Instagram
Bring the family down to the Best of Honolulu Festival July 14 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Honolulu Hale civic grounds. Eat at ‘ono food booths, shop local designers in the marketplace, bring the family to the keiki zone for face painting, balloon animals, rides, games and more. For more information visit honolulumagazine.com/bestofhonolulu.
READ MORE STORIES BY CATHERINE TOTH FOX