What to Love About Honolulu’s Dive Bars—and It’s Not Just the Food

Dining and culture editor Martha Cheng visited 8 Fat Fat 8 Bar & Grille, Shinsho Tei and Anyplace Cocktail Lounge and found amazing food and more.

 

I was looking for something as I wandered between warehouses where it smelled like something had died. As I ate kalbi in a pink-fluorescent lit booth wondering if I was in a hostess bar. As I decided between the smoking or karaoke room while the server redirected a group of men to the strip club next door. As I listened to everyone from teenagers to grandmas and a Hawai‘i Supreme Court justice belt out karaoke in Chinese, Japanese and English.

 

At first, I thought I was looking for food. Maybe a budae chigae and soondae at Café Princess Pig, a Korean bar hidden on the ground floor of an office building. Or a lup cheong and cured duck clay pot rice and corn riblets at Red Café, where bathroom signs admonish in Chinese not to squat on the toilets. Or fried chicken and a kim chee pancake at Café Duck Butt, the interior somewhat spiffed up and shochu girl posters gone, but the outside as sketchy as ever—Kaka‘ako gentrification be damned.

 

I was looking for the best food in Hawai‘i’s dive bars because I worried that we might be losing what I love here—how well you can eat in the diviest, most unpretentious places. V Lounge, Top of the Hill and Home Bar and Grill are gone. The original Side Street Inn, once the vanguard of craveable dive bar food, recently underwent renovations and now looks like a generic sports bar. Nostalgia grips Hawai‘i more tightly than in other places I’ve lived, but is it possible that even here, it’s losing to rising costs and changing tastes?

 

In the end, I did find amazing food. But I also found what it really is that makes me love our dive bars. And it isn’t just the food.

 


SEE ALSO: Favorite Dishes at 6 ‘Ono Dive Bars in Honolulu

 

8 Fat Fat 8 Bar & Grille

 

8fatfat8

8 Fat Fat 8 owner Mary Ann Yeung. Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino

 

I’d never noticed the escargot at 8 Fat Fat 8 before. Maybe I’d just gotten stuck in what I always order—what everyone always orders—the Fat Fat Chicken, half a bird freed from heavy breading and fried intact, resulting in a parchment-thin brittle skin, and served with a side dish of salt and pepper. And the pork chops, fried and tossed with plenty of garlic and green onion, the salt and bite of garlic tamed with beer or whiskey sodas with $4 shots of Jack Daniels on special. But the escargot? It’s in the “Pupus from the Sea (and Shell)” section of the menu—and I’d overlooked it for years. Owner Mary Ann Yeung says it’s been on the menu since her dad and a few friends opened 8 Fat Fat 8 in 1986 (or sometime around then). He brought the idea over from the Hibiscus Club on Ward, where he used to bartend. It’s as unfussy an escargot as you can get: shell-less snails tumbled out of a can, sautéed with butter and garlic and something that tastes like Maggi seasoning, but which Yeung says is a secret. It’s served with toasted white bread to mop up all the savory juices.

 

“You can meet people in any job, but it’s the range here—it’s not just blue collar, it’s not just white collar.”

— Mary Ann Yeung

 

Yeung’s parents emigrated from Guangdong, China, and worked in Honolulu hotels, restaurants and bars before opening 8 Fat Fat 8, which explains the blend of local Chinese and Chinese food here—from the only-in-Hawai‘i cake noodles and gau gee to Cantonese-style fried chicken and stir-fried romaine lettuce. Bars are hardly destinations for vegetables, though this place might be an exception, the lettuce softening to embrace the garlic while still retaining its fresh crunch. But why a bar? A dark dive bar at that, with darts and karaoke and booths patched up with painter’s tape? That, she doesn’t know. She didn’t expect to be here—in 2000, she was teaching English in Japan; she came back to help her mom after her dad passed away. Twenty years later, she’s still here.

 

Yeung doesn’t drink. “I have the Asian sickness” and “I’m not much of a people person, but meeting a lot of great people is the best part,” of 8 Fat Fat 8, she says. “You can meet people in any job, but it’s the range here—it’s not just blue collar, it’s not just white collar.” Bernadette Hernandez, Bruno Mars’ mom, used to bartend at 8 Fat Fat 8—“being from a family of singers, she really encouraged the karaoke,” Yeung remembers, and one of her regulars, Kevin “Boolly” Watanabe, came because of her. Now, long after Hernandez stopped working at the bar, he still returns a few nights a week to sing after he gets off work at Costco’s tire shop.

 

Escargot Fried Chicken

Escargot and fried chicken at 8 Fat Fat 8. Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino

 


SEE ALSO: Hawai‘i’s Oldest Restaurants Are Still ‘Ono After All These Years


 

Another regular, an alcohol rep, is at the bar when I come to talk to Yeung. He’s trying to convince her to get rid of the booths—most bars and restaurants have replaced them with high tops for more seating capacity and open space, he says. I’m about to say that the booths are part of what I love about 8 Fat Fat 8, fulfilling my paradoxical desire to be alone, among people, when Yeung says, “I can see his point of view, but that’s kind of the identity—the booths. It’s what makes it more homey.”

 

I realized that’s what I love about dives: their resistance to change. Most items on the menu have been there for more than a decade. Not that Yeung won’t try some new things. She’s brightened the space (slightly) and tests out new items from distributors, like fried fish “pillows” that resemble chicken nuggets but taste like fish clouds in a crackly salty sweet shell, and bite size jin dui and yuzu cheesecake—my favorite dive bar desserts, even if they’re brought in frozen. But for the most part, Yeung wants 8 Fat Fat 8 to feel and taste the way it always has. It’s a bulwark against a world of constant striving and pressure to change, to optimize, to disrupt, to keep up. 8 Fat Fat 8 provides the singular solace of dive bars, that this is enough. That you, right here, right now, are enough.

 

Shinsho Tei

 

What kind of dive bar has green beans for the first three items on the menu? Or the better question: What kind of dive bar has green beans good enough to order every time? One that stir-fries them with Spam, lup cheong and dried shrimp, deep-fried, which is the best treatment of those small shriveled shrimp that are usually annoyingly chewy and tough but here echo the crunch of the beans. This is Shinsho Tei, tucked away in Nu‘uanu Shopping Plaza, a place with just eight vinyl swivel bar stools, seven tables, brown booths and a short menu that includes “Bacon,” “Musubi/Bowl Rice” and “Vienna sausage (two cans).” But approach the menu like a box of Lego bricks, as many regulars do, and you end up with variations like deluxe green beans over fried somen, or the fried pork chop over fried somen, or for the sashimi, abalone (from a can and sliced).

 

Shinsho Tei

The family behind Shinsho Tei (from left): Guy Soares, Jerry Galmiche, Helen Galmiche, Gina (Galmiche) Kakalia, John Galmiche . Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino

 

Regulars Phillip and Valerie Kapaona met each other at Shinsho Tei 15 years ago and married two years later. Now, they live a block away and meet other regulars at the bar about three times a week, ordering the deluxe green beans over somen noodles; the Shinsho Tei shrimp, sautéed with garlic and butter; ‘ahi sashimi when it’s available, but with the high prices lately, the canned abalone will do; and fried chicken. People say don’t order chicken at restaurants—it’s the throwaway dish meant to appease the masses, but in dive bars, where the point is appeasement, always order the fried chicken. It’s been reliably good at every Honolulu dive bar I’ve been to, and Shinsho Tei is no exception: well-marinated boneless thigh meat, fried for a skin with chicharronlike perfection. “It’s not a very large menu,” Valerie says. “But it’s a tasty menu.” Which sums it up exactly.

 

Green Beans Lup Cheong Shinsho Tei

The green beans deluxe at Shinsho Tei. Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino

 

Shinsho Tei had a larger menu when it started as a Japanese restaurant in 1988. After Gina Kakalia’s parents took it over in the early ’90s, “it morphed into a more local bar,” Kakalia says. Today, her mother, Helen Galmiche, runs Shinsho Tei and Kakalia bartends a few nights a week. She’s a teacher by day: “Drunk people prepared me for dealing with children,” she says. “The type of patience, slow, clear talking.” She grew up at Shinsho Tei, with regulars paying her and her brother to karaoke to Britney Spears and R. Kelly. “I saw regulars more than my extended family.” Now, those same regulars have attended her wedding, met her daughter. Maybe because of Shinsho Tei’s small size, it really does feel like everyone knows your name here. “It’s just a place that’s very homey for us,” Valerie says. “It’s a wonderful little place, you know?”

 

Anyplace Cocktail Lounge

 

When Anyplace left its home of more than 40 years for a former bank, a space twice the size, I worried it would no longer feel the same. That the old bar, tinged with Hawaiiana and a bit of Western saloon, would have morphed into a soulless modern version. I needn’t have worried. The original Anyplace lives on in the old booths and brass-studded saloon chairs brought over, the previously black walls painted the same shade of green as the old spot, hibiscus-printed fabric draped over the windows. There’s a ramshackle quality with plastic picnic tables and folding chairs filling out the rest of the space, a dart room and more TVs, including one propped up on cardboard boxes covered with a tropical print cloth. It’s the original Anyplace meets rec room meets friend’s garage. No, this isn’t anyplace. It could only be Anyplace.

 

The menu’s the same, with a Spam and egg and hamburger sandwich combo that has been a part of Anyplace for at least three decades—the fluffy softness of the sliced white bread and egg smooshed against crisped-up salty Spam. Anyplace’s menu focuses on old-school local comfort food, from Obachan’s fried chicken to shoyu-sugar Vienna sausages, with one exception for creativity: the chopped salad, romaine tossed with ranch dressing, bacon and pops of briny capers, and heaped with furikake and crunchy chow mein noodles.

 

Anyplace Cocktail

Anyplace Cocktail Lounge owner Judy Foster. Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino

 

Judy Foster Long doesn’t consider Anyplace a dive. Certainly not a dive that fits the dictionary definitions of dives as disreputable, sinister and detriments to the community. Fair enough. There is something different about Anyplace. I notice it first one night when a Hawai‘i Supreme Court justice shows off a thrilling vibrato before launching into the high notes of “Age of Aquarius.” And then a few weeks later: I’m talking to Long, and she starts crying just 10 minutes into our conversation, thinking about the gift baskets a regular made for Anyplace’s educator appreciation day. “Whenever I think about it”—Long stops to wipe away tears —“all the unsolicited acts of kindness, it really all makes this worthwhile. People are amazing.”

 

It occurs to me that we don’t hear that enough: People are amazing. That lately, the opposite feels like it’s pressing in on us—rage, violence, isolation, disconnection. But not here, not at Anyplace. Where an elderly couple shares a lū‘au plate in one corner, where a family with two teenagers takes turns with the mic, where Long stops by all the tables to distribute avocados from her tree, and where the kitchen serves fundraiser lau lau and banana poi bread to send the Na Keiki Mauloa volleyball team to nationals. And when they’re seen celebrating on TV, Long will tell her employees, “That’s why you guys bought the lau lau, the kālua pig, the pickle onion, the banana poi bread—for those girls, so that they could go win.”

 

Spam And Burger Anyplace Cocktail

Spam and egg sandwich and hamburger sandwich combo. Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino

 

Long is a third-generation bar owner. Her grandfather died in an accident when her mom was 7, so her grandmother raised her two children in Kobe, Japan, after World War II, and opened a bar to support her family. In 2000, Long bought Anyplace from her mother (who bought the Honolulu bar in 1990 from its original owner). Long had been pursuing a graduate degree in psychology at the time—this, after practicing as a lawyer. Earlier this year, she wasn’t able to renew the original Anyplace’s lease, but she wasn’t ready to retire. She wanted to keep Anyplace going so that people could “experience some of what it was like when I was growing up—local hospitality. People keep telling me, ‘you got a bigger space, you got to do shot specials, you got to do this, you got to do that.’ And it’s like, I know, I gotta do more stuff. But I can’t go away from what our core is, which is local, old-style hospitality.”