The Many Charms Of Chinatown

Jo McGarry
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Friday - November 24, 2006
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The HASR Wine Co. shares a courtyard with Grand Cafe and Bakery in Chinatown
The HASR Wine Co. shares a courtyard with Grand
Cafe and Bakery in Chinatown

There’s nothing better than being able to walk to restaurants. Parking your car and then wandering from one place to another, checking out menus pinned in restaurant doorways, and reading haphazardly cut newspaper reviews posted to windows and yellowing with age is a huge part of the experience of eating out for me. That’s why I love to go home to Europe. You don’t think about taking a car into the center of Edinburgh or Paris - you jump on the Metro or a bus if you need to, or walk. If we ever get our mass transit problems sorted out, I’ll look forward to more areas becoming like Chinatown, one of the great walking neighborhoods in Honolulu.

Shopping for food in Chinatown is such a life affirming experience - ironic, I know, when you’re surrounded by dead ducks hanging in store windows, lobster and crab in tanks waiting to be served up for lunch, and whole pigs roasting on spits, but I hope you know what I mean. Chinatown is full of life and noise, color and glorious food. Floury soft noodles, hot manapua, sweet and sticky char siu, fresh pastries and restaurants that specialize in everything from stir-fried sea cucumber to sizzling black cod. If you really want to see the food that makes Hawaii special, then Chinatown’s the place to start. And if you want to see the changing face of Chinatown, no better place to head for than the corner of Pauahi and Smith.

Start with Little Village Noodle House, the beautiful Chinese “finer” dining restaurant owned by the Chan family. Try their black pepper beef, orange chicken or Singapore rice noodles for a taste of some of the dishes that have made this restaurant an absolute favorite of the downtown business crowd and late-night theatergoers.

Mei Sum Dim Sum (on the corner of Pauahi and Smith) remains my favorite dim sum spot of all time. The variety of the dim sum, speed of service, freshness of those wonderful piping hot “little pieces of the heart” can’t be beat - and Mei Sum’s dim sum service is now so popular they serve until 7:45 p.m.

Across the street and next to one of the municipal parking lots is Grand Café and Bakery. Here’s a real piece of Hawaii restaurant history. Ti Chong Ho founded the original Grand Café and bakery in 1923. Today, Mr. Ho’s great-grandson, Anthony Vierra, is executive chef at the helm of this neighborhood restaurant/bakery that has gained a reputation for quality and excellence - particularly at breakfast. Plagued with the problems of too many customers and not enough trained staff in its early days, Grand Café has settled into a nice routine where the food is consistently good and the service is delightful - if you manage to avoid the lunchtime rush.

The corner of Pauahi and Maunakea is home to one of the best Thai restaurants in town, Sweet Basil, and just around the corner from Grand Café (the two share a courtyard) is the HASR wine store.

HASR, (the acronym means Highly Allocated, Spoiled Rotten - a reference to the wines and the people able to afford them, presumably) brings an element that seems to tie these spots together. The courtyard wouldn’t look out of place anywhere in Europe. There’s a seating area outside of Grand Café where you can enjoy lunch, and HASR hosts a series of wine tastings where guests mingle, taste new wines and get a sense of how cool this tiny area of Chinatown has now become.

On the corner of Pauahi and Nuuanu, the former Havana Cabana is set to become an “American” restaurant; a partnership between the owners of Little Village and Grand Café, my sources say, and across one more block on Bethel, the delightful Soul De Cuba has gained a loyal following since opening earlier this year.

With First Fridays, events at The Arts at Mark’s Garage and a holiday season of performances at Hawaii Theatre, there’s no better place for a lively taste of Honolulu than Chinatown.

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