Honolulu’s Chinatown, Part 2: Best Buys

Next Thursday, February 7th, is the start of the year 4706 in the Chinese calendar and, as my niece’s new T-shirt points out, is also called the Year of the Rat. People born in the Years of the Rat (1924, 1936, 1948. 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996 and this year) are said to be intelligent, just, balanced, orderly, and honest in personal relationships, or so says our all-knowing wall calendar! (Were you born in a Year of the Rat?) Festivities to welcome the new year are well underway in Honolulu’s Chinatown and other Chinese communities around the island, but key festivities still remain (see side bar at bottom). Streets are festooned with colorful lanterns and signs bearing wishes for prosperity and long health; dragon-like lions wend their way through shops, banks, markets, and malls; and the air cracks with sharp reports of firecrackers to ward off evil spirits and bad luck. If you need a reason to venture into Chinatown, these last few days leading up to the New Year are a great time to visit this historic district at its prettiest and liveliest. Shops and restaurants are filled with special foods, prices can be even more competitive than ever, and there is just an air of celebration and anticipation.

As far as we’re concerned, though, T and I think any day is a great day to be in Chinatown. As outlined in the earlier post, Honolulu’s Chinatown: come see what you’ve been missing, we visit a couple of times a month for the freshest local produce, noodles, seafoods, smoothies (see Summer Frappe post) and ready-cooked meats, dumplings, and other goodies. Locations and some parking options were also covered earlier. Here we highlight some of our key finds.

Goji berries, aka wolfberries (Fructus lycii). We’ve used this medicinally for several years, but within the last year include wolfberries in our weekday daily breakfast oatmeal. Generous 1lb. packages retail between $4.50-$8.00 — perhaps a third to half the retail cost we’ve seen elsewhere.

As mentioned in earlier posts, we prefer to shop for produce here because the turnover is so high that freshness is almost a given. We frequent many of the vegetable vendors, but our first stop is always a stall in the Kekaulike Mall marketplace called Cheap Market, Kahuku Farmers (right photo) for our leafy greens — watercress, choy sum, Chinese broccoli, baby bok choy, dill, herbs, and gai choy — but they have many others as well.

Kitchen tools I love: The julienne peeler (left), allows you to make julienne slices as easily as peeling a potato ($7-8), from Hong Fa Thai market on Maunakea/Pauahi. A Laotian rice steamer for sticky rice; the aluminum pot and bamboo basket are sold separately, and the assembly retails less than $20; also at Hong Fa. Vietnamese drip coffeemaker, a relaxing way to enjoy your favorite cup of joe on the weekend, with or without the traditional condensed milk accompaniment, retails less than $5 at most Vietnamese markets along King.

Kitchen collectibles: I have a weakness for wood kitchen articles, old and new. These antique mooncake molds and hand-grater are from Guan Hua (Chinese antiques and reproductions) on King.

For newer mooncake molds, check out Bo Wah on Maunkea. If you’re discerning about hair care and insist on a boar-bristle brush, consider also using a wood, rather than plastic, comb. Wood is said to be less likely to pull (and therefore, weaken) hair; and to provide a massage-like feeling on the scalp to promote blood circulation. I love them — the top right 3 are mine, I have one at home and one in my purse, and one in my backpack; all the others are gifts for family. All the models shown retail less than $6, except for the 2-tone one which starts at $18 (depends on size and type of wood used). Available at the Americomb House on Maunkea/King — it’s hard to miss with a giant wood comb in the window!

Char Hung Sut Manapua Factory’s hand-made selection includes sweets and savories for every taste. Go early, things start selling out by mid-morning.

The selection of roasted chicken, char siu, pork, duck, as well as various kinds of offal at the ever-popular Wing Loy’s BBQ on Maunakea. We also frequent Hong Kong style BBQ at the Far Eastern Center on King, and Nam Fong, also on Maunakea.

Fresh local and imported fruit selections are unparalleled. Visitors and picnickers looking for a ready-made taste of the islands will find cleaned and cut fruit bowls ranging from $2-4, depending on the fruits included. Chau’s Fruits (middle) at the Hotel St. entrance to the Maunakea Markets, Summer Frappe in the Maunakea courtyard, and several vendors in the Food Court have ice-cold fruit bowls from which to choose. It’s the best way to try a new fruit, too, if you’re unsure how to prepare or eat it — everything from the common (in Hawaii) pineapples and mangos, to watermelon, rambutan, sapote, dragonfruit, jackfruit and durian (seasonal).

Here’s a special find for connoisseurs of fish cakes. These are made daily from fresh spearfish/marlin at KC Meatball House, one of the stalls inside the Markets at Kekaulike Mall. KC also carries Asian-style (bound with cornstarch for a springy texture) pork meatballs that are one of T’s favorites.

This factory on Likelike Mall produces hundreds of the thin, rolled rice sheet noodles in shrimp (tiny dried kind), plain and char siu flavors. Each roll is $1 or less, depending on the flavor. Recipe: Char-siu or Shrimp Funn with Chive Oil.

This small dark store-front on King Street, just ewa of Kekaulike Mall, belies the bustling noodle factory inside. Dozens of types of fresh-made wheat and egg noodles in varying thicknesses and forms, as well as wrappers for wonton, gyoza and mandoo are available. A price list is posted in the foyer just before you step down into the factory proper to place your order. Often there’s a line here (but it moves quickly) so you may have time to peruse the list and make your selections before you get to the counter. Shown here are udon (left) and thick saimin noodles, both sell for $1.00/lb.

Ready for lunch? Dim sum at Good Luck Chinese restaurant at Mauna Kea/Beretania allows diners to select from dozens of steamed, fried and sauteed dishes from their traveling carts or off the extensive menu.

Pho 97 on Maunakea, near the Marketplace entrance, is our go-to stop for all Vietnamese meals: BBQ pork bun (left), Vietnamese mung bean crepe, or soups.

Want something faster than a sit-down restaurant affords? The food court at the Maunakea Marketplace has the most compelling assortment of Asian food stalls on Oahu: Singaporean, Malaysian, Thai, Laotian, Filipino, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese vendors offer fully-cooked meals ready to take, as well as short-order items like noodle soups cooked to order. Of the more than dozen stalls here, almost half offer Filipino foods so if you’ve ever been curious about Filipino foods, this is the place to sample different regional styles.

This is in no way a complete list, just a few of our favorites. We’ve only been exploring for 2 years, so if we’ve missed your favorite haunt or you know we’re missing out on a great product, please share it with us by leaving a comment below. And if you’ve recently visited this vibrant district yourself, we’d love to hear what your experience was like.

We missed some of the festivities over the last 2 weekends, but a few remain this coming weekend:

Friday, February 1
First Friday Arts at Marks
Chinatown Open House at Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Chinatown District

Friday & Saturday, February 1 & 2
Chinese New Year Celebration at Chinatown Cultural Place
Friday: 5:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m.
Saturday: 9:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m.
Fireworks and lion-dances

Saturday, February 2
CMA Parade – 4:00 p.m.
Night In Chinatown – 9:00 a.m. – 10:30 p.m.

Thursday, February 7
Chinese New Year