It’s with great sadness that I read the growing number of reports about problems with foods and products made in mainland China. It gives one pause and certainly makes me look twice and thrice at labels. But I know I should do that anyway, regardless of where I buy something, whether it’s a supermarket or an small ethnic grocery.
Many people we know have also told us they are wary of going to Chinatown here because they’ve heard it’s scary or they’ve seen things on TV about high crime there. We heard the same thing about Boston’s Chinatown when we lived in that area, and London’s too. We didn’t find those things to be true in those places either. I think it’s a matter of being smart and careful, just as you would in any part of a large metropolitan area.
So I’d like to share the Honolulu Chinatown that we know and love. It’s a terrific place. We try to go every couple of weeks for fresh produce, fish and seafood, bakery items, and a few dry goods. If you’re interested in learning more about some of the unfamiliar items you might find on the store shelves, I highly recommend Linda Bladholm’s The Asian Grocery Store Demystified.
Where is it? Where do you park?
Chinatown is located Downtown Honolulu and is roughly bordered by Nimitz Highway to the south, River Steet (west), Beretania Street (north), and Nuuanu Avenue (east). Caveat: all these streets, except Nimitz are one-way. (See a map from mapquest.com showing one-way streets) The street signs in Chinatown are pretty distinct, as they’re written in both English and Chinese script.
Street parking is limited and 1-hour slots only (free Sundays and holidays), but there are municipal garages (pay half-hourly) on Smith (near Nimitz), Maunakea (near King), Nuuanu (past King), and Maunakea (near Beretania, at Chinese Cultural Plaza). Our favorite place to park, though, is at a private lot at the corner of Nuuanu and Nimitz (weekend rate, $4 all day til 5pm). We’ve been known to get to Chinatown for breakfast and not leave until after lunch so this is a good deal for us.
Where to buy:
- Seafood: we go to the Troy Enterprise fish market (corner of King and Kekaulike Marketplace) for fresh whole moi (sweet white-meat fish) and Dungeness crabs (they will gut and scale the fish for you on request), and Da Kine Seafood (Maunakea, b/w King and Nimitz) also for Dungeness and for frozen seafood (they carry froglegs, French escargots — with or without butter, and crawfish tail meat if you’re looking for such exotics); The Oahu Market (across Troy Enterprise) also has several different fish and seafood vendors; Wah Wah Seafoods (King/Keakaulike) has fresh fish and live frogs and eels; Seven Sisters (inside Maunakea Mktpl) has fresh local sweet shrimp
• Fresh meat: market stalls at the Oahu Market and in Kekaulike Marketplace, and Maunakea Marketplace: you can find whole oxtail and other cuts of beef, sides of pork, fresh chickens
• Produce: the market stalls on King, and in and around Kekaulike Marketplace can’t be beat for price and selection (the early bird gets the best choices, they start opening around 6:30am)
• Fresh noodles: we go to Yat Ting Chow Noodle Factory (King/River) for saimin, udon, and wonton, gyoza and mandoo wrappers; and Look Funn for plain, char siu or shrimp rice noodles
• Chinese BBQ and roast meats: Eastern Food Center (King/Kekaulike Mkt), Wing Loy (Maunakea/Hotel), and Nam Fong (across from Wing Loy)
• Pastries: Chinese (Lee, on King; Ruby’s on Hotel; ) and Filipino (Pelio on Hotel); many dim sum houses will also carry pastries you can order for take-away
• Chinese dry goods: There is the venerable Bo Wah (Maunakea/Hotel), but of course many many others throughout the area
• Vietnamese dry goods: many along King Street between Kekaulike Mktplace and River St), 555 Market (King/Kekaulike Mkt)
• Laotian: (Pauahi/Smith)
- Thai: Hong Fa Market (Maunkea/Pauahi)
• Manapua: Char Hung Sut (Pauahi/Smith); most bakeries will also carry different types of manapua
• Cookware: China Arts on King/Maunakea has both carbon steel and stainless steel woks in a large range of prices and sizes, and other professional grade cookware and utensils; as well as tea sets, and serving and dinner ware
- Acupuncture/Herbalists: as you might guess, there are quite a few in this neighborhood; we visit the acupuncturist at “Acupuncture and Herbs from China” (Nuuanu/Pauahi); she accepts certain types of insurance (unfortunately not ours), and can provide a receipt for insurance or FSA purposes
Where to eat: Where to begin? This area has quite a trove of dining opportunities and has something for every budget. You’d expect all flavors of Asian restaurants, but there are also Indian, Cuban, Mexican, a French bistro and others too. These are talked about elsewhere in the local press and blogosphere. Since we are rarely in Town in the afternoon, much less after dark, I can only tell you about our favorite breakfast and lunch locales. (Our rule of thumb when scoping out restaurants in an unfamiliar locale: look inside to see who eats there.)
- The Maunakea Marketplace food court features Singapore, Malaysian, Filipino, Korean, Thai, Japanese, Laotian, Vietnamese and Indian stands. The first four are also open for breakfast, serving not only typical meat-egg entrees, but also warm noodle soups and rice porridges (congee, or arroz caldo at the Filipino stands). In the Maunakea Courtyard, fresh fruit smoothies are the real deal at Summer Frappe (see our post here)
- The Eastern Food Center is a sit-down BBQ house that also opens early for breakfast, serving traditional breakfasts, but also succulent roast meats and warming congees.
- There are many Vietnamese pho houses, but our go-to place is Pho 97 (Maunakea/entrance to Marketplace). Their Vietnamese crepe (made with mung beans and coconut milk), spring rolls, bun with BBQ pork, and pho have never disappointed. (Be prepared to wait at peak lunch hours)
- Finally, there’s Good Luck Dim Sum (Beretania/Maunakea). I was weaned on the glorious dim houses in San Francisco so I have to be able to choose my dumplings from a rolling cart, or I feel kind of cheated out of the dim sum experience. You get that full experience here, though the space is a bit small. Of course, you can also order anything off the extensive regular menu. We often order take-out from here, as dim sum makes great picnic food for an afternoon at Foster Gardens.
What else is nearby?
Don’t miss Foster Gardens (Vineyard/Maunkea)! There’s also an auction house (Nuuanu/King), Chinese antiques (Smith/King), art galleries, the Aloha Tower marketplace, and Fort Street mall shops. We often walk to the Hawaii State library and adjacent Iolani Palace grounds (King/Punchbowl), but that is probably a mile or so away. A nice walk when it’s relatively cool out.
Our favorite treasures from Chinatown (of course, most of them are edible …)