Live Like a Local: Exploring Honolulu's Chinatown

Waikiki chinatown

Oahu's Waikiki is a place where paradise and madness collide. The beaches are busy, the shopping is crowded, and when it's time to dine out those without reservations charge hostess stands as if it were the 1960s and the Beatles were in town. Even the Cheesecake Factory sees a fifty-person line snaking out its doors and down the block. But in the purlieus of Waikiki, areas that travelers often overlook, are some of the best and certainly the more authentic experiences for visitors to Oahu. And for travelers who are interested in incredible foods, ambitious cocktails, provocative art, and original souvenirs, visitors would be remiss to skip Honolulu's Chinatown. It's like Brooklyn's Williamsburg, but when the artists first moved in and well before New York's latest hotspot went the way of gentrification.

At first glance, travelers pulling into Chinatown by bus or car might wonder why they had elected to leave Waikiki for seedier streets and an architecture that seems not to have improved after two infamous fires destroyed the area. And without the right guidance, many visitors taking the trip to Chinatown will probably wander around the fifteen square blocks, looking for the places typical of a Chinatown, like the Oahu Market, where fresh pig snouts and chicken feet overwhelm counters (and shoppers), or Char Hung Sut, which draws a line as early as dawn for their rice cakes and pork hash. But seeking out a taste of the past is not the reason to visit Chinatown; everyone should come for a taste of the future, because at present the neighborhood is experiencing a third fire: a conflagration of culture, couture, and cuisine that is certain to redefine Honolulu's Chinatown in the decade to follow.


For starters, we suggest beginning with a meal. In the location where one of the district's devastating fires had once raged stands Lucky Belly. The restaurant is helping to redefine the neighborhood with a menu that feels like a journey across the Asian continent. They serve ramen akin to and distinct from Japan's, and Lucky Belly offers up a menu-page-worth of sake. Some of the kitchen's other specialties are the fried lumpia from the Philippines, and thick slices of pork belly, topped with pickled cucumber and hoisin sauce, all stuffed into soft buns, reminiscent of street food in China.

Down the block and around the corner is The Pig and The Lady, a restaurant offering a spin on Southeast Asian dishes. The scene, despite mason jars serving as glasses, Cafe du Monde coffee cans lining the counters, old farm doors standing in for tables, and a chef who dishes up street food, almost feels as if it could pass for a luxury establishment. Perhaps it's the screen prints and watercolor paintings lining the brick walls. Or more likely the quality of the food. Chef Andrew Le's take on fried chicken could shepherd in restauranteurs from across the 48 just to learn his secrets. It's also part of his mission to discover and then introduce niche cuisine, like Cha Ca La Vong, a speciality of one Hanoi restaurant.

For travelers seeking food from another continent, try Grondin, which fuses together the delicacies of France with the soul of Latin American staples. Grondin is newest to the neighborhood, replacing a former karaoke bar that had operated, suspiciously, without electricity. The fusion of dishes is served among pale yellow walls, blue shelves, and brickwork that hearken back to an old diner in the outskirts of Havana or a farm-to-table bed and breakfast in a rural part of France. The dishes do an equally wonderful job of transporting diners to these regions--from escargot to yuca with melted cheese and drizzled honey.

While many restaurants and storefronts are quite obviously such from the street, standing juxtaposed with the neglected architecture of Chinatown, some of the best sites in the area are tucked away. In the middle of many square blocks are a vast number of courtyards unknown to the general public. At present, Grondin is working on beautifying their outdoor space, accessible through their kitchen, and plan to open a backyard patio for patrons. That courtyard, in fact, is one of the most famous in the neighborhood because above Grondin's shared space, up where the young palms stretch their leaves, are the artists' lofts. On the first Friday of every month, many of the painters, photographers, and musicians open up their workspaces (which double as their homes) for the public to browse finished projects and works-in-progress.

If you should happen to miss out on the First Fridays Gallery Walk, these artists' collections and the creations of other Hawaiian artists are scattered about the neighborhood and found in many of the restaurants, bars, and galleries. Of course you can also visit the obvious exhibitions, like the ones at The Arts at Mark's Garage or the iconic Pegge Hopper Gallery. But remember the works are everywhere. Even tattoo parlors like the Black Cat function more like an art exhibition than a tattoo parlor, though getting inked is certainly an option.


For a different art experience, travelers can unwind at Manifest, where three residents of the lofts own and operate the cafe (by day), bar (by night), and art gallery (always). The space, which feels like a brick, end-of-world bunker, oddly equipped with a sun roof, specializes in whiskeys, as evidenced by the chalkboard that lists around a hundred options. But, contrary to rationale, tipplers should avoid the whiskey because the one thing that will become, well, manifest to anyone spending a few moments at the bar is the talent of the barman. Wearing an old barkeep's leather smock, co-owner, skilled mixologist, and former MMA fighter Justin Park does everything from pumping smoke into cocktails to incorporating freshly picked passion fruits into his recipes (which he gets from a local man who brings in the produce in exchange for beer). So skip the whiskey and take Park up on one of his liquid inventions. On weekends, Manifest ushers in those who seek dance and nightlife. So if an artsier evening speaks to you, try the Dragon Upstairs, a live jazz venue that also serves as an art gallery... of course.


Just as travelers won't find a drink or a meal in Waikiki with more character than those served in Chinatown, the same is true of the fashions. While the vogue of Waikiki is overpriced or mass-produced floral-print shirts, in Chinatown, visitors can shop for "a more modern and fashionable approach to Aloha wear," according to Roberta Oakes, who owns the store that shares her name and sells clothes and other fashion accessories that are eco-conscious and local. There are about a dozen shops in the area that are evolving the tired trends of certain Hawaiian fashions, like Homecoming Boutique that sells everything from floral-print tops to spiked ballerina flats. In fact, looking good in Chinatown doesn't have to end with a new wardrobe. Mojo Barbershop, where the tagline reads "Handsome not Hemajang"--Hawaiian for "all messed up"--offers male customers everything from haircuts to straight-razor shaves, while allowing them to sip beer and enjoy a game on TV.


For those travelers looking for sun and luaus and all the trappings of tourism, stay in Waikiki. But for those who want to experience a vibrant and eccentric enclave where the arts are alive, the food is delicious, and the neighborhood is still working on its appearance, then off to Chinatown. Things are still real and slightly hemajang, though only for a little bit longer.