Exploring Honolulu’s Chinatown

Unique shopping is available at Roberta Oaks. The store sells clothes and other fashion accessories that are eco-conscious and local.

Unique shopping is available at Roberta Oaks. The store sells clothes and other fashion accessories that are eco-conscious and local.

Oahu’s Waikiki is a place where paradise and madness collide. The beaches are busy, the shopping is bustling, and when it’s time to dine out, it's good to remember that restaurants can fill up quickly. 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. We suggest Honolulu’s Chinatown for those interested in incredible food, ambitious cocktails, provocative art and original souvenirs. 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.

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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. Without the right guidance, many visitors taking the trip to Chinatown will probably wander around the 15 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 its rice cakes and pork hash. But sending clients for a taste of the past is not the reason to point them toward Chinatown; everyone should visit for a taste of the future, because currently the neighborhood is experiencing a third fire: a conflagration of culture, couture and cuisine that is certain to give Honolulu’s Chinatown a new image in the decade to follow.

Lucky Belly spins street food into gourmet grub.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. It serves delicious ramen and a menu-page-worth of sake from Japan; 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.

Pictured: Lucky Belly spins street food into gourmet grub.

Down the block and around the corner is The Pig and The Lady, a restaurant offering a Southeast Asian spin on things. Despite mason jars serving as glasses, Cafe du Monde coffee cans lining the counters, old farm doors standing in for tables and a chef dishing up street food, the scene 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 restaurateurs from across the 48 just to learn his secrets. He’s also discovering and then introducing niche cuisine, like Cha Ca La Vong, a specialty of one Hanoi restaurant.

If you want cuisine from another continent, go to Grondin, which is newest to the neighborhood, replacing a former karaoke bar that had operated, suspiciously, without electricity. The restaurant serves French and Latin cuisine 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 — from escargot to yuca with melted cheese and drizzled honey — do an equally wonderful job of transporting diners to these regions.

If there’s no smoking in bars, Park never got the memo. The award-winning bartender injects smoke into this cocktail.While many restaurants and storefronts are quite obvious from the street, as they stand 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 its outdoor space, accessible through its kitchen, and plans 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.

Pictured: If there’s no smoking in bars, Park never got the memo. The award-winning bartender injects smoke into this cocktail.

If you 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 restaurants, bars and galleries. Travelers can visit The Arts at Mark’s Garage or stop by the iconic Pegge Hopper Gallery. Even tattoo parlors like the Black Cat function more like an art exhibition, though getting inked is certainly an option.

Justin Park readies his regimen in Manifest’s back-room bar.Pictured: Justin Park readies his regimen in Manifest’s back-room bar.

For a different art experience, you can unwind at Manifest, where three residents of the lofts own and operate the café (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 suggest to tippling clients that they 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 drinks to incorporating freshly picked passion fruits (which he gets from a local man who brings in the produce in exchange for beer) into recipes. On weekends, Manifest ushers in those who seek dance and nightlife. For clients looking for an artsier evening, send them off to Dragon Upstairs, a live jazz venue that also serves as — of course — an art gallery.

Just as you won’t find a drink or a meal in Waikiki with more character than those served in Chinatown, the same is true of the fashion. 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 Oaks, 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. One of them is 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 sipping a beer and enjoying the game.

For those looking for sun and luaus, 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, go to Chinatown. Things are still real and slightly delightfully unpolished, though probably only for a little bit longer.

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