Hehe…. In the spirit of a Rick Steve’s Travel Guidebook, here’s my take on Chinatown Honolulu.
I started exploring Chinatown after moving to Kaka’ako a few years ago. What started out as exercise (urban hiking) transformed into a deeper sense of “place.” I also believe that Chinatown has the best food in Hawai’i. Now I want to share my passion for the sights, sounds, (smells,) and energy of this vibrant community….
Parking: People have the perception that Chinatown has no parking and that it is dirty. Let me dispel this by saying that there’s a whole lotta parking. In fact, street parking is free on Sundays (however, some of the really good shops are closed on Sundays.) The best parking lot is underground, underneath Smith-Beretania Park (next to the old Empress Theater.) As far as being dirty…. hmm….
Currency: The best restaurants here are cash-only, have sticky menus, and no one speaks English (not even the customers.)
Chinatown is bordered by King Street and Beretania (but includes the Chinese Cultural Plaza,) and by River Street and Bethel. Let’s take a look….
Maunakea Marketplace is a great place to explore. There’s a huge food court, souvenir stands, and a great open market. You can even find old Kung Fu movies on VHS. Bruno’s Forno is on the right side of the entrance and has great panini sandwiches. Café de Tim has the best bubble drinks in Chinatown. Instead of powdered sugar, they grind fresh sugar cane.
Speaking of markets, there’s also O’ahu Market and Kekaulike Market. You can find the freshest meats, produce, and unusual things there. I saw hanging char siu, roast duck, live crabs, beef tongue, pig heads, dragon fruit, and unrecognizable organ meats. Fong’s Meat Market has the best roast pork in Chinatown.
Chinatown is a great place to try a new cuisine, buy produce, and take pictures.
The Chinese Cultural Plaza is where you’ll find all of the dim sum restaurants. I’ve only been to Legend’s there, but I hear that Tai Pan is the best one. You’ll find the older men playing mahjong on the benches along the river.
For noodles, my fave place is the Hong Kong Noodle House in the Chinese Cultural Plaza. I usually get the Tossed (stewed) noodle. I ordered this one with pig’s feet. Noms….
Chinatown absolutely has the best phở in Hawai’i. No need to go to “Phở Row” on River Street. My top three shops are Phở My Lan on Maunakea Street, Huang Lan in the Chinese Cultural Plaza, and Saigon Vietnamese Cuisine on King Street.
Chinatown has awesome sweets and desserts. This showcase greets you at the Sing Cheong Yuan Bakery. I go for the gin dui (black sugar) and mooncakes.
Wing’s Ice Cream has homemade flavors. This one is Raspberry with dark chocolate chip.
Of course, Lee’s Bakery has the best custard pies.
It’s comforting to know that there are still places that I remember from my childhood. Char Hung Sut still has my favorite manapua & pork hash.
I especially appreciate the traditional ethnic foods in Chinatown. This is Beef Brisket & Tendons w/ Look Fun Noodle Soup from Lam’s Kitchen. This place truly is a “hole in the wall.”
This is dim sum from Happy Garden. The chicken feet are on the way….
Chinatown also has the coolest, new, “trendy” places. The Pig & the Lady is one of my fave restaurants. Love the Bánh mì sandwiches with the incredible, crunchy bread. The Fresh Café is a great place behind the Hawai’i Theatre.
Lucky Belly is another fave. I enjoy the Bao sandwiches (pork buns) and ramen here. They recently opened Livestock Tavern across the street.
Chinatown also has a great skateboard shop, antique shops, boutiques, tattoo parlors, and tons of lei stands. Chinatown is where the creatives & makers set up shop.
Festivals: The Chinese New Year Street Festival & Parade is THE event of the year. Thousands gather for this amazing celebration. Chinatown also hosts First Fridays, art events, and other block parties.
Finally, Chinatown is home to my amazing church, Inspire City. We rent this space (formally the Empress Theater) on Sunday nights. Services are at 5:30pm. We also do outreach in the neighboring Smith-Beretania Park at 4pm.
See you in Chinatown….