True confession: I’ve never eaten at Alan Wong’s. But the acclaimed Pacific Rim chef—he's one of 12 talents credited with coining Hawaiian Regional Cuisine—has bellied up to a barstool next to me at Side Street Inn (Multiple locations; 808-591-0253), the Honolulu hot spot for kitchen staff (and savvy locals) seeking “industry night” libations and old-fashioned Hawaiian comfort food. We share a craving for the garlicky pan-fried pork chops, and I usually pair my order with a lurid pink li hing mui (powdered sour plum) margarita. This boisterous back alley sports bar remains one of my go-to watering holes whenever I hit town, but the recent rise of “neo tiki” culture means inventive, new spots are popping up everywhere you look, from Chinatown to Kaimuki. Here, a few must-try bars and eateries that have recently emerged on the scene.
Where to Drink
When Hawaiians say pau hana, everyone knows to stop working. My happiest hours take place with a Halekulani Sunset (rum and guava nectar) in hand at House Without a Key (pictured below; Halekulani Hotel, 2199 Kalia Rd.; 808-923-2311), an open-air hotel bar with the wide blue Pacific for a backdrop. Nico’s Pier 38 (1129 N. Nimitz Hwy.; 808-540-1377) is next to Honolulu’s daily fish auction, so while the food features wild-caught Pacific seafood, the cocktails play to artisanal spirits. Try the Sour Lemon Drop: Hawaiian vodka (distilled on Oahu) shaken with fresh lemon juice and garnished with a stalk of sugar cane. At Bevy (661 Auahi St.; 808-594-7445; bevybar.com), mixologist Christian Self presents crafts cocktails with a speakeasy pedigree. He also makes his own sarsaparilla, horchata, and ginger beer. Happy hour at this artsy space in emerging Kaka’ako includes oysters on the half shell and a chill elderflower gin-and-tonic. Last, but certainly not least, I like to climb a metal barstool at Livestock Tavern (pictured bottom; 49 N. Hotel St.; 808-537-2577), located in a converted Chinatown warehouse, and sip the oddly named Squints cocktail, made with amaro, spiced almond syrup, and local KoHana rhum agricole from Manulele Distillers. It goes to show that happy hour on the islands has certainly evolved since the creation of such tiki-tacky classics as the Blue Hawaii, Banana Daiquiri, and Tropical Itch—complete with a backscratcher as swizzle stick.
Where to Eat
The Chinatown Art District reflects Honolulu’s evolving immigrant population and the growing enthusiasm for urban renewal chic: exposed brick, recycled wood, polished concrete, and (notably) the absence of kitschy tropical prints. Between the original vegetable stalls and mom-and-pop noodle shops, a pan-Asian vanguard now offers far-flung fare from Malay laksa to Mongolian hot pot. At The Pig and the Lady (83 N. King St.; 808-585-8255), Hawaiian-born chef Andrew Le pays homage to his Vietnamese mother’s home cooking in dishes best served family style: crab-fat curry, rare beef pho bac, lemongrass-tofu banh mi. Bring seven of your hungriest friends and opt for the porcine “primal experience,” a nose-to-tail feast with enough sides—chicken-fat rice, papaya salad, grilled kimchi—to feed an outrigger canoe crew. The cocktail program is equally inventive; my favorite is the Cobra Commander, an avocado-infused mezcal with pink grapefruit liqueur and sriracha ice. At Lucky Belly (50 N. Hotel St.; 808-531-1888), located around the corner from The Pig and the Lady, the portions are equally generous. Sit at the bar and order saketinis, then try the pork belly bao or lamb-kimchi lumpia. Expect jumbo lobster shumai and shrimp gyoza. If you have appetite to spare, follow with the Beast Bowl, brimming with ramen, brisket, short ribs, and oxtail won tons. Chef Ed Kenney originally wowed diners with his Med-Pacific menu at Town in Kaimuki. He proceeded to open a lunch counter across the street that’s popular with the surf crowd. Now at Mud Hen Water (3452 Waialae Ave.; 808-737-6000), his latest venture next door, he intensifies the locavore/global mash-up. Think: lup cheong madeleines with miso-flavored whipped lard, a terrine of cold ginger rabbit with puffed rice and mountain apple mostarda, pig jowl and kimchi omelet, and grilled octopus and stewed l‘au leaves sprinkled with dukkah, a Middle East blend of nuts, herbs, and spice. Don't forget that Honolulu also has some of the finest sushi bars outside Tokyo. It’s worth the cab ride to a modest strip mall plaza near Ala Moana for the omakase menu at Sushi II (655 Keeaumoku St.; 808-942-5350). Or, order their local izakaya-style snacks like crisp fried moi, misoyaki butterfish, broiled yellowtail collar, or grilled beef tongue skewers.
Hawaiians have a serious sweet tooth, and locals are already lined up outside Lee’s Bakery & Kitchen when the creamy custard pies come out of the oven (125 N. King St.; 808-521-6261). Don't miss the hot, sugar dusted Champion malasada donuts (1926 S. Beretina St.; 808-947-8778) or chantilly cake and coco puffs from Liliha Bakery (515 N. Kuakini St.; 808-531-1651). On recent trips to Oahu, I’ve driven to the North Shore for a slice of the chocolate haupia cream pie at Ted’s Bakery (59-024 Kamehamha Hwy.; 808-638-8207) and to the Halekulani Hotel for their famous coconut cake—for breakfast. And then there’s shave ice. The original Wailoa Shave Ice location opened in 1940; here, bowls of feathery ground ice are still infused with rainbow-bright tropical syrups, then topped with a choice of condensed milk, azuki beans, mochi balls, or ice cream (2135 Waiola St.; 808-949-2269). A newer addition to the cold confection scene, Lemona Hawai’i uses natural syrups made with pineapple, papaya, green tea, Kona coffee, and Meyer lemon. It’s a refreshing brain freeze after baking on the beach at Waikiki (421 Lewers St.; 808-922-9590).
Image Credits: Courtesy of Halekulani; Courtesy of Livestock Tavern.