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Honolulu’s Best “Hole-in-the-Wall” EatsOctober 17, 2012
Whether you’re visiting Oahu for the first time or a kamaaina who has lived here your entire life, one of the best benefits of calling Hawaii home is our diverse selection of dining. From delectable dim sum and traditional Hawaiian delicacies to one-of-a-kind local creations – the state’s melting pot of ethnicities and backgrounds has created a distinct hot pot of flavors.
The best way to get an idea of Hawaii’s culinary scene is to eat where the locals eat. And some of the shining stars of Honolulu’s dining options are not the traditional, five-star restaurants with linen tablecloths and crystal glasses. They’re the rough and tumble, unforgettable diners behind back roads or in cramped quarters that the locals refer to (because they are, quite literally) as “holes in the wall.”
So the next time your belly is running on empty take your stomach for a walk on the wild side and taste out some of these tried and true eateries.
For what many consider some of the most mouthwatering manapua (otherwise known as char siu bao) on the island, brave the long lines and local “flavor” and head over to Honolulu’s charming Chinatown. With a storefront quite literally etched into the side of a building, Char Hung Sut is well-known across the state for their award-winning manapua, pepeiao (pork-stuffed noodles), pork hash, chow fun and other delicious dim sum. Grab a box of bao (buns) and head down to your favorite beach or park for an impromptu picnic or an easy party pleaser.
Traveling to the neighbor islands? Ask for your manapua to be airplane-ready and the staff at Char Hung Sut will truss up your box with wax ribbon and family and friends (not to mention the hotel staff) will shower you with honi (kisses) and hugs.
Ethel’s Grill (232 Kalihi St)
Off the beaten path for visitors, colorful Kalihi offers a number of “hole in the wall” dining options, but none as nondescript and nostalgic as Ethel’s Grill. With affordably priced options (most dishes are under $8) diners won’t break the bank while enjoy Ethel’s personal spin on popular plate lunches like loco moco (hamburger with gravy, topped with a fried egg) and ahi tataki (a seared tuna sashimi plate swimming in a mouth-watering sesame oil). While enjoying your meal in the cramped dining room you could literally be rubbing shoulders with some of the island’s best chefs– the likes of Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi who have their own namesake restaurants – are known to frequent there.
When you visit, don’t ask to “meet Ethel.” The couple, Ryoko and Yoishi, who run this establishment actually purchased the diner more than 30 years ago and never took the time to put up a new sign. Instead, they focused on putting painstaking TLC into their food – try their Dijon parsley dressing! — and boy does it show.
Liliha Bakery (515 N. Kuakini Street)
Lying in idyllic Liliha, Liliha Bakery is a full-service bakery and diner which has grown a loyal fan club since it first opened its doors in 1950. Considered the panacea for any breakfast craving — and because they’re open 24 hours you can slip in post-dawn patrol or after a late night hitting the clubs — and enjoy cakes and pastries, baked fresh each day. They fire up their ovens before the roosters crow at 2 a.m.!
But whether you’re picking up an assortment of treats for a mid-morning snack or hitting up Liliha Bakery’s full-service counter for a stack of their popular pancakes, come prepared to practice patience and spend up upwards of 10-15 minutes studying the extensive menu and displays of fresh-from-the-oven fare. Tip: Anytime you’re invited to a potluck and can’t decide what to bring, Liliha Bakery’s out-of-this world coco puffs are always a crowd pleaser. In fact, their busy bakers bang out more than 7,000 of these choco-filled confections every day!
Ono Hawaiian Food (726 Kapahulu Avenue)
Whoever invented the term “oh wow, lau lau” was probably talking about the lau lau at Ono Hawaiian Food. Cradled along Kapahulu Avenue on the outskirts of Waikiki, Ono Hawaiian Food lives up to its name, dishing up ono (delicious) sumo-sized platters of local favorites such as kalua pig, lomilomi salmon, pipikaula (seasoned beef jerky), poi and haupia (a coconut dessert).
When hitting up Onos dress comfortably — the dress code here typically consists of tank tops, shorts and “rubbah jojos” (or flip flops to those from out of town). But while the décor and ambiance are no frills, the menu and service here drips with aloha.
A popular neighborhood joint, the sidewalk fronting the restaurant is frequently crowded with hungry locals, often with a six pack of Bud Light tucked under their arm since Ono Hawaiian Food has no liquor license. If you can’t take the wait, order your meal to go and enjoy a picnic at Kapiolani Park or Waikiki Beach just down the street.
Side Street Inn (1225 Hopaka Street)
Tucked along a quiet side street amidst the hustle and bustle of Ala Moana and Kakaako, Side Street Inn has long been considered a hidden jewel and local hot spot for gathering – whether it’s to celebrate the end of the week with pau hana (happy hour), or catching a sports game.
Since opening in 1992, Side Street has been showered with local and national accolades for whipping up consistent simple and unpretentious local comfort food – such as their unforgettable fried rice and kanak-attack-inducing pork chops. Despite the opening of its newer, more glamorous sister location, “Side Street on the Strip” in Kapahulu, the original is still considered (by many kamaaina at least) the best.
So after a long day of shopping at Ala Moana Center or cruising Waikiki Beach, throw on your favorite aloha shirt and best slippers and head over to take advantage of Side Street’s big screen TVs and full bar of domestic and imported beers. They even have their own signature beer created just for them – the Side Street Inn Rogue Ale.