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In the past 15 years, Honolulu’s Chinatown Arts District has undergone a remarkable transformation and revitalization. Once the seediest part of town, Chinatown is now a vibrant arts community, teeming with adventuresome artists, restaurateurs, and bar owners. It has become a popular destination, no longer a place to be avoided. Among the many bars, galleries, and performance spaces is a handful of locally-owned and operated eateries that are breaking the molds of their respective cuisines. They are fine examples of how forward thinking has transformed Chinatown.
Lucky Belly at the corner of Hotel Street and Smith Street has taken a novel approach to traditional Japanese ramen and other Asian dishes, including oxtail dumplings and lamb lumpia (a Filipino spring roll). The Beast Bowl Ramen is filled with beef brisket, short ribs, and oxtail won tons. I’ve very much enjoyed the “deconstructed BLT.” Lucky Belly’s cocktail menu is subtle but sophisticated, carefully edited to include boutique whiskeys and other exotic spirits.
Part of Lucky Belly’s success is due to its late-nite takeout window, which stays open until 2am, attracting a steady flow of hungry imbibers making the scene in Chinatown. Offerings like the pork, onion, and sweet potato hash is a tasty and convenient way to refuel after a night out.
Just a block away on King Street is The Pig & The Lady. Serving up traditional Vietnamese dishes with a modern bent, the chef there incorporates decidedly non-traditional ingredients like chrysanthemum, portabello mushrooms, and cheddar cheese. Shared plates include a smoked ham-hock terrine, and stewed bone marrow.
A great deal of care has gone into The Pig & The Lady’s cocktail menu, which is somewhat pricey, but worth the splurge. It may take some courage to try the “Hogwild” with coconut water ice, scotch, and citrus, or the “Lift” with kiawe smoke, rye whiskey and apricot, but that spirit of doing something new is what has revitalized Chinatown.
A couple of doors down from The Pig & The Lady is The Corner Café & Bar. The most popular item is the pizza, “kicked up” with ingredients like roasted duck, garlic clams, and guava pork. The restaurant also offers more traditional fare like quesadillas, tacos, and chicken strips. The Corner Café & Bar has found its success by also offering a pleasant happy hour (or “pau hana”) with reasonable drink prices and a notably friendly staff. Also, on First Fridays in Chinatown, The Corner Café & Bar offers live music and deejays, using quality local entertainment to lure people in and letting the cuisine keep them there.
Chinatown’s transformation is itself remarkable and reason enough to spend an afternoon or evening strolling its cobbled sidewalks. And there are many other eateries to choose from, some old, some new. But these three have developed business models and menus that have attracted admirers from all over Oahu.
50 North Hotel Street, Honolulu, HI 96817 (808) 531-1888
The Pig & The Lady
83 North King Street, Honolulu, HI 96817
The Corner Café & Bar
69 North King St reet Honolulu, HI 96817