Food Finds: Downtown

1) Char Hung Sut

For steamed buns you can grab on the run, make a pit stop at Char Hung Sut, the perfect place to eat manapua literally etched into Chinatown's concrete jungle.

Step inside this little hole-in-the-wall and you'll find dozens of darling old ladies churning out perfectly wrapped dumplings and boxing buns faster than you can say "one dozen manapua to go." The perfect finger food for a picnic at the beach, a few mouth-watering manapua (Hawai‘i's rendition of char siu bao), at least a dozen savory pork hash and a taro or rice cake - or two -- will take your dining experience over the half moon. If you like your dim sum on the spicier side, don't forget to request a few cups of hot mustard -- these run $.05 each but are the perfect pork hash complement.

And with prices ranging from $0.65 to $1.25 for a manapua, a visit to this Honolulu hot spot won't burn through your wallet either.

 

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2) HASR Wine Co. and Bistro

After a long day exploring O‘ahu, decant in Downtown Honolulu at HASR Wine Co. and Bistro, a quaint courtyard eatery and wine shop bubbling over with some of the best wines from around the world and an aromatic French-inspired menu.

Run by Terry and Mike Kakazu, HASR stands for Highly Allocated (difficult-to-find wines) Spoiled Rotten (referring to Kakazu being able to acquire the wines). From 5 p.m. - 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday HASR Wine Co. pours over with complimentary wine tastings, providing the perfect opportunity to sample their vast selection of California wines before grabbing a bottle (or two) to enjoy over dinner.

And it's not a zin - err, sin - to sip and save! If you buy a bottle from HASR Wine Co. the restaurant will uncork it without their typical $15 bottle charge. That way you'll be able to pair your favorite Napa chardonnay with executive chef Rodney Uyehara's salmon tartar appetizer or ciopinno (our mouths are watering just thinking about it). And because you're on vacation, make it a point to take advantage of HASR Bistro's pau hana (happy hour) specials from 4:30 p.m. - 6:30 p.m. with live entertainment and open-air seating in the courtyard.

 

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3) Lucky Belly

In Hawai‘i ramen isn't something you slurp only when it's pouring rain and 60 degrees out (yes, island natives have a skewed perception on what makes for cold weather). If you're someone who has a deep appreciation for noodles - Lucky Belly is the place to be. Trust us, your belly will thank you.

For those who remember Mini Garden in Chinatown, new owners and Honolulu natives Dusty Grable and Jesse Cruz have transformed the dated space into a hip new place to grab a piping hot bowl of ramen, with a glass of sake or your favorite whiskey. Amongst the most popular items on this O‘ahu restaurant's very edited menu -- right now there are just a little over a dozen options to choose from -- are the Belly Bowl (which includes belly, smoked bacon and Kurobuta sausage) and their Pork Belly Bao (pork belly sandwiched between a super soft bao bun with sake hoisin and pickled cucumbers).

Because the tiny eatery can squeeze in only 50 customers at a time, you might want to put your name in and then take a stroll down the street to Restaurant Epic or JJ Dolans for a drink or two while you wait for a table to free up.

 

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4) Restaurant Epic

Living up to its name, Restaurant Epic is a modern restaurant in the epicenter of Chinatown dishing up a New American-inspired menu with an unforgettable pau hana (happy hour) and pre-fixe menu as quintessentially "Hawai‘i" and equally unforgettable as Epic's Crunchy Balls (we die for their Kim Chee Fried Rice Balls).

After an afternoon exploring, Restaurant Epic offers an unexpected escape to rest your feet, and take advantage of the enticing and affordable menu. With a weekday pau hana from 4:30 p.m. - 6:30 p.m. you'll be digging their $4 drinks and selection of inspired pupus (appetizers) such as the lemongrass steamed clams, Caesar tostadas, pocho mac and cheese balls and furikake fries with wasabi aioli.

For those who have worked up an appetite we'd recommend the pre-fixe tasting menu. At only $35 for five courses -- you need to get the wine pairings for just $8 more! -- you'll have to ask your companions to roll you over to the valet or to Mark's Garage just across the street where they offer $8 flat rate parking after 3 p.m.

 

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5) Cafe Julia

Stretching out inside Downtown Honolulu's YWCA, Café Julia is working out Hawai‘i's dining scene with international cuisine that caters to every palate. The simple-yet-chic outdoor dining experience will have you flexing your stomach muscles as you enjoy local and popular menu options from loco moco to osso buco.

New, award-winning chef Almar Arcano - formerly of Hy's Steakhouse - just joined the Café Julia team in April 2013 and is looking to add muscle to the menu with options such as lobster bisque, chowder and escargot, in addition to current favorites such as chicken marsala and "The Emerson" an unconventional salad topped with corn, balsamic vinegar and potato chips.

And good news for those looking for a late afternoon place to sip and siesta. Café Julia has brought back their popular pau hana (happy hour) from 4 - 6 p.m. on Sundays and Wednesday through Friday.

 

 

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6) Mei Sum

No matter what time of day (or week) you're craving it Mei Sum in O‘ahu's Chinatown district is well known for dishing up small plates of delectable dim sum all day long. Don't know what to pick from their overwhelming menu? We're over-soyed by Mei Sum's chicken wings, scallop deep fried taro and secret, off-the-menu garlic eggplant.

For more than 10 years Mei Sum has been rolling out carts of Hong Kong-style dim sum to throngs of Honolulu residents. And this dim sum delicatessen makes ordering as simple as child's play with a menu chock full of photos.

In addition to traditional dim sum dishes, if you're dining family style you can also order entrees and Mei Sum's magnificent selection of noodle and rice dishes. And while the plates might be small, so are the prices. Dim sum dishes range from $2-3 (ish), which means you'd have to be dim not to figure out your bill's very low sum.

 

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7) Blue Tree Cafe

If you're looking for something on the lighter side, branch out and sip on something from Blue Tree Café. Though this Downtown O‘ahu café has only been open a few months it's regularly frequented by kama‘aina (local residents) for their made-to-order beverages, acai bowls and fresh pastries.

Sandwiched between Doraku and Chai's Bistro along Kapiolani Avenue this healthy-AND-delicious smoothie shop is making ice-cold drinks a hot commodity. Waikiki Parc's Julie A. likes to mix things up with their smoothies like Blue Tree Café's popular Very Verde (a mix of kale, avocado, spinach, banana, coconut water, hemp seed, chia seed and apples).

A central spot to swing by after an event at the Neal Blaisdell Center or a morning shopping at Ward Centers, the Aoki family - which also owns Doraku - is bringing a new meaning to fresh with build-your-own juices as well as made-in-house almond milk and fresh pastries including donuts and a selection of scones.

If you have time to sit back and sip your beverage - and can snag a seat - you'll want to find parking in the Pacifica parking structure or Blue Tree Café's lot across the street.

 

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8) Cocina

There's something new cooking in the Kaka‘ako (kah-kah-ah-ko) kitchen previously occupied by The Whole Ox Deli. For the next few months (the space will be redeveloped in early 2014) the laid-back hotspot will be whipping up elevated Mexican street food-inspired dishes.

The chefs cooking up a new recipe for success are James Beard Award semifinalist Quinten Frye and Danny Kaaialii, both previously from Salt Kitchen & Tasting Bar. We can't stop dishing about their made-fresh-daily aqua fresco, fish tacos and headcheese carnitas tacos, which will be on your mind for days. And if you've worked up an appetite exploring O‘ahu, Michael O. recommends their Tortaguesa Burger - be sure to get it with the easy over egg for an extra decadent eggy icing on the cake.

With their limited hours you should plan ahead to work in a meal at this Downtown O‘ahu eatery. Cocina is open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and for dinner Wednesday through Saturday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Arrive early to snag a seat at their indoor/outdoor seating area. You'll need lots of room so you can spread out and share Cocina's small plates - from the made-in-house tortillas and telera bread and salsas all incorporating the very best Hawai‘i-grown ingredients. We've dubbed it muy delicioso!

 

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9) Farkles

The new dog on the street is Farkles, a Chicago-style hot dog joint, which has brought a taste of the East coast to Honolulu's Chinatown district. Straddling the corner of Hotel and Maunakea Street, Farkles barks our name whenever we've got a hot craving for dogs.

As Waikiki Parc's Michael O. always says, nothing puts a sparkle in our day like Farkles' Kim Chee Dog or a Chicago Dog with the works - pickles, lettuce, tomatoes, relish, mustard and pepperoncinis. And yes, all of that really does fit on one dog. The hard part is getting it all in in one bite!

In fact though, we are still making our way through Farkles' menu of reasonably priced dogs with outside of the box toppings - like Farkles; bleu cheese dog, Caesar salad dog or their guacamole dog. Named after owner Mark Jensen's late grandfather, this spot seats 13 so it can be a tight squeeze during the lunch rush. We prefer to take our dog for a walk, while window shopping through Downtown O‘ahu.

 

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10) The Pig and the Lady

Whenever we feel like pigging out on Vietnamese comfort food, our snout always leads us to one place - The Pig and the Lady. And now that the farmer's market fave has popped up a permanent restaurant in Chinatown at the Pacific Gateway Center it's hard to be ladylike while pigging out on our personal favorites like their banh mi and soups.

After years on the farmer's market circuit, Chef Andrew Le (the pig) and his mother, Loan Le (the lady), have cooked up a reputation for their eclectic menu of whimsical and tasty dishes inspired by their cultural heritage. The menu pays homage to the local food movement with options like the pho French dip banh mi (a banh-na-nas medley of roasted brisket, chimichurri and pho au jus) and namesake P&L pho (a rich bowl of smoked baco, brisket, marinated soft-boiled egg and green onion).

Hey, if Daniel Dae Kim is a fan, so are we (it's seriously that pho-nomenal!). The Pig and the Lady is currently open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch and dinner, with a special brunch menu available on Saturdays.

 

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11) Highway Inn

When the Hawaiian-food hunger pangs strike, zip on over to Highway Inn. With a new, more convenient location in Kaka‘ako the more-than-60-year-old West-side institution is making it even easier to poi-k out on ohana-sized plates of naau stew.

At Highway Inn, buckle up and prepare to enjoy a meal that perfectly captures Hawai‘i's love for food and aloha. We always gas it over to Highway Inn for helpings of lau lau, pipikaula, butterfish collar, fried akule and their combo plates. But if you can hit the road earlier for breakfast or lunch, we go loco for their smokin' moco with a side order of poi pancakes and haupia sauce.

And even though Highway Inn puts the wow in their luau, try to save room for dessert. Their pastry chef - a celebrity in his own right - whips up some mean baked goods.

The original Highway Inn established by Seiichi and Sachiko Toguchi is still parked along Farrington Highway and now run by their great grandchildren.

 

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12) JJ Dolan's

Picking the best pizza spot isn't always as easy as pie. But for Honolulu natives, J.J. Dolans is a go-to for savory handcrafted slices paired with perfectly poured pints.

After a long day, J.J. Dolans is often abuzz with Downtown business professionals who come to kick back and relax in the casual and cozy atmosphere that is typical of Irish pubs. To go with your favorite brew or hand-poured beverage, the bar offers a selection of appetizers, but their pies are what keep guests coming back for amore.

Here, the pizza menu is filled with conventional pies - like the Margherita and Classic Pepperoni - as well as signature slices like their Scampi Pie, swimming in bay shrimp, mushrooms and scampi sauce. Can't decide? Go off the menu and order a half and half pizza or Build Your Own Bar Pie, which includes traditional pizza toppings as well as local favorites like Portuguese Sausage and Spam. So grab a seat lads and lasses and kick up your clogs for a quaint and cozy Chinatown experience.

 

 

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