Chinatown in Honolulu: Before Gentrification

Chinatown in Honolulu Manifest Bar

It was our second night on Oahu and we were trying to find a place to eat, but without reservations nabbing a walk-in two-top required an hour wait. And with a hungry baby and a pregnant wife, the wait just wasn’t doable. And for Waikiki’s subpar food, it was inconceivable. In fact, I lost some grasp on reality when a line, fifty people long, extended from the hostess stand of the Cheesecake Factory and traveled down the block. In what world did people line up for the Cheesecake Factory?


The next evening, we boarded a bus and left for Chinatown. Keith, a man that still possessed half of his natural teeth told us to prepare ourselves for Chinatown. He said we wouldn’t know what hit us. Then he explained that he still loved to “Drink weed and smoke booze.” But he proclaimed, much like a futile guardian angel, “Mention my name in Chinatown and you won’t have any trouble.” Keith stumbled off the bus a stop before ours, following off a woman in her forties, who was certainly envious of Keith’s half-filled mouth of teeth.


Chinatown in Honolulu


The best way to describe the Chinatown in Honolulu is to compare it to Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, but at a time when the artists were still quite scared to leave their apartment for a fresh tube of paint. Drug addicts and the clinically insane stumbled around the empty streets. Homeless people tried to sleep through the noise. And while the streets were ghostly, the restaurants filled up as soon as the doors opened.


I ate at a number of restaurants in Chinatown and every one from Grondin to Lucky Belly served up sumptuous foods and inventive cocktails worthy of your time, (which you can read about more broadly in another article I wrote, though please excuse that a few lines were recycled). But in this post, I’m only going to write about one meal and one watering hole because the great tastes were paired with good stories, (which were not appropriate for said publication).


Honolulu Chinatown The Pig and the Lady


Chef Andrew Le’s parents had been flying from Vietnam to Arkansas, ready to begin their new lives in America after escaping the Fall of Saigon. His mother was pregnant with Le’s brother and went into labor in the air. Forced to make an emergency landing on Oahu, the family has remained there ever since, and it is where she taught her son the recipes of home. A few decades later, Le started The Pig and The Lady pop-up shop as a way to help his mother overcome illness. Cooking became her catharsis and Le’s family’s cuisine grew into a sensation, leading to today’s brick and mortar establishment humorously and appropriately named The Pig and the Lady.


Honolulu Chinatown The Pig and the Lady


The restaurant felt much like a gallery: Mason jars served as glasses, Cafe du Monde coffee cans lined counters, old farm doors stood in for tables, and screen prints and watercolor paintings lined brick walls. But The Pig and the Lady didn’t need the ambiance, for the food spoke greatest volumes. His take on fried chicken with its pickled chili, kafir lime, peanuts, and shallots could inspire all of Harlem and Kentucky to change their ways. Le’s Cha Ca La Vong, a speciality of one restaurant that I had visited years ago in Hanoi, which consists of vermicelli, local fish, fresh herbs, and sweet mam tam sauce, is as authentic and innovative as the dish in Vietnam.


While there are plenty of artists in the kitchens around Chinatown, it’s undisputed that the greatest artist behind the bar is Manifest’s co-owner and head mixologist, Justin Park. Manifest, which is a cafe (by day), bar (by night), and art gallery (always), looks more like a brick, end-of-world bunker, oddly equipped with a sun roof. And while at times Chinatown does feel like the sort of place where The Road could have been filmed, things are peaceful inside the bar. “I think we’re down to having someone open the door and yell once a day,” said Park’s co-owner, referring to the drug addicts shouting in from outside.


Chinatown in Honolulu Manifest Bar


I followed Park past the artwork along their wall, featuring the work of an artist whose medium was tin foil and human hair, and walked into the back room. There, the former MMA fighter pulled on his leather smock. A taxidermied Blue Buck–now an extinct animal–wore a Mortal Kombat M. Bison jacket. The long-gone creature stared down at the whirlwind of activity taking place on the bar. Justin Park began by pumping smoke into one drink. Then he halved a freshly picked passion fruit and served it into another. (He receives the passion fruits from a local man who brings in the produce in exchange for beer.) “It’s exciting here,” Park said, referring to the neighborhood (though the feeling was apropos of the bar, too), “because a lot of places are starting to turn over.”


But of course turnover will take some time, which we learned after our dinner at The Pig and The Lady, when a crackhead or heroin addict–really I shouldn’t jump to conclusions–growled at my pregnant wife. I felt inclined to mention that we knew Keith, but the bus arrived in his stead and shuttled us back to Waikiki, where diners still lined up for the innovations of the Cheesecake Factory.

Posted on by Noah Lederman in I Ate What?, Somewhere, United States

2 Responses to Chinatown in Honolulu: Before Gentrification

  1. Sam

    , from the description you give …. Chinatown sounds much safer than years back. I met keith when he considered donating his teeth to save on the cost of toothpaste

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