Big Fun in Little China in Honolulu

Honolulu’s Chinatown is one of the most colorful parts of the city

Vibrant and bustling, Honolulu’s Chinatown is one of the most colorful parts of the city. Its 15 compact blocks date back well over a century, to a time when boatloads of Chinese laborers arrived to work the sugar and pineapple plantations that dotted the islands. However, in recent times the area has evolved with new waves of Vietnamese arrivals and an emerging club and art scene.

For the adventurous traveler, this means major sightseeing and grazing, especially on weekend mornings. Strap on the walking shoes and have some small bills handy for this quick walking tour of Chinatown’s sights and tastes.

Start at the corner of N. King Street and Kekaulike, the juncture of three open markets: Oahu Market, the grand dame of them all since 1904; King Market, a cavernous indoor space featuring warm silken tofu in the very back (try a small container topped with sweet ginger sauce); and pedestrian-friendly Kekaulike Mall across King Street. All will be thronged with shoppers.

Continue the people-watching while heading one block east on King Street. You’ll pass vendors selling Chinese good luck charms before arriving at Lee’s Bakery & Kitchen—home of the best swirled custard-pumpkin pies in town (whole pies only, 125 N. King St., 808.521.6261.)

The block that starts at the southeast corner of King and Maunakea streets is one of Chinatown’s best. Head mauka (toward the mountains) on Maunakea a few steps to the brilliant colors of Lin’s Lei Shop, where freshly strung garlands have names like Green Butterfly and Olaa Beauty (1017 Maunakea St., 808.537.4112). Note that Lin’s can be a stop en route to the airport, if you want to bring home lei.

Practically next door is Sing Cheong Yuan Bakery (1027 Maunakea St., 808.531.6688), a traditional Chinese sweets shop. Locals flock here for crunchy-chewy peanut, macadamia and walnut bars to bring to relatives on the U.S. mainland. The bakery’s top seller is savory: freshly steamed or baked manapua, pillowy buns filled with shredded roast pork, a favorite snack in the Islands.

A few steps mauka, you’ll come to Nam Fong (1029 Maunakea St., 808.599.5244), home of the best roast meats in Chinatown. The place is hard to miss with the aromas of Chinese five spice wafting as you come upon the whole roast ducks hanging in the window. Meat lovers will not want to pass up on a quarter-pound snack of roast pork or roast duck, hacked into bite-size pieces. Now you’re at the corner of Maunakea and Hotel streets. Careful: Jaywalking is illegal in Honolulu, and Chinatown police are liberal with tickets. Cross over to the northwest corner and you’ll find yourself on the outskirts of Maunakea Marketplace, a relatively recent development that fills nearly the entire block. No sign announces the location; you’ll know by the tiny storefronts squeezed next to each other, all overflowing with exotic produce and other goods.

Maunakea Marketplace is notable for two more features: It’s a great place to buy Chinese lion puppets, cell phone covers, decorated chopsticks and other souvenirs; and the indoor food court, while very casual, boasts the best sweet egg custard tarts (Rainbow Tea Stop, 808.386-3388) and excellent Thai noodle stir-fries and curries (Malee Thai, 808.599.4635). Which brings us to lunch: If you don’t mind cafeteria-style dining at communal tables, Maunakea Marketplace offers eclectic options, ranging from Chinese and Vietnamese to Singaporean and Korean to Thai and Filipino. But really, what trip to Chinatown is complete without dim sum? For Hong Kong-style dumplings, try Mei Sum Dim Sum (1170 Nu‘uanu Ave., 808.531.3268).

For non-dim sum Chinese, Little Village Noodle House (1113 Smith St., 808.545.3008) is a perennial local favorite for business lunches and family celebrations. Located in a historic brick façade two blocks east of Maunakea and Hotel, Indigo (1121 Nu‘uanu Ave., 808.521.2900) offers a contemporary pan-Asian lunch buffet in a setting that will transport you to colonial Indochina.

The east side of Chinatown specializes in non-Asian fare. For burgers, fries and shakes in a casual setting, head one block east from Maunakea and Hotel to Downbeat Diner (42 N. Hotel St., 808.533.2328). Another block east and a few steps makai (toward the ocean) brings you to Tea at 1024 (1024 Nu‘uanu Ave., 808.521.9596), a quaint tea room. One block further, across from Hawaii Theatre, there are mussels, frites, other bistro fare and wines by the glass at Brasserie Du Vin (1115 Bethel St., 808.545.1115).

By now you should be shopped out and sated. Gather your purchases and head back to your hotel. And take your time: Whatever route you take, Chinatown is always an exotic feast for the senses.