Hands down, the hottest evolution in Honolulu’s urban scene is happening in Chinatown. The once-neglected neighborhood — home to waves of immigrants from China, Japan, and Vietnam for over a century — began seeing an influx of small art galleries and hipster bars a few years ago, creating a vibrant mixed scene. Saturday mornings belonged to the regulars who descended on the open markets for bitter melon, Chinese broccoli, fresh fish, roasted meats and pliant rice noodles. Nights belonged to hipsters in search of pizza, craft beer and farm-to-glass cocktails.
Now the neighborhood is bursting with the new and old. If you’re a trend-setting restaurant, a quirky boutique, an artisan-driven anything — you open somewhere in this maze of narrow streets between Beretania Street and Honolulu Harbor, Nuuanu Avenue and Nuuanu Stream. In a quiet way, Chinatown has become red hot.
It’s way too easy to lose yourself in an afternoon of browsing, shopping, eating and sipping here. To add structure to your wanderings — especially if it’s an only-in-Hawaii vibe you’re after — here’s a quick shopping guide to some of Chinatown’s edible and other treasures.
Madre Chocolate. Thanks to cacao farmers and chocolate makers throughout the Islands, local bean-to-bar chocolate is no longer a rarity. Only Madre takes it a step further: Its award-winning artisan bars are also organic and fair trade. And they’re lightly processed to preserve the antioxidant content. Mmm, healthy! 8 N. Pauahi St., 377-6440
Tin Can Mailman. Floor-to-ceiling displays of vintage prints, photos, books, glass fishing balls, ukuleles, guitars, aloha shirts and other Hawaiiana — including, yes, tikis and hula girl dolls. Tin Can Mailman is always worth a browse. 1026 Nuuanu Ave., 524-3009
Owens & Co. “Lovely little things,” the storefront promises, just so you know there’s a feminine bent. Step inside this sunlit corner boutique and you’ll find that many of the lovely things are locally crafted. Jana Lam fabric clutches, Filthy Farmgirl soaps, Cultivate Hawaii tea towels and other irresistibles make Owens & Co. a favorite stop for stocking stuffers and gifts to take to the mainland. 1152 Nuuanu Ave., 531-4300
Barrio Vintage. This gently used clothing store is a delight for anyone who loves color. Items range from adorable to quirky to eye-popping, but of particular interest to Hawaiiana fans will be the vintage-print aloha shirts and muumuu. 1161 Nuuanu Ave., 674-7156
Bo Wah Trading Co. Sure you’ve wondered where to find bamboo steamer baskets, clay cooking pots, one- and two-handled woks and the wire-laced scoops known as spiders. At Bo Wah Trading Co. these Chinese cooking utensils come in all sizes, from industrial to almost miniature. Head toward the back of the narrow store, past the preserves and dried noodles, along the left-hand wall. 1037 Maunakea St., 537-2017
Sing Cheong Yuan Bakery. Behind vermilion doors and lanterns, Chinatown’s best-known bakery stocks loads of crystallized fruit and veggie candies, assorted dim sum and miniature sweet custard tarts. But the crunchiest, most portable treats are the peanut, mac nut and walnut candy squares in the window. This is the stuff locals take to family and friends far away. 1027 Maunakea St., 531-6688
Tropical fruits. Cherimoya, star apple, rambutan, mangosteen: Whatever the season, Chinatown’s open markets are bursting with brilliantly colored fruits so exotic that even locals sometimes ask what they are and how to eat them. Signs of Hawaii’s expanding ethnic food trends, these are the products of island backyards and farms. You’ll find tropical fruits at produce stalls around the junction of King and Kekaulike streets and in Maunakea Marketplace (1120 Maunakea St.). Buy as many varieties as you can, take them home and sample. All you’ll need are a knife and spoon, if that.
Vietnamese smoothies. Refreshing no matter what time of day. As with tropical fruits, stalls are scattered around Chinatown (this one’s inside Maunakea Marketplace). If you see a collection of fruits behind glass, stop and order an avocado smoothie. The blended concoction of buttery fresh fruit, ice and sweetened condensed milk is ubiquitous throughout Southeast Asia — simple, delicious, an epiphany that will transform your outlook on smoothies.
Shopping bag dinner. If you’re like us, by the time you’re done with your wanderings your bag is full of goodies you didn’t plan on buying but couldn’t resist. Here’s what we end up with: crispy, succulent roast pork, a quarter-pound cut to order; 15 inches of freshly steamed look fun speckled with mushroom (slice into strips, shake them out and voila — ready-to-eat rice noodles); Chinese broccoli, and macadamia nut candy. The cost of dinner for two? Just under $10.