You know those neighborhoods where you can grab a bite while window shopping and people watching? The kind of neighborhood you’d find in New York, San Francisco, Portland, maybe even Waikiki? Well, that’s not Kalihi Kai. This is a neighborhood of warehouses, factories and car repair shops, not cute boutiques and swanky cafes. The triangle makai of Nimitz Highway, bounded by Waiakamilo Street and Sand Island Access Road, doesn’t look like a neighborhood of good eats, which in Honolulu means it’s exactly where you’ll find them. Though there is a McDonald’s bordering each side of the area, you’re more likely to see people driving down Kalihi Street with a maunapua in one hand than a Big Mac. While there are few people on foot in Kalihi Kai, it’s worth it to find a parking space (good luck) and walk among the warehouses to explore the eating options: smooth, silky tofu pudding; sweet-and-sour spare rib saimin in a bowl as big as the kitchen sink; wasabi masago poke, each piece of fish coated with the delicate crunch of fish eggs; lilikoi sorbet to cool off.
Ethel’s Grill opens at 5:30am, when the Matson dock workers and truck drivers stop by to grab a hamburger and large miso soup. Until 2pm, construction workers fill up on sumo-size portions, and curious eaters find their way in, lured by what they’ve read in newspaper articles and Japanese magazines. Favorites on the menu include the ahi tataki (seared tuna sashimi topped with paper-thin slices of garlic marinated in shoyu); Japanese hamburger steak, its richness cut with grated daikon, daikon sprouts and ponzu; and the aforementioned sweet-and-sour spare rib saimin, a giant bowl with chunks of pork braised in vinegar and sugar in a broth with a thinner-than-expected saimin noodles (from nearby Oahu Noodle Factory). Those are the regular menu items, which are hard to stray from, but you can’t ignore the handwritten specials taped onto a wall that is crammed with enough fliers and brochures to resemble a fridge covered with a child’s artwork. From the specials, we sampled the shime saba–mackerel marinated overnight in vinegar and sliced thin–and a hearty pork and squash stew. “This is juicy, emotional food,” says my dining companion.
Menu items initially appear heavy, especially on a hot Kalihi afternoon, but in actuality, they achieve a refreshing balance–an herby brightness here, a jolt of acid there–that doesn’t leave the palate greased out and fatigued. Most items are under $7 and include a salad, miso soup, rice and iced tea or punch, with chunks of ice broken apart every day with an ice pick.
“Not much has changed,” says Minaka Urquidi, who helps her parents, Ryoko and Yoichi Ishii, in the kitchen. She’s referring to the neighborhood, but she could be talking about Ethel’s Grill itself.
(There is no Ethel, by the way, in the restaurant; the Ishiis took over the place in 1978 and, according to Urquidi, “they’re too cheap to change the sign.” Ryoko, however, will respond to the name Ethel.)
Mrs. Cheng’s Soybean Products
Across the street from Ethel’s Grill, is Mrs. Cheng’s Soybean Products, where the scent of soybeans lures curious passers-by. Upon entering the factory (a generous term given the small size of the operation), customers will find a fridge that houses unsweetened soymilk and soymilk sweetened with maple syrup; nigari tofu (a firm tofu); and a tofu so soft that the workers call tofu pudding. The pudding is faintly sweet and silky smooth, and melts in the mouth.
Like Ethel’s, the tofu factory’s namesake no longer runs the place. Instead, you’ll find Mao-Chi Tzeng, a former pharmacist from Taiwan who says his experience operating a medical factory made for an easy transition to food manufacturing.
“Food and drugs are related,” he says matter-of-factly. “Drugs are more complicated than food.”
But Mrs. Cheng’s still boasts a romantic backstory. Tzeng’s been making tofu since he was 12, when he learned the craft from an aunt and by studying Japanese tofu-makers.
His tofu is made with organic (and by definition of organic, GMO-free) soybeans–not because of a personal principled stance, but because those were the beans Mrs. Cheng used when Tzeng took over. No matter that he has now been running the place for 26 years, 19 years longer than Mrs. Cheng ever did; he continues to stick with what works–making handmade tofu that’s in demand by restaurants like Hiroshi’s Eurasian Tapas and Hakone at the Hawaii Prince Hotel.
To stand in Alicia’s Market is to get a sense of local food in Hawaii. The pupu bar houses Chinese roast pork and roast duck, hanging as they do in Chinatown storefronts, and the plate lunch menu offers laulau and kalua pig, poi and pasteles. The seafood bar includes sashimi, sea asparagus wasabi ‘ahi poke, abalone poke and teriyaki giant squid. With such a range of eats, the fear is that none will be memorable, but on the contrary, each is executed well: the roast pork has a crackly, crisp skin and the poke tastes of fresh, meaty, sugi-free fish.
Alicia Kam started the market as a grocery store in 1949. Since then, the focus has been more on the freshly prepared foods, though there are still a few shelves of canned goods. The running joke is that these dusty, rusty cans are relics of the ’40s. Fortunately, the menu updates more frequently than the store aisles. It’s anchored by the Chinese roast meats, Hawaiian plate lunches and seafood bar, but within this framework, Alicia’s son, Leonard, exercises his culinary creativity: hence, meaty char siu turkey tails and crunchy, salty-sweet masago ahi poke.
For dessert, head to Tropilicious, located a few blocks down Mokauea Street. Walk through an inauspicious doorway into the factory, and among the packing boxes, order a flavor (or two) among 10 different ice creams–from chocolate to cinnamon caramel–and eight sorbets which include the popular flavors of haupialani, lilikoi, and lychee. There’s no walk-up counter, no cash register, just workers who stop what they’re doing to exchange some ice cream for cash. A few feet away, they pack half-gallons for supermarket and restaurant deliveries while someone retrieves your order from the walk-in freezer.
The haupialani sorbet is as creamy as any ice cream, and the lychee, though it tastes of canned lychee, is still refreshing. The chocolate is studded with chocolate chips and has a hint of orange. At a buck a cup, Tropilicious is just the thing to cool off as you head back onto the hot streets of Kalihi Kai.