The new Keeaumoku
By Mari Taketa
Special to The Advertiser
It's a street we've driven a thousand times, to and from Walmart, a yakiniku meet-up at Sorabol or a quickie saimin at Like Like. We know Keeaumoku like the back of our hand, right?
Last year alone, 10 nonchain eateries opened up on the stretch between Liona and Makaloa, tiny side streets bracketed by South King and Kapiolani. That's three short blocks in a dense, maze-like neighborhood that dates back over a century. And while you still can spot the occasional hostess bar and massage parlor, Keeaumoku is a neighborhood in transition, looking prettier, livelier and almost hip.
That amounts to an open invitation. We slip on the Crocs, slather on the sunscreen, find parking and head out. Mission: Scope out the new and the little-known. Taste. Explore. Discover. This is going to be good.
Tanabe's (934 Keeaumoku St., 949-8301): Walkabout starts on the ewa side up near South King Street, at the last vestige of Keeaumoku's heyday as a magnet for Japanese immigrants. Tanabe's opened in 1917, the same year as Shingon Mission, the tiny Buddhist temple next door. For several years now, new owners have turned the one-time mom-and-pop shop into a mecca for cheap local eats.
Think 7-Eleven's prepared foods, multiply by 10 and add fresh poke. Deep-fried chicken skin, sides of kimchee for 49 cents, an amazing array of musubis — all swoon-worthy. And lately Tanabe's has been wafting its love all over, setting up a grill in the parking lot and offering a combination plate with steak, chicken and kalbi for $7.50.
Six lanes across Keeaumoku on the Diamond Head side, we're at the start of the concentration of Korean bars, restaurants, boutiques and other businesses dating from the 1960s. What's happening here? This part of the 'hood's been decidedly downmarket, a collection of neglected buildings tied together by the potholes in the parking lots.
We turn into the lot fronting Liona Street and do a double-take. It's freshly paved. Pink flowers line the borders where dirt patches used to sprout weeds. And back in the corner, in the exact spot that a few months ago held industrial-size trash bins, Christmas lights twine up a tree overlooking al fresco dining.
Orine Sarang Chae (905 Keeaumoku St., 955-0646): The new restaurant's name is a mouthful. "What is the SARANGCHAE?" the menu asks. "It is a section of the husband's space and he can serve some guests. I hope you will forget terrible things, and you will rest and relax in this place under this sweet tree."
There's a duck on the cover. Does Orine share the same owners as Ducky Korean BBQ in Mänoa?
"Yes, that's my family," says Jaco Woo, the silver-haired owner, who has taken over our tongs and is grilling our pork belly.
Why did you open up in the back of a parking lot?
"For a long time, I wanted to attract more Korean customers. In Mänoa, we get 50-50 Koreans to locals," he says. "Then my friend bought this property, and I got my chance. Now this place gets 70 percent Korean customers."
Ah. Well, let's spill some beans: At lunchtime, you can get a bubbling pot of kimchee or Korean miso stew with rice and four banchan side dishes for $3.99. And if you order the full-on ssam special with meat to grill for about $40, you'll feed four people out of a bottomless bowl of fresh greens. Fold in a piece of grilled meat, smear it with Korean miso, wrap and eat. Under the umbrellas, twinkling lights and arching branches, it's easy to forget you're in a parking lot.
Welcome to the new Keeaumoku. Besides sprucing up, the new owner of Keeaumoku Plaza, which fronts Keeaumoku Street from Liona to Rycroft, has been signing new leases with businesses that until recently were expecting to have to relocate. The stability is welcome in a climate that last year saw the closure of plaza tenants Well Being Porridge, Ashi Bang blanket shop, Taishoken ramen, Hana Mart department store and Toho restaurant; and rumors abound of new restaurants and a supermarket set to open this year.
Keeaumoku Produce (905 Keeaumoku St., 955-9788): Still a mom-and-pop market after 80 years, tiny Keeaumoku Produce transitioned from its old owner, Kunsok Kim, to her good friend, Seoung Hee Kim, in the same building as Orine Sarang Chae last year. If you taste a different hand behind the Korean side dishes available to take home — mandoo, kim chee and other banchan — that's why. And Kim wants you to know that fresh local eggs arrive at the store every Wednesday, and Kamiya papayas every Wednesday and Friday.
Go Shi Go (903 Keeaumoku St., 942-0545): Right across the parking lot is the best udon shop in town. The owner, Hidetaka Ushiki, brought his passion for hand-made udon and his specialized training with an udon master over from Tokyo last summer. Today, he's behind the plate-glass window, kneading the dough for the night's noodles.
He waves us in. What's new? Totally BYOB now, no more corkage fee. Karaoke coming soon, he says. Ushiki gestures proudly at a slew of specials papering the walls. Natto Thursdays (really? Extra natto for free?), thick-noodle days, thin-noodle days, new bentos and combination sets. New cold-noodle hiyashi chyuka ($9.75; honestly, this makes us crave Ushiki's awesome cold natto noodles). New udon-flour crepes with bananas and chocolate chips, topped with crunchy fried udon ($6.45).
Ireh (911 Keeaumoku St., 943-6000): Go Shi Go's new neighbor is as traditional as it is innovative. Ireh is a bright, homey, hole-in-the-wall that replaced Well Being Porridge. The smiling auntie, Pyoung Ok Kim, bows and welcomes us into what feels like her personal kitchen. Ireh's specialty is comforting street food, the kind you find served up in streetside tents all over Seoul. Kim makes a delicious rabbokki ($8.95), a quick-and-spicy stir-fry of fishcake, cabbage, dok mochi logs and ramen that makes our K-drama-addicted friend squeal, "It's just like on TV!" And she's kept the jook that Well Being was known for (try the seafood porridge, filled with octopus, scallop, clam and vegetables; $8.95), but it's the red-bean shave ice that melts our heart (a serious steal at $4.95).
Now please, we did not consume all this in one day. It took five walkabouts — exploring all you see here and more — to arrive at this realization: Keeaumoku is perfect for a progressive meal. Get a small group, start at one end, order a couple of dishes at each place, and move on. You can do lunch, you can do dinner, and more than any other place outside Waikíkí, you can even do a midnight run.
Here's what's in between the best Keeaumoku eats:
Seoul Karaoke (815 Keeaumoku St., 941-4848): "If a hit came out in South Korea two weeks ago, they have it," says Myong Choi, vice president of the Korean Chamber of Commerce. Bonus: You don't have to sing in Korean, if that's not your thing; this place also has a local following, with local favorites. Double bonus: Seoul Karaoke stays open until just before dawn, just like neighboring Kaya restaurant, and of course, 24-hour Sorabol next to that.
Hyundae Video (745 Keeaumoku St., 943-1414): Dollar rentals of K-dramas, movies and documentaries on videotapes and DVDs. Can't find it here? There's another Korean video rental next to Panda Cuisine down the street.
Beauty Touch (745 Keeaumoku St., 943-8720): Anna Lim's imported Korean cosmetics are so popular, she has three locations, including this one in Like Like Plaza. Foot traffic here is quieter than Lim's outlet in Don Quijote two blocks away, where most of the business comes from locals marveling at the flawless complexions of Korean TV stars.
"Lots of people watch the dramas and they ask me, how come the actresses' skin is so beautiful? How do you take care?" Lim says. "I tell them about natural products like gingko and herbs for the skin, and they try them, and they're so happy."
Happy Cake Cafe (745 Keeaumoku St., 922-1957): Owen O'Callaghan bought the Happy Cake operation from the old Kemoo Farms in Wahiawä, complete with its recipe for fruitcakes studded with mac nuts, pineapple and coconut. He no longer sells Happy Cakes at Don Quijote, Macy's or Costco, focusing instead on this storefront in Like Like Plaza.
If you ever tasted the Happy Cake at Kemoo Farms, nothing's changed: The same guy is doing the baking. Filled with chunks of candied pineapple and minced mac nuts, the cake has a coconut undertone and is surprisingly light. Half-pound minis run $9.95; one pound is $19.95. It totally satisfies our 4 p.m. sugar craving but makes us ache for a strong jolt of java. Not to worry, O'Callaghan says: He's planning a cake, brownie and coffee bar in the same spot in a few weeks.
Down Keeaumoku past Kanunu Street, Sam Sung Plaza is in flux. I Love Sushi is gone, its only goodbye a sad thank-you note in the window. Also gone: next-door One Bowl Finish, now replaced by Nak Won, offering a standard menu of kalbi, noodles and spicy stir-fries. And Iga Bento, replaced by La Isla Burrito. Still there: Elim Cafe and Bakery, another street-food specialist; and Coffee Day, a liquid dessert hangout with quirky green decor.
Panda Cuisine (641 Keeaumoku St., 947-1688): We are heading upstairs to well-known Panda Cuisine to pin down the facts on the latest-night dim sum in town (until 1 a.m., with a 10 percent discount after 10 p.m.), when we spot a curious collection of thatched umbrellas downstairs.
Shrimp & BBQ (641 Keeaumoku St., 941-3322): Talk about a true hole-in-the-wall. Shrimp & BBQ compensates for its nearly invisible location with multiple signs blaring "$6 ANY PLATE." It reels us in, along with a steady stream of local Japanese twentysomethings.
What's your best-seller?
"Garlic shrimp," says Ellen Bauder, the girl behind the counter.
And what's the most delicious?
"For me, it's the gochujang shrimp. It's spicy, but not too."
We try both, six plump shrimpies per box. The garlic reflects a light, flavorful touch, the gochujang a happy balance of tomato, spice and sweet; and both are cooked to the right tender succulence, still in shells that are split wide open. With two scoops rice, mac salad, four banchan and kimchee, it's so worth $6.
Nolbunae (1526 Makaloa St., 947-4070): OK, so it's not actually on Keeaumoku, but it's right around the corner on Makaloa, and we can't resist this final nibble. Who could? Nolbunae's sign claims "The Best Chicken in Hawaii."
First, the facts. Open since last April. Ultra-friendly service. Happy-hour menu from 5 to 8 p.m.; restaurant closes at 2 a.m. Standard foods include stir-fries and soups.
That's not what we're here for. Korean fried chicken, uniquely seasoned with a thin, nongreasy coating, has finally made the jump from Seoul to cities like Los Angeles, New York and Boston. And there's an actual pairing of pickled daikon cubes and beer that you're supposed to have it with.
Now here's Nolbunae, right in our urban backyard, serving up a small plate of wings, drumettes and thighs ($8 at happy hour, otherwise $14.95). The first bite is a revelation in cinnamon. No soy sauce, no sesame oil, no garlic, not sweet and not salty, just an exotic fragrance that perfumes the steaming, fresh, juicy meat.
It's luscious, but is this the Korean fried chicken people talk about?
"No, this chicken is only here," says our server. "Our cook made this chicken for 24 years outside Seoul, and she brought it to Hawaii. It's our secret."
We love secrets! To top it off, the sweet-potato fries (in a Korean restaurant, who knew? $8 at happy hour) are cut bigger, less greasy and overall better than The Counter's.
Walkabout ends here. We chose Nolbunae, a few yards off Keeaumoku, for the finale because it recalls the ghost of Chicken Alice. Remember Chicken Alice? Probably Hawaii's first Korean-style fried chicken, spiced with kimchee juice, right at the foot of Keeaumoku. That was back in the '80s. People still yearn for that chicken.
Chicken Alice Yang is Myong Choi's calabash auntie. With her permission, he hopes to revive the recipe at events and festivals around Honolulu.
We like how that symbolizes today's Keeaumoku. We like that it takes something Korean, keeps it Korean, and shares it all around, so that eventually it becomes part of our collective landscape, our palate, our memories. We like that.
Clockwise from left: Tasty bites can be found close to Keeaumoku and Makaloa streets. Keeaumoku is a neighborhood in transition, with 10 nonchain eateries opening up last year alone. Orine Sarang Chae set up shop in the back of a parking lot and specializes in Korean food, including bubbling pots of stew, grilled meats and banchan side dishes.
Clockwise from left: Keeaumoku Street when the sun goes down. Hyundae Video features dollar rentals of K-dramas, movies and documentaries. Happy Cake Cafe offers the same fruitcakes from the old Kemoo Farms operation in Wahiawä. Beauty Touch sells imported Korean cosmetics. Go Shi Go's handmade udon may be the best in town.