China is a diverse country rich in culinary traditions, but for the longest time anyone eating Chinese food in Hawaii would think Cantonese is all there is, because of the predominance of immigration from Southern provinces.
That’s changed in the past year with more restaurants offering the spicy Sichaun cuisine of Chongqing and Chengdu, as well as lu chuan, the skewered street food of Beijing. That diversification is trickling down from restaurants to smaller outlets showcasing Chinese street food and fusion possibilities.
Open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays; 1120 Maunakea St.; 888-0070 (delivery through Bite Squad)
Lawrence Lau has returned home from New York and Las Vegas to offer something new to Oahu, a merging of Latin and Chinese flavors at his casual Chinatown food stall, Senor Pake.
With little immigration from Latin America, Hawaii hasn’t seen much fusion of Latin and Chinese flavors. Lau’s exposure came only after he left the islands.
While attending the Culinary Institute of America, he couldn’t help but be exposed to New York’s Cuban-Chinese kitchens, specializing in the culinary traditions that developed with the arrival of Chinese plantation workers to Cuba in the 1850s. The cuisine came to America following the Cuban Revolution, when Cubans fleeing their home country introduced their foods to Miami and New York City.
Lau returned home in 2007 to work at the Halekulani, but left for Las Vegas after one year for one more adventure before settling down back home. This time he found himself in the fine dining kitchens of Twist by Pierre Gagnaire at the Waldorf Astoria, Restaurant Guy Savoy, and Hubert Keller’s Fleur de Lys.
During time off, Lau said, he attended a lot of potlucks with co-workers.
“There are a lot of Hispanics in Las Vegas. I would bring Chinese food, they would bring Hispanic food and it was so good together,” he said. “Both, oddly enough, have a lot in common. They both include a lot of peppers, garlic, rice and pork. Chinese food can sometimes be heavy, but I found I could lighten it up with fresh sauces like pico de gallo.
Lau returned to the Halekulani in 2014, after the birth of his child, the first of two. He also worked at Morimoto, Morimoto Asia and Hank’s Haute Dogs before deciding to try something new on his own.
At Senor Pake, he offers a small menu of street-style tacos (two for $8, three for $11) and burritos ($10) with choice of four fillings: black pepper beef brisket, salt and pepper pork belly, chipotle-sauced Senor Chicken or Sichuan eggplant. These choices are also delicious atop salads of rice and greens ($10).
Sauces help personalize the experience. Lighten up a pork belly burrito with the tart kick of a tomatillo salsa verde, or add a bit of fire with a Thai chili and pineapple sauce.
CSF (CHINESE FAMOUS STREET FOOD)
Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays; Ohana Hale Marketplace, 333 Ward Ave.; 364-9348
What you won’t see at CSF is rice, and that’s fine with me.
I don’t know about you, but because I grew up with a distaste for rice, I was constantly told by my parents that I should be grateful for what was on my plate, because a million Chinese children were starving for want of rice.
Well surprise, surprise. Not everyone in China grows up eating rice. In Northern China, where the traditional food crops are corn, wheat and millet, the staples are bread and noodles.
“When I was little, I thought that rice was weird. Maybe once a year we ate rice,” said Jenny Wong, from Hebei in the Northeast, who owns CSF with her husband, from Xi’an in the Northwest. “In old times they cannot grow rice in the north so most people never saw rice. Now, even if they don’t grow it, they can get it from somewhere else. But still, the bread and noodles are the main dishes for Northern China.”
So CSF’s menu is dominated by Northern-style noodles and pocket sandwiches (rou jia mo, literally “meat in a bun”) that might be compared to pita sandwiches or fast-food pocket breakfasts, offering walk-away convenience. These pocket sandwiches owe their existence to Xian’s significance on the ancient Silk Road that brought Muslim traders to China, along with Arab and Persian culinary traditions.
In China, the pita evolved to be more dense and doughy. In fact, a different unleavened bread served as a part of Xi’an’s most famous dish, Yang Rou Pao Mo (lamb soup with flatbread, $17.98), is about as hard as a Big Island stone cookie, meant to sop up the broth without falling apart too quickly. I love the soup itself, a comfort dish also incorporating cabbage and rice noodles.
It’s one of my favorite dishes here, along with side dishes of sliced boiled pork with garlic sauce ($7.50) that’s not for the timid because it’s thick with minced raw garlic; and chicken with chili sauce ($7.50), which is like cold ginger chicken that subs out the ginger and green onions for what I consider to be a mild chili oil. It can be made hotter.
Balance out those meat offerings with a dish of spicy cold cabbage ($5.99), which, despite its red color, isn’t spicy at all. The cabbage is nice and crisp and tastes like a mild water kim chee. If you need more kick, wrap some of the pork in the cabbage, Korean-style. Also offered here are Sichuan cold noodles ($6.99) that are less spicy than those of other Northern specialists in town, making it a sort of quick entry-level primer for this style of cuisine for those unsure of how much spice they can handle. And Beijing-style zhajiang noodles ($6.99) has more of a milder brown fermented yellow bean paste gravy than the assertive Korean-style black bean and onion sauce we’re more accustomed to seeing here.
Another Beijing specialty is dumplings ($7.99 for eight pieces) made with pork or lamb with a touch of aromatic spices. A vegetable version does away with the egg traditionally incorporated into the filling, to appeal to a vegan crowd.
Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays; Ohana Hale Marketplace
I didn’t say much about the rou jia mo in the item above, because I was saving it for this entry. The meat sandwiches are just about all I can eat at this specialty spot. Save for cold noodles ($8), a seaweed salad ($3) and cucumber salad ($6), the rest of the menu comprises duck heads, wings, feet and necks, luring dozens of Mandarin speakers hungry for a taste of the motherland.
When I became curious about duck “paws” on the menu, a tub of duck feet was brought out from the refrigerator with the offer to taste, the idea being that if I loved it I would be back for more.
“No thank you,” I said.
“Why, are you scared?” the cashier asked.
“Yeah, I’m local,” I said, as if that explained everything, and I guess it did.
“Oh,” she said. “Local,” with a mix of understanding and pity.
The rou jia mo is defined on the menu as a Chinese burger, but it has nothing to do with our concept of a meat patty served between buns. These bundles of pork ($5), lamb ($8) or beef ($7) start with marinated, roast meat that is chopped (with a cleaver) to order, along with peppers and cilantro if desired.
It’s all stuffed into pocket bread that here is a mixture of doughy on the inside, with a cracker crunch on the outside. I tried the lamb version, which is really tasty!
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at email@example.com.