Tempted by so many foodie treats in Honolulu it'll be hard, but remember to leave room for dessert, writes Brett Atkinson.

For a walking tour touted as discovering the best food in Honolulu's Chinatown, we seem to be taking a long time to try anything Chinese. Not that we're complaining though, as the first stops with Aloha Food Tours are definitely showing off the fusion flavours the city is known for.

With a family background blending Hawaiian, Malaysian and Japanese ancestry, our guide, Ryan Conching, is as ethnically diverse as the rest of Honolulu, and he promises plateloads of foodie treats unique to Hawaii. His initial culinary overview comes with a warning to "Make sure you pace yourselves", and memories of a food tour blowout in Penang's Little India come flooding back. Who knew there was a natural limit to the human body's ability to absorb satay and samosas?

Sweet buns for sale on Kekaulike St. Photo / Getty Images
Sweet buns for sale on Kekaulike St. Photo / Getty Images

It's Vietnamese, Laotian and Thai flavours merging at The Pig & the Lady, originally a stall at the Diamond Head farmers' market, and one of the first restaurants to inspire Chinatown's emergence as an after-dark eating and drinking destination. Locals still crowd the Saturday morning market for grilled pork banh mi sandwiches, but this afternoon's star is pho ga (chicken noodle soup), packed with star anise and as good as anything in Hanoi. A drinks list punctuated with local craft beer and ciders compels us to make a dinner booking for later in the week.


From The Pig & the Lady, Ryan leads us down King St before detouring to the Kekaulike Market, framed by palm trees straight from the South Pacific, but infused with heady aromas of Asian provenance. Poke (pronounced po-kay) is popular from Portland to Ponsonby, and in cool eateries heaped servings of raw tuna or salmon are served with rice, quinoa, and occasionally a side order of a Lululemon yoga mat.

Concealed at the back of the market, there's definitely nothing New Age or hipster about Maguro Brothers, and shimmering slabs of some of the world's best tuna are sliced and diced carefully by two brothers from the Japanese city of Kawasaki. Hawaiian ahi tuna is served with a spicy shoyu sauce, but it's the hamachi (yellowtail) tuna flown in from Japanese waters that's a revelation: buttery, unctuous and served with delicate slivers of raw wasabi, not the green ersatz paste dispensed at your local sushi place.

Around the corner at the Sing Cheong Yuan Bakery we're finally trying Chinese flavours, but even these come filtered via the ethnic mash-up of Honolulu.

Char siu dumplings and steamed buns are filled with pork hash, and Ryan explains the local term for these treats is manapua, a contraction of the Hawaiian phrase mea ono puaa, meaning delicious pork thing.

Apparently, it's a tradition to buy a box of manapua for work shouts or office birthdays — forget savouries and sausage rolls in Honolulu — and while they're delicious and porky, we hold back slightly knowing there's more to come.

Kekaulike Market, Honolulu. Photo / Creative Commons License
Kekaulike Market, Honolulu. Photo / Creative Commons License

Through Chinatown's Hotel St bar district, taking a breather on a sultry Honolulu afternoon, it's past the 1922 heritage grandeur of the Hawaii Theatre to the Fort Street Mall. We're now on the edge of the city's compact downtown, and the pedestrian walkway lined with eateries is a popular lunch spot for local desk jockeys.

A French creperie stands next to La Mision Taqueria — emblazoned with #MMGA, Make Mexico Great Again — but we're headed for the humble Fort Street Cafe.

The older Vietnamese owners don't speak much English, but the menu packs in as many flavours as a gap-year-traveller's Southeast Asian itinerary, and we're soon tucking into crispy lemongrass fried chicken and Thai-style iced tea while the grandkids haphazardly steer a delivery trolley up and down the laneway.


Ryan leads us on to the two final stops of the tour. Madre Chocolate features treats crafted from cacao pods from Guatemala, Brazil, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

There's even a "chocolate" bar made of roasted coffee beans from the volcanic Kona slopes of Hawaii's Big Island, and it provides an espresso-like hit as we stroll to the tour's conclusion.

Available around Hawaii, super-refreshing shave ice is usually served topped with traditional flavours like lime and coconut, but at the Wing Ice Cream Parlour, it's more like mad scientist time as flavours could include Mayan chocolate, roasted garlic or blueberry and lavender. With vintage vinyl spinning on the turntable and quirky decor including a former rock god's twin-neck electric guitar, a retro vibe infuses the compact space, but there's definitely nothing old-fashioned about the innovative tastes on offer.

Leave room for dessert when you're eating your way around Chinatown, and order Wing's lemongrass and coriander shave ice as the perfect way to beat the Honolulu heat.

Yellowtail tuna flown in from Japan and sold in the market is a treat. Photo / Creative Commons License
Yellowtail tuna flown in from Japan and sold in the market is a treat. Photo / Creative Commons License



Return flights

from Auckland to Honolulu with Hawaiian Airlines and six nights accommodation starts from $1999pp.