Where real Chinese eat Chinese food

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I’m going to confess: This roundup has been three years in the making. Chinese people can be a pain in the ass when you’re trying to get an opinion on Chinese food.

  • There’s no loyalty with the chefs, so they’re often leaving for the restaurant that offers the most money, thus changing the food quality.
  • People like Ryan Hew will say “There’s no good Chinese food in Hawaii!”
  • Restaurants like Panda Cuisine keep changing their concept, confusing Hawaii eaters.
  • Despite being highly opinionated, the Chinese people in my life are usually too busy to be answering something that I should already know.
  • As you will see in the variety of answers below, Chinese people make their own format.

In addition, you can’t just ask Chinese people where their favorite Chinese restaurant is, because you will always get the reply, “What kind? Dim sum or family style?” So here, in time for Chinese New Year, is a round up from the most cooperative people in the secret Hawaii Chinese Dinner Society (HICDS).

Lee Anne Wong and Fook Lam's turnip cake.

Lee Anne Wong and Fook Lam’s turnip cake.

Chef Lee Anne Wong (@LeeAnneWong) grew up in New York, but quickly became a part of Hawaii’s Chinese food scene. Her favorite spot for dim sum is Fook Lam, since the prices are good, the items are fresh, the place is clean and the service is courteous. Her go-to dishes are the xiao long bao (XLB) Shanghai dumplings, turnip cake, and bean curd roll. Fook Lam, 100 N. Beretania St., 808-523-9168

For family style eating, she likes Hunan Cuisine for its spicy fare and recommends the Szechuan lamb and kung pao chicken. “Panda Cuisine also has fresh, live shrimp, crab and seafood,” she added. Hunan Cuisine, 53 N. Beretania St., 808-599-8838; Panda Cuisine, 641 Keeaumoku St., 808-947-1688

Will Chen and Ming's xiao long bao (XLB).

Will Chen and Ming’s xiao long bao (XLB).

Our Chef Will Chen (@WillChen79) is one of the few people in the HICDS who can actually speak the language. His top three dim sum favorites are, in order: Fook Lam for a balance of variety and price; Kirin, which has less variety but has friendly staff and fresh items made to order; and Jade Dynasty, which has a lot of different items that the other restaurants don’t have — although, it can be pricey. At Fook Lam, Will likes the curry tendon and the turnip cake. Kirin Restaurant, 2518 S. Beretania St., 808-942-1888; Jade Dynasty, 1450 Ala Moana Blvd, 808-947-8818

His top family style restaurant is Moon Garden. “Fantastic Staff, delicious food, you can bring your own seafood (lobsters, crabs) and they will cook it for you for a small fee.” (Really? I had no idea you could bring your own food.) He added that Kirin is a favorite for polished service with attentive staff and interesting food items — a nice mix of northern and southern cuisines. Moon Garden Restaurant, 578 N. Vineyard Blvd., 808-843-1868

His honorable mentions include Ming’s for XLB, Lam’s Kitchen for the home made funn, and Sweet Home Cafe for hot pot.

Tracy Chan and dim sum from Mei Sum.

Tracy Chan and dim sum from Mei Sum.

Photographer Tracy Chan (@Chant808) said, “Since my Chinese dad is too cheap to go to any restaurant where the main course is over $9, I’m going to also have to draw on other experiences with the HICDS.

“My dad’s a big fan of Chinese buffets. His current favorite, and mine, is the family-run Ho Ho’s in Kapolei. They have crab legs, amazing steamed fish, a wide variety of more ‘mainstream’ Chinese dishes like broccoli beef, and some local twists like li hing spare ribs. The food is good, the proprietors are friendly and there’s no challenge to parking if you’re willing to make the drive.” Ho Ho Chinese Cuisine, 590 Farrington Hwy., 808-692-9880

For dim sum, Tracy favors Mei Sum in Chinatown. “It fits my requirements for ‘value,’ a complex equation that factors in price, quality and convenience, meaning the food is good, cheap enough for my conservative budget and the location is along my regular route of travel. Sure, the proprietors can be rude, and if you take too long ordering (or don’t flag down the carts fast enough) they’ll get impatient with you, but that’s to be expected in any authentic Chinese-run dim sum establishment. It’s part of the experience. Get in, sit down, know what you want, tip well and they’ll love you. If you don’t, you’re holding up the flow of business, which is pretty much a sin in Chinese culture.” Mei Sum, 1170 Nuuanu Ave., 808-531-3268

Dew Drop Inn in Makiki gets Tracy’s vote for comfort food. “It’s small, cozy, casual but well-kept, with one of the best, if not THE best, Northern Chinese menu on the island. I discovered Northern Chinese food relatively late in life (my dad’s side of the family is from Hong Kong/Southern China) but this little place just down the street from where I live quickly became a favorite. Everything tastes homemade and fresh. The prices aren’t the cheapest, but it’s where I go when I want to treat myself with REAL Chinese food and not, you know, the stuff from Panda Express. Some of my favorites are the ground pork & tofu with sesame bread pockets, the dumplings, and if I’m feeling under the weather, the hot & sour soup or the hot black sesame mochi balls, which take me back to being a kid at Chinese weddings.” (Note: There is also Taiwanese-style food on the menu.) Dew Drop Inn, 1088 S. Beretania St., 808-526-9522

Olena Heu and Royal Garden's char siu bao.

Olena Heu and Royal Garden’s char siu bao.

Blogger Olena Heu (@OlenaHeu) likes Royal Garden in the Ala Moana Hotel for dim sum: mochi rice in lotus leaves, shrimp siu mai, char siu bao, fried shrimp har gau, and the shrimp and chive dumpling. For family style, she recommends Golden City in Kalihi for their cake noodle, rice cake, and orange chicken. Runner up: Little Village.  Royal Garden, 410 Atkinson Dr., 808-942-7788; Golden City, 1418 N. School St., 808-841-0287

Capsun Poe and Fook Yuen's cold platter.

Capsun Poe and Fook Yuen’s cold platter.

Capsun Poe (@Capsun) is the secretary of the Board of Trustees at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. He only has two top dim sum spots in Hawaii:

1. Legend Seafood Restaurant. “I order chicken feet all over town, but Legend’s delivers a consistently good serving. It has just the right amount of skin to make it worth cleaning the bones, which I do every time. Warning: It’s very popular. So if you’re going to yum cha on a Sunday, be sure to go before 11:30 a.m.” Legend Seafood Restaurant, 100 N Beretania St., 808-532-1868

2. Tai Pan. “Looking for a place with good food and authentic Chinese hospitality? Well, that’s Taipan. The waitresses can be a little pushy, but your patience will be rewarded with good dim sum. Warning: If they’re busy and you have a small party (two to three people), they will usually make you share your table with another small party.” Tai Pan Dim Sum, 100 N. Beretania St., 808-599-8899

Capsun’s family style favorites are:

1. Little Village. “I remind people that I’ve been going to this place since before they got popular. That’s before the restaurant expansion several years ago. In fact, I used to be able to walk in with a group of six and not have to wait at all for a table. This place is often characterized as being Americanized Chinese, but that is something I like about it; even a non-adventurous eater can find something to eat. Favorite dish: Most people swear by the Honey Walnut Shrimp; it’s good, but my must-order for years has been the string beans with pork — it comes perfectly flash-fried, there’s a little char and glisten on every piece, and it’s spicy.” Little Village Noodle House, 1113 Smith St., 808-545-3008

2. Fook Yuen. “Favorite dish: Cold Platter, which comes with jellyfish, pig’s feet, chicken, cuttlefish, and char siu. I like everything on the platter, but the real standouts here are the jellyfish, which is crunchy and salty, and the pig’s feet, which is tender and vinegary. I order this every time I go to Fook Yuen and have never been disappointed. Bonus: They’re open really late, until 3 a.m. — making it easy for you to satisfy any late night Chinese cravings.” Fook Yuen Seafood Restaurant, 1960 Kapiolani Blvd., 808-973-0168

3. Ming’s. “I’m a big fan of XLB. It’s hard to find something that can rival San Francisco’s Yank Sing, but Ming’s has some of the best in Honolulu.” Ming’s Chinese Restaurant, 1414 Dillingham Blvd., 808-841-8889

Linda Low and Garry Yee with Mini Garden's harm yee gai nup chow faan.

Linda Low and Garry Yee with Mini Garden’s harm yee gai nup chow faan.

Garry Yee (@FunHiGuy) is a financial advisor with Crown Capital Securities but deferred to his girlfriend for the food recommendation: “Linda Low likes to order harm yee gai nup chow faan (fried rice with bits of chicken and dried salted fish) at Mini Garden on Beretania. The plan is to order an entree, so we can get the special price on lobster, in this case the lobster with ginger and onion.” Mini Garden Orient Cuisine, 2065 S Beretania St., 808-946-3828

An assortment of dim sum at Royal Garden.

An assortment of dim sum at Royal Garden.

As for me? My favorite dim sum is at Royal Garden in the Ala Moana Hotel. The items are high quality and the service is always quick and friendly. Their chicken feet, in fact, are soft, plump, and spicy. Fook Lam is a very close second, especially because their jin dui is wonderfully light for a restaurant. Here, the service is uncharacteristically friendly for a Chinese restaurant, and every item you order is acknowledged with a “Good choice!” Mei Sum is my third choice — the dim sum is reasonably priced and good. For me, there’s a little bit of a personal attachment, as I used to take my Popo there on Saturdays and they were always very kind to her.

My favorite family style restaurant is probably Ming’s, although I don’t go very often since they are a little out of the way for me. Their XLB is one of the best in town, and their 梅菜千层肉 (braised pork belly with preserved cabbage) is a must-have unique dish. Bonus: they are BYOB. Second choice is Fook Yuen, since they are convenient and have a nicely-priced late-night menu after 10 p.m. Interestingly enough, I really like their jook, and my nieces and I order extra pi dan (1000-year-old egg) on the side. I actually like Royal Garden for family style dining, too, as my clan has had quite a few events there. I even bought my new year jai from them yesterday! My runner up would be Moon Garden, since they make winter melon soup in the melon, and no one does that anymore.

Are you Chinee like me? Where do you find your favorite Chinese dishes? Let us know in the comments below! And gong xi fa cai!

Also, if you missed it, check out the rest of our “native people” food series — Where real Vietnamese eat Vietnamese food, Where real Thais eat Thai food, Where real Koreans eat Korean food and Where Japanese nationals eat Japanese food.