Mandarin Kitchen, a new Chinese restaurant at Kahala Mall with a Cantonese roast meat counter, is a rarity on the East Side. And despite opening a few months ago during the pandemic—or perhaps because of this, given its Chinese comfort food made for takeout—it is doing quite well. I arrived right when doors opened at 10:30 in the morning and had to wait about an hour for the fresh meat to be ready (I’d recommend calling in advance for specialty meat orders). During my wait, I saw a constant stream of customers, and the restaurant’s phone didn’t stop ringing from takeout orders.
I lived in China for the past two years, until the pandemic sent me home, and I felt like I was back on the streets of Shanghai as I watched Mandarin Kitchen’s chef hang juicy roasted ducks and char siu in the window. Each day, the kitchen prepares 16 roast ducks and about 10 to 12 pounds of char siu. “We sell out of our meat every day,” the chef says proudly. You can also order their special honey roasted spareribs a day in advance.
In addition to Mandarin Kitchen’s specialty meat, its plate lunches are a popular option. As I entered the bright and open space (tables and chairs are pushed to the side as they are currently only open for takeout), I heard another customer remark that the layout is similar to Panda Express, with a steam-table line where you can point out which noodles, rice, veggies or meats you want, from behind a glass casing. It’s one choice for $6.75; two choices, $8.50; and three choices, $10.25. Diners can also order dishes off the menu.
I ordered half a Hong Kong style roast duck (港式烤鸭) for $14 and a half-pound of char siu (叉烧) for $7, then watched the chef cleave the meat behind the glass window. I was especially pleased with the duck’s crispy skin and strong notes of star anise. The house pan-fried noodle (招牌炒面) for $11.50 was huge with a variety of fish, squid, pork and veggies atop fried noodles, but I found this dish to be too watery, and the random assortment of chewy meats and vegetables gave me the impression that they were repurposed leftovers. I did, however, love the comforting savory eggplant and pork in garlic sauce (鱼香茄子) for $10.50 and will order that every time I go back.
Despite its slight resemblance to Panda Express, Mandarin Kitchen is quite different. The food is less American influenced (though you’ll still find orange chicken on the menu), the roast meats alone are worth a visit, and the chatter of Cantonese and Mandarin behind the counter reminded me of my time back in China. Next time I’m missing my time abroad, I’ll definitely return to Mandarin Kitchen.
4618 Kīlauea Ave., (808) 739-1388, mandarinkitchenhi.com