If you knew Japanese Restaurant Aki when it was on Makaloa Street, you may experience deja vu upon stepping into Honolulu Skewer House. The space, largely unchanged, has the same high ceilings, modern white seats and whimsical mural depicting a swirly sun and sea. But Skewer House has different owners and a different concept ... sort of. In lieu of Japanese yakitori sticks and izakaya staples, you'll discover Chinese shaokao, piquant meat skewers marinated, barbecued and glistening with dry spices and shoyu sauces.
Shaokao, or barbecue, is a street food staple in cities across China, most famously in Beijing. After 10 p.m. barbecue carts are wheeled into place at night markets, charcoal grills are fired up and bamboo skewers of spiced lamb, pork belly, chicken feet and beef tendon waft tantalizing aromas. At Skewer House, shaokao gets posh with swanky digs and metal skewers, but the casual essence of food-on-a-stick remains.
The options for alcohol are limited, but with Sapporo ($5.49) and Maui Brewing Bikini Blonde ($6.49) on draft and bottles of Miller Light, Corona and Heineken for $4 to $5, at least they have the basics covered. Sake is limited to Kubota Senju and Dassai Junmai Daiginjo, available in half- and full bottles ranging from $30 to $60. Soft drinks are $2.99 and come with free refills.
I was seated at the counter for a front-row view of the double-wide grill loaded with dozens of skewers. Despite being gas, it did the job just fine, though charcoal would have won extra points in my book. At least I didn't walk out smelling like grilled meat or a chimney.
At just $1.99 a skewer, you might have the urge to order the entire menu of more than 30 sticks. Do your best to exercise restraint – there's a method to this. Start with a classic like spiced lamb, evocative of the Silk Road, tender and with an extra dash of spices. I detect cumin and paprika in the mix. Get at least two sticks of the beef brisket and tendon, a cheeky play on the meaty Chinese noodle bowl. The melting tendon fuses with the lean brisket. It's best paired with a sliver of scallion pancake and a dip in the house sauce, whose spice and viscosity lie somewhere between gochujang and sriracha.
I alternated between the mild and spicy house seasonings, both containing peanuts, so I could regulate the heat levels. It's a slow burn that sneaks up on you. By the time I was polishing off my last skewers, my cheeks were flushed and my forehead beaded with sweat. You'll want a neutral starch to tame the flames; the buttery scallion pancakes ($2.99) were ideal for this. I also found myself using pieces of pancake to slide the last morsels of meat off the metal spear. Achievement unlocked!
A skewer of black pork belly arrived sizzling off the grill and although it was tender, it was not as crisp as I expected. The following came bundled inside strips of pork belly: enoki mushrooms, quail eggs, grape tomatoes, green onion, chives and shishito peppers. The last two were delighful – spice, char and fat play so well together. Chicken tail, one of my favorite sticks at yakitori shops, is a juicy muscle that never fails to satisfy. The same goes for chicken thigh. The chicken cartilage has a soft crunch and a decent chunk of meat. If interesting textures are your jam, then get it.
Other appetizers include a Szechuan-style hanging pork belly and cucumber with garlic-ginger sauce and an aged egg and tofu salad, both $9.99. I'd consider ordering those if I came with a group of friends, which would be the ideas way to tackle a place like Honolulu Skewer House. I'd also recommend getting the Kahuku corn, mushroom medley ($4.99) and the grilled whole eggplant ($5.99), butterflied and slicked with garlic, green onion and chili, to break up the meat party.
The meal ended with a complimentary dessert skewer in the form of a ruby-red candied strawberry. If this doesn't satisfy your sweet tooth, try the grilled taro pancake ($2.99) or the caramelized sweet potato ($9.99).
Honolulu Skewer House
1427 Makaloa St.
Daily 5:30 - 11:30 p.m. (soft opening hours)
Lot or street parking