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The Waikiki resort strip in southern Honolulu has plenty of great shopping and dining to offer, not to mention a picturesque shoreline, but there’s much to be gained from leaving the area for an afternoon in Honolulu with Hawaii Food Tours’ Hole in the Wall Tour. TPG Contributor Amy Beth Wright shares her experience tasting food from a great selection of local eateries.
TPG readers get 20% off! Scroll down to the bottom for more details.
A few weeks ago, my husband and I joined eight other visitors to Waikiki for the Hole in the Wall Tour, which consisted of tasting 19 small bites at local eateries and in Honolulu’s Chinatown marketplace over the course of five hours. Our guides, Robin and Krystal, picked all guests up from their hotels in Waikiki shortly after 9am and dropped us off again between 2pm-3pm.
We paid $139 per person, but TPG readers can currently book for $111.20 (more on that below). The tour promised an “edible history lesson,” and it certainly delivered! Our guides also shared many diverse recommendations for Honolulu’s culinary and dining scene, from a nondescript storefront with 70 flavors of Hawaiian shave ice to acclaimed chef Alan Wong’s new venue on the third floor of Macy’s in the Ala Moana shopping center. Additionally, we received a list of Oahu recommendations that included options at all price points.
Among other accolades, the tour has garnered TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence every year since 2011. The experience reveals another side of Oahu to visitors, and it explores the island’s many cultures. In the 19th century, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Portuguese immigrants settled in Oahu to work on the sugarcane and pineapple plantations — cuisines overlapped and began an early form of fusion that persists to define the foodie culture, both casual and gourmet, of Honolulu today.
We began at Royal Kitchen, which is on the outskirts of Chinatown, for “manapua,” a derivation of the Hawaiian “mea ono pua’a,” or “tasty thing with pork.” During the plantation years, Chinese immigrants shared and sold steamed buns, or “baos,” filled with “char siu,” sweet and finely ground pork. Manapua are baked in Hawaiian sweet bread, which is elastic and light. Pork specialties at Royal Kitchen include the Char Siu, Portuguese sausage and Kalua Pig, a Hawaiian shredded pork that is smoky and tender. Vegetarian and chicken options are available, as well as lup cheong (Chinese sausage), hot dog, “black sugar” (Adzuki beans cooked slowly in simple syrup) and coconut, which is sweet and chewy.
At nearby Liliha Bakery, we indulged in”Coco Puffs,” which are cream puffs filled with dark chocolate and topped with granular and sweet Chantilly frosting, which you’ll also find on German chocolate cake.
Robin and Krystal offered us cold bottles of water and the option to take along a canvas folding stool as we began our Chinatown walk. They introduced a key question: How is this Chinatown different from other Chinatowns? We continued to identify unique cultural overlaps along the Kekaulike Mall, a block-long promenade book-ended by indoor-outdoor markets.
First, we stepped into Ying Leong Look Funn Factory, which has been operating for more than 60 years and sells approximately 1,000 pounds of fresh rice noodles daily. We tasted noodles that were softly rolled with both shrimp and scallions and ground roast pork and scallions, and were cut to half-inch size and topped with Korean barbecue chicken. A vegetarian option is available (notice a theme here?).
A 20-minute break allowed us to explore the markets independently. Glazed duckling dangled like strung garlands of southwestern chili peppers in the Oahu Market. And in the food court in the Maunakea Marketplace, we found cuisine from Singapore, Thailand, Korea and the Philippines, along with fresh-baked goods and an abundance of fresh produce and seafood.
When we reconvened, we gathered around a folding table on the Kekaulike Mall, where each bite presented reflected cultural intersection. Chinese fruits, rambutan (“hairy lychee”) and longan (“dragon eye”), were followed by dim sum varieties, Mai Tai Su, a handheld potpie, and Half Moon dumplings in a translucent rice noodle wrapper. Local fare included Spam Musubi, where the frozen and salted canned meat that was introduced to Hawaii in WWII is pan-fried and teriyaki prepped and banded to compressed white rice with nori.
The Ahi poke, cubed and cured yellowfin tuna, was smooth in texture and flavored with soy and chiles. Apple banana lumpia is a Filipino-inspired sweet spring roll, which we enjoyed with Maui Gold pineapple both plain and dusted with Li-Hing (preserved plum) powder. We also spiked a lychee and pineapple smoothie with Li-Hing infused vodka. Our last stop in Chinatown was Char Siu House for slow roasted pork, glazed pink like a candied pomegranate, and “Five Layers of Heaven,” where crispy skin peels away from salty, fatty pork belly.
Leonard’s was the last stop, which is a bakery specializing in Portuguese malasadas, or “bad bread” — yeast-based doughnuts rolled in sugar. Variations include cinnamon and Li-Hing powder, as well as coconut, macadamia, chocolate or vanilla custard-filled. A post-tour email from Krystal recapped the day in detail and offered recipes and suggested restaurants on the other Hawaiian Islands.
It’s recommended to book the tour early on in your trip to leave time to take advantage of the many recommendations. This tour illuminates both the pliability of traditional food as cultures intersect, and enriches one’s appreciation of Honolulu’s culinary culture and dining scene.
20% Off for TPG Readers
TPG Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig is such a big fan of Hawaii Food Tours that he reached out to secure a special discount for TPG readers (note that TPG does not receive compensation). To take advantage, book either a Hole-in-the-Wall Tour or North Shore Food Tour for any date between now and June 2016. To book the Hole-in-the-Wall Tour for $111.20 per person, click here and enter code TPGHOLE. To book the North Shore Food Tour for $127.20 per person, click here and enter code TPGNOSH. You must purchase by the end of February.
Don’t forget that tours are often included in most travel rewards’ cards definitions of General Travel spending. Based on a tour’s merchant category code (MCC), it might be eligible for a particular bonus. If a tour is categorized as Travel Agencies/Tour Operators, book with the Chase Sapphire Preferred for 2 points per dollar or the Citi Premier Card for 3x. If it’s categorized as Entertainment, consider the Citi Premier or the Citi Prestige to earn 2x on your tour purchase. For more on travel category spending, see How Credit Card Issuers Classify Travel and Dining Purchases and Using Merchant Category Codes to Maximize Bonuses.
Have you taken any food tours in Hawaii? Share your favorites below!
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