The scene: In much of the country, mid-February is the coldest time of the entire year, and we’ve just been through the polar vortex. But not in Hawaii, where it is solidly in the high 70s. It is completely understandable if you want to pack up and head for the islands right now. If you do, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better place to eat than the Side Street Inn.
I first discovered Side Street years ago on the advice of folks in Honolulu’s restaurant industry, as it has long been a popular after-work spot for chefs and industry types, always a good sign (a 1999 Honolulu Star Bulletin column describes legendary Hawaiian chefs Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi visiting for vodka-fueled karaoke and pork chops). But pretty much everyone who lives in Honolulu comes here (there are two locations), along with plenty of tourists, though it skews more local with all kinds of group and family gatherings. Side Street Inn lends itself to family-style dining because the portions are big – sometimes crazy big. It’s a tougher spot to eat at as a couple, but the food is so good it’s worth the restraint and tough choices you’ll have to limit yourself to.
The original Side Street Inn lives up to its name and is tucked on small, two-block-long Hopaka Street, which is hidden in the heart of downtown Waikiki between the parallel main drags of Ala Moana and Kapiolani boulevards. The newer Kapahulu location opened in 2010 and sits on the far edge of Waikiki, towards Diamond Head. Both are very well-located for the majority of Honolulu visitors.
Both are simple and cavernous spaces with lots of big tables, and both have old-school bars. The newer location is set within an office building, very nondescript from outside. It has a far more polished interior with a paneled wood ceiling, upholstered booths along the side walls, and a marble top on its long bar. It is long and deep and goes on and on, seating close to 200. The original is simpler, with a suspended ceiling, painted walls and very basic furniture, and holds about 130. The same great food is served at both, but if you are on vacation and want more of a traditional “nice” restaurant atmosphere, head to the newer one (but in either case, make reservations).
Google it, and you will see Side Street Inn described as a “local hangout for drinks & comfort grub,” and that’s true but only part of the picture. The late Anthony Bourdain and CNN popped in for an episode of “No Reservations,” and the restaurants have won numerous awards and accolades from magazines and newspapers worldwide. Both technically serve dinner only, though they open at 2 or 3 p.m. and as early as 1 p.m. on Sundays for sort of a dinner-as-brunch. Due to the time difference, the Kapahulu spot opens at 7:30 a.m. on Sundays during the NFL season.
Reason to visit: Famous fried pork chops and signature fried rice
The food: Food here is big and comforting Asian-inspired Hawaiian, served on platters. The menu is large but the two things everyone comes for, and the two things you should try if you are a smaller group and can’t justify ordering more, are the “Famous Pan-Fried Island Pork Chops” and the “Signature Fried Rice.”
The former is big plate of succulent breaded and fried pork chops that are cut into big slabs, apparently with a cleaver, and they are perfect: crispy and salty on the outside with just the right amount of fat, and very juicy inside. They start with half-pound bone-in chops over an inch thick, and each is whacked into four or five almost bite-sized sections, making for something you can eat with a knife or fork but also perfect finger food. A printed recipe from the restaurant notes to serve the pieces over shredded cabbage and “include bones for gnawing.” The breading is a mix of flour and corn starch seasoned with garlic salt. The pork chops are highly addictive.
The fried rice comes a few different ways. The signature version adds both bacon and chopped Portuguese sausage, a beloved breakfast item in Hawaii, to the more common chopped Chinese-style char siu roast pork. The firmer sausage gives it a different texture and a lot more meatiness, with three takes on pork. This is enough if you are having the dish as a side with something sauced, like the popular spicy garlic chicken. But if it’s more of an entree, or just with the pork chops, I would go for the version called “The Works,” which adds both kimchee (spicy Korean cabbage) for heat and lup cheong (Chinese-style sausage) for a whopping fourth take on pork. It is like a spicy fried rice spin on a meat lovers pizza, and it is a mountain of awesomeness, maybe the best fried rice ever, though I could have used more kimchee.
If you can manage more than two huge platters, some of the other standout dishes include the spicy garlic chicken, which is served in similar fashion to the pork chops. Boneless leg and thigh pieces are dredged in a breading that combines Korean red pepper powder and a healthy dose of garlic salt. After deep-frying, the chicken is coated in a soy-based sauce with more red pepper powder, Thai chili flakes and Vietnamese garlic chili sauce. It is not really hot, but rather intensely flavorful, and delicious. The sauce is minimal, so the chicken isn’t swimming in liquid, but you taste it.
The ahi poke, served in big fresh chunks, is one of the most popular appetizers, and a solidly traditional Hawaiian choice. A more unusual option is the pocho clams (“pocho” being local slang for Portuguese). These are cooked and served in a big bowl of broth with lots of Portuguese sausage, onions and red and green bell peppers. There is a lot more tempting stuff to choose, from, including six different styles of chicken wings, Kalua pork sliders, several burger options, and a few other big platters from the grill, such as pork baby back ribs and Hawaiian-style beef short ribs.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes – if you are in Honolulu, this is a classic spot to get delicious versions of the foods locals enjoy.
Rating: OMG! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: Original location, 1225 Hopaka Street, Honolulu; 808-591-0523. Second location, 614 Kapahulu Avenue #100; 808-739-3939. sidestreetinn.com
Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/columnist/greatamericanbites/2019/02/20/side-street-inn-honolulu-hawaii-fried-rice-pork-chops/2921572002/