The Insta-Worthiest Foods of Chinatown
Text by Aja Toscano || Photos by Kainoa Reponte
Since its launch in 2010, Instagram has connected the worlds of social media and food, forever reshaping how we go out to eat. Instagrammers and foodies are easy to spot: They hover over tables topped with plates of toast points dripping with bone marrow or deep bowls filled with unctuous ramen broth; they snap away on camera phones, forcing a group of hangry eaters to sit patiently until “the shot” is gotten. Chinatown—which has morphed into a foodie haven in the last decade—has gained the reputation of a foodie and Instagrammer’s paradise.
But what exactly makes diners resist the urge to dive headfirst into plate of fluffy pork belly bao buns as soon as they hit the table? Why would anyone risk having a dish go cold just to let the world know, “Hey, I was here!” Besides the obvious—that all of these dishes are delicious—what compels someone to share? I wanted to understand this phenomenon, so I scoured Chinatown to discover what makes a dish Instagrammable or share-worthy. These are my finds.
It is served in a hip atmosphere.
If you ask someone on the street for a restaurant recommendation, most will direct you to a neon-pink, pig-shaped ampersand sign on North King Street, near Smith Street. This marks The Pig and The Lady, a restaurant that first took Honolulu by storm with its pop-up and farmers market stands. With a style reflective of his Vietnamese background and local influences, chef Andrew Le cooks meals meant to be shared with family and friends. The well-combined art, modern décor, and natural lighting within the restaurant set a creative tone for the culture-mixing foods that are served here. The seats surrounding the cocktail and dessert bars present an enticing show for diners, who gawk at waffle bowls and meringues being made before their eyes. From the dessert bar, you can also look up at the wall to see the hanging work by Matthew Tapia that reads “Only Good Vibes,” which is what The Pig and The Lady always serves.
Most Instagrammed dishes: The Laotian Fried Chicken, Pho French Dip, and the weekly custard and sorbet specials.
It’s too pretty to destroy.
As the new kid on the block, Local Joe and its one-of-a-kind lattes are creating quite the buzz on Instagram. Charles Asselbaye, commonly mistaken as Joe, opened up the coffee shop in March 2016. Social media had a major impact on his opening strategy. Asselbaye believed that Instagram posts were an essential way to get the word out in this day and age. “If one person posts, word is going to get around,” Asselbaye says. With this in mind, Asselbaye started creating latte art, emblazoning celebrity portraits or an inspirational quote atop the frothy milk of a steaming cup of joe. The secret behind this picture-perfect latte art is a machine called the Ripple Maker. Created in New York, there are only 44 of the machines across the world, and one is right in Chinatown, Honolulu. To make their drinks even more personalized, patrons can download the “Coffee Ripples” app and upload an image of their own (don’t be ashamed if it’s a selfie), submit original artwork, or write a note for the barista to print right onto a drink.
Most Instagrammed latte art: Kim Kardashian’s crying face, Pikachu, and Bernie Sanders
It has perfect symmetry.
Humans have an innate eye for symmetry. The sense of balance portrayed in symmetrical design directly affects our subconscious, which helps to explain why we find things like a dozen doughnuts so aesthetically pleasing. This is especially true of the doughnuts that can be found at Regal Bakery, whose colorful variety of yeasty treats always makes foodies swoon. The only thing more satisfying than opening a box of perfectly round, sprinkle-covered, symmetrical treats is devouring them.
Most Instagrammed donuts: maple bacon, green tea, and berry blast.
It transports you.
The taste and smell of specific foods can stoke the visceral senses and awaken memories. Fresh tomato sauce, for instance, reminds me of my Nonna and I cooking pastas and lasagnas in her little apartment in Italy. In Hawai‘i, something as simple as a manapua can take someone back to his or her hanabada days. Char Hung Sut has been a Chinatown landmark since Bat Moi Kam Mau opened it in 1945. The family-owned hole-in-the-wall, now run by Mau’s grandson, Barry, offers a simple menu of childhood favorites, including manapua, pork hash, gau gee, and rice cake. Longtime customers recall nostalgic childhood moments picking up a box of fresh, warm goodies with their grandparents. Sharing this sentiment on social media not only honors that memory, but also invites others to connect or share their own.
Most Instagrammed items: char siu manapuas and half-moon dumplings.
It satisfies late-night cravings.
At 10:30 p.m., nothing could be more irresistible than a ramen bowl brimming with broth, bacon, sausage, and mouth-watering pork belly from Lucky Belly. Whether you’re starting the night out at the restaurant or wrapping up at its late-night window, you can always count on Lucky Belly’s food to be there for you. Posting late-night munchies is common, because the food itself implies how great the night was. Plus, it’s always fun to make your friends who stayed home jealous with a post of steamy pork buns that will make their stomachs growl.
Most Instagrammed dishes: ramen bowls, pork belly bao, and shrimp gyoza.