The Fast Track to Great Food

Columns Order of the Day

January 23, 2011

Story By: Dining Out Team |

Research and development is an important part of Elizabeth Chan’s job, and it’s a delicious responsibility.

For several years, Chan has been focused on the vanishing art of Asian confectionery and pastry-making. “My mother and I have been traveling across Asia to research authentic means of making candies and pastries,” Chan says. “To me, it’s a question of preserving a lost art.”

  • Customers of Chinatown Express, such as 4-year-old Ashley Barangan, come in all sizes.
  • Tangy Orange Chicken and Kiawe Pepper Steak with Fried Rice.
  • Pork Hash sells for $1 each.
  • Half Moon-Chop Suey Pork ($1.05/each), Shrimp Dumpling ($1.05/each), Chive & Shrimp Dumpling ($1.20/each), Shanghai Dumpling-Pork & Cabbage ($1/each).
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Chan’s parents, Millie and Richard, are founders and owners of a small restaurant group that began in the late 1980s and now includes a trio of Chinatown Express locations, as well as two I Love Country Cafes. Chan, their only child, serves in dual roles. As creative director, she helps develop and refine new tastes for the restaurant group; as an attorney, she handles all its legal affairs.

“I like having something I can work on with my parents, as well as our staff, because they are like family to me,” she says. “I actually love what I do.”

On a trip to Hong Kong, Chan tracked down a candy maker in his 70s who wakes at 3 every morning of the year to create the uniquely tasty chewy nut candies (fah sung thong)that are so popular in China. “He was thrilled to tell me about it, thrilled that somebody was interested, because he couldn’t find somebody to teach the handmade methods to,” she says. “A lot of this has been lost in the need for speed, I suppose. The fun part for me is bringing the methods back and incorporating them in our local home-style cuisine.”

Recently, Chan and her team perfected a local interpretation of an old recipe for chewy candy, cooked slowly in a copper kettle. At $1.75 for an individual piece and $9.95 for a one-pound box, their version contains cranberries and Big Island macadamia nuts, and it’s flying off the shelves. Those shelves also contain candied ginger at $4.50 for a quarter-pound bag; young coconut strips at $3.50 per quarter-pound; and almond cookies for $1 each or $2.25 for six mini-cookies.

“It’s New Year, so we also have gau (whole gau/$4.75; single pieces/$1). Personally, I’m a huge fan; I’ve been eating two or three a week, for product-control purposes,” Chan confesses, laughing.

Everything at Chinatown Express, from the manapua dough to the roast duck, is made in-house by hand, with local ingredients whenever economically feasible.

“If it’s not produced at this location, it will be produced at one of our other locations from scratch,” says Chan.

There’s a lovely variety of dim sum, especially steamed manapua: char siu, kalua pork, taro, black sugar, lup cheong (Chinese sausage), Shanghai with pork and cabbage, and kau yuk (pork and preserved vegetable). Two whole-wheat versions are available: custard and mushroom and vegetable. All are $1.50 each.

Other dim sum include half-moons ($1.05), pork hash ($1) and shrimp dumplings ($1.05), made with shrimp that are hand-chopped, not run through a food processor. Little buns stuffed with roast duck are available (three for $4.95) or char siu (three for $3.95).

  • Chicken & Vegetables Manapua, Char Siu Manapua, Taro Manapua and Kalua Pork Manapua sell for $1 apiece.
  • Cranberry Macadamia Candy ($9.95/box, $1.75/each) is a customer favorite.
  • Macadamia Candy ($9.95/box, $1.75/each).
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Those who crave something more substantial may choose from a variety of Asian-influenced local favorites: kiawe-grilled pepper steak, honey-glazed ribs, furikake garlic chicken, stir-fried green beans, pancit, Shanghai lumpia, honey walnut shrimp, sauteed mahi, and familiar standbys like orange chicken and beef broccoli. “Our bitter melon with beef is really popular with local customers,” Chan reports. Vegetarians love the jai, the rich traditional New Year’s stew known as monk’s food, available year-round at Chinatown Express.

And diners sometimes get to choose from four different kinds of fried rice: cranberry curry, kung pao, vegetable, and Hawaiian, which includes kalua pork. “We do make our own kalua pig, too!” she adds.

Creating a plate is simple at Chinatown Express. Diners may select one entree plus starch (noodles, rice, or combination) for $6.25; two entrees for $7.25; three for $8.50 and four for $9.75. Seafood entrees may be added for $1 more, and Kid’s Meals, at $5.25, include starch, one entree and a 12-ounce drink. For the new year, through Feb. 7, two-entree plates are priced at just $6.25.

Many customers have learned to their delight that the Chans offer an extensive catering menu that includes popular selections from both I Love Country Cafe and Chinatown Express.

“Call my mom,” says Chan. “She’ll answer the catering hotline anytime. We don’t like turning people away.” Orders for $60 or less must be picked up; orders between $60-$100 may be delivered for $15; for orders of $100 or more, a 10 percent delivery charge applies.

Chinatown Express

  • Where
    • Ala Moana Center Food Court
    • 1450 Ala Moana Boulevard
    • Honolulu, HI 96814
    •  
    • 1041 Maunakea Street (bakery only)
    • Honolulu, HI 96817
    •  
    • Windward Mall
    • 46-056 Kamehameha Highway
    • Kaneohe, HI 96744
  • Call
    • Catering Hotline (available 24 hours)
    • (808) 783-7901