Always happy to see another venue opening Downtown! It's about time we took the streets back from pimps, drug dealers, and other such vermin of the lowest common demoninator. New, legitimite establishments opening-up are like turning the lights on to an army of scurrying cockroaches; a can of Ajax to a stinking, mold-covered basin; unleashing the fury down the hatch of a pretty porcelain throne. High colonics, even? Euphoric, all, I tell you. Guys like Otto from Otto Cakes are dang heroes in my book, standing tall and strong even after repeated threats and actual assaults! You go good bruddah!
With JJ Dolan's, Soul De Cuba, Brasserie Du Vin, Hawaii Theatre, Rakuen, and Indigo (backside) pretty much cleaning-up Bethel Street, even as Epic, Indigo (frontside), and Murphy's and O'Toole's further down have done wonders on Nuuanu Avenue, it is the infamous Hotel Street that has always been the heart of sin city, Honolulu. Something tells me it might take a little more effort there. Have you ever peered into the Hotel Street bars, open while most of us are having breakfast? Oy vey.
Lucky Belly, located on 50 North Hotel Street, on the corner of Hotel and Smith, is certainly a fantastic societal mopper-upper there simply by virtue of drawing crowds. And of that, it has been doing extremely well.
Smith Street Side
Hotel Street Side
There's always some sort of quirky facet to Downtown Honolulu establishments, and Lucky Belly has several. Besides the industrial-looking cast-iron beams, giant paintings of short-skirted Harajuku schoolgirls everywhere, and even the name itself, there's the quaint red-brick walls of a by-gone era, which were actually covered-up by its last tenant - what a complete and total travesty! Any old-time architecture - Corinthian columns, Roman arches, cobblestone walkways, Gothic Spires - and yes, red-brick walls, are the poops (G-rated slang)! I remember touring Scandinavia and coming back to the world of Honolulu apartment buildings on Kapiolani Boulevard, thinking, "How utterly and completely void of any sense of character, any depth, any history," as if walls and windows were thrown-up strictly out of financial and practicality purposes, without the least bit of consideration as to the aesthetic, artistic, or philosophical/ideological attributes of a structure, as much of old architecture was deriven from. May the Honolulu City Planners swear on the Pidgin to Da Max Bible that they will never tear down Judd Building, the old Yokohama Bank Building, the Royal Saloon Building (now Murphy's Irish Bar and Grill), and even the old Royal Brewery Building (now the Honolulu Brewing Company) in Kakaako!
Anyhow, past diverging, I do love the interior of the restaurant, which is a veeeh-ry Kool mix of modern and old:
The lunch menu is pretty small, with a few apps, a few salads, a few plates, and a few bowls of ramen, while the dinner menu expands it, but only by a few hairs. In four visits, I myself have done almost everything available! Here's to begin with, a roasted beet with spicy greens ($9):
Beet and Green Salad
The local mix of fancy greens were indeed a touch on the spicy side, a good thing, and the candied pumpkin seeds and pomegranate dressing combined for a vibrant, beautiful, and fantastic salad. And that's only the half. Here's a better shot at the other half:
Few will argue the power of beets. Something that deep in color and mass must house some serious antioxidant essence, no? The powerful blood cleaner is sliced thin, layered with goat cheese, and served refrigerator cold. The cheese did add much in visual appeal, while the touch of creamy, slightly sour tanginess was interesting, but applied just a little too heavily for me. Those who find the taste of beets too strong, however, will no doubt be happy, as it was mellowed-down quite a bit. I just happen to eat the stuff like an apple, is all!
Moving on, our next item is easily good enough to use as a finale, but being an appetizer, I'll have to buss' it out early:
Easily One of the Best Items on the Menu ($7)!
A Bit Closer
First of all, if this wrapper wasn't made from scratch and in-house, I'd be real surprised. Not only was it larger than most mass-produced wrappers out there, but it had that same chewy, silky, non-mushy texture that good, fresh-made doughs inherently have. The presentation was also impressive, with its huge, ivory-white, rectangular plate decored nicely with a mound of fresh radish sprouts and sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds. The slightly thickened, slightly sweetened ponzu sauce was balanced well with both the gyoza dumplings and the bed of edamame avocado puree underneath, which was blended into a creamy, earthy perfection. As for the insides? Check it out:
Instead of a single, molded clump, large chunks of shrimp, mushroom, and other vegetables were easily distinguishable, and the individual tastes of each worked extremely well off of eachother. Just a fantastic dish, any way you look at it!
Unfortunately, another app, duck lumpia ($7), wasn't anywhere near as appealing. Neither was the biggest disappointment for us, a togarashi-spiced beef tartare ($11), available only during dinner. Expecting a yukkei-style raw beef, which is ground, completely raw, and mixed in a sweet soy, or perhaps an also-completely-raw, thin-sliced tartare with flavored oil drizzle, this one was actually more like a ceviche, where the meat chemically "cooks" in citrus. The two, however, were the only items I really wouldn't recommend, so it only gets better from here.
The tempura shrimp tacos ($10) were indeed better, yet not without a reservation:
Tempura Shrimp Tacos
Once again, presentation was flawless. The salad was flawless. The radish slaw, sprouts, and curled, julienned green onions were fresh, healthy, and haute-flawless. But the shrimp tempura I was so looking forward to was, to put it quite simply - extremely tough and stringy. With everything else executed so well, I guess the single blip on the screen shone that much greater.
Our next dish made good use of what you'd expect from a place called Lucky Belly:
Pork Belly Bao
Once again, the presentation of less is better, or lots of open plate, was awesome on this dish ($7). A thick swoosh of sake-infused hoisin provided both a bold visual contrast and a tangy-sweet flavor boost, and was also applied within the bao sandwiches themselves. The pork slices were thick, moist, and fall-apart-soft, with a perfect ratio of fat to meat, which for me means lots of fat! While the pork was delicious in and of itself, I would also say that since it is not quite as strong in flavor as, say, a roast duck or even manapua filling, it may not pop quite as much when eaten as a whole "sandwich". Am I grumbling too much, tho?
Yet another in a whole slew of imaginative fusion dishes at Lucky Belly is here:
The ku chu jung (spelling it as they do!) braised brisket tartine is one of the manager's favorites. Slow-cooked in the famous Korean sauce, speckled with porcini dust, and covered with a dollop of creme fraiche, it was a very generous portion of beef brisket for only ten bucks! Underneath, a bed of arugula stood-up surprisingly well to the giant load on-top, soaking-in the sauces for a delicious and unexpected complement in the end. And yes, I DID ask for a side bowl of rice, of which they had NOT! No worries, though, as the crispy sourdough bread worked out pretty darn well, too!
But alas, more often than not, diners here at Lucky Belly will no doubt choose the specialties of the house, large bowls packed with ramen noodles, hearty broths, and a load of toppings.
Bowls range from $8 to $14, with only 3 to choose from during lunch and 4 during dinner. The first is your basic set, which comes with a handful of items all bowls come with unless declined - bean sprouts, soft steamed egg, wakame, sesame seeds, green onion, and ginger, all of a very good quality and preparation. The bowls are created mainly from a stock of pork meat and bones, called tonkotsu in Japan, with versions differing mostly because of additional items above and beyond the afore-mentioned. Their shrimp kim chee bowl is perhaps the biggest flavor divergence:
Shrimp Kim Chee Bowl
Ample amounts of kim chee is added on-top, and a nice Kim chee taste is clearly evident in the broth, as well. But dang it, just as in the shrimp tacos, the shrimp was tasty but unexpectedly tough once again. Not sure what the deal is with shrimp here.
The final two bowls are a belly bowl and a beast bowl, the first coming with pork belly, smoked bacon, and Kurobuta pork sausage, while the other comes with brisket, short rib, and oxtail won tons. Unfortunately, the latter falls into that tiny but precious list of yet-untried dishes for us here! Settle for this?
In my opinion, the highlight of this belly bowl are the three different preparations of pork. The belly was identical to the belly used in our bao, so no need to expound. The smoked bacon, done thick, was just as tender and moist but with a deep smokiness and slight sweetness that was fantastic. As for the Kurobuta sausage, I was honestly expecting the taste of Arabiki (not a negative, as Arabiki is a great sausage!), as it often is, but this one was different, with a little less sweetness, a little less fattiness, and more of a meaty, almost beefy flavor. Though I haven't tried the beast bowl, this is definitely my favorite bowl so far. Not only would I order the meats in and of themselves, but the broth was also better in taste due to the pork selections.
And speaking of broth, it certainly is good, but I've actually been forever spoiled after visiting Ippudo and Ichiran, two of the better ramen houses in Fukuoka City, Kyushu. The whole island of Kyushu is actually known for their tonkotsu (pork) broth, and believe you me, there is nothing like it here in these islands. Absolutely nothing. That being said, the broth at Lucky Belly is yet deep, flavorful, and good, albeit not quite in the typical Japanese way (not saying the typical Japanese way is good or bad in this particular situation; just an observation outside of that highly preferential matter).
The ramen noodles are actually more reminiscent of the slightly thicker style of noodle usually found in chanpon, which is a Chinese-inspired ramen with lots and lots of toppings added, especially vegetables. And yes, on all our visits, the noodles were al dente and firm, just as they should be. The sheer circumference of the noodles, along with the perfect cooking time, allowed them to remain firm even during the last few slurps, when ramen noodles tend to soften due to continued cooking in the hot broth.
Here's one final shot of our Belly Bowl:
Belly Bowl Encore
And there we have it. Come on down and add more light to Downtown Honolulu! Better yet, do some restaurant-hopping as wifey and I love to do! The fine establishments listed on the top of this page are all waiting, and all within a few minutes walk of eachother!
Hope you're having a great and wonderful month!
Take care and Aloha till next time!
50 N. Hotel Street in Downtown Honolulu
Parking on street or public lots around area, such as Hank's Garage or the Chinatown lot on Maunakea St.
Lunch and dinner daily, except closed Sunday