Valerie Wang finds intrigue, comfort, and family ties at restaurants in Honolulu.
Text by Kelli Miller
Images by IJfke Ridgley
On a warm spring evening in Honolulu, Valerie Wang tells me she’s going to cook one of her favorite dishes: Chinese potstickers. It’s a tribute to the meals she remembers her father making when she was a child. “It’s a dish that we have at every single family gathering with my father’s side,” she tells me as she fills the delicate wrappers with raw ground pork, won bok, and green onion. “Throughout my dad’s life, they have been his most-known, loved, and requested dish.” It’s no surprise Wang feels most in her element when Food Network is on, and she’s in the kitchen: Her parents owned a legendary northern Chinese-Szechuan restaurant in Honolulu for many years. With patrons like Jack Nicholson, Elton John, Florence Henderson, and band members from Journey coming through to enjoy her father’s cooking, the restaurant became synonymous with their family identity and name. For Wang, it was never about the business side of operating a restaurant, but rather, the love—for food, family, and travel—that kept her family together.
As the potstickers brown in a pan of hot oil, Wang queues up a playlist: Esthero, DJ Krush, Massive Attack. The 37-year-old exudes kindness, humility, and self-discipline, yet is always cracking jokes. She doesn’t take herself too seriously. “One time in San Francisco, I ordered Jack in the Box delivery at 4 a.m., but I was staying with my sister in a loft and she was sleeping, so I ate it alone on her bathroom floor with her cat,” she says. “Best 4 a.m. meal and dinner company I can remember in a long time!”
Wang never judges a food experience by its cover, from takeout hamburgers to world-class otoro, the most prized part of tuna. She has taste-tested dishes from around the world, discerning the ingredients and techniques used to make them, and then re-creating them to her liking. Her breakfast of champions is toasted garlic naan topped with garlic hummus, sliced avocado, Porcini sea salt, truffle oil, and Urfa chili flakes.
When this refreshingly casual self-taught cook is not experimenting in the kitchen, you’ll find her training at a UFC gym, dining out with friends, or working at Greenroom Gallery Hawaii, where she handles operations and coordinates Greenroom Festival, the largest surf culture festival in Asia, held annually in Yokohama. Along with work trips to Japan, Wang loves to travel the world as a gastrotourist. Hong Kong and Singapore are at the top of her list of most memorable foodie cities. With family ties to Korea and Hong Kong, Wang also experiences the culinary scenes there as a local. “My mom’s family is from Hong Kong originally, and I have relatives there, including my last living grandparent,” she says. “My family and I make it a point to visit at least once a year to spend time with her.” These trips are anticipated with searches for the most mouthwatering restaurants to visit. “We constantly send each other Openrice (the Hong Kong version of Yelp) links throughout the year to all the different places we’ll try next for our upcoming food pilgrimage to Hong Kong,” she says.
As Wang is speaking about her mother, I notice her voice is tinged with sadness. “When I was 24, my mother had a brain aneurysm,” she tells me. “They broke the clot with a coil, but the side-effects of the surgery caused her to lose her speech and paralyzed the entire left side of her body.” After enduring countless hours of speech and physical therapy, Wang’s mother stands tall today, able to speak in all three languages that she had lost and walk without any aid. “It’s a medical miracle,” Wang says.
With what seems like the worst behind her, Wang takes the last potsticker out of the pan. “When life gives me moments of hardship, and I need a swift kick in the butt, reminding me what it means to be a fighter, I think of my mother,” she says. “When I get too wrapped up in that negative train of thought, worry about all the things that one doesn’t have, and lose sight of all the things one should be grateful for, I think of my mother.”
Wang’s favorite restaurants on O‘ahu:
1269 S. King St.
Favorite dish: spicy tuna
“I love a good hole in the wall! This one has fresh sashimi to enjoy with a few pitchers of sochu or beer and an out-of-this-world recipe for spicy tuna. I still can’t figure out the secret ingredient they use. I’ve never found more satisfaction in being baffled and stumped over and over and over again.”
Favorite dish: a tie between the spicy kotteri ramen, spice level 3, and the yuzu jidori
“I enjoy bold flavors and dishes that pack a punch. I expect no less from my ramen broth. Agu delivers punchy flavors and the perfect level of spice for the fire-chaser in me. The spicy kotteri and yuzu jidori both equally hit you like a slap in the face, but in all the right ways. I prefer a thinner noodle with a firmer texture, which Agu serves seamlessly. It’s also the only place on the island that comes close to Ichiran, one of my favorite ramen chains in Japan.”
Sushi Izakaya Gaku
1329 S. King St.
Favorite dish: marinated ikura gunkan
“This place has the freshest ingredients, creative specials, and perpetual consistency in almost every dish it does, which makes up for a slightly small space with intimate lighting. I’ve enjoyed every year of its 10 years in operation, and am looking forward to many years to come.”
Siam Garden Café
1130 N. Nimitz Hwy.
Favorite dish: a tie between the Thai fried chicken, and the elbows and tom kha
“I judge how well I’ll like a Thai place based off one dish: Thai fried chicken. If they can make it taste as authentic as how I remember tasting it from the long-gone Thai House on King Street and Palm Drive, then you have my attention and seal of approval. Siam Garden Café does exactly that. Having the most authentic-tasting Thai dishes puts Siam Garden Café head-to-head with Siam Square in Waikiki, but they win out in my book, because they also offer dishes and selections not seen on most Thai menus. If service and decor matter to you more than the food, Siam Garden Café also has that covered.”