Wandering around Chinatown this morning, I soon found myself on River Street with my stomach loudly growling. I spotted a Chinese man in the doorway of his shop, grabbed his lapels, and hungrily shook him.
“Who sells the best manapua around here?” I said, still shaking him.
“The best?” His head lolled around as he thought about it. “Kevin’s makes the best. Try six or seven doors down.”
I paused. Something about his recommendation didn’t quite jive: whereas manapua is a Chinese-inspired dish, "Kevin" didn't sound like any Chinese name I knew.
I stopped shaking him, then thanked him and said goodbye. After several passes down River Street, there was no sign of Kevin’s anywhere. But there was a Kent’s, so I went inside to see if they sold manapua.
“Royal Kitchen sells manapua, not us. Go next door.”
I couldn’t help flashing back to that Seinfeld episode when the maitre d’ at a Chinese restaurant calls out Cartwright instead of Costanza, even though he knows George’s last name. Next door, I immediately spotted Royal Kitchen’s display rack with nine different types of manapua and guessed, though I was still unsure, that this was indeed where I wanted to be.
Royal Kitchen is tiny. With four customers in the ordering area, it quickly became hard to move around and see the food behind the counter. Although I’d come for manapua, I noticed a few snack-sized items I wanted to try. I chose two manapuas—one Portuguese sausage and one curried chicken—and asked the counter woman about two other items: their “Half Moon” and “Look Fun.”
When I asked about the latter, which looked like a miniature, multicolored hose (how else to describe it?), a well-dressed man behind me said, “They named it that because when you come and see a Look Fun, you think, Oh, that looks fun to eat.”
The people here were very friendly, and they seemed keen on helping me learn about Chinese food. The woman behind the counter even slipped me an extra Look Fun for free (though I'd really only wanted a taste).
Of the two manapuas I ordered, I preferred the Portuguese Sausage. The buns reminded me of hot dog buns, but these were baked and slightly sweet. The sausage was firm, with a crunchy casing, and had enough black pepper to give it a decent bite. The curry chicken manapua was a bit disappointing. The spoonful of filling offered such a mild curry flavor that it tasted more like chicken salad. (Had they billed it as chicken salad I might well be raving about it now; then again, I probably wouldn’t have ordered it.) Despite this, the chicken was properly cooked and I appreciated the crunchy onion and celery mixed in.
The Half Moon was basically a jiaozi dumpling—a half-moon of rice dough, which is in itself rather tasteless, enveloping barbecue pork and bits of onion. I was surprised by the dumpling’s nutty, smoky flavor, which was a little intense, but I adjusted to it quickly. It was rather greasy, too, and after finishing it my fingers sparkled like somebody had been sucking on them without my being aware.
The Look Fun was less fun than weird to look at, and my first idea was that they should rename it Look Weird. The Look Fun is a kind of “rice roll-up” sprinkled with chives, char siu, and dried shrimp, and tastes like you’d probably expect—overwhelmingly of rice with some salty bits thrown in. But with the sweetly pungent soy and wasabi sauce it came with, eating the Look Fun became something of an ordeal. The doughy rice absorbed the sauce so much that I was left to parry a strong and relentless assault of wasabi. I couldn’t finish the first Look Fun, much less the one I got for free.
The Half Moon and Look Fun aren’t bad choices if you’re in the mood to satisfy your curiosity, but if you’re there because you’re actually hungry then I’d opt for their savory plate lunches, which include chow mein, chow fun, fried rice, chicken or beef broccoli mein, won ton mein, and saimin. These dishes range in price from $2.25 (small saimin) to $7.50 (a three entree combo)—excellent value for what you get.
I doubt I’ll return to Royal Kitchen anytime soon, but that has less to do with the shop itself than the fact that Chinatown offers so many interesting options. If I find myself along that intriguing part of River Street again, where the bougainvillea frames the canal so beautifully and groups of elderly Chinese men gather around tables to play mahjong, I could easily see myself stopping by for a quick manapua to go.
Royal Kitchen is located at 100 N. Beretania Street, #175, near the Chinatown Cultural Plaza. For take-out orders call (808) 524-2843. Parking is tight around here, though there are usually plenty of curbside metered spaces available and also local garages nearby. Royal Kitchen offers parking validation with purchase.
Monday-Friday: 5:30 a.m - 4:30 p.m.
Saturday: 6:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.
Sunday: 6:30 a.m. - 3 p.m.