Big things are happening on the small island of Oahu, so hang loose and get all the intel on rising chefs, new restaurants and more at Aloha Nation.
Incense unfurls from a shrine dedicated to late actor Victor Wong, the potion-doling magician in the 80s cult classic Big Trouble in Little China. Film stills of Kurt Russell (aka Jack Burton), menacing-looking street gang Lords of Death and the squishy floating eye monster fill every square inch of the walls.
"You don't know how many kids come crying out of there," chef/owner Andrew Le jokes. "It is an amazing movie, and we're in Chinatown. I don't like typical bathrooms."
Le isn't your typical chef either. He's sort of goofy, drawn to the kitchen by his teenage pyro proclivities and serious admiration for the original Japanese Iron Chef: "Chen Kenichi, Rokusaburo Michiba—to see what they could produce was amazing. I tried to replicate that as a young cook, and I didn't even cut an onion," he laughs.
He didn't try to rise up the ranks of New York institutions after culinary school upstate, somehow ending up back in Honolulu despite a desire to wander. Once there, he traded a fancy title and cushy pay at Chef Mavro, the James Beard Award-winning French institution, four years ago to crank out five whimsical courses four days a week out of a little hot dog place, his first iteration of The Pig and the Lady.
"When you first cook for yourself, there is a distinction between cooking professionally and cooking things that you love," Le says. "My professional cooking was French, but the food that I loved was Asian food. I grew up eating pho, and I have all these great food memories from my childhood, a lot of aunties and uncles getting dirty with roasted pig face—stuff like that."
Clockwise, from top left: Team Le with chef Andrew Le second from the right, behind the bar, kitchen curtains, the bathroom in all its glory and mama Le, as locals call her
Since that first fateful pop-up, The Pig and the Lady has grown from nighttime takeovers to holding court in multiple farmers' market stalls to an always-busy, always-innovating restaurant that's drawn mainland praise.
However, that constant desire to travel the world, cook everywhere and prove himself nearly rerouted him when he decided to stage at Rich Table in San Francisco during the middle of the pop-up in 2012.
"I needed to travel, and I wanted to do it when I was young enough to be selfish," Le says. "I went to San Francisco, and I wanted to stay there for a long time. But then you realize what you have."
His brother, Alex, was running the farmers' market locations while he was gone. Mom was picking through the produce to make sure it was up to snuff. And StarChefs was calling him up to let him know he had won Hawaii's Rising Star Chef.
"Then all the accolades came in, and I knew how hard they were working," Le says. "I was like, oh, my god, great, but if I didn't do anything with it, it could fizzle out and become yesterday's news. The thought of that happening . . . I couldn't live with myself."
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So Le came back, refreshed and ready to set down roots in Honolulu. And last year, he was nominated as a James Beard Rising Star Chef semifinalist and got his spot in Bon Appétit's Best New Restaurants top-50 list. This year, Honolulu Magazine named The Pig and the Lady the city's Best New Restaurant.
And it's always been a family affair. Le's wife designed the website, Alex manages the front of house and his other two siblings pitch in when they can with social media and other tasks. Most days before service, you'll find Le's mom still checking over the produce. "Oh, she's ready to yell at me," Le says with a laugh as he passes her in the prep kitchen.
"I figured then that I was still young and I didn't really have an opinion yet in terms of cooking style," Le remembers of the pop-up. "I knew how to execute and create a menu, but I worked for someone. I didn't have any originality. I wanted to experience and explore. That's what the pop-up was."
Full spread of Laotian fried chicken, French dip pho sandwich and mazemen
There, Le enlisted his sister as his sous chef and dug deep to reenvision the dishes his Vietnam-born mom made for the family: jasmine rice croquettes with willowy slivers of pickled lotus, betel nut leaf-wrapped pork loin scattered with pork rinds and dragon fruit.
"Through the pop-up, it just kind of evolved into what it is now, which is a foundation in Vietnamese food, Vietnamese cooking, Vietnamese sensibilities—and applying it to whatever I'm craving and whatever I want," he says.
At his nearly two-year-old restaurant, that means stuffing top round into hulking sandwiches and dipping it into pho broth à la French dip, adding Italian notes with octopus ragù pasta and exploring regional pho styles, a satisfying mazemen speckled with mustard greens (see the recipe). It's a mash-up of the oily Japanese dry ramen with Vietnamese funk tossed together with a little surprise in the form of a smoky, fiery Thai chile-peanut sauce. And it fits in perfectly with Le's knack for the weird and lingering wanderlust.
"Our view of the world is changing all the time; we're compelled to express that through the menu," he says. "There are a lot of good things going on. We're not even at the cusp. And it's an exciting time to be a cook in Hawaii, and I'm very happy to be part of something that has great things to offer."
Looks like Le's there for good, creepy bathroom and all.
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