"I DON'T want to say that we are the best Chinese restaurant in Hawaii," said Howard Chun, the chairman of Wo Fat, one of the most famous restaurants on Oahu. "That would be bragging, but . . ." His voice followed his gentle, muddy-gold eyes into some cosmic never-never land, and his uncompleted sentence suggested that they are, in fact, not only the best Chinese restaurant in Hawaii, but in the world, and that you alone didn't know.
Wo Fat is, without a single doubt, the oldest restaurant in Hawaii, Chinese or otherwise: It's been an ongoing concern since 1882, when a consortium of Chinese capitalists ventured into the restaurant business. It is also one of the most visually capricious restaurants I've seen.
There are huge, bright-red and thick-waisted columns decorated with gilded, blue-eyed and fire-breathing dragons who prevent the garishly painted, lanterned and latticed ceiling from physically attacking the red and black checked floor. The main dining room seats 500, and the dozens of gold tablecloths supply the final splash to the dazzling fireworks of Wo Fat's Oriental eclecticism.
Unless you speak Chinese, the service is generally unusual and occasionally abrupt because the entire staff is Chinese, and little or no English is spoken. The food, also, is authentic, and ranges from elegant, nine-course dinners that run from $70 to $100 and include, among other delights, squab, abalone, shark's fin soup, sea bass, Canton-style pond mullet and squid, down to chicken chop suey.
"Soldiers who were here during the war remember Wo Fat," Chun continued, "and they come back when they are in town. They always comment how little it's changed." That fact was recently confirmed when someone said to me: "The only thing I remember about Hawaii is a huge Chinese restaurant on Hotel Street." Wo Fat is recognized by locals, as well, to be a true Hawaiian tradition.
Wo Fat (Wo means peace and harmony, Fat means prosperity) is held in such high regard by the other Chinese restaurants in Honolulu that every year there is a mass, ritual attempt by them to lure the head chef away. It is great fun, a sort of culinary Mardi Gras, but it never succeeds.
The chef, a wizened, nimble man, would not reveal his age, which was by no means young, but he did say that he has been with Wo Fat since he was 16. He did, in addition, reveal for the first time one of his recipes.
ROAST CHICKEN CANTONESE (Hong Kong Style) (4 to 6 servings)
3-pound chicken Marinade: 1 cup tamari (or any other aged soy sauce) 1 tablespoon gin 1 tablespoon honey 1 teaspoon salt 4 cloves garlic, crushed 1/4 cup scallions, cut into 1/2-inch lengths
Rub the chicken inside and out with the marinade. Let sit for 1 hour. Roast in a 350-degree oven for 1 hour and 20 minutes. With a cleaver, halve the chicken and hack into 2-inch segments -- with bone -- for serving.