Find the best Chinese burgers at Xi’an Taste in Kaka’ako

Chinese inventions: gunpowder, paper and … burgers?

Photo: Martha Cheng

Along with paper, gunpowder and coffins, maybe we should also credit China for inventing the burgers. Maybe instead of calling rou jia mo “Chinese burgers” as they are commonly called, we should really call our burgers “American rou jia mo”.

Culinary history is hard to pin down, but it has been said this rou jia mo — traditionally, braised and minced pork belly in a clay bun — dates back to 206 BC.

We could descend into the rabbit hole debating the origins of food, or even etymology (rou jia mo literally means “meat bun” – was that Chinese irony or a farce or…? ) but what you really need to know is that in the new Xi ‘a taste, in the ‘Ohana Hale Market, serves as an excellent version.

Owners Ruiyun Qin, from Xi’an, and Jing Huang, from Fujian, serve a more modern take on the popular street snack: pork sandwich ($ 5), beef ($ 7) or lamb ($ 8), simmered with a little green pepper, in a flaky flatbread, layered and seared instead of a yeast bun. The result: bread as interesting as its filling. It manages to stay crisp while absorbing the shoyu, chili, and anise flavored gravy which is braised until they give way, then chopped into its final submission. The result, especially with the sparkling freshness of the cilantro, is more akin to a taco carnitas than a hamburger.

SEE ALSO: 5 Places To Satisfy Your Craving For An Old Fashioned Burger

Photo: Martha Cheng

For now, Xi’an Taste has a short menu, where rou jia mo is the draw, complemented by a cucumber salad ($ 6), slippery and tangy pink cold noodles made from dragon fruit ( $ 8) and all the duck parts you wear that you don’t want to see in your neighborhood bistro: head, feet, tongue and wings (ranging from around $ 1 to $ 4 apiece). Marinated in shoyu and five spices, these are classic Chinese snacks that, like the Chinese language, require some work before their secrets are revealed, but for me, the effort is worth it.

Huang, who worked in places such as Vintage Cave Café and JJ Bakery in Honolulu and 20 years in restaurants on the mainland (his father also took over an Italian restaurant in Manhattan, Frutti Di-Mare, when the original owner retired), says he and his wife started Xi’an to introduce Honolulu to traditional Chinese street snacks and to “bring better street food for everyone.” They do everything from duck to buns themselves. (Which also means they sell out quickly, so get there early.) They opened a month ago, at a time when no one else was doing rou jia mo in Honolulu. Around the same time, another seller also in the Ohana Hale market (funny how it is) also started serving him, but Xi’an Taste is the one you should be looking for.

Xi’an Taste is hidden away and away from other food vendors – from the entrance, find it in the second row, to the right. You will probably notice it among the Chinese diners gathered enthusiastically around rou jia mo or a bunch of duck wings or chopped chicken feet. Try to eat your rou jia mo there with a spoonful of grilled chili oil which is on each table.

Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., inside ‘Ohana Hale Marketplace, 333 Ward Ave.

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