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by Lesa Griffith | Photography by Linny Morris | Hawai'i magazine | April 22, 2014

Across the country, chefs with big technique and democratic tendencies are making highly creative yet friendly cuisine. From San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions to New York’s Empellon Taqueria, as the plates get more relaxed, the flavors (and their combinations) get bigger and more surprising. Honolulu is never far behind national dining trends, and in November, island-born, Culinary Institute of America–educated chef Andrew Le opened The Pig and the Lady. There, he is busy remixing not just the cuisine he grew up with—Vietnamese—but also dishes from around the world.

From bread baked in Café du Monde coffee cans to chitarra pasta with chicken cracklins and ikura (salmon roe), Le is making some of the most playful, culinary pun-filled food in town. After two years of wildly popular pop-ups and farmers market noodle stands, The Pig and the Lady opened a restaurant in Chinatown. With a built-in following, the place has been packed since the day it opened its doors.

Like acclaimed Bay Area chef James Syhabout, who took over his mother’s Thai restaurant to open his gussied-up Southeast Asian street food eatery Hawker Fare, Le riffs on the cuisine of his mother. In fact, Le’s mother is even in the kitchen, turning out a daily noodle soup special.

At lunch, a flood of Le’s pho variations comes out of the kitchen door. Using quality ingredients like pork belly, marinated eggs and rice noodles made a block away (by Family Rice Noodle), he takes this Vietnamese staple to an excitedly different place. For one version, he combines the dish with tsukemen, a style of Japanese ramen—the noodles are on a plate and you dip them into the resonant beef-based broth (the recipe is top secret!). Le also combines pho broth with a brisket banh mi (a sandwich made with a baguette) to create a Vietnamese French dip.

It’s at dinner where you can see that Le is a Chef Mavro alum (he served as sous chef there for five years) and had a stint at San Francisco’s Rich Table. The eclectic dishes come straight out of Le’s creative mind, reaching for flavors and techniques that he combines in surprising ways. Hamhock croquettes are little unctuous balls of smoky pork flavor, and taste like the best hot dogs in the world. (That’s meant as a total compliment.) They’re dressed up with a multicultural mix of shishito pepper romesco, liliko‘i seeds and Mexican cotija cheese—it’s truly world peace on a plate.

The poetically named salad of sprouting seeds is a light, textural winner crunchy with just-sprouted mung, lentil, soy, adzuki, chickpeas and red quinoa (Le calls it “living oatmeal”), and subtly sweetened with thin slices of Asian pear and date vinaigrette.

Tangy, addictive Laotian fried chicken—little wings and drumsticks, all glazed with fish sauce, sugar, garlic, pickled chili, fried shallots and roasted peanuts—is what Morimoto’s hunk of Angry Chicken aspires to be.

Le gets a whole pig every week from Shinsato Farm in Kāne‘ohe, and in his effort to utilize all parts of the animal, the evening’s pork dish will be made with 24-hour braised shoulder steaks, pork loin or pork belly. Specials are almost always worth trying, especially as you never know quite what you’re going to get! On one evening, a duck curry on the menu suggested a Southeast Asian–style spicy stew. Instead, the dish was a confit-like braised leg in a vadouvan sauce. On the side was what seemed to be the fluffiest falafel on the planet. But, in fact, they were really tofu fritters– airy spheres seasoned with chimichurri and oyster sauce. Even when a dish isn’t obviously Asian, it still has Asian ingredients—for instance, this “curry” included ginger, Thai basil and fish sauce.

Not everything is so thoughtfully wrought and harmonious. One night, the sashimi special arrived as a pile of thick cutlet-size slabs of hamachi. But that’s the occasional price of daring experimentation. Plus, if something’s not immediately pleasing, there are always other options to try.

Big groups at communal tables, fueled by bartender Kyle Reutner’s equally creative cocktails (the All Jake and Lynda is made with broiled lemon juice, smoked bitters and cognac), make The Pig and the Lady a festive place to linger. The high-ceilinged urban-chic interior of red-brick walls and hanging-wire light fixtures makes the place feel at once trendy and long established. Even though the place is packed, the influx of friends and relatives gives it a warm, I-know-you vibe.

A family business, The Pig and the Lady is making a difference to the community in the kitchen too. As a partner of Pacific Gateway, Le hires participants from the nonprofit’s work-training program. One staffer, who has been with the restaurant from the start, has gone from homeless to housed, and Le is tickled that the work and staff have contributed to the transformation. “We’re just doing our very small part,” says Le.

The Pig and the Lady
83 N. King St., Chinatown, O‘ahu, 585.8255

Lunch: Tue.-Fri., 10:30am-2pm; brunch: Sat., 10am-2pm; dinner: Tue.-Thu. 5:30-9:30pm, Fri.-Sat., 5:30-10pm; late-night menu, 10pm-midnight
Lunch: snacks $3-$10, entrees $11-$13
Dinner: starters, $3.50-$11; entrees, $13-$25
Parking: Three municipal parking lots are in close walking distance.

Who’s There
Honolulu’s serious eaters, Chinatown club kids, artists, Le’s relatives

Where to Sit
At a table along the wall opposite the bar—you get a good view of the room

Dish It Up
Smoked hamhock croquettes, pho tsukemen, the night’s pork dish

Sip Service
Kyle Reutner’s cocktails: The Golden Pig (sparkling white, herbs and crushed ice) is particularly refreshing