Most of you know I was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii. In the past two weeks, I had two people tell me they were going to Hawaii and wanted some food recommendations. They wanted to know where the locals ate, where the real Hawaiian food could be found. I started an email with a few suggestions and before I knew it, the list was getting REALLY long. But I was having a blast writing it and didn’t want to stop.
And then I remembered that I’m trying to get back into the habit of posting at least one entry a week and since I hadn’t put anything up in the last few days, I figured this might make for a fun post.
(For my Hawaii readers, try leave your own kine favorite places fo go grind in da comments at da bottom li dat!)
And now (in no particular order) to the food recs:
- If you really wanna see where/how the locals eat, you gotta check out Side Street Inn. They have two locations.
- The Kapahulu location is newer and nicer but…
- …the one on Hopaka Street is the original (image below). This is where a lot of famous Hawaii chefs go after-hours to hang out and swap stories. As a small warning, parking is really hard to find at the Hopaka location and it’s in a rough looking area (especially if you go at night) but I would say that the area LOOKS a lot rougher than it actually is.
- If you wanna try traditional Hawaiian food you have two choices.
- Ono Hawaiian Foods
- This place is TINY but super authentic and super good. It’s also close to Waikiki so if you’re staying there, it’s a short drive. Again, the place is tiny so there’s often a line outside waiting to get in, and no, they don’t take reservations. Because this is Hawaii, and that’s just not how we roll.
- Helena’s Hawaiian Food
- This place is bigger than Ono’s but not by much. There’s often still a line to get in. Oh, and the parking situation is horrible.
- Honestly, you can’t go wrong with either place. If you need tips on what to order… (both shops will have the dishes listed below)
- I’d say definitely try the Laulau. It’ looks kinda disgusting but trust me, it’s AMAZING! It’s pork or fish (or both, sometimes they also include a tiny chunk of fat for an extra kick of awesome) wrapped in Taro leaves, held together by a Ti leaf and then steamed.
- You should also try Pipi Kaula (pronounced pee-pee cow-lah) – it’s a traditional Hawaiian version of beef jerky, but more tender, juicy, and flavorful than anything Randy “Macho Man” Savage ever snapped into.
- Of course Poi is (in)famous as Hawaiian food. It’s an acquired taste. I love it, but I totally understand why people unfamiliar with it would hate it. It’s taro root mashed into a paste, thinned with water. It’s purple and has the consistency (and, some would say, taste) of Elmer’s glue. A good way to eat it is to mix it with Lomi (pronounced low-me) Salmon (pronounced salmon). Lomi Salmon is a kind of fresh salmon salsa (it’s the pink stuff in the cup in the image below) and some people spoon it right into the Poi. Personally, I like Poi both ways – plain or with the Lomi Salmon – but if you’re new to Poi, I’d recommend mixing.
- My go-to place for ramen is Sanoya’s. They’re known for three things. 1) Their late hours (I think they close at 3 or 4am), 2) their awful service (you basically have to beg for a refill of water), and 3) their wide selection of ramen choices. It’s not the best ramen shop on the island, but I have fond memories of the place and I usually stop there at least once when I’m back. Two of my favorites are the Mapo Tofu Ramen and the Curry Ramen.
- I’ve never been to Ramen Nakamura in Waikiki (it opened up after I moved to the mainland), but I’ve heard nothing but good things about it from friends and in reviews.
- Oh, and here’s a fascinating article on the art of ramen noodle making in Hawaii (with food recs): Exploring the Noodleverse. It’s about a guy who customizes noodles to fit the broth at the more high-end ramen shops!
- My favorite is the meat jun at Million’s Restaurant (near Ala Moana Shopping Center).
- A lot of my friends, however, swear by Dong Yang’s meat jun. I never made it out there because it’s kinda far from where I lived, but it’s supposed to be the best on the island.
- I love the Zip Pac (image below). The only bad thing about the Zip Pac is that it doesn’t come with Zippy’s awesome mac salad.
- To remedy that you might want to try one of their chili dishes. Just to let you know, this isn’t mainland chili. This is Zippy’s chili, which is something… different. I think it’s sublime, but if you taste it expecting Texas chili, you’re going to be really disappointed (if not offended). However, if you think of it as “chili” (note scare quotes), it can be a unique savory experience. You can get chili with rice, with spaghetti, or (my favorite) with fried chicken – ask for the Chili Chicken Mix Plate and strap in for a mouth-watering carb-splosion.
- Oh, and I feel I should warn you – I don’t know who they use as their interior decorator but they should fire them immediately. Some of their restaurants are SERIOUS eyesores. Their Vineyard location is a particularly fugly example. Consider yourself warned.
- Barak Obama eats here, what else do you need to know?
- I’d recommend the Mixed Plate. It’s a HUGE plate of food so you might want to just split one order.
- Honestly, I don’t have any other food recommendations for this place because the Mixed Plate is what I always order. Always. (Guilty confession: I’ve eaten an entire plate by myself. More than once… okay, almost every time.)
- Malasadas. Leonard’s Bakery is the spot to get these Portuguese delights. They’re sort of like a giant doughnut hole, sprinkled with sugar. Think of it as a big ball of deep fried, sugary bliss. They come with or without filling and they’re delicious either way. As a traditionalist, I prefer the ones without filling but if you get the ones with stuff inside, I won’t judge (life is far too short for that).
- Coco Puffs from Liliha Bakery. Have you ever tried Beard Papa’s cream puffs? For comparisons sake, I’d say that Liliha’s Coco Puffs make Beard Papa’s cream puffs taste like Papa’s beard. Boom!
- Shave Ice. (Note: it’s not shaved ice, it’s shave ice – no “d.” That’s not bad English, it’s just Hawaiian Pigeon.) This is not a snow cone. This is shave ice. Do NOT confuse the two. Hawaiian shave ice is shaved off of an ice block, not crushed. Think of it this way. Which would you rather ski on – a worn out bunny trail or fresh powder? Snow cone = bunny trail. Shave ice = fresh powder. To my mind, there are two places to get great shave ice.
- Matsumoto Shave Ice in historic Hale’iwa Town on the legendary North Shore. It’s the Platonic ideal of shave ice but as a townie, that was too far away for me.
- I preferred to get my shave ice at Waiola Shave Ice.
- I think they’re both great – Waiola’s was just closer to where I lived. (I always liked getting Azuki bean on the bottom.)
- Downtown Coffee. I only went there once but I’d say they made me the best (soy) latte I’ve ever had in Hawaii (image below). Problem with this place is that (true to its name) it actually is located in downtown Honolulu so parking is expensive and impossible to find. Basically, unless you work downtown, this place is too hard to get to just to get a delicious caffeine fix.
- Luckily, Honolulu Coffee Company has really upped their game in the time since I’ve been away. Last year, their barista trainer, Pete Licata, won second place in the World Barista Championship. His training has tricked down to the baristas that work their many locations (including, thankfully, two spots at Ala Moana Shopping Center). Only problem – they only have free wifi at their downtown location. Boo!
- All the great coffee joints in Seattle offer free wifi. The only local shop in Hawaii that serves halfway decent coffee and provides wifi is Glazer’s Coffee. They do nice latte art, but a great latte is far more than a nice pour. Still, they’re not bad… but not great.
- Honestly, apart from those three places, your best bet if you want good coffee/espresso is to go to Starbucks. All the other locally owned coffee places I’ve tried have ranged from bad to downright awful. I swear, at one shop, I saw a “barista” steaming milk in the freaking mug he was making a latte in. I can’t even begin to say how wrong that is. It’s like the coffee equivalent of cooking spaghetti sauce in the pot you used to boil the pasta… and not throwing out the water you used to boil the pasta.
- You wanna hear something really crazy? 7-Eleven is a really good place to get Spam Musubi. Yeah, that 7-Eleven. One tip – go earlier in the day. That way your chances of getting a fresh one are better.
- And speaking of Spam, wanna know where else you can get it? McDonalds. Yeah, that McDonalds. If you go there for breakfast, you can order Spam, eggs, and rice. Yeah, rice at McDonalds!
So, um, that turned out to be a much larger list than I had planned.
And now I’m starving!
Two last bits.
And lastly, I have a huge writer-crush on Sarah Vowell. She specializes in her own fetchingly snarky brand of historical narrative and last year she wrote a book called Unfamiliar Fishes, telling the tragic story of how American imperialism collided with the Kingdom of Hawai’i with predictably vile results. To promote the book, she filmed this video that talks (among other things) about the international origin of the plate lunch. For a non-local haole, she did a great job describing the unofficial dish of Hawaii.