362. Hawaii food recommendations


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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Ramen. Oh, dear Lord, I miss Hawaii ramen!
    • 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!

  4. Meat Jun. Here’s a “Korean” dish you can only get in Hawaii. It’s thinly sliced beef dipped in egg batter and then deep fried. It’s served at almost all the Korean places in Hawaii but outside of Hawaii, it’s basically unheard of.
    • 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.

  5. Zippy’s is a really popular local food franchise. I think they have some of the best mac salad. As for what to eat there…
    • 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.

  6. Rainbow Drive-In
    • 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.)

  7. Deserts and sweets.
    • 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.

  8. Now, for a difficult topic: coffee. As someone who’s lived in Seattle for over five years, I’ve become a spoiled coffee snob. Working at a coffee shop myself has also spoiled me for good coffee/espresso. Unfortunately, if you’re in need of a really nice doppio or latte, there aren’t many choices.
    • 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.
  9. Spam Musubi – how did I almost forget this?
    • 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.

Anthony Bourdain did a great job covering the Hawaii food scene. He even visited some of the places listed above.

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.

14 thoughts on “362. Hawaii food recommendations

  1. For Hawaiian food… Highway Inn in Waipahu is excellent too. I personally don’t like Ono’s but that’s just me. Kaneke’s out in Waimanalo also hs great Hawaiian food… laulau, kalua pork, and prob pork adobe mix plate is great along with steak fries.

    Another fine spot (one of my personal favs) is Alicia’s. It’s on…I think Mokuea St. (the one after Kalihi St.) past Nimitz towards makai side (ocean side)… it’s in the warehouse industrial district. I really love thier poke (I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU DIDN’T COVER POKE!!!!)…, their laulau is good, their patele, and various meat products along with the boiled peanuts in the front. They use to have… we called it “brick”, but it’s a Filipino coconut juiced rice bricks…oh damn, to die for.

    While at Helena’s (another favorite), don’t forget to try the fried butterfish and opihi.

    For more ramen…Taishoken? or Teppenwhatever’s along Kapahulu is good. It’s on the same block as Starbucks. Shirokiya’s 2nd floor has not one, but at least TWO ramen places…they even have this new black garlic soup base ramen… oh man, serious damage. I also really enjoy their udon stand if you want something less heavy yet hearty. Something special about udon that just touches the soul. DO NOT GO TO GOMATEI…that has got to be one of the flashier “hey, we’re a higher end legit ramen establishment” that tastes like crap… seriously. Their food sucks or at least tastes cheap compared to other places.

    For sushi… (you missed SUSHI Randall!!!) there are several sweet spots. The slightly cheaper on the better end sushi and for late nighters… Yanagi Sushi along Kapiolani Blvd. Late night specials start after 10:30pm. For the higher end stuff… Maguro-ya along Waialae, and Zen-Chu (sp?) along Kapahulu, and another place above Hee Hing also along Kapahulu. Sorry for lack of better names and directions.

    For much more affordable Korean (but not as good as Million’s) you can check out Chodong. Chodong is at the Ewa end of Ala Moana, next to where the old Blockbuster video use to be. Very very affordable and decent Korean food. If you want Soondubu…gotta come to my house for it. just kidding.

    Chinese Hotpot (newish style)… Sweet Home Cafe across the park and McDonald’s along King St. near where the old Long’s Drugs use to be. There almost ALWAYS is a line…which sucks. We don’t go because of the line.

    If you’re going to Mastumoto Shave Ice and making a day of North Shore, Waimea Bay, Chinaman’s Hat, etc. Temple Valley, might as well drop by Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck (don’t go to the fake trucks…go Giovanni’s!). They have some solid Kahuku raised shrimp there!

    For some gourmet haute dogs (this is for Billy)…there’s Hank’s Hot Dog along Coral St. kinda where Coral meets Nimitz… I like it.

    The problem with Hawaii when we choose where to eat isn’t…oh, what place is good…. it’s more like…damn, TOO MANY CHOICES…. No wonder we’re all so fat here. =)

    • I believe Tenkaippin Ramen closed down. Bummer because I agree, their ramen was amazing.

      Poke (pronounced poh-kay, not poke – poke (as in facebook poke) means something else entirely). Yeah, I can’t believe I forgot to mention Poke. Then again, I never order this at restaurants. I always buy it by the pound at Foodland or Safeway.

      And sushi – yeah, I didn’t mention any sushi joints because even though I LOVE sushi, I never got much of it back in Hawaii. It’s just too expensive.

      Oh, and Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck. Yeah, I didn’t mention that either. Honestly, I’m not a fan of shrimp, but if you are, everyone says the shrimp truck is THE place to get them.

      Thanks for your additions!

  2. YUM! I was able to hit up several of the places on your list when I went last October, but this just means I need to go back again. Definitely saving this as a resource!

  3. COCOA PUFFS for life!! I ate two dozen of these in one week and gained 10 pounds. I haven’t been back to hawaii since. boom!

  4. “Shave ice,” like “bag ice” or “can food.” But I like to eat at Sugoi’s for garlic chicken with toss[ed] salad and brown rice.

  5. Uh, Randall…. no mention of poke? Okay, I will give you a pass since it’s not really a “restaurant” type of food. But I had poke at Home Bar and it was to die for. It has a following like Side Street Inn does. Kind of ugly on the inside, but all of our old restaurant buddies go there so you know the food is amazing.

    Kapahulu Ave: Genki Sushi (for spicy tuna hand rolls), Leonards (plain malasadas), and Ono’s (laulau plate) all on one street. All must-have’s when I go to Hawaii. I don’t care what Ming says about the laulau at Ono’s (is he the one who said their laulau looks like a green brain?), but I absolutely love it. Apparently Uncle Bo’s is also on that street and is another new hot spot.

    Millions. Meat Jun. Korean BBQ. Yum.

    And if you’re going to the North Shore anyways, like Ming said, might as well check out Ted’s bakery for chocolate-haupia-macademia nut cream pie by the slice. But you can usually find their whole pies in grocery stores.

    I thought Shirokiya’s food court was so much fun, especially if you’ve never been to Asia before. Food vendors of all sorts — bentos, street food, curry, takoyaki. They even feature a ramen shop with rotating ramen chefs from Japan.

    • Yeah, I didn’t include poke because I never ordered it at restaurants. Always bought it from grocery stores and ate at home… with my fingers.

      I gotta try Home Bar next time I’m back!

      I did try Uncle Bo’s (had my 20 year HS reunion there). Thought it was okay, but not worth writing about.

      …and I need to give Shirokiya’s another try. Haven’t eaten there since they did their renovation.

  6. Hank’s Haute Dog’s. – Lobster Dog (fridays)

    Queen Street Cafe & Grill , (808) 484-2708 They’re on The yelp..Kiawe wood grilled steak and chicken.

    Grylt in Manoa Marketplace

    Dean’s Drive Inn in Kaneohe, before the police station. Great food (fish, rack of lamb, baked chicken thighs), Killer Red Velvet Cupcakes w/Cream Cheese Frosting. Excuse my drool…

    Zen Shu has closed. The sushi chef there went to Tokkuri Tei.
    Tokkuri Tei for good sushi. Above Hee Hing on Kapahulu.

    Tenkaiippin is the ramen place on Kapahulu next to Good Guys Music.

    • Lobster dog? Seriously? Does it really have lobster in the hot dog? That sounds mad-genius good!

      Queen Street Cafe sounds great – need to try that too next time I’m out there.

      Unfortunately, Tenkaippin closed… unless they opened up again? Last time I was there, they had closed down.

  7. You left out poke. Yikes. And you like live on the coast. for shame, you’re like the drummer who forgot his sticks and kick pedal.. No asylum on this one…

  8. @Jennifer… yes, the laulau at Ono’s looks like a green brain! Seriously!

    The best restaraunt laulau on island used to be at Masu’s Massive Plate Lunch… on that place was diabetes and heart attack on a plate… unfortunately (or fortunately) they closed down. I remember we use to get the Aloha Plate: laulau, kalua pork, terri chicken, baked spam, shoy hotdog, three scoop rice, mac salad… all for $7.50. The plate weighed a TON. And they did not skimp on the portions…!

  9. Randall – Morning Glass is a new place in Manoa with great coffee (at the last stoplight on East Manoa). The cafe replaced Ducky’s Korean. The food reminds me of Paris and the coffee reminds me of Italy. I love that place.

    A couple of my favorite sushi spots are Sushi ii (at the Samsung Plaza) and Tokkuritei (replaces the old Sam Choy’s on Kapahulu).

    All three places get high marks on Yelp.


  10. Just read this. Oh I miss Hawai`i!

  11. Yums! I might go try everything that you recommended…Thanks for a good food list!

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