Hawaii is often referred to as a melting pot because of the diverse population and rich history. One of the things I love most about having grown up in Hawaii was being exposed to a variety of cultures, which of course sparked a long and delicious love affair with local food. A visit to Hawaii is not complete without sampling at least a few of the results of our unique “melting pot,” and the large city of Honolulu offers a dizzying array of choices. Here are some of the best local dishes to sample on your trip to Honolulu.
The fish and seafood you’ll eat in Hawaii is some of the freshest that you can find anywhere in the world. A popular local dish that you may want to try is poke, make with cubed raw fish (usually ahi tuna) and seasoned in many variations – from spicy tuna poke to shoyu/limu poke. If you prefer your fish cooked you’ll be able to choose from grilled ahi, pan-seared mahimahi, steamed onaga, and more. Sushi-lovers will rejoice at the many sushi bars and izakayas opening up around town.
A great place to sample the freshest fish on the island is at Nico’s Pier 38, steps away from the Honolulu Fish Auction. One of the local favorites is the Furikake Ahi plate lunch, but the daily specials are chosen to represent whatever the chef thinks is the best and freshest catch of the day.
Hawaii regional cuisine
I was once lucky enough, while dining at Chef Mavro, the James Beard award-winning restaurant owned by chef George Mavro Mavrothalassitis, to get to hear the chef himself speak of the reasons for the founding of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement. Apparently, back in 1988 when he came to Hawaii, he was told that he must “enjoy the food on the airplane because that would likely be the last decent meal he had in Hawaii.” Once here, he was impressed by the variety of fresh fish, local produce, and diverse culinary backgrounds of Hawaii’s people. In 1991, Mavrothalassitis became one of 12 founding chefs of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement, which blends local ingredients with techniques and flavors from around the Pacific and the world. If you’re looking for a “special occasion” restaurant while in Honolulu, I’d highly recommend trying out Hawaii Regional Cuisine.
To get a taste of Hawaii Regional Cuisine while visiting Honolulu, try one of these excellent restaurants run by some of the HRC founders: Alan Wong (Alan Wong’s), Roy Yamaguchi (Roy’s Restaurants), or George Mavrothalassitis (Chef Mavro)
What do you get when you take a ball of sweet fluffy bread dough, roll it into a ball, deep fry it, and then roll it in sugar while its still piping hot? As anyone knows who’s visited the iconic Leonard’s Bakery, where the malasadas are made fresh to order and arrive in your hot little hands warm and sugary sweet – HEAVEN! Seriously, if there’s a cheat day on your diet, this is your chance to use it. Malasadas are a Portuguese doughnut, and definitely a must-try if you’ve got a sweet tooth.
Most locals will agree that the best place to get your malasada fix is Leonards Bakery.
A traditional local lunch plate (“plate lunch” or “mixed plate”) in the islands often comes with two scoops of rice, a scoop of macaroni or potato salad, and one or more entrees choices. Plate lunch staples include chicken katsu, hamburger steak, shoyu chicken, kalua pig, or mochiko chicken. You may even find the infamous mystery meat, SPAM, as a part of the plate lunch or on the side in a SPAM musubi. (Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.) Portion sizes are often huge, especially relative to the price – usually about $6-9 per plate – and allow you to fill up quickly and at a good value, even if it’s not the healthiest fare. Locals often have their favorite plate lunch stop, so don’t hesitate to ask for a recommendation.
Iconic Rainbow Drive Inn in Kapahulu is popular for traditional plate lunches or for convenience of locations try Zippy’s fast food chain. For a lighter version, try the portabello plate at Diamond Head Market & Grill or the daily gourmet plate lunch specials at Kakaako Kitchen.
Traditional Hawaiian food
Now here, we’re not talking about luau food, although many of the more traditional Hawaiian staples like poi, lomi lomi salmon, kalua pig, lau lau, haupia, etc. may show up at a luau. If you want to experience them the way the locals do, cross your fingers for an invite to a “Baby’s First Luau.” Traditionally, the first birthday is celebrated as a feast with tons of food, sometimes with the kalua pig and lau lau cooked in an imu or underground oven. As it’s a special occasion, the family will sometimes go out to pick opihi (limpets) for the grill, or perhaps someone will pound fresh poi for the meal.
Ok so maybe it’s not in the cards for you to snag an invite to a real luau, but the next best thing is to eat where the locals do. Try Ono Hawaiian Food, on Kapahulu just outside of Waikiki, for a sampling of local specialties.
The people of Hawaii sure do love their noodles. It’s possible to find a different variety of noodles for just about every ethnic group. You can sample pho, the national dish of Vietnam, in Honolulu’s Chinatown or in pho restaurants popping up all over the island. Ramen is another favorite noodle dish, Japanese in origin. Filipino pancit noodles, Korean chap chae, Chinese chow fun or rice noodles, and even a Hawaiian version – chicken long rice. Saimin is a local hybrid that started with plantation-era workers heaping whatever toppings they had handy (char siu, egg, green onion, ham) and putting them onto a nice bowl of broth and noodles. It’s such a “comfort food” that you can even get saimin on the menu at McDonald’s in Hawaii!
For a classic taste of saimin, head out to local favorite Shige’s Saimin in Wahiawa. It’s popular to order your saimin with a BBQ burger on the side, but either way, soak up that comfort!
Honolulu’s many farmers markets are a great place to sample the freshest tropical fruits. Ask the growers directly what is in season, and often you’ll be able to taste or sample their crop if you’re curious. Fresh mango in the summer is heavenly, or try rarer fruits like dragonfruit, longan, cherimoya or persimmons. If you’ve never tasted a fresh lychee, you’ll never look at those lychee martinis the same ever again. The canned version doesn’t even come close.
Farmers markets have popped up all over the island, but the biggest is still the KCC farmers market on Saturday mornings. Or try Kailua town Thursday nights, Mililani or North Shore farmers markets on Sundays, or the new Hawaii Kai farmers market on Saturdays.
North Shore shrimp trucks
One of my favorite things to do on a day off is drive up to the north shore of Oahu, most of the time for the sole purpose of visiting Giovanni’s Original White Shrimp Truck. Yes, I admit the scenery on the way there is beautiful. If I have visitors with me, I’ll stop along the Pali lookout, or possibly Chinaman’s Hat. But more often than not, I’m on a mission and won’t – no, can’t! – stop until I have the shrimp scampi plate that I’m craving. Sure, there are other things on the menu, including a hot & spicy option. But the absolute best way to order your plate is to stick with the original, the scampi. Ask for hot sauce on the side if you like it spicy, and extra lemon wedges.
In my humble opinion, although there are many imitators, there is no shrimp truck better than Giovanni’s. It’s simply life-changing. Even for people who don’t like shrimp. Period. (What are you waiting for, just go!) Don’t forget to bring with you: $13 per plate (cash only), hand wipes (this gets messy), gum (unless you REALLY like garlic breath), and a sharpie to sign the side of the truck. You can thank me later.
The perfect end to a day on the north shore (after the shrimp trucks, of course) is to stop at Matsumoto’s for some shave ice. The Hawaiian version of a “sno cone,” shave ice is an island treat, perfect for cooling you down on a hot day. Your flavor options for syrups include the traditional “rainbow” of strawberry, banana, vanilla to tropical favorites like li hing mui, lilikoi (passion fruit), mango and more. Choose to top your shave ice with condensed milk for an extra sugary hit, adzuki beans, or even to layer ice cream on the bottom. Whatever you choose, it’s guaranteed to put you help you chill out and enjoy a beautiful Hawaiian afternoon.
Everyone has their favorite shave ice shack, but one of the originals (and my personal favorite) is Matsumoto’s in Haleiwa. President Obama has been to Island Snow in Kailua every time he vacations in the islands.