For centuries long, Hawaii has been not only an American, but a worldwide tourist destination. Today, its streets are littered with gigantic four and five star resorts, packed beach coasts of crimson red bodies longing for the golden tan, and men suited in only the most stylish aloha shirts….you would never know these tiny collection of islands has also become a little food mecca. But why wouldn’t it be? It is bountiful with colorful tropical produce grown from rich volcanic soil, and the freshest seafood caught from the ocean every morning. It has drawn in many famous chefs and food critiques enjoying both a range of traditional foods to a vast variety of multi-cultural dishes. Hawaii’s diverse population has brought many wonderful elements of not only Hawaiian food, but also an amazing mix of Polynesian, Asian and American notes creating the epitome of fusion cuisine. Although tourism as brought along with numerous posh, ocean-view restaurants promising uni garnished pastas and beautifully plated $200+ omakase and tasting menus, those are far from food that appeals to me. It is the wonderful local, fresh and fusion of food that I lust for.
The wonderful array of idyllic, white, sandy beaches, clear blue waters, monstrous volcanoes and roaring waterfalls and amazing food is what keeps me coming back again to Hawaii. I have been fortunate enough to visit a handful of times, and most recently this January for a wedding. So I was “forced” to plan my recent trip to Oahu, the main and most busy island. If you’re looking for a quiet pace to drift away, this probably isn’t your island. However, it’s a great island for non-stop adventure and food. If it’s your first time, this is probably where you’re headed. Lucky for you, I’ve also put together a list of things I HAVE to have every time I visit. Mahalo and enjoy eating your way through Oahu!
P.S. Sorry for low quality iPhone photos….I was lazy to carry my DSLR around. In my defense I was on vacation.
10. Craft Cocktail and Hawaiian Rum
Although I’m not all for drinks with blue paper umbrellas, Hawaii can whip up a very good mai tai, and a good mai tai is hard to come by. Hawaii also happens to source sugarcane, and for thousands of years at that. For the alcohol enthusiast, a trip to a rum distillery, like Ko Hana can be worthwhile. For some serious cocktails, Manifest has an excellent mule of bourbon, ginger beer and passion fruit. For me, a trip isn’t complete with a mai tai in hand with a beach sunset view at House Without A Key. Their mai tais aren’t for the faint hearted with three types of rum and a blend of local syrups. And if you don’t want that paper umbrella, their drinks are beautifully garnished with fresh orchids, instead.
9. Kona Coffee
For the caffeine addict, you probably already know how much Kona coffee beans can be on the mainland. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s not that much cheaper here either. On the upside however, you can get it much fresher. Kona coffee is often medium roasted and has a wonderful aroma which is what made me fall in love. One of my favorite little moments of Hawaii is waking up to a fresh cup of Kona coffee and an acai bowl. For the latte lover, Island Vintage Coffee is perfect place for both. Their Island latte is creamy with hints of macadamia nut, and goes wonderful with that acai bowl. For the true at heart, Kai Coffee will do a hand brew for a beautiful mild flavor, that brings out the best of your coffee you hand pick from their selection.
8. Tonkatsu (and Japanese food)
Outside of Japan, Hawaii takes cake on Japanese food. Due to its location to Japan, Hawaii has acquired a wonderful conglomerate of migrated Japanese restaurants and chains. Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin is one of my favorite of those. There’s a reason this restaurant has been able to expand worldwide from its home base in glitzy Ginza, and that reason is tonkatsu perfection. They’ve got it down tee from their breading, to frying to every grain of rice – well worth a stop. Shirokiya is also an excellent stop to experience a depachika outside of Japan. Go from stall to stall where you can experience fresh takoyaki, ramen and sushi.
7. Spam Musubi
If there is one thing Asians can agree upon, it’s that spam and rice is a beautiful thing. Spam musubi is the quintessential local food – a marriage of Polynesian, Asian and American flavors. It’s every where from gas stations, to street stalls, food trucks and mall food. Iyasume Musubi is a tiny box of a shop. In fact, you would probably glaze over it being tucked in a tight alley between two gigantic resorts. They have a wonderful selection of spam musubi and onigiri, using local ingredients, and perfectly cooked rice. Sure, it glorifies the spam musubi a bit, but you can’t go wrong with the selection. Of course, you can always walk to the closest 7-11 convenience store and buy a traditional one that is just as good (in my opinion).
6. REAL Hawaiian shaved ice
If the shaved iced you’ve been eating all your life is not light, fluffy, giant, drizzled in sweet condensed milk and topped with mochi and azuki beans, then you’ve been eating wrong your entire life. Good shaved ice is all in the…well ice. Waiola’s in Waikiki and Matsumoto in North Shore shaves or fluffs or whatever they do to perfection. If you’re overwhelmed by the flavor selection, lilikoi, guava and strawberry is my favorite combination to get you into the tropical mood.
5. Loco Moco (and greasy spoon Hawaiian food)
A slab of meat and egg over rice drowned in gravy may not look the prettiest, but after a good swim in the ocean all day, it’s the most delicious, perfect meal. Although its technicolored walls and bright neon lights may not look promising, Rainbow’s Drive-in is your absolute go-to for loco moco and all things wonderfully greasy. This little 50 year-old shack serves up my favorite loco moco, but it is the frice rice with corned beef hash that to die for. This place is not for the faint hearted, but definitely cooks up some delicious local food. Don’t forget to pair it with a giant scoop of macaroni salad!
4. Shrimp Scampi in North Shore
You know you’re in North Shore when you hear the sound of giant waves crashing along the Banzai pipeline and the smell of garlic. There are many a shrimp trunks here, that I believe are all just as good, but I only go back once in a while, and my go-to is the original spot where I tasted garlic seafood heaven on earth: Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck. Although it is technically a truck, I suspect it has moved from its spot in quite a number of years. And there’s only really two options here: shrimp scampi and shrimp scampi with rice. Do it right and get the rice.
3. Fresh Poke
In the last year, poke has made quite a storm in the food trend world. A new poke bar seems to pop up almost every month. But if you want to have good poke, you have to very fresh ahi tuna. Any kind of frozen tuna will will make it chewy. And where can you fresh ahi tuna? Hawaii. There are a good number of poke spots in Oahu, but I always tend to traverse back to Ono Seafood Takeaway. It’s a tiny shack with two dining benches, and parking is a b****, but I promise it is all worth it. I like a sample of both Hawaiian style for a sweet side, and spicy ahi for a kick.
2. Helena’s Hawaiian Food
For traditional, from the roots Hawaiian fare, Helena’s takes the haupia. The restaurant sits in the least glamourous location, but serves up the absolute best traditional food on the island. Pipikaula short ribs are their best sellers, but everything on their menu is a must try. Kalua pork is their second best seller, although I am a bit more partial to a good, moist laulau pork. Although it may appear to be threatening bowl of green goop, the lu’au squid, wonderfully infused with coconut flavors, is one of my favorite dishes. And best part? Every meal ends with complimentary, delicious haupia.
1. Leonard’s Malasadas
Forget doughnuts. In Hawaii, the fried dough of choice are malasadas – holeless Portuguese fried ball rolled in sugar. And the 60+ year old Leonard’s just makes them to order, and makes the absolute best. Haupia filled and original malasadas are my favorites, and best eaten blazing hot.
Honorable mention: Hawaiian Cookie Company Shortbread Cookies
Ok, not great, but I’m sure no one can escape Waikiki without at least sampling one, two, or ten buttery cookie samples which are somehow on every corner you turn.
Side note PSA: How to enjoy a coconut: Drink it, take it back to the seller to have them cut it open, put the coconut meat in ziploc bag, enjoy eating the coconut. My heart cries for every tourist that drinks the coconut and discards right after. Mahalo!!