Aloha State Eats: Where to Eat on the Hawaiian Islands
When some people think of eating in Hawaii, they think of a luau, with hula girls and kalua pig with poi. But there’s so much more to the 50th state.
Here are 25 favorite local dishes and drinks around Hawaii, and the best places to get them.
Illustration by Hello Neighbor Designs
Kona Coffee: Daylight Mind Coffee Company
Kona coffee is one of Hawaii’s prized exports, and practically mandatory for visitors to Kona. Daylight Mind Coffee Company is right on the water on Ali’i Drive, with a huge covered lanai so every customer can get an ocean view while sipping a cup o’ joe. Kona coffee tastes very clean, rich and complex, and each farm has its own distinctive flavor profile, much as a wine-producing vineyard does. Those with extra interest should take Shawn Steiman’s classes and tastings in the space, where visitors get hands-on experience in cupping, roasting and brewing the best coffee in the world.
Go to: Daylight Mind
Loco Moco: Cafe 100
It’s a little-known fact that Hilo people gravy-fy everything. They are responsible for gravy-topped burgers and the loco moco. For the uninitiated, a loco moco is a gut-busting dish of rice topped with a hamburger patty and a fried egg, then smothered in brown gravy. Locals fiercely debate which place serves the best one, but Cafe 100 is one of the oldest restaurants in Hilo, with the longest history of serving it, and offers 30 different combinations for going extra loco.
Go to: Cafe 100
Strawberry Mochi: Two Ladies Kitchen
Mochi can be bought frozen or ordered at the end of a Japanese meal, but Two Ladies Kitchen offers fresh, homemade mochi as the star of the show. The place is famous for its large strawberry wrapped in sweet black-bean paste and enrobed in mochi, which is a sweet, filling and very special treat. Order ahead: This is a small operation where the chefs make things by hand and may insist on making a fresh batch to order, which can take half an hour. The wait may feel long, but the pillowy-soft, not-too-sweet mochi is worth it.
Go to: Two Ladies Kitchen
Poke: Da Poke Shack
Da Poke Shack is appropriately named, since it does sell some great poke and is a shack. Freshness is what sets this place apart from others: Sometimes fishermen will walk up with the day’s catch, impressing everyone in the long line. The Wet Hawaiian is the most-popular poke, with a simple inamona (kukui nut) mix. Diners who prefer more heat should try the spicy garlic sesame or Pele’s Kiss. If you can’t make it to the shack, track down the newly opened food truck in Honolulu.
Go to: Da Poke Shack
Many agree that the best Hawaiian food is at Helena’s Hawaiian Food in Kalihi, Oahu. There’s almost no parking, so be prepared to hunt for a space on the street. There’s usually a line. In fact, this place gets extra crowded right before summer ends, when Hawaiian kids want their last taste of Hawaii before leaving for school on the mainland, and again at the end of the semester, when it’s the first place many Hawaii college kids head once they get home. Get the pipikaula, or salted, dried beef. Helena’s is more like kalbi, but it’s better than at any place in town. The meat is tender, tasty and addicting.
Go to: Helena's Hawaiian Food
Coco Puffs: Liliha Bakery (two locations)
Liliha Bakery itself has been an iconic venue since 1950, but it’s now best known for its famous Coco Puffs: chocolate cream puffs slathered in Liliha’s famous Chantilly frosting. They provide a unique balance of sweet and salty as the chocolate explodes in your mouth. The Coco Puffs are so popular — the bakery sells between 4,800 and 7,200 per day, year after year — that they are sold 24 hours a day, Tuesday through Sunday, at the original location on Liliha Street.
Go to: Liliha Bakery
Garlic Shrimp: Romy’s
People will argue about their favorite garlic shrimp spot on Oahu’s North Shore, but Romy’s is unique, since its kitchen and dining area sit right next to its shrimp ponds. Every plate is cooked to order, and there is a long and constant line, so it can take about an hour for diners to get their food. The wait’s worth it, though, as the shrimps and prawns are super-fresh and the butter-garlic sauce is a pungent revelation. Whether you order them regular or spicy, try to sit near one of the sinks so you can easily wash your hands after peeling and eating all that messy, garlicky goodness.
Go to : Romy's
Mahi Mahi: Roy’s (several locations)
Roy Yamaguchi is one of the 12 founders of Hawaii Regional Cuisine, a movement that encourages the use of local ingredients in mainstream restaurants and hotels. His restaurants serve eclectic, fusion cuisine that showcases traditional Hawaiian flavors in a contemporary style. Mahi mahi is a prime example. Every Roy’s restaurant has its own style. At Roy’s Beach House in Turtle Bay, it comes with Waialua asparagus and lobster-Pernod essence.
Go to : Roy's
Pancakes: Moke’s Bread & Breakfast
For some reason, pancakes from Hawaii have seen a boom in business over the last 10 years or so, especially with visitors from Japan. On any given day, you’ll see lines into the streets, especially in Kailua, for breakfast spots that serve signature pancakes. Moke’s Bread & Breakfast’s batter is made from a recipe handed down by the owners’ grandmother and is made fresh daily. In fact, there is one guy in the kitchen whose only job is to make that batter all day, in small batches to ensure fluffiness. The pancakes are then smothered in a creamy lilikoi (passionfruit) sauce with a dollop of whipped cream.
Go to: Moke’s Bread & Breakfast
Manapua: Sing Cheong Yuan
Honolulu’s Chinatown is the oldest in the United States and a haven for manapua (also known as char siu bao). Sing Cheong Yuan is a bakery and sweets shop that’s quite popular, especially around major Chinese holidays. Over the years the owners have perfected their manapua recipe. The bread is slightly sweet and has a generous amount of barbecue-meat filling, which makes a nice, quick lunch for less than $2.
Go to: Sing Cheong Yuan
Pineapple: Frankie’s Nursery — Chef Chai
There are Hawaiian pineapples. And then there’s the honey cream pineapple, developed by Frankie Sekiya at his nursery in Waimanalo. Called Meli Kalima, this super-sweet, low-acid pineapple tastes like birthday cake, and demand is so high that sometimes all the pineapples are sold before they’re harvested. Since you can’t reserve fruit, and Waimanalo is out of the way, order it for dessert at Chef Chai, where it’s nicely sliced and all you have to do is dig in. If you are lucky enough to get a pineapple, it will cost about $6 to $10 a pound and be sold without the crown so you can’t regrow it at home.
Go to: Chef Chai
Oxtail Soup: Asahi Grill
In lieu of healing chicken soup, Asahi Grill’s oxtail soup is what many Hawaiians turn to for comfort, especially when they’re feeling under the weather. The restaurant was started by a Chinese man and later taken over by an Okinawan. Both served the hearty soup. Like Hawaii’s melting pot of people, this soup reflects a blending of ethnic flavors. The oxtail is boiled for two to three hours in a clear broth full of Chinese herbs, which makes it fall-off-the-bone tender. Dip the meat in the accompanying shoyu and ginger to give it another layer of flavor.
Go to: Asahi Grill
Malasadas, or Portuguese doughnuts, have everything you want in a cheat-day dessert: Balls of sweet dough are deep-fried into light, airy doughnuts, then rolled in sugar. Sometimes you can get them filled with custard or chocolate. However you eat them, Champion’s malasadas are beautifully crisp outside, and fluffy and chewy on the inside. They’re always made to order, so they are served piping hot. Owner Joc Miw and his wife, Sandra, opened their bakery in 1983, and know a good malasada; Miw is from Macao, a Portuguese enclave in China.
Go to: Champion
Plate Lunch: Rainbow Drive-In
"I'm going to get a plate lunch," President Barack Obama proclaimed, moments after arriving in Honolulu on his first vacation home after taking office. The plate lunch —a carbfest composed of a protein, two scoops of rice and a scoop of macaroni salad — is a staple of Hawaii’s food life. One of President Obama’s favorite places to get it (and ours) is Rainbow Drive-In, which hasn't changed much since it was founded in 1961 by Seiju Ifuku, who learned to cook during World War II while serving in the Army. It's located just outside Waikiki, making it popular with hungry surfers and locals looking for a quick, hearty and affordable meal. The shoyu chicken plate (pictured) often sells out early.
Go to: Rainbow Drive-In
Hula Pie: Duke’s Waikiki
It’s not like anyone needs an excuse to go to the iconic Duke’s Waikiki, which overlooks the famous beach, but its Hula Pie has become a favorite with locals and visitors. It’s made with macadamia nut ice cream piled high on a chocolate cookie crust and topped with chocolate fudge, whipped cream and chopped macadamia nuts. Duke’s (and its sister restaurant upstairs, Hula Grill) features a different ice cream flavor each month in addition to its classic, to change it up.
Go to: Duke's Waikiki
Mai Tai: The Mai Tai Bar
The original Mai Tai was created by “Trader Vic” Bergeron in 1944 and introduced to Hawaii in 1953, where it was first served at The Royal Hawaiian hotel. So those craving the classic cocktail should try it at the legendary Mai Tai Bar in the iconic “Pink Palace” of Waikiki, as The Royal Hawaiian is also known. The bar sits just steps from Waikiki Beach, overlooking the ocean in a postcard-perfect setting that’s lured celebrities and heads of state throughout the years. The secret to this bar’s success with the Mai Tai? Fresh, local juices to give it true island flavor.
Go to: The Mai Tai Bar
Fried Rice: Side Street Inn (two locations)
Side Street Inn is a favorite with Hawaii chefs, which is a good clue that it might be a super-local hangout with great local flavor. The inn is known for tasty dishes and huge portions, so insiders prefer to go with a group to enjoy everything. The award-winning fried rice here is one of the best, with generous flecks of char siu, Portuguese sausage, bacon, peas, carrots and onions. For just $3 more, though, you might as well order The Side Street Works version, which comes with lup cheong and kimchi for added flavor and spice.
Go to: Side Street Inn
Crack Seed: Kaimuki Crack Seed Store
It’s an acquired taste, but Hawaii locals love to snack on Chinese preserved plums. Most are shipped in from Asia, and the various stores here also make new concoctions to appeal to local tastes. Local favorites include rock salt plum, pickled mango, cherry seed and pressed olive; the most popular, however, is the dried, salted li hing mui. It’s so popular that consumers and restaurants use the powder at the bottom of the bag to make new dishes, drinks and snacks, including margaritas, cookies, ice cream and meat rubs.
Go to: Kaimuki Crack Seed Store
Poi: Old Lahaina Luau
Contrary to popular belief, poi — taro root that’s been pounded with water to a puddinglike consistence — actually tastes good when eaten in the proper context. It’s also full of nutrients. In Hawaii, locals eat fresh poi as their starch, to complement the rest of their meal. Old Lahaina Luau makes its poi fresh daily with taro straight from its 61-acre Hoaloha farm, in addition to its unique mana ’ulu ai’pa’i (pounded breadfruit).
Go to: Old Lahaina Luau
Saimin: Sam Sato’s
You’ve probably heard of ramen or chow mein, but the popular noodle in Hawaii is saimin. The dish is originally Chinese, but the Hawaii version is a mash-up that reflects the origins of the plantation workers who created it: Chinese noodles with Japanese broth topped with Filipino green onions, Portuguese sausage and Korean kimchi. Sam Sato’s on Maui is one of the more popular spots for the noodles. Its food is so popular that the owners sell boxes of fresh noodles for diners to make at home.
Go to: Sam Sato’s
Spam Musubi: Da Kitchen (multiple locations)
Hawaii eaters love Spam so much they consume more per capita than anyone else in the U.S. — in fact, the state goes through about 5 million pounds per year. The most-popular way to eat it? Spam musubi, where a slice of the canned meat is placed on a rectangular block of rice and wrapped in nori (Japanese seaweed). Da Kitchen takes it a step further by breading it and deep-frying it, then drizzling it all with kabayaki sauce. It’s salty and sweet, with carbs and protein — a perfect snack for people on the go.
Go to: Da Kitchen
Shave Ice: Ululani’s
Shaved ice — or shave ice, as locals call it — is so much more than a snow cone. In Hawaii, the most-popular shave ice stands sell fluffy mountains of ice, shaved to a nearly fluffy consistency with very sharp blades. Ululani’s arguably has the fluffiest and finest on Maui, if not the state, taking it up a notch by offering a wide variety of popular and exotic flavors like lychee, tiger’s blood, wedding cake, pickled mango and wet lemon peel. Its shave ice is so popular that Ululani’s now has six locations around Maui, but the main one is in Lahaina, on Front Street, right by the ocean.
Go to: Ululani’s
Lilikoi Pie: Hamura’s Saimin
Although Hamura’s is famous for its saimin, most people are also obsessed with its lilikoi (passion fruit) pie. At first glance, it looks like a simple lemon meringue pie, but it has a distinct flavor that can’t easily be imitated. Lilikoi has an intense tanginess, but the chiffon helps to lighten it for just the right balance. It’s so popular that Hamura’s has perfected packing it so visitors can easily take it on the plane to other islands to extend their enjoyment.
Go to: Hamura’s Saimin
Hot Bread: Kanemitsu’s Bakery
Bread itself is not an iconic food for Hawaii, but people seek out the Molokai bread from Kanemitsu’s Bakery, especially when on the Friendly Isle. The bread at this 80-year-old establishment is baked fresh daily (except Tuesdays), yielding pillowy loaves with a thin, crispy crust. To get it while it’s really fresh, locals in the know go for “hot bread runs” at night. Line up at the back door from 9 p.m., when the staff finishes baking the bread; you can order it with butter, jelly, cinnamon or cream cheese and they’ll cut the steaming-hot loaves down the middle, spread your desired filling and let it melt in.
Go to: Kanemitsu’s Bakery
There are at least 29 different varieties of mangoes that are unique to Hawaii. Farmers on every island have developed their own, all of which flourish in Hawaii’s perfect tropical climate. Summer’s bounty is generally from about May through July, but there are some farms that have been able to produce the prized fruit year-round (albeit in smaller quantities). Hawaiian mangoes have fuller, sweeter, richer flavors than those grown elsewhere, with distinctive characteristics. While on Maui, find the sugar bombs of Yee’s Orchard mangoes in Kihei; on Oahu, venture to the west side, where Makaha Mangoes has about 70 trees with 12 different varieties.
Go to: Makaha Mangoes