When in Hawaii, you must eat like a local boy, at least once or twice.
Food will be a big part of your Oahu experience, and for good reason. Hawaiian cuisine is made up of five distinct cuisines reflecting the diversity of the island’s inhabitants. To make the food hunt a lot easier, these are some top local picks.
Haupia: A traditional Hawaiian dessert of coconut pudding at Ted’s Bakery, they combine the creamy coconut goodness with whipped cream and chocolate custard cream for one heavenly mouthful. (Ted’s is very under rated, but I prefer Dee-Lite Bakery)
Moco Loco: There’s something extra special about The Highway Inn‘s comfort dish of rice with hamburger patties and fried eggs doused in a rich brown gravy. Warning: You’ll likely slip into a food coma post-meal. (Just about everything is good here, so be prepared to wait!) This might be my favorite Hawaiian dish.
Malasadas: There are donuts and then there are malasadas from at Leonard’s Bakery. A deep-fried, sugar-coated eggy-donut filled with all sorts of goodness from mango to macadamia and the tangy-sweet lilikoi. (Malasadas are everywhere in the islands, but Leoanrds are still the best, ono-liscious!) I might rate malasadas above beignets after my last visit to Nawlins.
Kalua Pig: The secret to Helena’s Hawaiian Food trademark dish is they cook it traditionally in an imu (underground oven), which explains its unique juicy flavor. It’s one of the reasons they were awarded a James Beard Foundation’s Regional Classics award in 2000.
Spam Musubi: You’ll see musubi’s (sushi rice with a protein held together by seaweed) available everywhere, but it’s the spam version that’s a popular favorite of locals. At Mana Musubi, they offer four types of rice and 35 different variations–from salmon flake, spicy tuna, and konbu. This is also very popular in Vegas.
Roast Pork and Poke Bowl: Opened in 1949, Alicia’s Market is a family-run Hawai’i general store known for its roast meats and poke bar (they stock over 15 varieties) so this combination is the best of both worlds. (I have been going to Alicia’s for at least 40 years now)Better yet, try some of the local markets:
A great way to experience local culture and support small business owners is at a farmer’s market–in Oahu there are four for exploring. Running from Thursday to Sunday in neighborhoods like Kailua, Haleiwa, Kaka’ako, and Pearlridge, they’re organized by FarmLovers Markets (check their website for details/timings) and attract an eclectic mix of vendors selling everything from local delicacies to farm-to-table ingredients, chilled beach threads to island-inspired skincare. If transportation isn’t an issue, make a beeline for the Thursday market at Haleiwa in the beautiful Waimea Valley and combine it with a visit to Waimea Falls Park. And definitely go hungry as there’s a rotating list of vendors selling everything from fresh ceviche, Kona coffee, wood-fired pizzas, and local grub from enterprising young chefs.
Local booze too:
From sake to whisky, IPAs and rum, there’s a lot of superb booze being brewed on Oahu. You can choose to DIY your self-guided beer and sake brewery crawl around Kaka’ako (make a note of Islander Sake Brewery and Honolulu Beerworks), have a firsthand tour and taste of Ko’olau whiskey made using local corn and Hawaii-sourced water, or explore the sugarcane garden of Kō Hana Hawaiian Agricole Rum before doing a taste test. The flavors and brews using local ingredients will blow you away (and don’t forget to bring home a bottle…or three).
More ono food:
In local slang, #onogrindz means “good food”, and on Oahu, you’ll find mash-ups that’ll have you salivating. Think sweet-salty, super addictive Birria anything (from ramen to lumpia and pizza) with a special mention to @Aloha.Mamacita’s generously sized cheesy beef Birria tacos that’s always a winner.
On a hot day (or any day) if you can track down @guudfellaz for their hot-pressed ice-cream sandwiches, you’re in luck. A failsafe order is their creamy and sweet UBEBEH!, using Ube (purple yam) ice-cream from Dave’s Hawaiian Ice Cream in a taro bun that’s pressed with butter and then topped with coconut flakes, almonds, Ube sauce, and caramel, it’s a meal all on its own.
Plant-based donuts? Yes, they exist at @holeygraildonuts, made with a savory dough similar to poi (taro) and pimped with local ingredients like Waianae’s Tolentino Honey and Lydgate Farms Kauai chocolate and nibs. Flavors vary, but the signature Reincarnated, with a maple glaze and smoked coconut chips, are always available.
Despite this email, I still have a few “secret” places in the greater Honolulu area. But one of our favorite places, Libby’s Manapua has closed. The place was a real Honolulu institution, with great noodles, chow fun, manapua (pork buns), pork hash (shu mai), barbecued pork, and coconut pudding. But I will find another, thanks to my friends there.