I always tell people that if I weren’t a chef, I’d be a surfer. I love body-boarding and surfing in Hawaii so much that I take vacations there about every other year. But water sports aside, the cultural mix in Hawaii is so interesting and totally worth exploring, especially for anyone who has an affinity to Asian-inflected foods. Coming from a mixed ethnic background myself (German and Japanese) I feel right at home on Oahu.
For anyone traveling to Hawaii, I will start by sharing what not to do:
1) If you can, don’t stay in Waikiki at all. At the very least, I recommend renting a car and getting out of Waikiki to explore the food scene - there’s so much cool stuff to discover and you’ll be rewarded for your efforts to escape touristville. The most beautiful (public) beaches are on the North Shore between Haleiwa and Turtle Bay, and also on the East Shore between Kailua and Waimanalo. And the drive around the Southeastern tip of the island, between Koko Marina and Waimanalo is simply breathtaking.
2) Skip all fine dining. But, if you must indulge, try Chef Mavro Restaurant on South King.
3) Unless you really like cheesy stage performances and mediocre buffet food, skip all organized luaus.
If you start there, you’re bound to have a fantastic time and find local dishes like Kalua pork (a whole pig cooked in an underground pit), fresh Poke (a raw Hawaiian salad with Tako, Ahi, any fresh fish), and Malasadas (a Portuguese version of a doughnut that’s one of my favorite things in Hawaii).
I also recommend buying fresh fish from the local fisherman and cooking it yourself on the beach - the effort is well worth it. One of my favorite food experiences in Hawaii was cooking salt-baked Opakapaka (a Hawaiian pink snapper) in our backyard on the North Shore. We had to haggle with the local fisherman to get some fresh fish off their boat. The sheer satisfaction of having succeeded, coupled with the fact that we were starving and craving fish so badly that evening made it one of the best meals. Also, anytime you can cook with friends on the North Shore as the sun is setting towards Ka’ena Point, it’s pretty special.
You can also find wonderful food (with much less effort) at any one of these spots below.
South side (aka “town”)
Helena's Hawaiian Food in Kalihi for authentic Hawaiian food.
They make the best laulau (pork wrapped in taro leaf) and Poi (a liquid-y dough-y soup made from taro that’s probably the only Hawaiian thing I can’t get down with) here.
SNACKBOX by Pili on Auahi is Mark “Gooch” Noguchi’s latest place.
It's an amazing salad and sandwich joint inside a home furnishing store. Anything Mark Noguchi is doing in town, you have to make sure to check it out. This guy is at the forefront of local Hawaiian cuisine.
Leonard's Bakery on Kapahulu in Waikiki for Malasadas.
Rainbow Drive-in (also on Kapahulu in Waikiki) for breakfast or plate lunch on the go.
Jimbo Restaurant on South King for great Udon
Town Restaurant in Kaimuki for a more traditional fine-dining sit-down dinner.
Farmer’s market on Wednesdays at Neal Blaisdel (Honolulu Farmers' Market), Saturdays at KCC (KCC Saturday Farmers Market). Go to the “Pig and the Lady” tent for the best Vietnamese noodle soup on the island.
Mei Sum Chinese Dim Sum for the best dim sum in Chinatown
Tamashiro Market for fresh fish and the island’s best Poke in the back of the store.
Morning Glass Coffee + Cafe, where they take their beans super seriously and have a fun food menu to boot.
If you’re looking for a drink, Lewers Lounge At Halekulani Hotel is a little old school, but still makes a nice cocktail. I’ve been dying to get back to check out the cocktail scene, specifically Bevy in Kakaako. I hear their stuff is legit. If a dive bar is more your speed, the The Hideaway Bar and Side Street Inn are both awesome and weird in their own unique ways.
North Shore (aka “country” and where I usually stay)
Opal Thai for great, super fresh Thai food.
Ted's Bakery for the best plate lunches, fried chicken, and chocolate-haupia pie.
Chocolate-haupia pie at Ted's. Rich dark chocolate custard cream filled with another layer of haupia (creamy coconut pudding), topped with whipped cream. Credit: Ted's Bakery
Macky's Shrimp Truck is the best shrimp truck (by 7 Eleven in Haleiwa) - go with garlic or hot / spicy and not the coconut or lemon.
Roadside Farmer Stand (no name) just south of Turtle Bay Resort has an old lady who fries bananas. It’s awesome, but you have to ask because she doesn’t have a food license and won’t do it if there’s a big tour bus around.
Waialua Coffee Fields to see some cool local products.
Cover photo credit: Edmund Garman