I get a little sad when I see mainland tourists lined up outside the Cheesecake Factory in Waikiki waiting over an hour for a table when they can eat there at home. If this is your first time to Hawaii, even if you’re not the most adventurous, here’s a short list of Hawaii-centric foods to try that’s better than what you get at home.
The first cuisine type I would suggest trying is traditional Hawaiian food, and a good place to try this would be at the James Beard Award-winning restaurant Helena’s Hawaiian Food in Kalihi. Your typical Hawaiian food order will have some lau lau (pork wrapped in luau leaves), some lomi salmon (raw salted salmon and diced tomato), either rice or poi (pounded taro) for a starch, and some haupia (coconut milk gelatin) as a dessert. The more adventurous can mix in some opihi (sea snails) or squid luau (cooked-down squid, luau leaves, and coconut milk) and the less adventurous should go with a main dish of kalua pig (slow cooked pig). The must-get at Helena’s, however, is their pipikaula (broiled dried salted beef), and make sure to go with the large order because you’ll probably just order more later if you go with the small. Other Hawaiian food places to consider: Highway Inn near Kakaako (Waipahu), Haili’s in Kapahulu, and Yama’s in Moiliili.
The next cuisine type I would recommend is Hawaii’s version of contemporary/modern/new American dining. The major difference between this and your typical New American restaurant is the use of locally sourced products and a lot more Asian and Polynesian influence in the dishes being prepared. Another distinct feature of Hawaii New American restaurants is that they all know how to prepare fish properly. I’ve unfortunately had fish butchered at well-respected restaurants on both coasts, with even the moistest of fishes somehow cooked through until it’s dry, or drowned in a sauce where you end up losing all of the characteristics of the fish you’re eating. For Hawaii New American, the non-adventurous will have no problem finding something in their wheelhouse, and for the more adventurous, try the most interesting sounding special or get some fish, even if you think you don’t like fish. It may just be that you were never served a properly prepared fish dish in your lifetime. There are lots of good choices for this cuisine type in Honolulu, Alan Wong’s in Moiliili, 12th Avenue Grill in Kaimuki, Fete in Chinatown, Moku Kitchen in Kakaako, the Nook in Puck’s Alley, or Mahina & Suns in Waikiki just to name a few. You’ll probably need a reservation for these places, and luckily they’re all on OpenTable.
Okay, it’s been about an hour since your last meal and you feel like a snack or dessert. Here’s a couple of good choices, both considered Hawaii cuisine but are imports from the plantation days. The first which hails from Portugal is a sugar-covered deep-fried ball of dough called a malasada. Just two rules of thumb for malasada, stick to the plain sugar ones (skip filled, or alternate flavored ones), and eat it as soon as you get it. If the place selling malasada isn’t making them as you order it or doesn’t have a fast turnaround, you probably aren’t getting it at the right place. I would recommend getting them at Leonard’s Bakery in Kapahulu, the Leonard’s Truck in Waikele, or possibly Pipeline Bakery in Kaimuki.
The second comes from Japan and is a syrup covered cone of shaved ice known here as “shave ice”. In Hawaii’s warm climate, it’s always a good time to eat something cool. There’s usually a large selection of tropical flavors so make sure to go with at least 2 as sometimes its the mix of flavors that makes it good. If ice cream is an option, go with it, and pay the extra for the holder as things can get sticky in a hurry. On the north shore, Matsumoto’s or Aoki’s are fine choices, and in town, there’s a Shimazu in Kalihi and in Kapahulu.
There’s actually a ton more Hawaii cuisines and topics to cover but this is a good start for people new to the islands so I’ll put a pin in it here and come back at a later date with a part two. (editor’s note: part two now available) If you have any questions or comments about the topics posted, feel free to ask them in the comments section below, also post your own suggestions for new Hawaii travelers if you have some good ones.