A lot of cities are described as melting pots, but Oahu (and Hawaii in general) truly is a melting pot of cuisines. We have the influence of the Chinese, the Filipinos, the Japanese, the Koreans, the Polynesians, the Portuguese, the Puerto Ricans, the Okinawans and many more all coming together, bringing the best food from each culture and fusing it all into Hawaii’s own distinctive style. Mass immigration came about at the turn of the 19th century, where labourers from all over asia were brought to the islands by imperial powers to work on sugar and pineapple plantations. At the time, these were Hawaii’s main commodities and without mass immigration these industries would not have been able to prosper.
The influence doesnt just stop at food, it also applies to pretty much everything we view as distinctively Hawaiian today. Hawaiian shirts were originally created by the owner of a clothing store selling Kimonos. He wasn’t doing too well in sales so he decided to use the same material for shirts to appeal to the wider masses. An immigrant from Madeira, Portugal was actually credited for bringing the first Ukulele to the islands. A lot of the things that we see as ‘Hawaiian’ actually came from the immigrants that settled there.
Because of all this, the food you find in Hawaii is some of the most interesting food you will ever eat. As always, the places below come to you through a combination of distilling reviews on tripadvisor, Food Network shows, Youtube food channels, Instagram and places I’ve tried and enjoyed before so you can save time and make the most of your visit!
Marukame Udon is somewhat of an institution in Honolulu, there are constant queues outside their popular, main Waikiki location. During my visit, this location was temporarily closed for a renovation but luckily there was another one in Downtown Honolulu. Although the queues can be long, service is quick and efficient due to its production-line style set up. I went during a heavy downpour and walked straight in so this is probably the best time to go. As soon as you step inside you can see the noodles being made fresh and portioned out. First, you choose your main dish (I went for the curry Udon) and add some garnsihes to it, you then move to another station for bigger add-ons like shrimp & vegetable tempura, karaage and musubi. Although Udon isn’t my favourite noodle dish, I really enjoyed eating here. The noodles were bouncy and the tempura items tasted really fresh! Curry udon also ended up being the perfect accompaniment for a slightly cooler, rainy day on the island.
If you want a good Acai bowl, Hawaii is definitely the place to get one. Rather than using a powder substitute or a gel from a pack like most places, the acai used (along with most of the other toppings on the bowl) grows fresh here, resulting in a beautifully vibrant breakfast bowl packed with taste. When you’ve been eating your way through heavy dishes in Hawaii – which, surprisingly, isn’t hard to do, an acai bowl with a drizzle of Hawaiian honey and homemade granola can be a refreshing change and a good way to try all of the local fruit before you leave. After trying Haleiwa Bowls on my last visit I wanted to try one from a new place. So I tried this bowl from Island Vintage Coffee at the Ala Moana Centre – an indoor/outdoor mall and it was a good pick-me-up. But, to be honest, when it comes to acai bowls, there is a plethora of choice across the islands. No matter where you are you won’t struggle to find a decent one here.
Shirokiya Japan Village Walk can be found in the basement level of the Ala Moana Center and is a relatively new, welcome addition. What differs with this compared to other themed food courts is that it feels authentic and the Japanese culture has been pulled through tastefully rather than in a tacky, cliche kind of way. And that applies to the food in the dosens of restaurants and dessert places also, the dishes feels authentic and as if you are in some kind of Tokyo microcosm. There are also a few stores inside selling other things like Japanese stationery and an area with Gashapons (or Japanese toy capsule machines). The tables are set up in a communal, food court style layout around the stalls so if you visit with friends and family you can all just easily get what you want and then grab a table together. With Japanese culture having such a prolific influence on shaping the Hawaii we now know today, I think it’s nice to have a place that pays homage to that history and is in a place that is accessible to many.
Somi Somi is a korean-inspired dessert shop that specialises in Taiyaki, which is a fish-shaped waffle-like batter filled with soft serve icecream – traditionally they are usually filled with things like red bean paste and custard. It’s a very popular dessert across Japan and Korea, but this particular brand began in Los Angeles and has slowly started to open up more locations across the US. I thought I’d include this alongside the Shirokiya Japan Village Walk post because it’s actually not too far from here. If you go outside, turn left and follow the building round, you will find Somi Somi. This was undoubtedly, my favourite dessert of the trip! The batter was crispy but had a fluffy cake-like texture on the inside. The ice cream was smooth and creamy with lots of different flavour options and toppings you could combine to create whatever you desire. Interestingly, with this particular location you could choose to adorn your icecream with an orchid – but this is only available in Hawaii! If you are in the Ala Moana Centre, definitely check this out.
If you’re looking to try some traditional local dishes, Helena’s Hawaiian Food is the perfect place to do so. They have a set menu featuring classic dishes like Poi (pounded taro), Lau Lau (pork, sometimes with fish, wrapped in taro leaves and steamed), Haupia (a soft coconut-flavoured pudding), Pipikaula (beef marinated in soy sauce, dried and then broiled), Kalua pig (pork wrapped in ti leaves and typically slow cooked in an ‘Imu’ or Hawaiian underground fire pit) and Chicken Long Rice (glassy, vermicelli noodles cooked in a chicken broth, finished off with shreds of chicken). Poi is one of the main staples of Hawaii and has even been hailed as a miracle food; you will either love it or hate it, either way trying it is a must! It can have a slight sour taste and this depends on how long it’s been fermenting. I personally didn’t mind it, for me it was almost like having a dairy side dish. You would typically add it to things like the Kalua pig, to take down the saltiness of the meat a notch. When I tried this, I thought the two flavours complemented each other really well.
Shave ice is another must in Hawaii – note, it’s ‘shave ice’ not ‘shaved ice’. This is a refreshing, snow-cone type of dessert and can be found all over the island. Two of the most well known shave ice shops are Matsumoto (on the North Shore) and Waiola Shave Ice in Honolulu. I wanted to try Waiola because I’d heard the ice was super fluffy which allows the flavoured syrups to be absorbed and distrbuted more evenly! All of the syrups here are homemade and include typical Hawaiian flavours like Lilikoi (Hawaiian passionfruit) and Haupia! You can also top your dessert with things like condensed milk and mochi balls if you want to be extra. The original shop is situated in a quiet neighbourhood on Waiola Street, it has a friendly sky-blue store front and has been here for decades, you won’t miss it! They also have another, newer location which is quite close to Leonard’s bakery.
Aiea is an area that’s a bit out of the way but worth visiting. Not just for the amazing food at The Alley but for the Swap Meet at Aloha Stadium. This is an open-air flea market where you can pick up everything from souvenirs to quick bites. It’s open Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday from 8am – 3pm. I would try to avoid going in the middle of the day if you can as there isn’t a lot of shade. The Alley restaurant isn’t actually too far from the stadium; it is a small, unassuming place hidden in a neighbourhood bowling alley. The food itself has a homestyle but creative feel. Everything felt like it was cooked with love and you can tell that the chefs have a lot of free rein over what goes on the menu. Following the recommendations of others, I tried the oxtail soup and the strawberry crunch cake – both were incredible!
Another classic dessert stop in Oahu is Leonard’s Bakery, probably most well-known for its Malasadas (or portuguese doughnuts). You can eat these freshly-made doughnuts plain with cinnamon sugar or filled with classic Hawaiian flavours such as Guava, Haupia and Lilikoi. But despite all the delicious baked goods, what I loved most was their whole aesthetic: Millenial Pink and Blue take out boxes, candy striped awning and a welcome sign that rivalled those of Las Vegas. What’s not to like? If you are planning on visiting, I would try and get here early as it is a very popular place, queues can get quite long and parking is limited.
If you’re ever in China Town and stumble across a pink, neon ampersand in the window you will know that you’ve found The Pig and The Lady. Their menu boasts typical Vietnamese fare with a creative, modern twist. Just like The Alley, the dishes have a homestyle feel, with it being family operated, but re-interpreted in a way that is fresh and exciting. Some of their most well known dishes include the ‘Pho French Dip Banh Mi’ (available at lunchtime only) and the ‘Le fried chicken’ (pictured above). Other than the food, what I liked about this place was how the staff were incredibly accommodating and knowledgeable about the menu.
The restaurant interior was also bright and beautiful, complementing the bold flavours of the dishes nicely. Definitely make sure you reserve a table before trying this place out as it can get extremely busy, but it’s also worth noting that I have seen them popping up at local street food markets in places like Kailua in the past – so you may not have to travel all the way to King Street just to get your fix.
Ethel’s Grill is a small hole in the wall restaurant in the Kalihi neighbourhood serving classic Japanese comfort food including this popular Mochiko chicken dish (above). From what I could gather, Mochiko chicken is very similar to a karaage, but rather than coating the meat in corn flour or potato starch for crispiness, mochiko flour is used instead. This casual eatery is very small but well known. If you’re waiting for a table you will have to wait outside, but it’s worth it. If a place only has to stay open to 2pm everyday, you know that it’s probably going to be good. If you’re heading here, remember that it’s cash-only. Only a stone’s throw away from Ethel’s Grill is Alicia’s Market. They sell everything you would find in a convenience store but also have a counter at the back for roasted meats and plate lunches.
Despite doing pretty much everything amazingly well they are most well known for their poke. If you like sushi, you will probably love this dish! Poke is essentially small, glassy cubes of raw fish usually marinated in shoyu (Hawaii’s number one soy sauce) and tossed with something a little more textured like Maui sweet onions. The freshness of the fish gives it a butter-like texture. It’s usually made with tuna and can be served over rice or eaten on its own. Unfortunately, Alicia’s recently experienced a fire so the main store is currently closed, but there is a temporary shop a few doors down still serving local favourites.
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