People may criticize Oahu as being commercialized, but the vibrant food scene reflects its history of immigration, integration of diverse cultures, and tourism—and the result is some pretty amazing eats. Before we left for a quick summer trip, I pulled together a list of places to visit. I restricted it to budget-friendly restaurants and I wanted to share a few of the stand-outs. We ate at over 24 places and here are the ones I’ll insist on coming back to on future trips.
Helena’s Hawaiian Food
1240 North School Street
Honolulu, HI 96817
Tuesday – Friday, 10:00 am – 7:30 pm
Helena’s came highly recommended from our friends Amy and John, who were in Hawaii at the same time as us. They are fellow food-lovers and have been to the islands about a dozen times each. The dish to get here is the Pipikaula style short ribs. It’s charred and crispy on the outside and the meat is beautifully smoked. As soon as the grease ran down my chin, I claimed it as my favorite dish. The meat is seasoned simply, but gets its smoky flavor from being hung over the grill and absorbing the smoke that rises from it. You pair those ribs with slices of sweet Maui onion dipped in coarse bits of crunchy Hawaiian pink salt. It’s got me salivating again. Everything else—the poke, kalua pig & cabbage, poi, and haupia were also excellent, but it’s the ribs I’ll be dreaming of for days to come.
The restaurant has been around since the 1940’s and I should note its founding chef, Helen Kwock Chock, is a James Beard Award Recipient.
1218 North School Street
Honolulu, HI 96817
Monday – Saturday, 3:00 am – 12:30 pm
While you’re waiting outside for a table at Helena’s, it would be worth it to walk over to Mitsuba Delicatessen to grab a couple of sweet potato crumbles. Appropriately named, these are pie/turnover hybrids filled with Okinawan sweet potato. Have a napkin handy because the crust flakes and crumbles with each bite. This place was a recommendation from our trusted friend, Audrey, who lives in Oahu and know the food scene inside and out. Sorry for the lack of picture, but we inhaled them.
232 Kalihi Street
Honolulu, HI 96819
Monday – Saturday, 5:30 am – 2:00 pm
Ethel’s is off the beaten path in an industrial area between Waikiki and the Honolulu airport. Our friend, Richard, had recently returned to LA and talked enthusiastically about Ethel’s. Ethel’s has been around for 35 years and the fact that it’s stuck around in such an odd location is a testament to the food. There’s a sumo theme to the restaurant and you can “sumo size” any meal for $2. Photos of the famous Hawaii-born sumo wrestler Konishiki adorn the walls, who happens to be my grandmother’s favorite wrestler when I was growing up. The service isn’t the friendliest and the parking situation is not ideal, but none of that will matter when the food arrives. We had the ahi tataki (a steal for only $5!), sweet and sour spare rib saimin, and Japanese style hamburger steak. The portions are generous, so come very hungry.
1101 Waimanu Street
Honolulu, HI 96814
Monday – Friday, 6:00 am – 3:00 pm
Saturday, 7:00 am – 2:00 pm
Sunday, 7:00 am – 12:00 pm
There are a lot of popular breakfast joints in Oahu, but we liked Harry’s Cafe best. I prefer a savory breakfast over one that’s sweet, so this was my kind of place. Their house-made corned beef hash was fried to a crisp with shredded corned beef throughout. Pair that with their impeccably seasoned fried rice and it was a perfect way to start the day. If you’re feeling ambitious, try the corned beef hash loco moco (you can also get this with fried rice, which I’d recommend!).
2310 Kuhio Avenue
Honolulu, HI 96815
Monday – Sunday, 11:00 am – 10:00 pm
Given its proximity to Japan, the history of Japanese immigration in Hawaii, and the many Japanese tourists, there are a lot of Japanese food businesses that venture to Hawaii. That means there’s a lot of good Japanese food, without actually having to go to Japan. One of those places is called Marukame Udon, located in the heart of Waikiki. Don’t be daunted by the line out the door. It moves quickly because of the efficiency in which orders are taken and the food is served. Even though it’s crowded, it somehow works out that by the time you’ve paid and are looking for a place to sit, something has opened up. The timing of all this is really amazing. From the outside, you can watch the noodles being made onsite and everything is served cafeteria-style. It was a hot, hot day so I got the cold bukkake udon with a side of kakiage tempura and purple sweet potato tempura. The noodles were thick and chewy and came with tenkasu and green onions. My step daughter got the zaru udon with a spam and salmon musubi. All that food and the total bill was about $13 for the both of us!
Kailua Farmer’s Market
609 Kailua Rd
Kailua, HI 96734
Thursday, 5:00 – 7:30 pm
Kailua has a gorgeous beach with powder-like sand (near the beach is Island Snow, where Obama gets his shaved ice), so if you happen to venture out that way on a Thursday, be sure to stop by the Kailua Farmer’s Market. It’s a smaller market than the one at Kapiolani Community College, but I liked its intimacy. Our (previously mentioned) friend Audrey generously took us around and showed us her favorites, starting with an incredible sushi slider. A cube of fresh ahi on top of either eggplant or kale tempura, then drizzled with a sweet soy sauce and spicy mayo. The chef behind the dish uses produce from his father’s Otsuji Farms. Father and son have booths right next to each other, so you can’t miss it.
Next we tasted a delicious lemongrass ginger crusted opah, cooked to perfection. It’s so easy to over cook fish, especially in an outdoor setting, but it was moist and flaky. Audrey said the cook used to work for Alan Wong, so it’s no wonder it was so good.The meal came with a small salad and a side of Okinawan sweet potato mash.
The other standout was the fresh tomato pesto pizza. I’m a sucker for ripe summer tomatoes, so this was especially good. At this point on our trip, we’d been eating a lot of rice, meat, and potatoes, so this was refreshing!
To quench your thirst, there’s a booth selling gingerales and sodas made from Japanese and Thai ginger syrup. And for dessert we ate some Moloka’i Sweet Potato Surprise (which was a doughnut with a piece of sweet potato inside. Surprise!).
933 Kapahulu Avenue
Honolulu, HI 96816
Monday -Thursday, 5:30 am – 10:00 pm
Friday -Saturday, 5:30 am – 11:00 pm
I’ve been to Leonard’s before but, since becoming a bit of a doughnut connoisseur, I have a new appreciation for their malasadas. Their Portuguese doughnuts are nicely brown and crispy on the outside, but incredibly moist on the inside. The haupia-filled was my favorite in the past, but I took a strong liking to the Li Hing Sugar this time around. The filled ones are so heavy, so I’d recommend them if you really want to indulge! The Li Hing Sugar is sweet and tart, a combination I really liked. There is usually a line, but it’s worth the wait for a warm baker’s box of fresh malasadas.
Waiola Shave Ice
2135 Waiola Street
Honolulu, HI 96826
Monday – Saturday, 7:30 am – 6:30 pm
Sunday, 10:00 am – 6:30 pm
3113 Mokihana St
Honolulu, HI 96816
Monday -Thursday, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm
Friday -Sunday, 10:00 am – 6:30 pm
We’ve been to most of the popular shave ice places on the island, but Waiola’s has been a favorite of ours for quite some time. We like it so much we even went twice in one day. What sets them apart is the ice itself—shaved gloriously thin, it’s like silk when it hits your tongue. I highly suggest getting green tea with azuki beans, mochi balls, and condensed milk. Their beans are not overly sweet or mushy and the green tea flavor is a nice compliment.
Do you have any island favorites? Let me know!