Hawaiian food used to be a non-starter, but now fresh and flavorful options are taking the place of the old-school plate lunch. Contributing writer Thea Klapwald shares the new culinary attractions in Honolulu.
I used to think there was no culinary reason to go to Hawaii. Unless you wanted to drop a packet at the swankier hotels, food in Hawaii was a non-starter: Dole canned pineapple slices, over-fried pupu platter appetizers, and watered-down Mai Tais. A recent trip to Oahu assured me that island cuisine has changed for the better. Good food on the islands is no longer the domain of hotels, and is worth a trip in itself.
My first stop in the morning is always coffee. You can tell a lot about a place from its coffee and Hawaiian coffee is some of the best in the world. My hotel, the Shoreline Hotel Waikiki, conveniently offered the good stuff in the lobby. It was flavorful, smooth, and zippy without being overzealous or too acidic. The Shoreline Hotel’s Front End Manager Jackie Minami saw me downing several cups and immediately pegged me as a coffee-a-holic. I always seek out local advice and eagerly let her point me in the direction of Honolulu Coffee Co. I walked the block and a half to its location in the Westin Moana Surfrider Hotel and immediately fell in love. Coffee aficionados should make a point to seek them out. My morning walk to Honolulu Coffee Co. and then a stroll along Waikiki Beach to watch the surfers was a highlight of my trip.
Laid back Honolulu business executives choose Tangö Contemporary Café for breakfast. The atmosphere is bright, noisy (in a good way), chic, and crowded without being cramped. It is more suited to Bushwick, Brooklyn than Honolulu. Tangö is known for its variations of Eggs Benedict. Going local, I chose fried rice with Portuguese sausage. Surprisingly light with just the right amount of spice, I gobbled it up.
Chinatown is flush with good food but not what you’d expect. Instead of the ubiquitous din of crowded dim sum restaurants, you’ll find the hip gourmet cuisine of Lucky Belly. The atmosphere is earthy like a San Francisco eatery with wood tables and benches, with dim lighting. Try the Jasmine Limeade and pork bao. This is not your average bao. Served in petite tacos, the luscious white steamed bread smiles up at you with the pork shyly peaking out.
Marukame Udon is easy to miss with its unobtrusive exterior but is a trip to Japan. English is spoken but you wouldn’t know it. The cafeteria-style eatery charges per piece. The more you add to your bowl of noodles, the more expensive. I chose curry noodles with shrimp tempura and asparagus and couldn’t finish it. No reservations accepted but the line that coils out the door moves quickly.
My hotel didn’t have an-house restaurant but adjacent is the unexpectedly great Mexican restaurant ChaChaCha. I was stopped in my tracks by the nachos – enormous baked, layered platters of soft-tortilla nachos. The low lighting, jazz music and large selection of tequila lulls you into thinking you are in a Mexican hideaway. For a lighter palate, try the picante tortilla soup fragrant with herbs, and sweet, creamy guacamole.
Kevin Aoki knows food. His father started Benihana and he’s continued the tradition with the latest location of his internationally renowned sushi Doraku. It is an oasis of forward-thinking izakaya (small plates) cuisine, cool music (Kevin’s brother Steve is an LA DJ), and pure Japanese sake bar decor. Try Grilled Kama, Panko Crusted Hamachi, and Asari Clam Sakamushi.
Upscale diners looking for a white tablecloth experience should visit Chef Chai. Thai-born Chef Chai Chaowasaree is on hand to help you choose from the extensive menu. The dishes are surprising: Gravlax Salmon Roulade with Cream Cheese and Crab Meat on Cucumber Chips, deconstructed Scallop Pot Pie with Lobster Reduction. The décor is surprisingly modern (even the bathroom design is ultra-cool!).
Desserts and Snacks
Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha (HOPA) is a shave ice revolution. Priding itself on being a second-generation shave ice store, and community-minded, HOPA serves only natural, local-made flavorings. Try the guava and lilikoi with dream sauce. Word has it that The White House’s advance team is scouting out the place for Pres. Obama’s next trip.
Chinatown’s Sing Cheong Yuan Bakery sells neon-colored bags of addictive shrimp chips, delicious egg custard tarts, sweet and savory seed candy and traditional treats. The staff isn’t always helpful but be persistent to get what you want!
Mike Kealoha is owner and manager of Souza’s Smokehouse. All locally produced, if you are a smoked meat lover, you must try his handiwork. Smoked meat is an acquired taste and Souza’s is the best place to start. Try traditional hoisin pork. More adventurous tastes: try marlin.
If you can’t make it to Hawaii but want a taste of the islands, Wanda and Dennis Wong of Petals and Beans ship homemade traditional snacks to your door. The gourmet Chinese Pretzel – a deep fried sugary snack – and the Okashi macadamia nut puffed rice treat are sensational.
Locals are thrilled at the preponderance of great restaurants, too, and are happy to make discoveries suggested from out-of-towners like myself! When I mentioned Lucky Belly to a woman who’d grown up on Oahu, she looked at me in surprise and took down the details eager to try it. That’s when you know a city has truly arrived on the scene for cuisine!
To see another side of Hawaii, Go Off the Tourist Map with Hawaii Family Travel.
Text and photos By Thea Klapwald for PeterGreenberg.com. Thea Klapwald writes about travel, culture and parenting with a humorous bent. Her work appears regularly in The Wall Street Journal, Westways, and TheResponsibilityProject.com. Her blog is www.awkwardtravelswiththea.wordpress.com.