I bring my sense of food adventure with me on the road, searching for the most authentic, iconic, and delicious dishes of a different region…
After spending just nine days in Hawaii, I’m convinced I should start a version of this blog on one of the islands. If I don’t end up moving to paradise and eating my way through their iconic food and drink, then at least it will have inspired me to start a travel section of this blog. I don’t travel nearly as often as I’d like, but maybe now I have a good reason. And perhaps it’ll be tax deductible?
The one dish everybody seemed to ask me about upon my return was poi. “How did you like the poi?” they said with a bit of a chuckle. I think they were expecting me to throw up in my mouth a bit. No such luck. I sort of liked poi. For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, poi is a purple pudding made of pureéd taro root. It can often have the texture of baby food and the flavor is rather bland. I heard from some of the locals that poi is often best two or three days old. It’s not really eaten on its own, but used as an accompaniment to dried or grilled meat.
The best poi we tasted was at Helena’s Hawaiian Food in Oahu. It’s pictured in a bowl on the upper left corner of the photo above.
I can’t say it was the star of the show (Helena’s Pipikaula short ribs were perfection), but it had its place and was much more enjoyable than most mainlanders hint at.
We had big combination meals like this pretty often. Helena’s was by far the best with fresher ingredients and stronger flavors than most. No wonder they’ve been filling bellies since 1946.
Ono Hawaiian Food is another classic hole-in-the-wall joint in Oahu. It was our first experience with this kind of food and it took a little bit to fully appreciate the lomo salmon (salty dried fish pieces chopped up with tomatoes) I did, however, thoroughly enjoy the pork laulau, which is big hunks of fatty pork cooked inside earthy taro leaves.
All of these dishes were re-visited (plus a a few others) on my gigantic buffet plate. This was at our only luau experience, the Old Lahaina Luau in Maui. There was an overall feeling of Disney World here (except the beach setting wasn’t a facade), but the food was surprisingly fresh and really showcased the ingredients of the island.
Now these big combo plates were similar to, but different from what Hawaiians call “plate lunch.” I suppose any of those dishes could be part of a plate lunch, but not necessarily. Basically, plate lunch is a meat with rice and sides. The plate lunch we enjoyed most was at Kaka’ako Kitchen and consisted of fried catfish, shoyu chicken, and a great macaroni salad. I’m not generally a fan of these types of mayonnaise-laden pasta salads, but they sure know how to make them out there.
Perhaps the dish I was most excited to try in Hawaii was the poke. I quickly learned that this was pronounced “po-kay” instead of the vulgar “poke”. Traditionally, it’s chopped bits of raw ahi (tuna) mixed with soy sauce, salt, onions, and some seasonings like furikake (a brilliant Japanese concoction of seaweed and sesame seeds, with perhaps a little dried fish thrown in for good measure).
We enjoyed some at a quaint seafood shop in Maui called Eskimo Candy and some at a bustling take-out lunch spot called Ono Seafood in Oahu. But I was most excited by the options offered at Nico’s Fish Market. We bypassed the big cafeteria restaurant and sampled as much as we could at the fish market itself.
There must have been about six or seven different varieties from ahi to white crab to garlic shrimp. We loaded up a poke bowl with some traditional ahi and spicy tako (octopus). There was a bar of unusual (and free) toppings so I loaded it up with sesame seeds and wasabi roe.
Another thing everybody seems to know about are the famous shrimp trucks. We could have spent the entire trip just exploring these buttery crustaceans, but we also had some sites to see and ocean to enjoy. Despite that, we still managed to hit two on our trip to the North Shore.
Giovanni’s came first on our journey and seems to be the most famous. It’s permanently parked at a glorified rest area with other vendors reaping the success of these guys. We got about a dozen large shrimp doused with a lemon buttery sauce with large visual garlic nobs. You can imagine the garlic burps that lingered for hours.
While Giovanni’s is the most popular, Macky’s might just be the best (I will save that proclamation until my official search one day). It’s located past the town of Haleiwa in a tucked away corner beside the highway.
But the shrimp here was pretty spectacular. They were smaller than Giovanni’s, but much sweeter and softer with an overwhelming freshness. With some salad and a slice of Hawaiian pineapple, this truck was serving slightly more refined food and it tasted a whole lot better.
It was also on the North Shore of Oahu that we got our first taste of shave ice. That was not a typo. I didn’t accidentally leave off the “d.” The fine snow cone-like treat in Hawaii is known as shave ice.
The two most famous are across the street from each other in the town of Haleiwa and neither of them really impressed me much. After waiting in a short line at Matsumoto’s, we were handed the icy concoction. I chose guava, lilikoi (passionfruit), and mango. None of the flavors really sang, but left a rather sugary finish in the back of my throat. The fine ice was pleasant enough, but this reminds me of the sort of snow cones I despise. The ones that are drowned in sugary artificial flavors. They even gave you a straw so you won’t miss one diabetes-laden drop.
Next door, the shave ice is even worse. At Aoki’s (which I was hoping would be less touristy), the colors don’t even match the flavors. We got banana, coconut, and pineapple. Ok, pineapples are yellow. But coconuts are not pink and bananas should never be blue. Not even in Hawaii. I couldn’t get past the scary pastel color scheme to even begin to discuss the texture of the ice itself.
The good news is that shave ice can be a whole lot better than these monstrosities. Some places actually make their syrups from real fruit and have a restrained hand when it comes to doling out the syrup.
My favorite shave ice on the islands was at a little hidden spot behind the Ala Moana Center in Honolulu called Ailana Shave Ice. We loved the strawberry ice cream flavor (with remnants of real strawberries), the haupia (coconut pudding), and lilikoi. The homemade mochi put it over the edge giving it a brand new texture. Those were the best mochi I’ve ever tasted. I still yearn for them.
And on Maui, Ululani’s Shave Ice also featured some seriously delicious homemade syrups. We reveled in the tropical goodness and authenticity of their mango, lilikoi, and papaya. I also really enjoyed the tamarind flavor, which provided a nice tart contrast. Topped with big chunks of mochi and their li hing mui (salty dried plum) powder, we realized that shave ice can be a magical thing.
Pancakes and Doughnuts
Hawaiians also really love their doughnuts and pancakes. One of the most incredible bites on Oahu was from an uber-popular, sports themed breakfast joint in the residential town of Kahlua. Boots & Kimo’s top their banana pancakes with this wonderful macadamia nut sauce. I didn’t think anything could one up maple syrup when it came to bettering pancakes, but this creamy, (not too) sweet sauce made me forget all about the state of Vermont.
Their pulehu short ribs with eggs are also nothing to sneeze at. I would have a hard time choosing between these and those killer pancakes. Both excellent!
Turns out this rich, creamy pancake topper is not an invention of Boots & Kimo’s, but an island specialty. We got another version (with a Guava Chiffon sauce) at nearby Cinnamon’s that didn’t work nearly as well.
Malasadas are actually a Portuguese doughnut, but have become hugely popular in Hawaii. All the guide books and locals tell you to head to Leonard’s and they are totally right. The airy beignet-like orbs are fried to order and truly a little bite of heaven. Which is appropriate because you are in Hawaii.
Fruits and Vegetables
I’d be remiss not to mention the incredible fruit and vegetables we tasted. Some of our best experiences were walking around Farmer’s Markets (we especially loved the KCC Farmer’s Market in Oahu on Saturdays) and sampling savory foods and fresh produce, like the unusual-looking rambutan.
Aside from the best mangoes (from Yee’s Orchard in Maui), avocados, pineapples (Maui gold), papayas, and passionfruit (oh, I love the lilikoi), I’ve ever tasted in my life, we also had some rare and exotic fruits. My favorite was the Chico sapote which tasted like soft pears that had been tossed with brown sugar. Oh, I wish I could find those in New York!
We also sampled soursop (which we got majorly overcharged for) from Ono Fruit Stand in Hana. Soursop is something I had tasted before in a can, but the fresh one was a real wonder. It had a balance of tart and sweetness, tasting something like a pineapple-strawberry hybrid.
Aside from pineapple and ham pizza (which was really good at Monkeypod in Maui), the food most people associated with Hawaii is probably spam. That’s too bad because I’m not really a fan. At least I didn’t think I was.
And we only tasted spam in two forms. One was as a sushi musubi. That’s right, spam sushi! These are available wrapped in plastic in most local supermarkets. But we visited Iyasume Musubi in Waikiki to try this grease bomb. It wasn’t bad, but a few rich, salty bites was more than enough for me.
I preferred the pork product in Sam Sato’s saimin. This soup noodle dish is the national dish of Hawaii (they even sell it at McDonald’s – or so I hear) and fuses many different Pacific cuisines together – Japanese, Chinese, Filipino.
At Sam Sato’s in Maui (which felt like a legit Hawaiian diner), they’re more known for their dry noodle dish, which is the springy noodles, spam slices, and bean sprouts with the flavorful dashi broth on the side. They were called dry, but those moist flavorful noodles were anything but.
We also ate at our share of nicer, higher end restaurants while in Hawaii. We splurged big time at Mama’s Fish House in Paia (we were literally staying around the corner). It felt like Disney World on Hawaii and my jaw dropped when I saw the entrees that cost in the $50 range. This was more expensive than just about any a la carte restaurant in New York! Mama’s was good and featured some incredibly fresh fish, but nothing really stood out as being worth the prices.
Once we discovered that Sheldon Simeon’s (from Top Chef) restaurant was on Maui, we put that to the top of our list. We enjoyed a nice lunch at Star Noodle in Lahaina. It felt very much like a hip Brooklyn restaurant (down to the brussels sprout, bacon, and kimchi dish), but with much nicer service. The highlight for me were the inventive scallop shots in a broth of dashi, ginger, and lemon.
Crack Seed (we bought a bag from Camellia Seed Shop in the Queen Ka’ahumanu Center in Maui) is probably something you have to grow up with to enjoy. The bag of Sweet Sal Dried Plums reminded me of my intense experience with Dutch salted licorice. There was an initial sweetness, but it gave way to a very strong salty ammonia flavor. And the entire time, you’re chewing the “candy” from off a hard seed (hence the name). I can’t say crack seed was true to its name for me, but I had to try it!
You must be wondering with all this hearty (and sugary) food, how were we able to not fall asleep at the wheel? The answer, my friends, is coffee. And Hawaii has some of the most complexly flavored coffee I’ve ever tasted. After our visit to the Maui Grown Coffee tasting room (and their coffee farm a few miles down the road), I was flying for the rest of the week. The highlight there was the Maui Mokka, a very smooth and chocolatey brew.
And I haven’t even written about the coconut shrimp from Coconut’s Fish Cafe,
the coconut ice cream from Coconut Glen’s on the way back from Hana,
the monster abalone clams at the KCC Farmers Market in Oahu,
the dangerously potent mai tai with lilikoi foam at Merriman’s in Maui,
or the unusual sherbet/ice cream hybrid at Tasaka Guri Guri in Maui.
I could spend months just searching for the best shave ice or the best pohole salad or the best mai tai or poi or shrimp truck. There’s a lifetime of eating possibilities in Hawaii (and I only visited two of the eight islands), so don’t be surprised if I relocate soon and start an entire blog and video series devoted to the best and most iconic foods of the Aloha state.