Most people do not travel to Hawaii to sample the local cuisine, they visit for the sweet, salty air, and the dazzling sunsets. Combine the morning sun with a view of a nearby island and breakfast becomes a long session of wanderlust. A plate lunch on the beach is what island vacation dreams are made of. While fine dining can often be the highlight of a vacation the cuisine of a region will leave a longer lasting impression.
Hawaiian local food will do that.
If you consider plantation living and the mashup of cultures you can easily identify how Hawaiian cuisine came to be. A true melting pot is what powered the sugar cane fields and those cultures combined to create what is now Hawaiian comfort food. Japanese, Filipino, Chinese, and Hawaiian ideas combined to create a dinner table with blurred lines and a common thread; hearty meals that were and still are affordable.
With fish with names like Opah, Ono, opakapaka and Mahi Mahi as popular items in restaurants the real treats are in the hidden away spaces where good local cuisine can be found. You'll soon be talking pidgin while talking about the "local grindz" and categorizing good food as "Ono" to your co-workers.
Poke is a simple dish created by some crafty explorers on outriggers while out at sea. It's a pretty simple combination of raw fish, soy sauce, sesame oil and sea salt. If you don’t get too fancy with it, you’ll enjoy flavors of fresh fish with salty and spicy accents. In Hawaii, tracking down great poke is as simple as going to a local supermarket — or even Costco! — where the selection is abundant and fresh.
Egg over easy. Two scoops rice. Hamburger patty. Thick brown gravy. What else do you need from a meal? The loco moco is comfort food done up island style, and you should not try to dress it up by looking for a fancy spot to have it. This dish originated in Hilo, Hawaii, either at the Lincoln Grill or Café 100 — depending on who you talk to, of course. Both have their own origin stories for the dish, but that really is secondary once you start eating. Eager to try a fancier version? Da Kitchen in Maui adds a few extras to make it look better and 808 Grindz Café in Lahaina has a short rib moco that is somehow even more decadent.
Don’t call this ramen, it’s saimin — that means it’s more Hawaiian than Japanese and a bit more Chinese than Filipino. Just imagine a tasty broth with a thin noodle and some spam or Portuguese sausage in the mix. That broth is not pork-based like its ramen cousin but instead typically made with fish, shrimp or chicken. The best place for Saimin noodles is either Hamura Saimin in Kauai or Shiro’s in Oahu. If you are in Kauai you’ll have to finish it off with the lilikoi chiffon pie while seated in the bar-style stools with counter service.
Huli Huli Chicken
You've probably grilled a chicken before, but you most likely have not brined that bird in soy sauce, then added a glaze of pineapple juice and brown sugar. Did you eat it on the beach with a view of the sun settling in the Pacific? Case in point: If you drive by a huli huli chicken stand while driving your rental car to a beach in Hawaii, stop and grab yourself a big plate lunch of this island-style barbecue chicken. Two spots in Oahu will make you happy that you have a big lunch for your beach day: Mike’s Huli Huli Chicken in Honolulu and Ray’s Kiawe Broiled Chicken in Haleiwa. Don’t forget the mac salad and coleslaw.
This small limpet grows on the rocks on the shores of the Hawaiian Islands and is difficult to harvest — sample the delicacy if you have a chance. A few fancy restaurants will have opihi on the menu in a fancy container, but all you really need is a little hot sauce and some limu, the Hawaiian seaweed that grows in some of the same spots that the opihi thrive in. If you are with a local they might convince you to drop in some mayonnaise — proceed with caution.
You can’t have breakfast in Hawaii without the salty and savory flavors of Portuguese sausage and rice. The sausage is typically sliced and inserted in to fried rice. At the Gazebo Restaurant in Napili Bay, up your game and pair the fried rice with Mac Nut pancakes and coconut syrup. We dare say that this breakfast is better than a Maui sunset.
There is a good chance you won’t like this derivative of the Taro plant — it's been compared to soggy cardboard mixed with thick mashed potatoes and a hint of caramel — but it is a staple of Hawaiian cuisine. To prepare the dish, which is typically served with kalbi ribs or roast park, the root of the taro plant is mashed up and allowed to ferment. If you are a purist you’ll enjoy it after a few days of going “sour” when the true flavors of the poi spring out; the longer you wait, the more the flavor matures. If you want the best poi in Hawaii you really need an Aunty on the islands to make it for you, but if you don’t have family in Hawaii try Hanalei Taro & Juice Co. in Kauai.
Don't spend too much time searching for the best Spam Musubi in Hawaii. Instead, walk into an ABC store and grab a container of the dish from the hot food section. The best stuff is simple — rice and Spam wrapped up in seaweed — and you can buy it at a gas station or a convenience store. Musubi has been elevated by a few great chefs, but realistically it’s just a simple comfort food that is cheap and far too perfect to improve upon. It’s Spam, after all, what more do you need?
Like a tamale or a large dolma, Lau Lau is a taro leaf packed with meat or fish and cooked as a package, which allows the filling to steam. If you're traveling around Hawaii, you'll notice regional varieties on the dish: Some stuff the leaves with pork and salty butterfish, others skip the fish altogether. Whatever your preference, the best bet for a great lau lau is at the Pono Market in Kapaa in Kauai, a local cafe that sells coffee and plate lunches— get there early to beat the lunch rush.
If you decide to attend a luau, the main event should be the opening of the imu, the underground oven that roasts a whole pig.The process is lengthy but so worth the wait. A chef typically starts the process before sunrise, when the imu is prepared. A whole hog, along with wood and banana leaves, are lowered into the ground, covered, and left to slowly cook throughout the day. When the whole pig is opened up, the result is a savory and salty masterpiece called Kalua pork.