Oahu, Hawaii for Foodies

Originally published in 2010, this article has been periodically updated and includes information current as of the publication date above.

When my wife and I took off for a last-minute trip to Hawaii, we'd planned to get some sun, see a few sights, and take one significant side-trip. It didn't turn out as planned, but what did develop was absolutely delightful. It's amazing how things can change for the better when you're open to it.

We'd been to Oahu, the home of Honolulu and Waikiki, several times. We'd already seen the typical tourist sights and made the historical stops including Pearl Harbor, the Iolani Palace, Queen Emma's Summer Palace, and others.

Statue of King Kamehameha in front of Aliiolani Hale (home to the Hawaii State Supreme Court)
Statue of King Kamehameha

We'd done the drive around the island, been to the famous Dole Pineapple Plantation, seen Turtle Bay, the big waves on the North Shore, visited the Polynesian Cultural Center, eaten at the Crouching Lion.

We'd planned to do a few things on Oahu, then take a day-long side trip to the Big Island to see the volcanoes. Until we looked into the cost more closely and realized it would be a $1,000 day. Too rich for our blood.

What to do?

The list of "must-dos" was short: snorkeling Hanauma Bay for me, getting some sun for the both of us.

Then we had our "a-ha" moment: this would be our Oahu foodies tour!

Over the years, numerous chain restaurants have taken up residence on the island, homogenizing the dining dynamic. But why commit culinary heresy by coming to the islands only to eat at chains including Tony Roma's, The Cheesecake Factory, P.F. Changs, Denny's or McDonald's when local gems can still be unearthed?

Think globally, eat locally.

Rather than follow guide books or other publications that often contain more paid advertising than actual, unbiased reviews, we decided to ask around. Arriving at our hotel, we spoke to a number of locals about establishments they would recommend. We stayed away from the hotel's activities desk, opting instead to talk to people like the valet, shopkeepers along Kalakaua Avenue, and others who had no vested interest in steering patrons to one place over another. Our list grew quickly.

One of the first places mentioned to us was one of the first we tried. For Monday's breakfast, we sought out Leonard's Bakery. Located on Kapahulu Ave., a few miles from Waikiki, Leonard's is a local landmark famous for its malasadas -- deep-fried pockets of wonder very similar to the beignets served at New Orleans' Cafe du Monde, except that malasadas are covered in granulated sugar instead of powdered sugar. They are completely and utterly addictive, so I provide this warning: order carefully. You will end up eating every one you buy; there's apparently no such thing as restraint when it comes to Leonard's malasadas. RECOMMENDATION: Leonard's malasadas are an absolute "must-try."

One of the challenges we encountered to eating locally was that the best local finds were nowhere near Waikiki. That meant, unless we wanted to get the car out and drive, we were limited to those eateries within walking distance of the hotel.

Not that it's all bad. While the area closest to the Waikiki Beach hotels has more chain restaurants than local haunts, quite a number of those are upmarket and offer a very nice experience indeed.

For example, our first night's dinner consisted of pupus at Roy's Hawaiian Fusion on Kalia Rd., kitty-corner from our hotel. Roy's is a chain with 33 restaurants around the world. James Beard Award-winning chef Roy Yamaguchi opened the first Roy's in Honolulu in 1988. And while each Roy's outlet has a "core" menu, each also presents offerings focusing on fresh, local ingredients.

Taking a table on the patio near the bar, we enjoyed a gazpacho made with watermelon in addition to the traditional tomato, cucumber, and spices; a spicy tuna roll; and spicy veal potstickers with glasses of white wine and champagne before repairing to our room for the evening.  RECOMMENDATION: Roy's food is consistently good, but ask about the local items (and sit outside) for the best experience.

Tuesday morning, we sought out Nico's at Pier 38. Featured on Food Network's Diners, Drive-ins & Dives, Nico's is a local favorite that earned us a thumbs-up from the bellman, who knew we'd been to Leonard's the day before. "You're hitting all the good places," he said.

Getting to Nico's requires a fair bit of commitment. You have to follow the Nimitz Highway well past downtown - a busy roadway during the morning rush hour - then turn into the industrial area near the pier.

Breakfast at Nico's

Nico's is little more than a kitchen with a counter and a cash register; diners eat at picnic tables on the screened-in lanai, which holds about 100 people. I don't know why they bother to ask, "For here or to go?" as the food is served in the same Styrofoam containers regardless of your answer. But it's fresh, it's fast, and it's quite good. Coffee, as you might expect, was 100% Kona. I had a traditional breakfast of scrambled eggs with a scoop of steamed rice and four small slices of Portuguese sausage, while my wife opted for the hearty fried rice. We could easily have taken half of each for later, had we had a way to store and reheat it. RECOMMENDATION: Nico's is an absolute "must-try" if you're a breakfast lover.

After Nico's, we decided to drive around the island. Around Waihiawa, we decided it was time for lunch and fully expected to eat some place too pedestrian to mention.

Happily, we were wrong.

Following the beacon of the local Golden Arches, we passed a promising-looking storefront restaurant called Maui Mike's, which boasted "Fire-Roasted Chicken."

My wife and I got a half-chicken with fries and two dipping sauces, which we ate at the picnic area of the nearby pineapple plantation. The chicken was delicious: crispy, salty, smoky skin on the outside with succulent, juicy meat on the inside. Maui Mike's offers a number of sides in addition to Mike's Fries: white rice, BBQ baked beans, sweet corn, and green beans. They also offer shredded chicken sandwiches. Maui Mike's is a one-note opera, but it's a note they play extremely well.  RECOMMENDATION: If you're in the area, check out Maui Mike's.

After pursuing separate activities during the day Wednesday, we reconvened that evening and headed to the famous Duke's, located in the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort for nibbles. Though part of a chain of restaurants in Hawaii and California, Duke's has the feel and the food of a local spot. However, when we arrived and checked out the menus of several restaurants including Duke's, the pupus on the menu at sister restaurant Hula Grill one floor up looked much more inventive. I recalled that a woman on the shuttle I had taken to go snorkeling at Hanauma Bay had remarked on the Hula Grill's excellent breakfasts, so in we went.

Along with a stunning view of the surf, we enjoyed Kalua pig potstickers (which I described to a group of four fellow former Midwesterners as "Asian pierogies"), crab and macadamia nut wontons, and Polynesian ceviche. Fresh, well-prepared, and tasty, we washed them down with mai tais made with POG instead of the more traditional lime juice (POG is a blend of pineapple, orange and guava juice popular in the islands) and a pina colada with a couple shots of bitters (a la Trader Vic's). Happy hour made the already-reasonable prices even more so. RECOMMENDATION: Worth a visit, especially during happy hour.

On Thursday evening, our last evening for that trip to Hawaii, we sipped cocktails on the patio at the Halekulani Hotel while listening to a trio play Hawaiian tunes. The mai tais at the Halekulani were prepared traditionally, using lime juice (as opposed to POG) and were delicious. The hotel also offers an impressive variety of wines (including Piper Heidsieck Blue Top champagne) by the glass. What a way to watch a Hawaiian sunset! RECOMMENDATION: A MUST!

From there, we repaired to the local branch of BLT Steak -- again, a chain but one where the restaurants use local ingredients to create local favorites.

Nibbles at BLT Steak started with an amuse-bouche of chicken liver pate, compliments of the chef. We followed that with beef carpaccio; roasted beet salad with endives, walnuts, and Mauna Kea goat cheese; and oysters from British Columbia. Yorkshire pudding and a chocolate roll were also included, both compliments of the chef. We enjoyed an Elk Cove Pinot Gris and Astoria Prosecco with our food.  RECOMMENDATION: Also A MUST!

We ended our evening at the Lewers Lounge back at the Halekulani, listening to a jazz duo while sipping Benedictine and sparkling wine. The Lewers Lounge is one of the few places in Hawaii with a dress code: no shorts, no tank tops, no flip flops. How perfectly civilized!

Lobster dog at Hank's Haute Dogs, Honolulu
Lobster Dog at Hank's

During my most recent visit to Oahu, I stopped into Hank’s Haute Dogs on a Friday afternoon to try their Lobster Dog. Only available on Fridays and Saturdays, it is a mix of lobster, shrimp, surimi and spices, served with shredded cabbage and tomato. Absolutely fabulous! It can be ordered with those garnishes ($10.50 as of May 2015) or wrapped in bacon and deep-fried as a “Fat Boy” at an additional cost. I know what you’re thinking: that’s a LOT for a HOT DOG! But it’s worth it. Hank’s other dogs a much more modestly priced, including the Chicago Dog which I also enjoyed, the chili dog, and the basic Hank’s Frank.

Standard fries done in vegetable shortening are available or you can select the Beef Fat fries, which were perfectly crispy and had a bit of the beefy flavor I’d anticipated. Another Triple D haunt, Hanks is currently in a very small, unsigned space on Coral St. just north of Ala Moana Blvd. – a true dive of a diner – but it is well worth dealing with metered street parking, dodging construction vehicles and eating on outdoor picnic tables. And it won’t be that way for long; Hank’s will soon be moving into a brand new building being constructed just south of its current location. RECOMMENDATION: If you love – or even like -- hot dogs, don’t miss it. 

Later that evening, I stopped into Nobu Bar and Lounge located near the end of Kalia Rd. east of the Halekalani Hotel. Nobu Waikiki is one of a chain of more than 30 restaurants around the world founded by Chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa but each focuses on local ingredients and style of preparation.

For my late dinner, I kept it on the lighter side and enjoyed Tiradito scallops – sushi-grade scallops sliced wafer-thin and served with a dot of spicy topping which gave the seafood a bit of zing but not over-the-top – accompanied by a glass of Squealing Pig Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlboro region of New Zealand. I followed that up with steamed edamame and miso soup, which I washed down with a Matsuhisa Martini – a mix of vodka, sake and ginger topped with thin slices of cucumber, which combined with the ginger to give it a fresh, clean taste. While I ate at the bar, the location also offered a dining room featuring its signature sushi dishes. RECOMMENDATION: Well worth a visit if you love sushi and/or seafood. 

The Full Aussie breakfast at Bill's, Waikiki
The Full Aussie

For breakfast the next morning, I made my way to Bill's, one of an upmarket Australian chain with outlets in Sydney, London, Tokyo and Seoul in addition to Honolulu. Because it is noted for its breakfasts, I ordered the Full Aussie and, because I had a coupon, an order of the ricotta hotcakes (not that I needed them after the Aussie feast).

The full breakfast included scrambled eggs, sourdough toast, cumin roast tomatoes, back bacon, pork and fennel sausage and  miso mushrooms. The ricotta hotcakes came with a banana and honeycomb butter. A glass of Gloria Ferrar Brut sparking wine served in a Riedel flute made my morning complete. RECOMMENDATION: Highly recommended for breakfast lovers.

One formerly noteworthy local fixture has closed its doors. After years of serving creative, inventive takes on local dishes, Sam Choy's Breakfast, Lunch & Crab seemed to have lost its way when we visited in 2010. Now, in 2015, the restaurant is no longer in operation.

Several other establishments were recommended which we didn't get to try for a variety of reasons:

Boots & Kimo's. A breakfast and brunch place at 151 Hekili St, in Kailua, known locally for serving pancakes with an outrageous macadamia nut sauce.

Side Street Inn. At 1225 Hopaka St., it is in a crowded industrial area near the Ala Moana shopping center, and parking was impossible. Since our visit, a second location has opened at 614 Kapahulu, near the Ala Wai golf course.

Rainbow Drive-In. Local food including plate lunches and other delicacies offered at its location just off Kapahulu Ave. A small, crowded parking lot, zero street parking, and a tight schedule kept us from trying this highly recommended spot.

The Pig and the Lady. Serving dishes inspired by his mother with flavors of Vietnam, Asia and the Pacific. At 83 North King St., it offers lunch Monday through Saturday and dinner Tuesday through Saturday but is closed Sundays, which was my one night without dinner plans.Maybe next visit...

Pint + Jigger. Described as an eclectic gastropub with innovative bar food, plus a beer garden & 20+ craft brews on tap.At 1936 South King St., it is open seven days a week starting at 4:30 p.m.

Oahu's food culture includes food served from trucks. Formerly infamous "roach coaches," many of these vehicles haven't moved in months, if not years. Now, they're roadside fixtures, often sitting next to plastic picnic tables and chairs. Many boast bona fide parking lots. The most popular include Fumi’s Kahuku Shrimp, Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck, and Romy’s Kahuku Prawns & Shrimp, which is housed in a red shack instead of a truck.

In a macadamia nut shell, there's plenty of good, original food to be had. Often, though not always, you have to get away from Waikiki to get it.

Bon appetit and mahalo for visiting!

Visit my main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.

Photo by Carl Dombek
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