Ask anyone who’s been to Honolulu and they’ll tell you the city is a paradise for food lovers. And they’re correct, whatever you wish to eat you’ll find a tasty representation of it on the island. But beyond the buffets, burgers, fine dining and touristy luaus, Hawaiian food is one of the world’s most delectable and adaptive cuisines. As Hawaii’s biggest and most visited city, Honolulu is a dream destination for trying all manner of Hawaiian food.
Here’s our look at some of the islands’ most authentic grinds and the Honolulu restaurants and other establishments that do these treats the most onolicious justice.
Traditionally in Hawaii, this slow-cooked pork is cooked in the ground with hot stones, but if cooked low and slow with the right seasoning it can be replicated in a conventional oven. You can find this dish as the centerpiece of a luau, it’s also on the menu at local restaurants and the boards of street vendors. A hands-down favorite for kalua pork – and just about any other traditional Hawaiian dish – is Helena’s Hawaiian Food. This low key family-owned, James Beard award-winning restaurant has been wowing local and visiting palates since 1946. The kalua pork is cooked in an imu here (underground with hot stones).
Laulau (or lau lau) is another traditional Hawaiian pork dish. Although today it’s possible to have chicken, fish and other types of laulau as well. The dish is prepared by taking the meat and wrapping it in taro leaves and then steaming it until the leaves and filling are ultra tender. Laulau usually is served with a side of rice or macaroni salad. Two standout places to have a luscious laulau in Honolulu are the laidback Young’s Fish Market restaurant and at Keoki’s Lau Lau factory where more than 7,000 laulua are made daily.
The classic Hawaiian comfort food dish, loco moco, consists of white rice topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg and loads of brown gravy. Yeah – it’s epic – and designed to be worked off hiking in a rainforest or surfing monster waves. Two of Honolulu’s most over-the-top takes on loco moco can be feasted upon at the historic Rainbow Drive-In and old school diner Liliha Bakery.
A plate lunch (also known as a mixed plate) is just as it sounds, a plate with a mix of items – most likely a couple of scoops of white rice, macaroni salad, and an entrée. Whether grabbing a bite at a gas station or a sit-down restaurant, it’s the way to go for many Hawaiians when it’s time for lunch. Its origins can be traced to the Japanese bento. Given the east-meets-west wonder of Hawaiian cuisine and Honolulu’s embrace of traditional and immigrant cultures (and American style portions), the typical plate lunch tends to be a much mightier and more cosmopolitan option next to the comparatively dainty bento. Locals rave about the Korean plate lunches at Soon’s Kal Bi Drive In. Island Style BBQ Corporation does a hearty plate too (the Portuguese sausage is particularly yummy here).
Oh sure, these days poke is one of the world’s trendiest foods (and with good reason – it’s scrumptious), but it’s originally from Hawaii. With first dibs on fresh mid-Pacific catches of fish and seafood (and the most amazing ahi tuna on the planet), the poke here is still arguably the best. There’s a range of optimal options for poke these days, but top spot for a big bowl of this diced raw fish nosh has got to be standard bearer Ono Seafood.
Hawaiian noodle soup, saimin, is a little bit like Japanese ramen with Chinese mein and Filipino pancit influence. The broth is clear and chances are it’ll contain loads of green onions, fishcakes and pork or some other meat. It’s deeply delicious and as slurp-worthy as a soup can be. For the biggest bowls and the fullest flavor head to Jane’s Fountain where the shrimp-based broth has been soothing appetites for more than six decades and the even older Palace Saimin, where the recipe for its broth has been a guarded family secret since 1946.
You gotta have a shaved ice when you’re in Hawaii. And if you’re in Honolulu, Waiola Shave Ice is the hottest place to cool down. Flavors? They’ve got ‘em all. For a tangy kick have your cone of sweet flaky ice topped with li hing mui (salty dried plum powder).
Did we hit your favorite Hawaiian foods and places to eat them? We’d love to hear about what and where you eat when in Honolulu.