A combo of old- and new-school eats, Hawaii’s local food is a mashup of its cultures: Native Hawaiian dishes like kalua pork (a whole pig or pork butt wrapped in banana leaves and slow-roasted in an imu — a pit dug in the ground and covered with lava rocks) and poi (a traditional purple pudding or paste pounded from the taro plant) mix seamlessly with dishes from Portuguese, Korean, Japanese and Chinese immigrants.
A plate lunch, originated by lunch wagons feeding immigrant plantation workers in the sugarcane and pineapple fields, is now the go-to dish for many locals, consisting of your choice of meat — Korean kalbi ribs, Japanese katsu chicken, kalua pork, or Portuguese sausage, for example — with two scoops of rice and a mayo-based, locally beloved macaroni salad. Variations abound, but a protein and “two scoops rice, one scoop mac salad” still defines island eating, whether at the beach or in the boardroom.
Though mocked on the mainland, Spam is so popular in Hawaii it even has its own annual street festival every April — Waikiki’s Spam Jam. The pink lunch meat is preferred in the form of the local staple, Spam musubi, a slice of Spam in nori-wrapped rice. Its roots date back to World War II, when canned meat came with the U.S. troops to the islands. Some historians believe musubi found its calling in Japanese internment camps as a reliable and relatively shelf-stable, pocket-sized snack. Just follow after-school kids into the nearest 7-11 to find the best ones.
And don’t miss out on the breakfast favorite loco moco — rice (fried, white or kimchi fried) topped with a hamburger patty and an egg, and soaked in brown gravy. While posh hotels include it on their menus, the best version is found in local diners like Harry’s Cafe in the Kakaako neighborhood.
Where to eat
One need not spend a fortune to experience Hawaii’s tropical bounty. With the arrival of the farm-to-table movement in the Kaimuki and Chinatown neighborhoods, chefs are celebrating the best of Hawaii’s fish, greens, vegetables and fruit just about everywhere. Discover ahi (tuna) seared rare with mango chutney, Chinese-style steamed opah (moonfish) with julienne daikon, ginger and lemongrass, or melt-in-your-mouth opakapaka (pink snapper) with a salad of local baby greens, watermelon radishes and avocado with a citron-vinaigrette dressing. Enjoy local Kona coffee with local fresh fruits — pineapple, apple bananas, mango, papaya, lilikoi and all varieties of citrus — either fresh on the plate or in luscious sorbets and ice creams.
In Kaimuki, local favorites Town and 12th Avenue Grill serve innovative dishes like spicy pickled vegetables and slow-braised Maui beef tongue, along with favorites like perfectly cooked pork chops and killer meatloaf. If you like big meals in the morning, try breakfast at Koko Head Cafe, and don’t skip their cornflake French toast.
In Chinatown, a lively mix of restaurants fill these few blocks with creative menus and options for all palettes. This once-seedy area has been revitalized by dining and the arts, with theaters, boutiques and galleries scattered between the eateries. The Pig and the Lady brings locals and guests alike back for the creations of local chef Andrew Le, merging Vietnamese cuisine with local sensibilities for surprising dishes like smoked pork jowl with pickled clementines and vegan pho. Livestock delivers craft cocktails that vary seasonally (and are named for classic movies, making for some interesting trivia at the bar) as well as a stellar menu of slow-roasted meats, a burger considered one of the best on the island, and local classics like oxtail stuffed pasta. Little Village Noodle House serves up excellent Chinese and a dozen-plus noodle dishes (BYOB).
For the best sushi — you’re on an island, after all— check out Mitch’s, a tiny hole-in-the-wall near the airport with little glamour and some seriously good fish (BYOB). Don’t expect glamour.
Locals go from surfing to the table, so big portions, good value and tasty food matters. Nothing beats places like the Side Street Inn, Rainbow Drive-In, Highway Inn and Liliha Bakery for ono grinds (good eats) and a local vibe. For fresh seafood, Korean-barbecued kalbi ribs, chicken katsu (Japanese-style pounded and panko-fried chicken) and a mean cheeseburger, there’s nothing better than Nico’s on the pier in Honolulu and in Kailua. And don’t dare skip the best malasadas on the island at Leonard’s Bakery. These Portuguese doughnuts are best straight out of the fryer, liberally sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon.
The North Shore’s garlic shrimp — a heavenly marriage of the just-harvested crustaceans, melted butter and garlic — is legendary. Try it at food trucks like Giovanni’s, Fumi’s or the Kahuku Shrimp Truck.
The local farmers markets and events like the monthly Eat the Street, with more than 40 purveyors, always feature the island’s best vendors working magic from the back of a truck. While there’s a farmers market somewhere every day, the Thursday night one in Kailua brings together everything from food trucks to flower and produce vendors. In Honolulu, you can enjoy hot-out-of-the-oven pizzas with a chaser of fresh juice on the lawn of the Blaisdell Center.
Celebrity chefs play a large role in Oahu’s fine dining scene. Roy Yamamoto (Roy’s), Alan Wong (Alan Wong’s) and Chai Chaowasaree (Chef Chai) deliver their top-shelf take on island cuisine worthy of the chef’s name on the door and the bill that follows — $75 per person and more if you enjoy signature cocktails, nightly specials and their epic desserts. If you’re celebrating a special occasion or simply want to experience upscale dining on Oahu, these are good places to start.
Reservations are always a good idea to avoid long wait times. Most restaurants are on OpenTable, and if not, just give them a call.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on February 23, 2018. It's been updated to reflect new information.