5 Hidden Waikīkī Restaurants You Need to Try
Look between the tourist hot spots and chain restaurants to find these five hidden gems.
Taste of Aloha sampler plate and Kobe-style loco moco at Aloha Table.
Photos: steve czerniak
“Hawaiian Dishes,” the hand-lettered sign says. “Garlic Shrimp. ‘Ahi Poke. Mochiko Fried Chicken.” And above all these, “Kobe-Style ‘Supreme’ Loco Moco—111-Hawai‘i Award No. 1.”
On the second floor of a nondescript building on a tiny side street, Aloha Table is the kind of restaurant locals barely notice. If you’re from Japan, it’s a foodie mecca. The first time I heard anyone mention it was in Tokyo, when the man who opened Moena Café in Harajuku told me his friend owned it. Japanese value authenticity, he explained, so in order to build a chain of Aloha Table restaurants in Japan, his friend first needed a flagship in Waikīkī. It worked: Aloha Table’s Japanese website lists about 20 Aloha Tables in Japan, four in South Korea and a slew of other Hawai‘i-themed restaurants serving malassadas, beer, barbecue and something called “Hawaiian-Mexican” food. Waikīkī’s Heavenly and Goofy Café & Dine are on the list as well. “We built our flagship in Waikīkī,” the website proclaims, “to impart the food and culture of the real Hawai‘i.”
Kobe-style mini loco moco
No wonder Aloha Table is often booked, with lines snaking down the stairs at times. But never mind authenticity, I’m here for the loco moco ($19). Kobe-style beef? Voted No. 1 in Japan’s online 111-Hawai‘i poll? That’s cred right there. Japanese are crazy about loco mocos. It’s a fixture at Japanese 7-Elevens, visitor magazines feature the latest versions, and Forty Carrots at Bloomingdale’s sells more off-menu $65 foie gras-and-lobster loco mocos to Japanese than any other group. When it comes to the king of rib-sticking dishes across the state, I’m pretty sure food-obsessed Japanese have left no patty unturned.
Aloha Table’s twin beef patties are rimmed in a sea of mushroom-and-onion demi-glace that fills the entire plate. Ignoring the orchid garnishes and violently hued Blue Hawai‘i and Lava Flow cocktails around me, I dig in. My spoon glides through a juicy patty so soft it practically cups the mounded rice underneath. And that demi-glace! “It’s delicious—very similar to hayashi rice,” a Japanese man who’s scraped the last smears off his plate agrees. Oddly enough, hayashi rice is made with beef, onions, mushrooms and demi-glace. “It suits Japanese tastes well.”
Days later, I’m still reliving my moments of Kobe-Style Supreme Loco Moco. I guess it suits my taste, too.
2238 Lau‘ula St., (808) 922-2221
Tommasi Rafaèl, Rib-eye steak
“Darko, your specials …”
It’s just after dusk at the wine bar Il Buco and at the smattering of tables, patrons are tucking into caprese salads and rib-eye steaks mounded with fresh arugula and Parmesan. Behind the bar, co-owner Darko Vidak glances up from polishing wine glasses. I could swear the chalkboard menu’s specials of mozzarella-stuffed baby squid, prosciutto and cheese, pasta and lasagna are the same as my last two visits.
Vidak shrugs. “They never change,” he says and nods at a bigger chalkboard listing of eight antipasti, salads, entrées and tiramisu. “We ran out of space on the regular menu.”
Twelve dishes, 120 wines. Four years after it opened by the courtyard pool inside the Waikīkī Sand Villa Hotel, Il Buco is a wine bar, first and foremost, full of quirks and a delicious sense of hidden secrecy. Some customers are tourists staying at the hotel; most of the locals there are regulars or first-timers accompanying regulars. In the dwindling light, as the tiny pool begins a languid rotation through multicolor light displays, you can tell the first-timers by the way they walk up to the chalkboards to peer at the tiny descriptions. Insalata di polpo tiepida ($18) is a salad of shaved octopus and red potatoes drizzled with fruity olive oil, capers and fresh parsley. Pesce fresco alla puttanesca ($26) is wild opah with olives, capers and cherry tomatoes.
“What do you recommend?” I ask Il Buco’s other owner, Salvatore Agresti.
“Are you hungry?” He peers at me over his menu pad. “If you’re hungry, get the rib-eye.”
This seems like something my grandmother would say. And the food—inspired by Agresti’s native Naples—tastes like homemade dishes in a Mediterranean fishing village, things his nona might have taught him or, hungry after a late night, that he might whip up himself.
Agresti brings out a glass of Chianti to go with the antipasti misti of cheeses, salami, prosciutto and olives ($18 piccolo, $35 grande). The rib-eye ($25) gets a fruitier red from Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. In both pairings, food and wine have the effect of taming, chasing, enhancing and making you want to eat and drink more.
At Il Buco the early set of customers will eat; the later set—friends and industry workers who come in after 10 p.m. or so—will sip. “Me and Salvatore, we got a lot of friends. They come, they bring friends,” Vidak says. “We don’t want to be a restaurant—you’re cooking all the time. We like wine. It’s more fun.”
That’s a level you might want to work up to one day—someone who stays until Il Buco closes at 2 a.m. But first you’ll need to find the place. Go into the Waikīkī Sand Villa, head into Loco House restaurant just off the lobby and look for the exit sign above the door by the bar. Through that door, across a small patio and down some stairs, you’ll get a glimpse of the pool. Go down those stairs and Il Buco will be in front of you. You’re welcome.
2375 Ala Wai Blvd., (808) 921-3210
Pau Hana Base
Remember the ramen shop in the movie Tampopo? No frills, working-class and all about the ramen? That’s what the izakaya Pau Hana Base reminds me of. The location, first: It’s down a narrow alley that doesn’t promise much. The small paper lantern to the left of Tsunami’s bar on Kūhiō Avenue will show you where to enter. The ambience, second: Like Tampopo, only bigger and brighter. More paper lanterns. Uncushioned chairs. Signs exactly like the ones you see at Japanese cafeterias and street food stalls advertising grilled squid, omelet rice and fresh beer.
Garlic butter fried rice, Imo-mochi
But here’s the third thing: Like Tampopo, Pau Hana Base is all about the food. It comes out in waves: Kakuni simmered pork belly with acres of melty skin. A tofu salad dressed in sesame-miso and topped with crispy fried lotus root. Garlic butter fried rice in a bento tin. Most of the small plates are in the $5 to $8 range; only our spicy mabo tofu ($8.50), Kewpie mayo-and-ketchup-drizzled omelet rice ($8.50) and menchikatsu meat croquettes (three for $9.50) cost more.
We call for more: Imo-mochi that tastes like a marriage of french fries and clouds. Tender pork belly fired on skewers. Whole grilled shishamo fish that, spritzed with lime and dipped in Kewpie, disappears in three bites.
Grilled shishamo fish
In the end, the bill for four after 13 dishes, three grapefruit chuhais, two glasses of shochu and one draft Asahi is $131.94. It’s placed on the table with four small cups of pastel sugar crystals—an invitation to swirl your own cotton candy at a machine by the door. This last sweet taste is the one you take with you as you exit the alley. It leaves you wanting more.
407 Seaside Ave., (808) 492-1280
Hawaiian Happy Cakes
You probably wouldn’t expect to find a slice of food history at 424 Walina St., site of a modest five-story building behind TR Fire Grill on Kūhiō Avenue. The iconic Hawaiian Happy Cake lives here—or rather, owner and baker Owen O’Callaghan does. Short of ordering the pineapple, coconut and macadamia nut-studded fruitcake off the happycake.com website or buying one at the Saturday farmers market at Kapi‘olani Community College, this is where, by prearranged appointment, you can pick one up directly from O’Callaghan.
The building at 424 Walina St. isn’t a storefront; it’s O’Callaghan’s home office. Fifty years after the first Happy Cake came out of the kitchen at Kemo‘o Farms in Wahiawā, it’s O’Callaghan who keeps the tradition going. Most of the cakes go to Japanese tourists buying omiyage gifts to take home. A portion goes to locals living on the Mainland and veterans who remember the cake from when they were stationed at Schofield Barracks. Once or twice a week, O’Callaghan packs some cakes in a red logo tote bag and runs downstairs with an order. At Christmastime he does this 10 or 15 times a day.
“Locals who know how it works love it. They don’t want to deal with parking in Waikīkī,” he says. “They pull up in their car and we pass the cakes through the car window. If the police were watching it would look dodgy, but it’s very legitimate.”
When he bought the rights to Hawaiian Happy Cakes from Dick Rodby, son of the founders of Kemo‘o Farms, Rodby told him how he’d leave cakes on his front porch in Kapahulu for people who didn’t want to drive to Wahiawā. “When you go up to the house, there’s a hedge on one side and a fence on another, and a gate,” O’Callaghan recalls. “I can see it now. You go in the gate, and in front of the house there’s a table. Mr. Rodby said sometimes there would be three, four orders lined up on it. You’d pick up your cake and leave the money in the planter.”
It makes O’Callaghan happy to talk about Rodby, the way it makes him happy to talk about his customers. Sometimes, if it’s the end of the day and he knows locals are driving up, he’ll run downstairs in a rashguard and boardshorts. Locals won’t fault him for wanting to jump in the ocean. Repeat customers from Japan bring gifts of sake. And the other day, someone called from JTB, a Japanese travel agency, and asked him to come downstairs with cakes for an elderly couple. They presented him with an album of sorts—photos of them with O’Callaghan at his farmers market booth in 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016.
“A big customer still is Mr. Rodby’s wife,” O’Callaghan says. “She orders Happy Cakes at holiday time, makes sure all her friends get a Happy Cake. That means a lot to me.”
That’s what you’ll find at 424 Walina St.
424 Walina St., (808) 922-1957
At Mami’s Empanadas, the flavors of the dumplings convey the exuberance of Alex Arango’s island-hopping. He cooked his way through Manhattan, Martha’s Vineyard, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands before settling on O‘ahu, where he found the urban-beachy vibe of Waikīkī exactly to his liking. Colombian-style beef and potato is always on the menu board of his tiny trailer by the zoo, as are sofrito chicken and black beans with mozzarella. On occasion you’ll also find Spam and egg, bacon cheeseburger, shrimp with avocado, or guava with plantains and cheese.
“For Halloween I did a black dough and on the inside I had peanut butter, toasted coconut and pumpkin,” Arango says. “For Valentine’s I’ll do dulce de leche-stuffed strawberries dipped in white chocolate. Those I sometimes don’t sell, I just give them to the ladies.”
Arango opened a café last spring just below street level in downtown Honolulu. Both places serve the same menu of empanadas, Colombian-style open-face arepas and Cubano sandwiches with house-made bread. But while the bigger kitchen lets him dish up such specials as arroz con pollo and Cuban-style pulled pork, it doesn’t allow for the easy chitchat of his one-man trailer. Between tourists from the hostel down the street and regulars who phone in their orders, at times it’s just Arango, empanadas crisping in the air-fryer, and you. It’s easy to pull up a stool. “I do American flavors for the kids and people who aren’t so daring, and sometimes I’ll do the Puerto Rican-style pastelillos (meat turnovers) or more specialty ones like Argentinian-style beef,” he says. “The Latinos, they all come to me because this is the only taste of home.”
The half-moon empanadas ($3 each, four for $10) come out crunchy and piping hot. Arango has written the different flavors on the lid of the takeout container in the same order he’s arranged them inside. He knows when I hit dessert. “Are you trying the pineapple-cheese-mac nut one? Tell me that’s not banging.” I’m eye-rolling above clouds of molten fruity crunch. It’s banging.
2575 Cartwright Road, (808) 202-4920