The 12 Best Vegetarian and Vegan Dishes on O‘ahu Right Now
Remember when eating vegan meant hanging out at health food store hot bars? When life was about tofu, tempeh and beans? No longer. Welcome to the table, vegans and vegetarians: Honolulu’s eating scene has come around to the joys of meat-free dishes.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in January 2019. Menus may have changed since then; make sure to call ahead if you’re planning to head to any of these restaurants.
Consider this: The city now has several health food stores or chains, more than a dozen restaurants specializing in vegan and vegetarian cuisine, even a diner where everything can be ordered vegan (here’s looking at you, Downbeat). Mirroring trends on the Mainland, serious vegetable sections have appeared on haute cuisine menus. We’re even seeing vegan choices with zero kale or tofu, which is cause for celebration.
The 12 dishes here are vegan, vegetarian and, in a few cases, lightly pescatarian, meaning that they’re seasoned with fish sauce or katsuobushi, an essential ingredient in dashi. Some are at vegan restaurants; others appear on the meatiest menus. In all cases, they’re satisfying enough to recommend, make a special trip for and order again and again—even if you’re a carnivore.
‘Ai Love Nalo
‘Ai Love Nalo is a vegan restaurant that even draws townie carnivores to Waimānalo. The top seller is this: a hearty combo of beet hummus, yummy fried kalo falafel, smoky eggplant baba ganoush and parsley-laced millet tabbouleh. Said townies also won’t leave without the Poifect Parfait, a jelly-jar creation that layers fresh local fruit with avocado, Okinawan sweet potato and poi, like an edible rainbow.
$14, 41-1025 Kalaniana‘ole Highway, Waimānalo, (808) 888-9102, ailovenalo.com
SEE ALSO: First Look: Ai Love Nalo
It’s incredible, the real panko crust on Peace Café’s vegan tofu katsu. Real pulverized bread, not the stale specks you buy in packages, is seasoned simply with salt, generously used to coat tofu and fried. Each bite is so satisfying, and not greasy, that even meat eaters will appreciate the tofu or tempeh inside. Plus it comes with the all-Japanese touches of a proper katsu sauce, karashi mustard, sliced cabbage and rice.
$13.25, 2239 S. King St., 808) 951-7555, peacecafehawaii.com
Here’s a vegan pho that has no tofu. Really. You know instantly that the focus here is flavor. The broth is tangy, deep and slightly viscous, thanks to an infusion of konbu. Ho Farms grape tomatoes are roasted for intense flavor, generous strands of enoki mushrooms crunch softly between your teeth, and sprinkles of deep-fried shallots crown the bowl. The carnivore who put this on my radar orders it with a side of smoked brisket.
$15, 1200 Ala Moana Blvd., (808) 777-3588. Also available at The Pig & The Lady during lunch, 83 N. King St., (808) 585-8255, thepigandthelady.com
SEE ALSO: First Look: Piggy Smalls
Vegan Tomato Risotto
Cry for the fate of XO’s amazing vegan risotto: On a meat-centric menu, it’s the dish least ordered, and hence most likely to disappear when the restaurant updates its offerings. “I go to ChefZone and see things I like and make them work together,” says chef-owner Kenneth Lee. “I’d never seen these red Sweety Drop peppers so I tried it with roasted bell peppers and tomato sauce.” Add coconut milk, dried parsley, capers and Sichuan rayu oil. This one is worth driving for.
$13, 3434 Wai‘alae Ave., (808) 732-3838
Rangoon Burmese Kitchen
Mango salad is one of the reasons I’m addicted to Rangoon Burmese Kitchen. The third time I order it, amid a tableful of meat, seafood and rice dishes, a tablemate points her fork at the salad. “I would come here for this,” she declares, “and have it as a meal.” We’ve loved the tea leaf salad at Dagon Burmese Cuisine for years; it took the opening of sister restaurant Rangoon last summer to break away from that must-order starter with this riot of fresh mango, cashews, onions and herbs in a bright, sweet-tart fish sauce.
$14, 1131 Nu‘uanu Ave., (808) 367-0645
SEE ALSO: First Look: Rangoon Burmese Kitchen
Coconut milk hits you first, then the zing of cayenne. Finally the turmeric-yellow broth of Vegan Hills’ noodle bowl has you dipping your spoon for slurp after slurp (available weekdays only). There’s a mountain of lightly steamed kale and broccolini and squares of fried tofu, but the star topping is the batter-fried cluster of organic king mushrooms. And since you’re here, go ahead and order a side of crunchy-crusted Coco-Mari mushrooms and dredge them generously in vegan dill mayo.
$17, 3585 Wai‘alae Ave., (808) 200-4488, veganhills-hi.com
Chris Kajioka’s cabbage sent gourmands into nostalgic reverie when he debuted it at Vintage Cave. It was the humble cabbage, elevated with miso crème fraîche and a bouillon reminiscent of dashi. Six years later, his reinvented charred cabbage at Senia keeps customers and fellow chefs talking. “Inspiration was a Caesar salad,” Kajioka says. “I used shio kombu and ginger to mimic the brininess of anchovy. I used moringa to bring back the vegetal element of the salad and the green goddess to add an herbal freshness.” You will order this every visit.
$17, 75 N. King St., (808) 200-5412, restaurantsenia.com
SEE ALSO: Is Restaurant Senia Worth the Hype?
MUD HEN WATER
Yaki o Pa‘i‘ai, Beet Poke and Buttered ‘Ulu
Dinner at Mud Hen Water is a constant passing of shared plates across the table. It’s an instant time warp—modern takes on the simple dishes you grew up with, the kind that transport you. Which is why there’s no individual main or side dish here, and why we’re recommending a trio. Yaki o pa‘i‘ai are melty-fried kalo cakes folded into crisp nori and drizzled with a blend of sugar and shoyu. Roasted beet poke hits all the sesame oil-soy-limu notes of the pescatarian version, except it’s vegan. And the combo of warm, puffy breadfruit pillows and black bean sauce makes the buttered ‘ulu just so ‘ono.
$9, $10 and $9, 3452 Wai‘alae Ave., (808) 737-6000, mudhenwater.com
We’d swear there’s bacon in the smoky broth that bathes the centerpiece of Gazen’s three-tofu sampler. But it’s katsuobushi bonito flakes that give the soy milk dashi its savory depth, and whipped cream that adds milky lightness to the creamy tofu. Dairy lifts the dark, unctuous black sesame tofu as well, while Gazen’s original tofu comes with a mix of roasted hoji tea salt and Hawaiian sea salt. All three are made fresh in-house daily.
$13, 2836 Kapi‘olani Blvd., (808) 737-0230, e-k-c.co.jp/gazen/honolulu/
O’Kims Korean Kitchen
O’Kims is what you get when a gifted chef leaves her native South Korea, enrolls in Kapi‘olani Community College’s culinary program and works in French, Italian and Japanese kitchens before opening a one-woman shop in Chinatown. Nothing is traditional; every detail is calibrated. Chef-owner Hyun Kim’s meatless bibimbap marries the flavor bombs and textures of bibimbap with seasonal vegetables, a mix of barley and rice, and an apple gochujang sauce that rocks. Two large rolls of meticulously fried eggs add protein and fat, and Kim’s fresh kim chee is the bomb-dot-com.
$8.99, 1028 Nu‘uanu Ave., (808) 537-3787, okimshawaii.com
Local Basil Pesto Udon
We first got the tip about Zigu’s emerald-green noodles from a friend whose reasons for living include pork belly and deep-fried chicken skin. Cool, bouncy strands of house-made kale udon are tossed with a Japanese-inspired pesto that balances the deep nuttiness of roasted macadamias with katsuobushi dashi and a sprightly hint of rice vinegar. Add in the peppery crunch of fresh watercress and this becomes a must-order at Waikīkī’s modern locavore izakaya, every time.
$13, 413 Seaside Ave., (808) 212-9252, zigu.us
YIELD (Closed in February 2019)
Yield opened last summer to rave reviews in brunch-starved Downtown/Chinatown with options on its one-page menu for pancake lovers, carnivores, seafood fans, vegans and vegetarians. For the latter, the biggest reward is the kale Florentine, whose deeply rich, roasted organic kale you mix into a creamy concoction with goat cheese and yolky sunny-side-up eggs and spoon atop crusty bread baked in the pizza ovens of Yield’s neighbor restaurant, Brick Fire Tavern. Crunch, eat, repeat.
$14, 1110 Nu‘uanu Ave., (808) 233-9453