Best of Honolulu 2018: Food
26 editorial and reader picks for the tastiest food in town.
Place to Eat Ube Four Ways
Photos: Steve Czerniak
Back in 2015, Jeremy and Adrienne-Joy Jataas baked treats with distinctive ube (purple yam) to share with family before selling special orders and popping up at Eat the Street and other food fairs. Born and raised in Honolulu, the couple had jobs and two kids so getting a storefront seemed like a far-off dream until they saw the space near Kamehameha Bakery. Last year they opened Ubae. “We have our signature ube cheesecake and a variation with Oreo cookie crust, ube tart, ube crinkle cookie and just began making ube syrup to put on toast,” Jeremy says.
1284 Kalani St. D-107, (808) 439-3224, ubaehawaii.com.
Vegan Soft Serve
Photo: Courtesy of Banán
We’re going bananas for the nondairy soft serve and toppings at Banán. With seven flavors, more than a dozen toppings and nine specialty creations, the local shop is a vegan’s dream come true. “There’s a strong emphasis on local produce, and it’s food based on simple, wholesome ingredients. It’s also kind of aesthetically pleasing,” says Matt Hong, who, along with his three high school friends, opened a food truck near Diamond Head in 2014. A few years and three locations later, the Punahou grads still believe in locally sourced foods and buy at least 90 percent of their ingredients in the Islands.
Multiple locations, bananbowls.com.
Anita Rhee has a very specific philosophy about scones: “To me, scones are not just a pastry. It’s about taking a little time out of your busy day to treat yourself.” That may explain why her scones, sold at Mama’Nita Scones in Kailua, are so good. Rhee, who opened the bakery in 2016, makes proper scones—palm-size, soft with a slightly crunchy crust, in flavors that range from organic blueberry to Parmesan cheese with sun-dried tomatoes. The best part? Though the shelf life of her scones, which contain fresh fruits and no preservatives, isn’t very long, you can freeze them in an airtight container for up to two months.
320 Ku‘ulei Road, Kailua, (808) 753-9108, mamanitascones.com.
Just about every signature item at Tanioka’s Seafood and Catering in Waipahu was created by someone in the Tanioka family. Grandma Tanioka came up with the ‘ahi patties, Grandma Sakuma is responsible for the maki sushi, the famous Spam musubi is the creation of co-owner Lynn Tanioka. So who came up with the inari sushi? That would be Auntie Betty. “We try our best to use quality rice and cook it just right,” says Jasmine Tanioka, CFO and daughter of the founders. “The secret is the delicate cooking process.” The seasoned rice stuffed into fried tofu skin is juicy and tasty, never dry or mushy, with flecks of carrots.
94-903 Farrington Highway, Waipahu, (808) 671-3779, taniokas.com.
If we’re paying $16 for a cocktail, it better be downright amazing. That’s never in question at Bar Leather Apron. For its Matcha Old Fashioned, head bartender Justin Park sets up the ingredients in front of you: Evan Williams single-barrel vintage bourbon, matcha, wasanbon sugar and orange bitters. The matcha and wasanbon sugar both come from Japan; the liquid wasanbon is similar in taste to demerara, a little toffeelike. (Park says they have to bring back 100 pounds of it whenever they go to Japan since it isn’t available in the U.S.) After frothing the ingredients with an electric whisk, stirring with ice, straining and then serving over an ice sphere, Park adds an orange twist and an orange star cut from the rind. The drink is beautiful, thick, strong and just delightful.
745 Fort St. Mall, Suite 127, (808) 524-0808, barleatherapron.com.
It has to be because of childhood deprivation that so many people still think of Vons, Popeye’s and KFC when it comes to fried chicken. These are people who’ve never had the classic Southern-style, stand-over-the-fryer-with-a-long-fork kind. And they will never know the truth until they go to Fête and order the Twice-Fried Ludovico Fried Chicken. It has a crust that breaks open and hits you with a deep poultry perfume, a first bite that’s succulent and crisp, and flavor highlights that hint of spices and a tickle of black pepper. Don’t settle, folks. This is appointment, Sunday dinner, church supper fried chicken—only better.
Only available at dinner, 2 N. Hotel St., (808) 369-1390, fetehawaii.com.
Li Hing Mui Icee
It’s no surprise that li hing mui Icees are a thing. The Crack Seed Store in Kaimukī is a clear winner. Owners Kon Ping and Fung Tang Young dump a large spoonful of li hing juice and a plum seed into the icy mixture. After taking over the shop nearly 40 years ago, the couple started selling mochi crunch mixed with li hing juice first. Customers soon asked if they could mix the li hing juice in the Icee, and the rest is history. “It’s very popular. Every day people will ask for li hing Icee, even on a rainy day or a cold day,” Kon Ping says.
1156 Koko Head Ave., (808) 737-1022.
Fish & Chips
Hawai‘i has many versions of fried panko-crusted fish, most of them fine. But there is only one fish and chips, the way they do it in England and Scotland. Only a handful of places even attempt it here, and none better than Livestock Tavern. That one has the best crust—crackling brown with a layer of airy batter under that, and just a hint of malt vinegar and beer—surrounding the best chunk of thick white steaming fresh fish. Yes, it does come sandwiched between brioche, but remove the top half and it’s fish and chips—as it says on the menu.
49 N. Hotel St., (808) 537-2577, livestocktavern.com.
We’ve been obsessed with finding the best Cubano since we watched Chef on Netflix a few years ago, and though there are some tasty options around town, E.A.R.L’s version is the most authentic and delicious, combining layers of ham and pork belly with a house-made pickle, melty Swiss cheese and roasted garlic dijonnaise on soft ciabatta bread. The sandwich shop, which serves nine other sandwiches, including the popular French Dip, brisket and Turkey Jam Sam, a few salads and some appetizers (basically just open-face sandos), is slated to open a new location in Kaka‘ako this year.
137 11th Ave., (808) 200-4354, earlhawaii.com.
Afternoon Tea Splurge
There’s always time for a cup of tea (or two), plus desserts and sandwiches, at The Veranda restaurant at the Moana Surfrider. At $45 for classic tea service, the elegant experience is pricey, but the ambience of the open-air seating, live music and sky-blue ocean just a few feet away can’t be beat. Ask for the tables closest to the beach for a picture-perfect view of the shoreline and water. Choose from seven tea blends and (politely, of course) stuff your face with a sampling of savory and sweet choices, including a truffle egg sandwich, furikake salmon, strawberry shortcake and chocolate cream puff. (The strawberry shortcake was one of our favorites.)
2365 Kalākaua Ave., (808) 922-3111, moana-surfrider.com/veranda.
Think of boiled peanuts as a protein-packed pūpū that is more affordable than poke. Many are willing to drive across the island to buy Alicia’s Market peanuts ($4.75 a pound). The Kam family uses those big Virginia peanuts, but what seals the deal is the flavor, just enough five-spice, and consistently good texture—tender not rubbery. “Peanuts are important when you have a party,” says manager Leonard Kam. He got the original recipe from his late mother but continues to tweak: “I doctored it up some,” he admits. He estimates they cook 1,400 pounds of peanuts a month. Of course, once you make the trip to Kalihi Kai, you’ll likely want to pick up some fresh poke, smoked meat and a plate lunch. And maybe a calamansi lime slushy.
267 Mokauea St., (808) 841-1921, aliciasmarket.com.
Kouign amann, a fairly obscure French pastry, is having a moment in Honolulu. While the pastry has been served in a handful of bakeries on the island, credit its recent popularity to Belinda Leong, the chef behind the popular b. Patisserie in San Francisco, which is known for its kouign amann. In 2016, Leong brought her signature pastry to Kona Coffee Purveyors’ flagship café on the ground floor of the International Market Place. These dense, sweet versions of croissants (only better) continue to be the bakery’s top seller. The black sesame flavor is available in Waikīkī every day.
International Market Place, 2330 Kalākaua Ave., #160, (808) 845-1700.
Which boba tea is the best can spark a debate as heated as the thin-or-thick-crust argument. Apparently, cereal-inspired milk teas can float one right to the top. Mr. Tea Café is known just as much for its mustache-adorned cups as its selection of add-ins, from aloe jelly to matcha, which you can add to real brewed tea, not syrup or powder. Owner George Huang imports all of his tea from Taiwan, and offers nondairy options and the opportunity to blend it. The menu is always changing, most recently with the addition of sips named after kid cereal favorites including Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
Multiple locations, mrteacafe.com.
The block-lettered sign sums it up: “Hand Mandoo.” Humble Omega Mandoo House in Downtown specializes in making fresh handmade mandoo in two sizes and styles, created by a crew of busy women. Choose between vegetable with chicken mandoo with a ginger zing, and spicy kim chee. Both include meat. The price ranges from a low of $16 for the chicken-vegetable bag of 20 to a high of $38 for a bag of 40 pieces of kim chee mandoo. From there, you take them home, drop them into soup, pan fry, steam or deep fry them. Pass them off as your secret recipe at your next potluck if you like. We won’t tell. Cash only.
1327 Nu‘uanu Ave., (808) 523-9324.
Who doesn’t want freshly baked 5-inch pies with buttery crusts delivered right to their door? Sweet Revenge Honolulu owner Kathy Masunaga often personally delivers her pies—apple crumble, liliko‘i chiffon, chicken pot pie, lemon meringue, even a cheesecake mousse with sliced apple bananas drizzled with a ghost-pepper-infused honey—on Wednesdays. And on holidays, she says, “the pies are extra fun.” You have to put in your order of at least five pies by 4 p.m. Tuesday. (Have exact change, as the driver never carries extra cash.) Or you can always pick up pies—no minimum—at the bakery’s Kapālama kitchen.
979 Robello Lane, (808) 282-0234, sweetrevengehonolulu.com.
Jumbo mochiko chicken, fish patty, even spicy shrimp katsu are available for last-minute lunch or spur-of-the-moment snacks, but by far the biggest seller—2,000 cans of Spam a day big—at 7-Eleven Hawai‘i is the humble Spam musubi. On average, people pick up 120 Spam musubi daily at each of 7-Eleven’s 64 locations. That’s not counting the Spam deluxe musubi, which adds egg and furikake. Debbie Lee Soon, 7-Eleven’s senior category manager of fresh food, says workers continuously review and continue to perfect the Spam preparation, look for the best nori, and work with various rice farms to create “something that can withstand the production process but still melt in your mouth.”
Multiple locations, 7elevenhawaii.com.
photo: courtesy of ICE HNL
Self-proclaimed foodies Ridge Hayashi and Sandy Bach wanted to create a new and fun drink that would get everyone talking—or, rather, posting pics on Instagram. Last May the pair debuted Ice HNL, a creative line of fruity concoctions served with the smoky effect of dry ice. The drinks start with a house-made limeade to which is added lime slices and locally grown mint. The One in a Melona is topped off with rainbow Jell-O, fresh lime, mint, cherries, Otter Pops and nonalcoholic Jell-O shot syringes. At a recent Eat The Street, Ice HNL sold its juice in IV bags, and for spring break this year, it paired its drinks with mini flamingo floaties. How long does the smoke effect last? “Around 60 seconds,” they say. “Just in time for a photo.”
Salad in a Jar
Photo: Courtesy of Jar'd Hawaiʻi
Though Jar’d Hawai‘i is better known for its line of cold-pressed juices sold at various farmers markets, owner Michelle Ching actually started the company selling salads in Mason jars, hence the name. “The salad-in-a-jar concept is what triggered the branding for Jar’d,” explains Ching, 27, a health and fitness enthusiast originally from Colville, Washington. And while her cold-pressed creations have garnered their own following at the markets, her salads, served in 16-ounce jars, almost always sell out. The Fiesta Salad ($12.50)—the most popular—features layers of taco-flavored turkey meat, salsa, sour cream, grape tomatoes, black olives, black beans, lettuce and shredded cheddar cheese. “I wanted to offer the community a way to eat healthy on the go while providing the best quality ingredients,” Ching says.
Riff on Manapua
Owner Duane Horio took over ‘Aiea Manapua and Snacks in 2000, acquiring the traditional recipes from the original owners who had been in business since 1980. Horio’s storefront is your one-stop shop for all kinds of unique manapua fillings ($1.99 each): pizza, turkey melt, teri cheeseburger, spicy sausage, kālua pig, and ham and cheese omelet, as well as the traditional steamed char siu bao. The most popular of the unique fillings are the pizza and spicy sausage. “I blinked and 18 years has come and gone. A lot of it is comfort food. It’s been handed down from generation to generation, so the kids grow up and take their kids here,” Horio says. If you’re traveling and want to take manapua with you, call ahead and Horio and his team will freeze your order for the plane ride.
99-149 Moanalua Road, #103, ‘Aiea, (808) 488-7443, aieamanapua.com.
Baja Fish Tacos
Honolulu is overflowing with fish tacos, from grilled ono to ‘ahi to cod. For those who prefer them Baja style, with deep-fried fish, cabbage and crema, head to Encore Saloon. “They are our most popular taco,” says owner Danny Kaaialii. (You can also get barbacoa beef, pork carnitas, chili verde chicken and veggie tacos regularly, with al pastor on occasion.) Chef Lee Anne Wong of Koko Head Café helped develop this recipe when Encore first opened in 2016. Encore uses tilapia coated with a Pacifico Mexican lager batter, chipotle crema, cabbage slaw, pickled red onions and cilantro atop tortillas from Mercado de la Raza. Order them à la carte ($3 each) or as a plate (two tacos, beans and rice for $11.50). With some cerveza, of course.
10 N. Hotel St., (808) 367-1656, encoresaloon.com.
Mini Cake Doughnut
When it comes to fresh, hot mini cake doughnuts, Pop Pop Donuts takes the cake. The doughnuts are made right in front of you when you order and can be customized with delectable toppings including cinnamon sugar and powdered sugar, as well as chocolate, strawberry and sea salt caramel glazes. Cinnamon sugar, powdered sugar and the Oreo crumbles with condensed milk are among the most popular, says Inez Staley, co-owner with husband Eric Staley. “It’s fresh and you actually get a hot doughnut. That definitely sets us apart from other places,” Inez says. An order comes with 14 doughnuts and costs $5 for one flavor and $6 for two. The Staleys serve at events around town and have a permanent kiosk at Navy Exchange Pearl Harbor, by the UPS Store.
4725 Bougainville Drive, (808) 664-3287, poppopdonuts.com.
Twist on Hummus
About four years ago, Loren Shoop of ‘Ulu Mana started making his own hummus using local ingredients. He tried everything from sweet potatoes to mushrooms, but it wasn’t quite right. Two years ago, he linked up with the Hawai‘i ‘Ulu Producers Cooperative on the Big Island, where he’s from, to help growers sell breadfruit on O‘ahu. Then it clicked: ‘ulu hummus. It has the same texture as chickpea-based hummus—but it’s made with Hawai‘i-grown ‘ulu. Right now, Shoop, 28, has a handful of hummus flavors, including beet and the best-selling turmeric, all made with local ingredients. His plan is to expand the ‘ulu offerings to chips and fries. “If I could get my hands on more ‘ulu, there would be more ‘ulu products,” Shoop says.
Seafood Crispy Pan-Fried Noodles
Yum Cha Hawai‘i might be a newcomer to Honolulu’s Chinese restaurant scene, but its chefs are veterans. You can tell from the seafood crispy pan-fried noodles, a standout with generous portions of choy sum, shrimp, scallops, squid and fish. You don’t need to worry about soggy noodles here. There’s a perfect amount of sauce drizzled over crispy golden brown egg noodles. Even without MSG—the restaurant says it doesn’t use it—the sauce is thick and flavorful.
1341 Kapi‘olani Blvd., (808) 465-2200, facebook.com/hawaiiyumcha.