36 Gourmet Comfort Food Dishes in Hawai‘i That’ll Warm Your Heart and Soul
Comfort food might be indulgent, but it connects us to family, traditions, cultures. Here are some of our favorites, elevated, but still reminding us of when life was simpler and calories didn’t exist.
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Comfort food is easy to recognize but hard to describe. It’s food that reminds us of our childhood, something nostalgic or sentimental. It could be your grandma’s Portuguese bean soup or the saimin you grew up eating at a neighborhood restaurant. Even that gooey mac ’n’ cheese you’d eat on a Tuesday night. There’s an emotional response to these dishes that’s impossible to deny. You crave them when you’re stressed or sad. You turn to them as you would friends after a rough day. A grilled cheese sandwich, a bowl of jook, a slice of meatloaf drenched in brown gravy. They may be indulgent and not always the healthiest—meaty entrées, greasy take-out, decadent desserts—but they connect us to family, to traditions, to our culture. Here are some of our favorites, spruced up and decked out, but still taking us back to better times, when life was simpler and calories didn’t exist.
This article first appeared in the June 2016 issue of HONOLULU. It was updated in February 2019.
The short rib loco moco from moena cafÉ.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
1. Baked mac ‘n’ cheese with Hāmākua mushrooms and Shinsato ham
12th Ave Grill
Our own Best of Honolulu 2011 heavyweight champion, 12th Ave Grill’s mac ’n’ cheese is small but dense: elbow pasta, homemade Parmesan-cheese sauce, topped with breadcrumbs and baked. And for just $8? It’s a knockout. If you’re feeling especially adventurous, add Hāmākua mushrooms or house Shinsato ham for just a couple of bucks extra.
$9, 1120 12th Ave., (808) 732-9463, 12thavegrill.com.
2. Mac ’n’ cheese
Rich and gooey, Downbeat Diner’s interpretation of the classic mac ’n’ cheese is spot-on, with the traditional macaroni curls and a very creamy cheddar mix. A hearty bowl is available for just $5, with add-ons of bacon, sausage or Portuguese sausage available for only $1.50 more. For those feeling creative, Downbeat also offers a pesto version of the original, and the chefs are surprisingly willing to swap their mac ’n’ cheese into other dishes, such as with any of the mocos (instead of the rice) or even as an additional topping on their nachos. Yes, please!
$6, 42 N. Hotel St., (808) 533-2328, downbeatdiner.com.
3. Yaki pa‘i‘ai
Mud Hen Water
Photo: Steve Czerniak
Pa‘i‘ai is undiluted poi, and chef/owner Ed Kenney, who was raised on this stuff, has given these starchy blocks of pounded taro a multicultural twist. The pa‘i‘ai is lightly flavored with shoyu and sugar, then grilled and wrapped in nori—the way the Japanese grill shoyu-flavored sweet mochi. (Sometimes he swaps ‘ulu for taro, and the result is equally tasty.) Genius.
$10, 3452 Wai‘alae Ave., (808) 737-6000, mudhenwater.com.
4. Shepherd’s pie
Murphy’s Bar and Grill
What screams comfort food more than meat ’n’ potatoes? The no-fuss shepherd’s pie at Murphy’s Bar and Grill is famous as a neighborhood go-to and hits all of our high points for a hearty treat-yo-self dish that’s basically the mealtime equivalent of getting a hug. A chunky stew packed with generous amounts of lamb and tender root veggies mingles tantalizingly with a silky top layer of hits-the-spot mashed potatoes. Graciously, the joint saves us from the food coma in which we’d inevitably land were customers free to portion the pie themselves: The totally reasonable serving is just enough to satisfy.
$17.50, 2 Merchant St., (808) 531-0422, murphyshawaii.com.
—Gov. David Ige
5. Roma tomato basil soup
Photo: Steve Czerniak
Simple, savory, soothing—don’t expect any deconstructed this or gastronomic that in the perfectly classic tomato basil soup at Nordstrom’s new café, Ruscello. This recipe aims for stripped-down, familiar appeal, giving the sultry umami of ripe tomatoes at their best chance to really shine. Smooth, with basil and just the right amount of creaminess, you’ll be licking the sides of these piping hot little pots of flavor, which come with a crunchy crostini for your dipping pleasure. Get a cup on the side or do what we do and go the full tomato with a meal-size bowl. Your childhood self will thank you.
$6.50 for a bowl, $4.50 for a cup, Ala Moana Center, (808) 953-6110.
6. Breakfast bibimbap
Koko Head Café
Breakfast goes boom without feeling overly indulgent. Chef Lee Anne Wong combines eggs, bacon, Portuguese sausage, ham, kim chee, shoyu-mirin shiitake mushrooms, ong choy, sesame carrots and bean sprouts with a sunny-side-up egg atop garlic rice. And, bonus, you get to eat out of the cast-iron skillet, which somehow makes it taste even better.
$16, 1145C 12th Ave., (808) 732-8920, kokoheadcafe.com.