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50 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.

 

The short rib loco moco from Moena Café.

The short rib loco moco from moena cafÉ.
Photos: Steve Czerniak

 

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.

$8, 1120 12th Ave., 732-9463, 12thavegrill.com.

 

Lū‘au stew

Mission Social Hall & Café

It’s worth memorizing the lunch hours at Mission (11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday) for the lū‘au stew alone. This homestyle favorite is the signature dish at chef Mark Noguchi’s downtown lunch spot, which bills itself as comfort food with a nod to history and serves sandwiches, salads, soup, desserts and other locally sourced specials in a rotating mix. This bowl of creamy green goodness takes us back to backyard baby parties and weddings in the country without having to straddle the sawhorse legs. It can be ordered with pork or vegetarian (sweet potato) and both work well over hapa rice. Add a cup of ‘ōlena lemonade and escape your daily grind, at least until lunch is over.

$9, 553 S. King St., 447-3913.

 

Mac ’n’ cheese 

Downbeat Diner

Mac ’n’ cheese from Downbeat Diner.

 

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!

$5, 42 N. Hotel St., 533-2328, downbeatdiner.com.

 

Mixed Plate Sandwich

Artizen by MW

Mixed plate sandwich from Artizen by MW.

 

Sometimes, when it comes to sandwiches, more is more. The mixed plate sandwich at Artizen is just what it sounds like: a paean to the Korean plate lunch, with a messy pile of kalbi, spicy pork, fried chicken and taegu all heaped onto a potato roll. It’s gloppy, it’s unwieldy, it’s packed with intense flavors—we gave up on staying clean and dove right in. The sandwich also comes with a side of kim chee potato salad, which you’d otherwise have to order separately for $4. Good luck saving room for any of the genius desserts by MW pastry whiz Michelle Karr-Ueoka.

$11, 250 S. Hotel St., 524-0499, artizenbymw.com

 

Yaki pa‘i‘ai 

Mud Hen Water 

Yaki pa‘i‘ai from 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., 737-6000, mudhenwater.com

 

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., 531-0422. 

 

Mac ’n’ cheese

Café Kaila 

Mac ’n’ cheese from Café Kaila.

Photo: Aaron Yoshino 

 

Sure, we think of Café Kaila when we’re craving fruit-topped waffles, but three nights a week, this Market City eatery serves dinner, too. And this macaroni and cheese will win you over to the nightside with cheddar-y goodness, a tangy sauce and buttery bread crumbs over elbow macaroni. For $3 more, add lump crab meat or chicken; for $2 more, get hickory smoked bacon. Get the large takeout and share with those you love.

$6, small, $12, large with salad. 2919 Kapi‘olani Blvd., dinner hours Wednesday through Friday, 5–8 p.m., 732-333, cafe-kaila-hawaii.com

 



photo: aaron yoshino
“Coming home and going to Highway Inn is always something that we look forward to. It’s comfort food and I love their pūlehu chicken, no starch, all greens.” 
—Gov. David Ige 

 

Roma tomato basil soup

Ruscello, Nordstrom

Roma tomato basil soup from Nordstrom.

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.

$5.50 for a bowl, $4.25 for a cup, Ala Moana Center, 953-6110

 

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.

$15, 1145C 12th Ave., 732-8920.

 

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Honolulu Magazine May 2017
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