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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The Alley Restaurant at ‘Aiea Bowl
Photos: Steve Czerniak
What happens when you combine slow-simmered oxtail soup with toothsome ramen noodles? One of ‘Aiea Bowl’s signature dishes is worth the $3 upgrade for arguably one of the most comforting dishes we’ve ever gotten in a restaurant. The large bowl of soup comes with a substantial amount of meat and cartilage, barely clinging to the bone, a handful of baby bok choy, green onions, peanuts and chewy shiitake mushrooms, which, thankfully, don’t overpower the broth. Toss in all the ginger and Chinese parsley, but keep the special ponzu sauce on the side for spare dipping. The vinegary sauce (made with daikon, shoyu, lemon juice, sesame seed oil, red pepper flakes and toasted sesame seeds) has just the right tang to hold up the succulent meat, but you don’t want to overwhelm the subtle broth, flavored with dried dates and orange peels, star anise, ginger and a splash of Tennessee whiskey.
$17.95, 99-115 ‘Aiea Heights Drive, third floor, ‘Aiea, 488-6854.
Beermade mac ’n’ cheese
At Honolulu Beerworks, macaroni, cheese and beer all go hand in hand (in hand) with the signature Kaka‘ako Kolsch cooked right into the generous cheese fondue, the entire thing covered in a panko crust, baked and served in an aluminum pie pan. Straightforward and tasty, Beerworks’ mac ’n’ cheese is best combined with other menu offerings, such as miso pork sliders or Bavarian pretzels, which can mop up the remaining cheese sauce. No shame.
$8.50, 328 Cooke St., 589-2337, honolulubeerworks.com.
Lobster mac and cheese
Wood & Bucket
Have you ever ordered a lobster dish that turned out to be merely lobster-infused, with only a subtle pink color and seafood aroma to justify its luxury billing and luxury price? We hate that. Wood & Bucket, though, gets it. When it advertises lobster, it follows through, loading up a dinner-size portion of creamy elbow macaroni with huge chunks of recognizable lobster meat, including cute little articulated claws. The restaurant is tucked into the quiet end of Waikīkī, which involves the usual parking hassles, but its kitchen is open until 3 a.m., making it the perfect end to a night.
$15, The Waikīkī Sand Villa Hotel, 2375 Ala Wai Blvd., 922-4744, woodandbucket.com.
Grass-Fed Makaweli Beef Meatloaf
Roy’s Hawai‘i Kai
Dining at Roy’s feels like the exact opposite of eating at home—starched white tablecloths, sweeping views of Maunalua Bay, water that never dips lower than two inches below the glass’ rim. But one bite of the meatloaf and you’re back in Mom’s kitchen, if your mom was an award-winning chef. Creamy mashed potatoes anchor a patty of Makaweli Beef coated in Hāmākua mushroom gravy and sweet ketchup, topped with crispy tempura onion rings, with a few veggies on the side. The beef, grown on Kaua‘i, pulls apart with just enough resistance to let you know it’s moist, tender and deliciously homey.
$29, 6600 Kalaniana‘ole Highway, 396-7697.
—Nick Rolovich, UH football coach
Kim chee Portuguese bean soup
The classic Portuguese soup is a medley of ham hocks, linguica (Portuguese sausage), beans and potatoes. This one, though, creates a spicy complexity with the addition of house-made kim chee. It’s an unexpected flavor that enhances the depth of the soup and warms our multicultural souls.
$8 (lunch only), 1538 Kapi‘olani Blvd., 955-6505, mwrestaurant.com.
Salmon and Rice Ochazuke
Photo: Steve Czerniak
Ochazuke is a modest, old-fashioned dish made by pouring hot tea over (usually) leftover rice topped with furikake, tsukemono and salted salmon. Alan Wong, whose mother hails from Japan, has turned this simple dish into something elegant. Served in a stone pot, his interpretation uses perfectly cooked, Japanese-style salt-cured salmon over a bed of hot rice, topped with ikura (salmon roe), furikake and a cucumber-and-sprout salad sourced from Ho Farms. There’s matcha powder in the bowl that, when the server pours in hot water, infuses the ingredients with the tea’s vegetal-but-sweet notes. Mix it up bibimbap style to ensure you get a complete bite of tea-infused rice, salted fish and a pop of ikura.
$30, 1857 S. King St., 949-1939, alanwongs.com.
Laotian fried chicken
The Pig & the Lady
Photo: Steve Czerniak
Your favorite picnic go-to just got upgraded. The Pig & The Lady works postmodern magic on fried chicken with a contemporary Asian twist. Each wing/drummette is cooked sous vide before frying. The result: lightly crispy outsides and succulently moist insides that almost—almost—outshine a sweet and tangy sauce redolent of kaffir lime. As a finishing touch, the chicken is tossed with crunchy peanuts and makes-everything-better fried shallots.
$15, 83 N. King St., 585-8255.
Egg in a Basket
Photo: Steve Czerniak
There’s nothing milquetoast about Breadbox founder and chef Mike Price, whose shokupan, a milky, Japanese-style hotel bread baked fresh daily, is the perfect basket for a fried egg at breakfast. A thick slice of the square bread, toasted, buttery and soft, cradles a runny egg, with the toast’s center set aside and smeared with house-made strawberry jam for dessert. Spend an extra dollar to upgrade your bacon to a pineapple pork sausage for a little more heft.
$6.50, 2752 Woodlawn Drive, Suite 5-108, 988-8822.
—Michelle Karr-Ueoka, pastry chef and co-owner, MW Restaurant and Artizen by MW
Beef short rib pot pie
Plumeria Beach House at The Kāhala
also good: the bread bowl
Photo: Aaron Yoshino
It’s easy to credit the stunning views from the open-air Plumeria Beach House, set on the white sandy beach in Kāhala, as the reason we enjoy this dish. But the beef short rib pot pie really doesn’t need the postcard scenery. New on the menu since March, this homestyle classic is upgraded with fork-tender, red-wine-braised beef brisket and seasonal root veggies and paired with a locally sourced green salad. It’s like Grandma’s pot pie, only way better.
$18, The Kāhala Hotel & Resort, 5000 Kāhala Ave., 739-8760, kahalaresort.com/dining.