53 Ways to Eat Around the World Without Leaving Hawai‘i
You don’t have to book a flight to explore international flavors. We tracked down 53 of the tastiest dishes in Hawai‘i that hail from cuisines all over the globe.
It’s no secret that Hawai‘i restaurants serve up dishes from around the world. You can find Hakata-style ramen, Laotian fried chicken and enchiladas all on the same block. But dive a little deeper and you’ll discover—as we did—the interesting, authentic and surprising harder-to-find foods from around the world. A tea-leaf salad from Myanmar, a tangy shrimp dish from Pakistan, a noodle soup from Uzbekistan—Hawai‘i has way more to offer than sushi and chicken tikka masala. We trek across the state to find the best, the fascinating, the memorable global dishes in the Islands. Who needs a passport?
Photos: Steve Czerniak and Josh Fletcher
Moon & Turtle’s ceviche is a well-orchestrated food-flavor symphony. Textures and temperatures—cool, creamy, citrus-bathed raw fish, crispy raw onion, and piping-hot and crunchy corn tortilla chips—interplay with a cacophony of savory, tart and sweet. Chef/owner Mark Pomaski learned the dish from a Peruvian friend, then added his own flair. He dehydrates broth vegetables into a salty topping and adds only fresh local ingredients—sweet papaya, backyard-grown cilantro and line-caught striped marlin—adjusted based on the day’s market offerings. A house-made smoked chili oil adds a zesty crescendo. “It’s the bass note against the really high treble note of the citrus,” Pomaski says.
$15; 51 Kalākaua St., Hilo; (808) 961-0599; facebook.com/moonandturtle
Rivaling Mexico’s love of the taco is Venezuela’s patriotic allegiance to the arepa: a firm, quarter-inch-thick cornmeal pancake split and stuffed with hearty comfort fare. Ally’s Cocina serves these dense, griddle-cooked corn pockets with fillings ranging from slow-roasted pork and chicken to distinctly Hawai‘i treats that include fresh-caught mahi, or Spam and eggs. Venezuela’s national sandwich comes grilled, blanketed in feta or soft cheddar cheese, and drizzled with homemade cilantro-garlic sauce.
Real-deal Mexican food in Hawai‘i is rare, so we were stoked to discover scratch-made horchata, a sweet Mexican rice milk warmed with cinnamon, at Encore Saloon in Chinatown. Owner Danny Kaaialii wanted to create what he calls simpler food, without skimping on quality or authenticity. To make the horchata, he steeps rice in boiling water with cinnamon. (He uses cinnamon sticks, not powder, for a richer, deeper flavor.) The process pulls the starch out of the rice, giving the horchata a thick, creamy texture. Next, he sweetens the drink with sugar and finishes it with milk and vanilla. (You could probably ask for a splash of rum in this, too.) “Our version is a little sweeter and we do add milk, which some purists may frown at,” Kaaialii says. “But that’s how we like it and, for the most part, other people do, too.”
$4, 10 N. Hotel St., (808) 367-1656, encoresaloon.com
Grilled Pulpo: Spain
It seems like such a simple thing: grilled, red-wine-soaked octopus with fingerling-potato salad. But Fête chef/co-owner Robynne Mai‘i brines ruby-red tentacles in red wine for an hour or so, then dunks them in an olive-oil bath. The legs are then charred on the grill and seasoned with smoky pimentón (Spanish paprika). The brining tenderizes the chewy arms—the challenge with any octopus dish—and the dish emerges both light and complex.
$18, 2 N. Hotel St., (808) 369-1390, fetehawaii.com
English Brekkie: England
England may not be the culinary capital of the world—but the country does know breakfast. The classic English brekkie consists of streaky bacon, pork bangers, eggs, beans, tomatoes, fried bread and eggs perfectly cooked with runny yolks. Pint + Jigger has fully embraced its pub-ness by adding this to its brunch menu, served on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays until 3 p.m. “We wanted people to feel like they’ve left Hawai‘i for a few hours while they’re here,” says co-owner Dave Newman. P+J’s version features applewood-smoked bacon, locally made pork sausages, meaty tomatoes sliced in half and fried, baked beans with onions and parsley, two eggs and slices of fried bread baked especially for the pub at Daily Bread. The only things missing are black pudding and brown HP sauce, but we can live without them.
$14, 1936 S. King St., (808) 744-9593, pintandjigger.com
Vinha d’Alhos: Portugal
We continue to scratch our heads over Honolulu’s poor track record on sustaining any restaurant that specializes in Portuguese cuisine. (Remember Adega? Or, way back, Lisboa?) You’d think we’d do better for such a food-centric plantation immigrant group. That’s why we celebrate Koa Café owner Juno Chung for keeping up his family tradition of making vinha d’alhos (Portuguese pickled pork) in their restaurants with the right mix of vinegar, salt and spice. We go old-school with eggs and rice or potato medley but have been known to change it up in a vinha banh mi.
$9, 2700 S. King St., (808) 941-7778, @koacafehawaii
Paella de Marisco: Spain
Illustrations: Ashlee Fujimoto and Kelsey Ige
To taste Beach Tree’s creamy and steamy saffron-infused paella is to taste the ocean’s bounty. Each forkful brings up equal parts tomato-drenched rice and green peas, and generous helpings of perfectly juicy clams, mussels, squid, octopus, fish and shrimp. The dish doesn’t veer far from the tried-and-true Spanish dish—it’s even served in a personal platter version of the traditional two-handled vat—but the seafood is local and the Kaua‘i shrimp is mercifully deveined. Drench it all with the juice of half a lemon, dip in some focaccia, and wash it all down with a Spanish wine. Olé! (The paella was recently removed from the regular menu but is still available with 48 hours advance notice.)
$48; 72-100 Ka‘upulehu Drive, Kailua-Kona; (808) 325-8000; fourseasons.com/hualalai/dining/beach_tree
Nonna’s Lasagna: Italy
If lasagna is the mother of Italian comfort food, Nonna’s Lasagna at La Spezia is the prima donna. Anchored between layers of tender pasta, this mighty dish marries a rich blend of bechamel, provolone, mozzarella, Parmesan and ricotta cheeses with zucchini, spinach and house-made marinara. The meal comes topped with your choice of sauce—a rib-sticking Bolognese made with beef and Italian sausage or a vibrant and fiery veggie arrabbiata. The recipe once belonged to general manager Mia Carroll’s Italian great-grandmother. In the 1940s, it crossed the Atlantic in the care of Carroll’s grandmother, a war bride who immigrated to the United States after meeting and falling in love with an American soldier in Rome.
$16 arrabbiata, $18 Bolognese, 5492 Kōloa Road, Kōloa, (808) 742-8824, laspeziakauai.com
Ricotta Ravioli with Eggplant Calabrese: Italy
Senia chefs/owners Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush make kitchen magic by transforming dishes into layers of flavor. In the ricotta ravioli with eggplant calabrese, we get pasta pillows filled with delicate lemony ricotta, dabbed with tender pieces of eggplant—rather than the vegetable halves often served in more traditional eateries—atop a fresh tomato sauce dotted with fresh oregano and basil and sprinkled with Parmesan. The attention to detail combined with the chefs’ fondness for changing up their dishes means that we can expect a form of this dish to stay around. We’re also lobbying for the charred cabbage and hot smoked salmon (still can’t get over the bits of preserved lemon in that one).
$18, 75 N. King St., (808) 200-5412, restaurantsenia.com
Coq Au Vin: France
This classic French dish (literally, “chicken with wine”) finds new life at French-Latin fusion restaurant Grondin; not because the chefs are putting some crazy, fancy new spin on it, but because they’ve mastered this simple meal so well. Fresh Jidori chicken is braised in red wine and cooked in a sous-vide vacuum, with glazed baby carrots and savory browned cipollini onions. What’s in the rich and silky “pomme purée” mashed potatoes the meal is served with? “Magic,” jokes the bartender. That, says the chef, plus duck fat and shallots. All served in a round ceramic baking dish. It’s restaurant quality yet feels like home. (Available as a weekly special.)
$26, 62 N. Hotel St., (808) 566-6768, grondinhi.com
Pimm’s Cup: England
In 1832, London oyster bar owner James Pimm created Pimm’s No. 1: a classic English potation made from dry gin, liqueur, fruit juices and a secret blend of spices. Give it an effervescent splash of lemon soda or ginger ale and it becomes a Pimm’s Cup, the traditional drink of Wimbledon. (More glasses of Pimm’s—230,000—are served during the tourney than bottles of water.) This slightly spicy and refreshingly tangy cocktail is properly crafted at Moku Kitchen in Salt at Our Kaka‘ako, with Pimm’s No. 1, strawberries, fresh mint and lemonade, and a cucumber garnish. It’s truly the perfect summer drink.
$8.50, 660 Ala Moana Blvd., (808) 591-6658, mokukitchen.com
Grilled Octopus: Italy
It’s easy to find delicious tako at downtown in-spots these days. The latest and most refreshing is at Bethel Union, where it appears in a salad of shaved fennel and orange segments atop tangy chimichurri sauce. The octopus is amazingly tender with a hint of char from the grill; the dish, rimmed with roasted fingerling potatoes, is a balanced mini-meal. On a menu where heavier dishes like the meatballs, short rib pappardelle and farro risotto get more press, this octopus deserves some love.
$12, 1115 Bethel St., (808) 524-0447, bethelunion.com
Swiss Bratwurst Plate: Switzerland
Hidden within industrial Kahului is a tiny slice of Switzerland: Brigit and Bernard’s Garden Café. Cross-country skis and painted beer mugs hang from the ceiling here—the best place in Hawai‘i to find a bratwurst. Two juicy veal and pork sausages anchor the bratwurst plate, served with rösti potatoes (perfectly crisp Swiss hash browns), sauerkraut and pickles. Lightly charred with caramelized onions, the bratwurst are terrific slathered in Dijon mustard. The finely chopped sauerkraut delivers a surprise: juniper berries. These bursts of floral pungency bring to mind alpine forests—a sweet departure from muggy Kahului. If only chef Bernard Weber would crank up the café’s air conditioning, the illusion would be complete! The hefty bratwurst plate is best shared, along with a side of spätzle (chewy, hand-rolled egg noodles) and a frosty Hefeweizen.
$20 bratwurst plate, $6 spätzle, 335 Ho‘ohana St., Kahului, (808) 877-6000, brigitandbernards.com
Gravlax with Crispy Skin: Sweden
Cured salmon is one of life’s great joys—usually enjoyed around these parts as lox, atop a cream-cheese-schmeared bagel. But sometimes we prefer to get our salmon fix unadulterated by all that bread and dairy. The gravlax appetizer at Tango gets right down to the essence, just raw, house-cured salmon, sliced thinly. It’s a classic presentation, three bites of gravlax garnished with crispy chips of dried salmon skin, beet, cucumber, radish, mustard and pretty little tufts of dill—perfect for your own moment of Scandinavian reverie. If you want more, or have to share, an additional $2 buys the salmon platter, which adds in smoked salmon rillette, roasted-garlic-and-herb labneh, pickled cucumber and rye bread.
$11, 1288 Ala Moana Blvd., Suite 120, (808) 593-7288, tangocafehawaii.com
The intense lemony jolt that accompanies this thick, traditional soup will reset your mood and taste buds no matter how stressful your day. Besides plenty of lemon, it’s made with rice cooked in chicken broth until it dissolves, then eggs are stirred in until the dish tempers. The Olive Tree Café version is as good as going to Greece, served piping hot with a dusting of chopped fresh parsley.
$4.78, 4614 Kīlauea Ave., (808) 737-0303
Fried Lagman: Uzbekistan
If you’ve never tried Uzbek cuisine, everything at Silk Road Café will be a new, delicious adventure. Start with the fried lagman, made with hand-pulled noodles with varying widths and a springy, toothsome texture. It’s stir-fried with beef, egg and vegetables, making for a complex flavor redolent of the Middle East. It comes with a peppery green salad, a wedge of Uzbek naan and markov (Russian for carrot) salad: a heap of shredded carrot seasoned with coriander, vinegar and some “secret spices,” and the owners, Akrombek “Aki” and Mamura Yuldashev, (twinklingly) aren’t telling.
$9.25, 212 Merchant St.; (808) 585-8212.
Tea Leaf Salad: Mynamar (Burma)
Suffice it to say that we dream about the tea leaf salad served by Dagon Burmese Cuisine. Sure, it’s striking to look at, arriving in little heaps of color—smoked tea leaves, yellow split peas, beans, sesame seeds, lettuce, dried shrimp—before being mixed tableside. Yet it’s the symphony of flavors that transcends our waking hours. Here, salty, spicy, crunchy, nutty, smoky and citrusy all come together to create a dish that is so full of taste and texture it’s refreshing and uncommon.
$10.99, 2671 S. King St., (808) 947-0088
Mohinga: Myanmar (Burma)
Myanmar’s national dish is something of a surprise: It’s a soupy stew, unexpected for a Southeast Asian country with humid climes. But mohinga is one of those dishes you’ll instantly recognize as comfort food. At Dagon Burmese Cuisine, the components are simple—vermicelli noodles and a boiled egg in a thick red soup—but it’s that soup, puréed and rich with a homey complexity of lemongrass, ginger, garlic and freshwater fish, that delivers soulful comfort.
$10.99, 2671 S. King St., (808) 947-0088
Veggie Sampler: Ethiopia
At Ethiopian Love, the spectacle hits you first, a riot of colors arrayed on a palette of injera flatbread: spicy red split lentils, buttery-rich yellow split peas, florid green spinach, cabbage sautéed golden with turmeric and garlic. The flavors are as ancient as Ethiopia, rich with peppers, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and more. While the six vegetarian choices vary by the day, the tangy injera, made with teff and wheat flours, is a constant. Tear off a piece and use it as silverware. Forks are provided on request, and you can BYOB.
$21 for one, $39 for two, 1112 Smith St., (808) 725-7197, ethiopianlovehi.com
Shrimp Dhaniya: Pakistan
Pakistani and Indian cuisines share a common history. Pakistan was once part of the Indian subcontinent, which was split in 1947, when Britain dismantled its Indian empire, creating the sovereign state of the Dominion of Pakistan. It was later split again, into Pakistan and Bangladesh. While Pakistan and India have been rivals, the ingredients and flavors found in their traditional dishes have a lot in common. “The religion and language are different, but the food is pretty much the same,” says Pakistan-born Imran Khan, owner of Bombay Palace in Discovery Bay Center, which showcases some Pakistani specialties alongside Indian dishes. The shrimp dhaniya (coriander) is adapted from one of Khan’s family recipes. You can order it with chicken or lamb, too. The shrimp is cooked with fresh cilantro—a common ingredient in this cuisine—and other spices and served in an oily but light sauce.
$21.95, 1778 Ala Moana Blvd., (808) 941-5111, bombayhawaii.com
Vegetarian Couscous: Morocco
Kamal Jemmari started making couscous years ago, when he was homesick for his native Marrakesh. His mother would make it for lunch on Fridays, the aroma filling the air as Jemmari walked home from school. You’ll find that same recipe at Kan Zaman today: chickpeas, zucchini, carrots and other vegetables cooked in a fruity olive-oil broth. You can add spicy merguez lamb sausage for a complete and evocative dish.
$24.95, 1028 Nu‘uanu Ave., (808) 554-3847, kanzamanhawaii.com
We don’t normally rave about all-you-can-eat joints, but the buffet at Shivalik Indian Cuisine is outstanding because of its sumptuous meats and pillowy, slow-rise naan, which, on the à la carte menu, comes studded with freshly chopped garlic and cilantro or stuffed with spiced cottage cheese. Two musts: the gently spicy vegetable pakora and the creamy, cumin-laced lamb vindaloo.
$19.95, 4-771 Kūhiō Highway, Kapa‘a, (808) 821-2333, shivalikindianfood.com
Everest Sekuwa: Nepal
Like Indian food, Nepali cuisine consists of dal, roti, curries, biryani and vegetarian dishes, but there are some distinctly Nepali twists you’ll find at Kaimukī’s Himalayan Kitchen. The Everest Sekuwa, chunks of marinated lamb grilled in a tandoor, comes sizzling on a platter of greens and charred onions with a slice of lemon and a cilantro sauce that has just a bit of kick to it. It’s tender, smoky and flavorful, best accompanied by basmati rice and some Nepali dal, a warm, gingery lentil dish with garlic and tomato sauce.
$22.95, 1137 11th Ave., (808) 735-1122, himalayankitchenhi.com
Banh Xeo: Vietnam
In the banh xeo (bun say-oh) restaurants of Vietnam, these giant yellow crepes are cooked at a breakneck pace. Cooks swirl a savory golden batter of rice flour and turmeric sweetened with coconut juice in woks over live coals, throwing in handfuls of bean sprouts, shrimp and pork at just the right moment. The banh xeo arrives folded in half and steaming—ready to be torn apart, wrapped in lettuce with Thai basil and pickles and dipped in tangy-sweet nuoc cham. At Ngon in Kaka‘ako, a bit of egg in the batter adds a crisp. You’ll get your hands deliciously messy for this—just like in Vietnam.
$12, 941 Kawaiaha‘o St., (808) 593-9893, ngoncuisine.com
Ice Cream Rolls: Thailand
Jeffrey Kao was looking for fun ideas for his daughter’s baby lū‘au last year, when he came across a YouTube video of a Thai street vendor making something called fried ice cream, or ice cream rolls. It’s made by pouring sweetened milk on a sub-zero-temperature steel grill with fruits or candies. The creamy mixture hardens as the vendor spreads it across the surface, and then scrapes sections of ice cream into small, cigar-shaped rolls using small metal spatulas. The rolls are then neatly placed in a cup and topped with more sweets, from gummy bears to fresh fruits. He found no one was making this frozen treat in Hawai‘i—though it’s already popular in a few Mainland cities—so Kao decided to do it himself. He experimented for four months before opening Sweet Creams, first as a pop-up and now as a brick-and-mortar location on Kona Street. Popular flavors include strawberry shortcake with fresh strawberries and heaps of Fruity Pebbles, and cookies ’n’ cream with Oreos and Cocoa Pebbles. “We make everything fresh and right in front of you,” says Kao, who owns Sweet Creams with his partner, Bari Carroll. “People compared us to Cold Stone [Creamery], but it’s different.”
$5 to $7, 1430 Kona St., #102, (808) 260-4725, sweetcreamshawaii.com
Flounder with Fresh Garlic Sauce: Thailand
Forget the curry and spring rolls. The flounder’s what you want when you come to Thai Issan in Market City: a whole fried fish, still crispy under its blanket of fresh minced garlic and chilies in a fragrant pool of tangy-sweet fish sauce. Add a spritz of fresh lime juice, pick up your rice bowl, tuck in. A side dish of garlic-sautéed ong choy is a perfect complement. And don’t be put off by the bright red flecks of chili—they add more of an edge than a kick. From now on, this is the dish you’ll come back for.
$17.95, 2929 Kapi‘olani Blvd., (808) 735-4152, thaiissancuisine.com
Spicy Korean Military Stew: South Korea
A one-pot mashup, pudae chige, or military stew, owes its heroic ingredient mix to the Korean War. Marry U.S. Army staples with traditional kim chee chige and voilà: You get a bubbling red cauldron of luncheon meat, hot dogs, ground beef, beans, rice cakes, tofu, kim chee and instant ramen, all topped with a single slice of American cheese and brought to a boil over a live flame at your table. In Korea, pudae chige is so popular that restaurants specialize in it; here, it’s hard to find and worth a trip to karaoke spot Million Pocha. The heat level is moderate, and one pot feeds four.
$25, 1340 Kapi‘olani Blvd., (808) 941-1102
Toothpick Lamb with Cumin: China
The menu at Chengdu Taste, which offers no descriptions beyond the simple names of dishes, leaves much to the imagination. But for lamb lovers, “Toothpick Lamb with Cumin” is irresistible already. At first glance, the mound of skewered lamb morsels tossed with dried red chilies and cilantro stems seems simple enough. Pop one in your mouth and you’ll be addicted: A light coating of cumin and salt form an aromatic complement to the rich, tender meat, and the wok-sautéed dish is completely nongreasy and surprisingly light.
$16.99, 808 Sheridan St., (808) 589-1818
Boiled Fish with Green Peppers in Clear Soup: China
The sight alone inspires awe: A broad stone tureen chock-full of fluffy basa fillets under a foreboding layer of chili oil, fresh peppers and Szechuan peppercorns. So yes, it’s spicy. But it’s a layered spice. Szechuan peppercorns deliver a floral, citrusy aroma that infuses into the fish. It’s the kind of heat that sneaks up on you, so eat fast, before your lips start to go numb. You’ll last longer if you don’t sip the broth. And yes, it’s worth it. At Chengdu Taste, a Szechuan import from California, nearly everyone is speaking Mandarin and nearly every table has this soup.
$16.99, 808 Sheridan St., (808) 589-1818
Chicken Feet: China
A staple at dim sum breakfast and lunch, chicken feet arrive at Happy Days in a steamer basket hot, caramel brown and plump. Best to pick one up with your fingers or chopsticks and go toe by each long toe. Nibble at the skin and all the edible soft cartilage, saving the fleshy pad for last. A bit salty, mostly sweet with a touch of star anise and sometimes pepper, it’s comfort food that conjures up Popo and her huge pot of chicken feet.
$3.60, 3553 Wai‘alae Ave., (808) 738-8666
Singapore Noodles: Singapore
Singapore noodles may be more Cantonese than Singaporean, but no matter, it’s reliably fresh and satiating—a perfect hangover cure. In Star Noodle’s version, a pile of slender vermicelli is tossed with curry powder, fried garlic, bean sprouts, egg, red bell pepper, a few plump shrimp and chunks of chicken. A dash of patis (fish sauce) lends the satisfying umami flavor and a liberal sprinkling of cilantro contributes bright freshness. Somehow, these simple ingredients add up to irresistibility. But the real magic is tucked at the edge of the bowl as a garnish: a few halved calamansi limes. Squeeze the dime-size orange citruses over the noodles and the rest of the flavors come vibrantly to life.
$12, 286 Kupuohi St, Lahaina (808) 667-5400, starnoodle.com
Crab Curry: Vietnam
Two things you should know about this signature dish at Mai Lan: That’s a whole Dungeness crab in there, and the curry isn’t your typical Vietnamese version, soupy and full of potatoes and carrots. The dish more closely resembles Singapore’s chili crab—a shell-on crustacean swimming in a thick curry rich with lemongrass and coconut milk. Ordering this means an evening of slurping at shells and coaxing out the sweet flesh with your chopsticks, but it’s worth the indulgence. And don’t let the sauce go to waste: Order some toasted baguettes or cold bun vermicelli noodles on the side.
Market price, 1224 Ke‘eaumoku St., (808) 955-0046
Sukiyaki Tokusen Kushi: Japan
At upscale yakitori spot Yakitori Hachibei, our favorite item on a strong menu is the sukiyaki skewer, thinly sliced beef wrapped around vegetables, served with a raw egg yolk. While eating raw egg is commonplace in Japan, it’s rarer to find it served in Hawai‘i—or anywhere in the U.S. The egg is fresh, from O.K. Poultry in Waimānalo. Beat the egg, dip the sukiyaki pieces and enjoy. The combination of mild egg yolk, together with the tender beef, is memorable.
$6.80, 20 N. Hotel St., (808) 369-0088, hachibei.com/en
Motsu Nabe: Japan
Beef intestines may not be for everyone, but hear us out: If you love beef tendon, you’ll appreciate the luxuriant, springy chew of Kohnotori’s loaded hotpot. Motsu is a Hakata specialty popular in other Japanese cities but hard to find in Honolulu. Here the nabe that’s set on a flame at your table is piled high with cabbage, chives, tofu, fried tofu skins, rice cakes and pieces of motsu. By the time it comes to a boil, the cabbage is meltingly sweet and the rich motsu flavors the broth, making it lip-sticking good. Every time we’ve gone, the $20 menu price has been crossed out and replaced with a hand-written $16; we’re hoping it stays that way.
$16, 514 Pi‘ikoi St., (808) 592-8500
Look under “pressed sushi” on the menu at Sushi Murayama and you’ll see an entry for saba that offers no hint of the complex, Osaka-style hakozushi chef/owner Ryuji Murayama will serve to you. He takes a fresh fillet of the oily mackerel, cures it in salt for two hours, then vinegar for 15 minutes. The fish, along with bits of ginger, sesame seed and sea kelp, are molded in a wooden, square box and placed on a block of sushi rice, sourced from Niigata, Japan. Forty-five dollars gets you what Murayama calls “the real old-school type:” an entire half of a saba fillet, rolled up and shaped by hand. “That’s before [we] had the box,” he says, laughing. He brings in 20 pieces of farm-raised and wild saba from Kyushu every week, and he always sells out.
$15.50 or $45, 808 Sheridan St., #307, (808) 784-2100
Salt-Cured Uni: Japan
Fortunately for us, Michelin-starred chef Takeshi Kawasaki loves Hawai‘i and golf and wanted to turn over his Sapporo sushi restaurant to his son. That allowed him to move here to open up Maru Sushi early this year, golf more and wow us with fresh, creatively executed sushi that features many Hokkaido regional delicacies not readily found outside of Japan. Take the salt-cured uni, which involves wrapping the nutty ocean-fresh sea urchin in a blanket of salt and then waiting for four days. When it’s unveiled from its salty slumber, a compact cube of uni remains, distilling the distinctive flavor into something tiny but intense. Kawasaki does all this with finesse and understated humor at the nine-seat bar designed in the clean, light-wood style of its sister restaurant.
Part of omakase priced at $180 or $220, 1731 Kalākaua Ave., (808) 951-4445
Hilo-born chef Sheldon Simeon is known for having fun with simple, local comfort food. So, of course, the bibingka he serves at Tin Roof Maui in Kahului isn’t just a basic square of buttery, coconutty mochi cake. He takes this traditional Filipino dessert to the next level, adding chocolate to the batter and topping it with what he calls “magic peanut butter,” dulce de leche sauce, a whip made from Ovaltine and a dusting of rainbow sprinkles. (The secret? Pop Rocks. “If we don’t put that in, the whole thing tastes different,” he says.) “I grew up eating bibinkga,” says Simeon, who recently wrapped up Season 14 of Bravo’s Top Chef. “I was that guy who would rush into the party and steal all the corners.”
$5 each, 360 Papa Place, Suite Y, Kahului, (808) 868-0753, tinroofmaui.com
Lechon Kewali: Philippines
Order crispy pork belly at some restaurants and all you get is a crunchy skin and nearly all fat. Not so at Julie’z in Kapolei, where a single order of Filipino lechon kewali comes piled high and packed with big meaty chopped-up pieces of pork, stir-fried with diced tomato and green and white onions. Served with a tangy vinegar sauce to offset the greasy goodness, this dish comes with a side of white rice. We suggest upgrading to garlic or fried rice for bonus flavor—and ordering this as one of a few dishes to share. A little bit of this pork belly goes a long way.
$9.75, 590 Farrington Highway, #532, Kapolei, (808) 693-8778
Taco Rice: Okinawa
Four years ago, Robert and Minaka Ishii-Urquidi added a special to the Ethel’s Grill menu: taco rice. The dish is simply taco-flavored ground beef served on a bed of rice with shredded lettuce, cheese, tomatoes and a sunny-side-up egg. “People think it’s me because I’m Mexican,” Robert says, laughing. “But it’s really an Okinawan thing,” rooted in the U.S. military presence there. One of the restaurant’s regulars raved about the dish to his foodie friends. Soon, taco rice started popping up on social media feeds and more people began asking for it. Now, it’s one of the grill’s most popular dishes.
$8.75, 232 Kalihi St., (808) 847-6467
Lamb Curry: Fiji
The sort of place friends beg friends to stop off at while on the North Shore—Fiji Market and Curry Shop in Kahuku is a Pacific Islander and Kiwi institution. The curries and roti, made by the mother of the genial guy running things, really have no equal when you factor in the flavor, the ambiance and a very reasonable price. The lamb curry is tomato-based and a taste-bud tingler, dense and moist. Get the roti, not the tapioca. Better make that two orders.
$11.95, 56-565 Kamehameha Highway, Kahuku, (808) 293-7120
Pork Lau Lau: Hawai‘i
There’s nothing fancy about this family-run, school-bus-yellow eatery tucked between fields of coffee off the main road through South Kona. That is, except the perfectly formed packets of pork lau lau steamed overnight in the garage adjacent to the restaurant daily. The star of the simple menu (which has remained virtually unchanged in Super J’s 25-year history), pork lau lau is an equally simple dish. Made with just two ingredients—pork loin and taro leaves harvested from the family’s own lo‘i—each serving is an artful construction of bitter and fat, salty and savory-sweet, and comes plate-lunch-style with fresh poi or rice, tomato-rich lomi salmon and peppery mac salad. Don’t even think of taking it to go. Dine-in atop shared tables amid family photos and racks of colorful mu‘umu‘u for conversation and repeat dousings of the house-made chili-pepper water in recycled ketchup bottles.
$9 plate or $3 à la carte; 83-5409 Māmalahoa Highway, Captain Cook; (808) 328-9566, facebook.com/SuperJsLaulau
Ed Kenney’s newest restaurant continues his commitment to locally sourced, sustainable ingredients, so it makes sense he’d have a gourmet take on one of the original power combos of Native Hawaiian cuisine: fish and poi. Mahina & Sun’s pan-fries a slab of pa‘i‘ai, tops it with fried akule, and floats the two in a small pool of flavor-packed cherry-tomato broth. At a place that boasts an entire, huge, mochiko-fried snapper as its dramatic centerpiece, the pa‘i‘ai might not seem as much of a talker, but, hey, we’re big boys and we love our fish and poi.
$15, 412 Lewers St., (808) 924-5810, surfjack.com/eat-shop
“Outside of Hawai‘i, my favorite global cuisine is Greek. The freshness of a Greek salad and plain, grilled fish with olive oil and lemon is a perfect meal for me with a glass of rosé.”
—Bev Gannon, Hali‘imaile General Store, Maui
“One dish that many people don’t get to experience that exemplifies great world-class flavors is pastille, a Moroccan dish with apricots, Moroccan spices, lamb, phyllo dough and pistachios. The intense flavors but delicate lightness is phenomenal … To me, this dish really showcases how cooking with great spices and product can be so perfect and unique.”
—Colin Hazama, Royal Hawaiian Hotel
Hawai‘i’s Wonderful World of Dumplings
These dumplings somehow pack the essence of a big, comforting bowl of oxtail soup into a tidy bundle that comes as a dinner appetizer in a soy glaze with hot mustard crème. They also can be found tucked into the Beast Bowl ramen.
$15, Lucky Belly, 50 N. Hotel St., (808) 531-1888, luckybelly.com
Crab meat, cheese and sage brown-butter sauce give this tender pile of potato dumplings a decadent richness, but it’s all perfectly balanced by bright notes of tomato and pea shoots.
$17.95, Vino, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., Suite 6F, C112, (808) 524-8466, vinohawaii.com
Steamed Shao Long Bao: China
Shao long bao are filled with broth and a pork meatball in a thin-skinned dough wrapper. Dew Drop Inn serves them steamed with ginger and red vinegar dipping sauce.
$10.95, Dew Drop Inn, 1088 S. Beretania St., (808) 526-9522, dewdropinnhawaii.com
Two springy balls of dough envelop mildly seasoned beef and onion, but it’s the yogurt sauce, with which you smother the dumplings and your Uzbek naan, that makes this comforting plate irresistible.
$8.25, Silk Road Café, 212 Merchant St.
Mandoo: South Korea
Get the mul (steamed) mandoo as an entrée. The homemade crescents of minced meat and vegetables also appear fried or in soup, but steamed shows off the delicate flavor best.
$11.95, Willow Tree, 25 Kāne‘ohe Bay Drive, Suite 104, Kailua, (808) 254-1139
Spicy Cheese Gyoza: Japan
Whoever had the idea to take house-made gyoza and smother them in Parmesan cheese, tomato meat sauce and chili oil for a bit of kick—God bless you.
$6, Junpuu, 1010 S. King St., Suite 108, (808) 260-1901
The veggie momo comes with tofu, spinach, cheese, onion and peas; a creamy, bright alternative to traditional chicken momo. Dipped in tomato sauce, it’s almost like spicy ravioli, with South Asian flavors.
$7.95, Himalayan Kitchen, himalayankitchenhi.com
Dumpling Chiu Chow Style: China
Also known as fun guo, this steamed dumpling from Guangdong is stuffed with ground pork, peanuts, mushrooms and water chestnuts enrobed in a light sauce and delicate, elastic skin.
$3.95, The Mandalay, themandalayhawaii.com
Chinese Chive Flower Dumplings: China
These tiny bundles taste as good as they look: Stuffed with Yu Yee mushroom, cloud ear, bamboo fungus, shiitake mushroom, oyster king mushroom, jicama root and carrot.
$6.80, Yauatcha, 2330 Kalākaua Ave., Suite 326, (808) 739-9318, yauatcha.com
Ravioli? No, raviolo—one single, big pocket of pasta and ricotta cheese. There’s drama here: an egg yolk hidden inside, nestled atop the warm cheese, just waiting to spill out as you slice into the raviolo.
$15, Rain, 1138 Fort St. Mall, (808) 200-0910, rainhonolulu.com