11 Hawai‘i General Stores You Must Visit
Hole-in-the-wall general stores dishing up their own eats—even if it’s just one ‘ono item—are a beloved part of Island life. Here are a few of Hawai‘i’s best.
Butter mochi and spam musubi on the counter, still warm in the plastic wrapper. Fresh poke mixed before your eyes. Curious house specialties, local products of wit and whimsy … You’ve got to love Hawai‘i’s hole-in-the-wall general stores.
Humble to the point of ramshackle, they’ve earned a place in our hearts for all those drive-around-the-island days of our youth, when we were starving and pooled damp dollar bills for a picnic spread on the overheated hood of a Toyota.
Sometimes, though, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” as Joni Mitchell reminded us. So when’s the last time you hugged Fort Ruger Market, Ching’s or Kahuku Superette? Isn’t it time you went back?
With that in mind—and hoping you can go home again—the HONOLULU team hit the road for a tasting tour. Our criteria were strict: groceries with grinds (aka no TP, no rating); some kind of food special that earned the hype; and, of course, local to the max. Some of our old favorites no longer exist; perhaps, overwhelmed by competition, they threw in the towel. But jewels in the rough abound, as you’ll see below:
Open Since 1949
Hawai‘i’s general stores achieve greatness by quietly upending the conventional convenience-store approach. Sure, they offer the same things people need right now and don’t want to brave traffic to get—drinks, snacks, smokes, a roll of TP or breath mints. But the great ones tweak the formula by listening to the customers until the menu tastes of genius.
No one does it better than Alicia’s, many would say. Since its birth as a small wooden hut in 1949, started by Alicia and Raymond Kam, the menu mix has gradually grown to more than most stores could handle. That’s Leonard Kam, the president and son of the founders, standing behind the famous poke bar. It has up to 30 varieties of seafood and salads, thanks to continual experimentation that yields poke delights such as smoked tako, spicy scallop, clam and mussel.
The newest is lomi ‘ō‘io, which Chris Kam, the 28-year-old grandson of the founders, describes as “deconstructed fishcake” —the ‘ō‘io meat is de-boned, then mixed with limu, onions and a bit of salmon for flavor.
But what probably first catches the eye is the store’s classic Chinese meat shop: The hanging roast pigs and chickens join char siu ribs, roast beef, steak and those funky turkey tails. Chris Kam sees its increased popularity among his age cohort. “Friends come in because they can’t find char siu or roast pork. They take it home and cook it up with choi sum or kimchee.”
Indeed, though built on the appetites of the blue-collar workforce of the surrounding neighborhood, Alicia’s has found new followers all over town, including the CrossFit gym members down the road. Might the Old General Store Diet supplant the Paleo Diet?
“They come in for salads and poke bowls and roast beef salads,” Chris Kam says with a laugh. “Because I’m younger, I see how people my age want to eat. We’re getting back to the local foods. When we go out to eat, we don’t look for the modern stuff, we look for classics that have been reinvented, that have a twist to them.”
One thing that won’t change is the marketing plan. “My dad always said go by word of mouth,” says Chris Kam. “You can always trust what a person tells you.” That and your nose, in the case of the roast pork as the aroma fills the room.
267 Mokauea St., Honolulu, (808) 841-1921
Ching’s Punalu‘u Store
Open Since 1935
Ching’s feeds the eye as well as the ‘ōpū, popping out of the sun showers and rainbows like a Herb Kane painting of a country store. It’s too easy to drive by, though, falling between destinations if you’re heading to the North Shore or racing home to the south. So slow down, already. That’s what third-generation owner Patrick Ching did. “I was managing the parts department at a car dealership,” he says, before leaving to take over the reins of the store his great-grandfather, Yan Quong Ching, started in 1935. “This is more rewarding.” His wife, Cindy, does the baking and presses warm butter mochi into the palms of our hands. From there straight to the mouth, automatic, eyes closed to stay in the moment. Yes.
Brendan, son of Patrick and Cindy, mans the counter and runs around finding stuff for older visitors: fishing gear, bait, beer, ice and camping equipment for those tenting tonight on the beach across the street. “It feels really good to carry on since the first generation,” he says. “Oldtimers come in and tell me about my great-grandfather, how there used to be a game room in the back—arcades and stuff.”
The walls are covered with photographs and stories of the store and neighborhood and Yan Quong’s life and times: the old vegetable truck that started it all, the tsunami of 1946 that wrecked the first store, which Yan Quong rebuilt himself. “I like bringing neighborhood kids through the store, telling them about it, how it works, how to be responsible,” Patrick says. “My son is starting to understand that life is not about spending money but having a balance.”
Indeed, the wall offers a balanced menu of “chicken with Korean sauce,” pasteles, “SS saimin with pork hash,” manapua, various combinations of hot dogs, pork hash, rice and chili. The freezer has more. All this, plus local Samurai Soft-Serve and a fax machine. (OK I work remote this week, boss?)
Picking one winner isn’t easy, and we can’t eat it all. But even with the mochi melting in our mouths, the two poke containers that we pack in ice in our car’s trunk—to taste test against the other pokes we’re hoping to find today—come out on top later. The house special poke is light and bright, the sauce not too oily; the tako poke, with green and white onion, is briny as an oyster on the half shell, a gift from the sea.
53-360 Kamehameha Highway, Hau‘ula, (808) 237-7017
Fort Ruger Market
Open Since 1937
Despite the maxed-out housing prices of the Diamond Head area, Fort Ruger Market still feels like it could be serving the GIs of From Here to Eternity or shirtless bodysurfers digging fragments of Sandy Beach out of their ears. “Every time I used to pass by, I’d grab some boiled peanuts,” says David Fan, a customer since the early 1980s. “Tell the truth, sometimes I’d go out of my way to grab some.”
A year ago, though, Fan made the ultimate impulse buy. A real estate agent, he noticed a listing for the store. “Some friends of mine used to own it over a 10-year period,” he recalls. “They’d sold it to this guy from the Mainland. He ran it for two years, and not very well, then put it on the market.”
Since Fan’s 2013 arrival, though, the joint is jumping—and with good reason. The lau lau, lomi salmon, pipikaula, poi and haupia plates are better than we remember from the 1970s, when they were our default dinner. And the boiled peanuts haven’t changed.
But Fan’s additions are what really move the needle. A serious Filipino menu offers, besides guisantes, adobo and pinacbet, daily specials (including a rare dinuguan sighting—savory offal stew and not for beginners). “Chicharrones are big,” says Fan, referring to Filipino pork rinds (aka chitlins or chitterlings). “But the new product is the end cuts that are left over.
One day my chef said, it’s like a chicharrone bite. So we put them out now and, my gosh, it’s flying off the shelves.”
Also popular: Smoked Meat Fridays. A lifelong student of barbecue, Fan has a regular menu board of jerky (‘ahi, aku, ono, marlin, tako as well as a variety of pipikaula), but on Friday morning the big guns arrive: Angus beef rib roasts, kiawe-smoked beef ribs and dry-rub pork butt, kiawe turkey tails, even a char-siu pork butt. Everything moves fast.
“Mornings we get a blue-collar, construction worker, Hawai‘i Five-0, Filipino crowd,” says Fan. “They come in early and load up on food and drinks for the day. Around 10 and 11, they may come back to get out of the sun.”
Finally, there’s poke. Says Fan: “We’re really proud of it. I kinda challenge anybody to find a fresher ‘ahi that’s being sold as poke around town. We’re selling grade two-plus and above. A lot of sushi restaurants don’t go that high.” The poke prices reflect the auction quality: $18 a pound on the days we visited. But it shows up in each bite.
Fan has kept Ruger’s traditional closing time at 6 p.m. “At night, it returns to a sleepy residential neighborhood,” he says. All we can say is: go early.
3585 Alohea Ave., Honolulu, (808) 737-4531
Open Since 2005
In our search for definitive hole-in-the-wall places, we try to be aware of our comfort zone and to stretch—which is how we end up craning our heads out of the window in Mililani at a sign that reads “Gold n Mart.” Here, it’s rumored, awaits a “most righteous creamy wasabi poke,” according to Chris McKinney, author of Mililani Mauka, the only work of literature produced by O‘ahu’s most Cheever-esque housing estate. The whole thing feels dubious, which, lovers of general-store cuisine would agree, is a very good sign.
Another good sign is the line of local folks who seem to be conspicuously avoiding the fast-food options of the mall across the street. The line moves fast, a third good sign: They know what they want, ordering their poke faves and grabbing barbecued meat sticks and fried chicken while bantering with the servers, who know many by name.
Our question: “What’s good?” draws a chorus of advice. Smoked Meat Friday, say the tattooed guys from the martial arts studio next door. Others point to the raw kimchee squid, smoked marlin and smoked ‘ahi, Golden Mart’s own special poke, and “Kilawen Shrimp”—the latter a fiery Filipino ceviche of large, raw, purple-gray shrimp in onions, ginger and scallions.
“I always wanted our store to feel like an old-fashioned mom & pop,” emails Julie Miyatake when we get in touch. A letter carrier during the week, Miyatake and Chilly Lee, “my partner and better half,” opened Golden Mart 10 years ago. Her 78-year-old father, Eddie, is “our most revered asset—he’s been our poke and sashimi cutter all these years.”
Golden Mart only uses fresh fish, drawing online raves. Many single out the Big Island ‘opihi poke. “I believe the plump yellow Big Island ‘opihi are definitely the best there are!” says Miyatake. “We know how precious and difficult they are to retrieve.”
Time to test the creamy wasabi poke. It has a smooth and unctuous bite that, after a nice moment of uncertainty—you’re waiting for the nose-clearing hit—delivers only a brief jab-uppercut flurry of heat. Subtle! the reaction is followed by: More!
As of last July, a second location has opened at Waipahu Festival Market Place.
95-119 Kamehameha Highway, Mililani, (808) 625-2442
Open Since 1898
Under towering trees in the soulful stretch of road between Ka‘a‘awa and Kahalu‘u, the Waikane Store looks pretty much as it did in 1898 when Hyung Thom opened it. Sold in 1929 to the Tokuzato family, a pleasing lime green accented with orange-brown rust spots, the store has weathered the opening of supermarkets and Costco, says Nadine Tokuzato, who runs it with daughter-in-law Rachelle and son Alden. The secret? “We had to make, like, sushi and chicken to keep us going,” she says. “Bake our own cookies: Russian tea, almond, peanut, chocolate chip.”
The family also specializes in making friendships. The store is a touchstone, must-stop spot for neighbors, locals and a quiet stream of boldface names. If the “grandma-style” maki sushi has run out, Tokuzato or someone will make more—simple tuna, carrot, rice and sauce: “Doesn’t need shoyu, has all the flavor inside. Can take it to the beach, or picnic, or wedding.”
Like the cookie recipes and especially the fried chicken, the sushi seasoning is something Tokuzato has tweaked and perfected. The Russian tea cookie is “the crusty kind with almonds inside, covered in powdered sugar.” Sam Choy comes for the hot dog maki with hot Colman’s mustard. The Spam musubi is teriyaki style.
Waikane opens late by general-store standards—9:30 a.m., so no breakfasts—but Tokuzato has been up frying chicken since dawn. She soaks the cut-up pieces overnight in the modified Korean batter. People develop cravings for it.
One item that makes a lot of people happy: guitar and ‘ukulele strings. We ask Alden if musicians come by: “Oh, yes—Ozzie Kotani, the De Lima ‘ohana of the band Kapena, Andy Suzuki, Danny Gottlieb from Pat Metheny, Walter Keale, Makaha Sons, Gabe Baltazar, Don Gordon,” on and on.
We ask if the musicians ever set up and play in the store. “Every so often we will jam for laughs,” he says. “Gordon Freitas, Japanese jazz star Hironobu Saito …” As the list scrolls on, we realize the best thing on the menu at the Waikane Store may be the pleasure the Tokuzatos and their customers take in each other’s company.
48-377 Kamehameha Highway, Kāne‘ohe, (808) 239-8522
Open Since 1992
The coast from Punalu‘u to Kahuku seems to spawn more than its share of mythological beings, from Yan Quong Ching to Sam Choy’s father. That it’s also credited as the home of the original poke bowl seems almost unfair.
‘Ahi (preferably fresh), slicked with some kind of sauce, on a bed of hot rice—how did it take so long? It turns out that what might seem a slam-dunk marketing gimmick was born of an overflowing heart, says Harmon Lee. When his future wife Tina bought the Kahuku Superette from another owner in 1992, she watched the dusty worn-out boys coming from high school football practice tramp into her store, stop, and count change. “Lotta kids don’t have too much money,” says Lee. “They show how much. Rice was 50 cents, so if they have a dollar she cut so much fish, more if there’s more.”
Word that Tina Lee always erred on the side of generosity led to a loyal following among a market that literally kept on growing (note the size of the Red Raider line). But that wasn’t the only innovation, says proud husband Harmon. “The old owner was also Korean, but used a lot of sugar and a little gochujang, but store-bought gochujang. So [Tina] started making sauce, her specialty. Lets it age. Ferment. Thirty buckets at a time.”
He shows us the walls of gochujang lining the back room as a family member hand-cranks a grinder, slicing fresh ginger into bathtub-size vats. Tasting the special poke, we now understand why someone would dare to play fresh ‘ahi off against the savory, slightly fermented tang of the sauce. While Harmon is from Wahiawā, Tina is from Korea, where they like their kimchee strong and goopy, unlike Halm’s, which was formulated for our local market’s lighter tastes. Perhaps, for that reason, the shoyu poke—less assertive—is the bestseller.
The lunch trade flows around Harmon as he goes down the cold case describing the offerings. Spicy tuna is going fast today; takeout plastic cartons of raw marinated beef go by twos and threes. We come to Harmon’s favorite new project: shrimp taegu (rather than the traditional cod).
“Try this.” With a flourish he scoops us up some, an instantly intriguing combination of crunch (the shells), sour fire (special sauce) and sweet (honey). At $29.99 a pound, he won’t be feeding the poor, or many football players, but some things are best left for adult tastes. Score another knockout for the Superette.
56-505 Kamehameha Highway, Kahuku, (808) 293-9878
Open Since Early 1900s
Looking for the rumored roti from Lā‘ie Cash & Carry? Then you want the place that’s behind the place where Sam Choy’s father got his start behind a stove. But the place behind what is now called the Hukilau Café isn’t called Lā‘ie Cash & Carry anymore, except on Yelp and Foursquare—nope, it’s called Sam’s. Nobody we talk to thinks he’s the owner, and, if you thought that was a tad confusing, finding Sam’s can be, too.
Construction of the expanding Polynesian Cultural Center and its hotel has warped the landscape around Lā‘ie enough that you may have a wee adventure finding the address on Wahinepe‘e Street.
At Sam’s, the counter is that close to the sidewalk. Sue Kim will be behind the register with a smile. It grows wider when we ask for roti. She points. Within the shiny stainless box warmer, where a row of musubi work on their suntans, are thick squares of aluminum foil. What kind? Kim says: “Chicken.”
It has been years since we’ve had a good roti, like the kind you get anywhere on Lexington Avenue down in the 20s in Manhattan’s Little India. Cab-driver food, some might sniff, but, once you try one, you’ll probably go on the circuit, sampling as many variations as there are shops. All of which is to say we’re prepared to be disappointed, but wildly hopeful.
“Sam Choy, his father ran it long time, yeah,” says Kim. “Sometime he come. Plenty history. One hundred years.”
We ask who made the roti. She starts to speak, falls silent. We get it: We will not discuss who makes the roti. For such a small counter, there’s a lot of food—tempura shrimp, fried chicken, teriyaki beef—but nothing compared to the pile of fresh pake cakes, which are much praised on the foodie sites. “Here,” says Kim, handing us a warm musubi to go with our roti.
Something in her manner tells us this is no ordinary Spam musubi, and, in the parking lot, we give it a professional examination. The nori wraps it completely; the meat is sandwiched between the rice, along with a thin omelet and a layer of furikake. One bite and we lose all inhibition, driving down the highway with taste buds going off. Feeling guilty, we tear the foil off a corner of the roti. It looks bland. One bite leads to another, then another. Chicken, potatoes, curry sauce—so simple and yet perfectly addictive.
Car swerving as we wrestle the wheel and try not to dribble precious curry down our chins, we must look like a Lexington Avenue taxi driver. A happy one.
55-662 Wahinepe‘e St., Lā‘ie, (808) 293-5344
Open Since 1946
Kaya’s is perhaps the best-stocked general store we’ve come across in terms of breadth of offerings, a legacy of serving the Windward Side for 69 years. But, like all convenience stores, Kaya’s is also a study in adapting to change. In the past decade, as supermarkets opened nearby, the daughter of founder William Hideo Kaya has led a gradual transition to Kaya’s becoming a food-first destination.
A veteran of the storied 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Kaya came back from World War II to a new house built for him by brother Robert. But it came with a store. “It’s not what my father wanted to do,” says daughter Beverly Hashimoto. “He wanted to be an architect. But he never complained. I give him a lot of respect for that.”
Kaya adapted. He dedicated himself to stocking a store so that residents of the Windward Side would never have to go to town. He cured his own meat and ground his own hamburger; he sold animal feed, tools and auto parts; he repaired lawnmowers until 11 at night.
“Dad was so proud of what he did,” Hashimoto says. “He had a showcase of vegetables, so every morning he came in at 5 a.m. and took everything out, trimmed off any yellow leaves, and so forth, every single day.” You could multiply that level of care to every aspect of the business. Since metal tended to rust in the salt air, one of Hashimoto’s childhood chores was sandpapering the rust off the canned goods.
But working with Kaya wasn’t easy, and Hashimoto and her two brothers sought careers elsewhere. After 12 years on the Mainland, Hashimoto came home at the urging of her husband, a local boy. Change was in the air, but only on her father’s terms. “We had to do everything his way.” That included doing inventory on paper and markup from a list kept in her father’s pocket. “Every single item had a different markup!”
Then Hashimoto got a computer to help with the bookkeeping. “As soon as I got that, my dad retired. He didn’t want to deal with computers.” Soon her husband left his sales job to help out. “He’s the vision man, really good at looking at things, how we can expand.”
He also comes in at 4 a.m. and makes the musubi: “We average about 100 on weekdays, 125 to 140 on weekends,” says Hashimoto. “Different kinds: plain furikake, secret daikon, bombucha.” Actually, Hashimoto began as the musubi chef, which “turned into making little bentos, which turned into plate lunches …” After 10 years, she let a father-and-son team rent space in the back of the store for a kitchen.
Today, the Two Bald Guys, as Leonard Nombris and his son, James Martin, are known, have made Kaya’s a food destination with their fresh ‘ahi plates, Thai steak salads and custom-made omelets. So has the Thai food stand and the coffee kiosk; then there’s the fresh coconut stand, which offers smoothies—and, someday soon, maybe more. After all these years, Kaya’s has found its next niche—as a rare island of land zoned as commercial, it has become the community center again, as Kaya once envisioned, although considerably more
colorful and diverse.
53-534 Kamehameha Highway, Hau‘ula, (808) 293-9095
Neighbor Island Favorites
Hirano store If you’re visiting Hirano Store, 15 miles south of Hilo, don’t miss the ‘ōhelo berry jam and the chili. The first is from owner Eric Inouye’s mom’s recipe, using berries from the surrounding Volcano area. The beginnings of the chili were less homespun. “When I first started making food, I said, OK, I’ll sell chili. I bought canned chili, put it in the warmer. It didn’t sell well,” Inouye says. “I said, what if I add this, add that? The taste was getting better but it still had that canned taste. I said, Why not make it from scratch already? So I did.” Inouye keeps the exact recipe secret, but the result is good enough to have been declared the best by a visiting Alan Wong. Chili bowl $4.50, no rice $5.00. —Mari Taketa
18-2455 Volcano Highway, Mountain View, (808) 968-6522
Ishihara Market Few make the trek to the dusty paniolo town of Waimea without a stop at the 81-year-old, family-owned-and-operated Ishihara Market. It’s got all the usual general store trappings, but the real attraction is the seafood deli, which was added in 1987 by Ray Ishihara, CEO, and his siblings, Grace and Guy. Today, the Ishihara’s, with Guy’s wife, Shawn, make sure this third-generation business continues to thrive. “It’s all about the ‘ahi poke,” Ray says. “There are many choices, but the ‘ahi poke complements them all.” A close second in renown to Ishihara Market’s poke is its bento boxes. Oh, and its plate lunches. And did we mention its marinated meats ready for grilling? —Kim Rogers
9890 Kahakai Road, Waimea, (808) 338-1751
Ha‘ikū is a web of interconnected country roads, and for decades Fukushima’s has felt like its heart. People come to the tiny store to run into friends and talk story, to pick up chow fun, beer and cigarettes, but almost nobody leaves without a Fukushima hot dog. They’re little things, just $1.30 each, but there’s something magical in the combination of the soft, warm bun, the steamed dog, and the pickly-mayonnaisey sauce that puts them into the stratosphere of tastiness. Buy two or three with all the fixings, and eat them while sitting on the wooden bench out front. Upcountry Maui doesn’t get much better than this. —Michael Keany
815 Ha‘ikū Road, Ha‘ikū, (808) 575-2762