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.
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.
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
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.
7. Macaroni and cheese pancakes
Morning Glass Coffee + Café
A ridiculous yet genius interpretation of the classic, Morning Glass Coffee + Café offers mac ’n’ cheese pancakes for weekend brunch and its once-a-month “night breakfast” event, using elbow macaroni, pancake batter and aged Vermont cheddar. The result is crispy on the outside, gooey and melty on the inside, and tastes amazing. Where have mac ’n’ cheese pancakes been all our lives? Served with complimentary maple syrup, and bacon on top for just $2 more.
$11, 2955 E. Mānoa Road, (808) 673-0065, morningglasscoffee.com.
—Kyle Reutner, Kō Hana brand manager
8. Hawaiian-Style Nachos
Photos: Steve Czerniak
These nachos are made with fresh, sweet-salty, crunchy ‘uala (sweet potato) chips, piled with lean and smoky kālua pig, sour cream, guacamole, green onions and a side of salsa. Bring friends to help devour this treat since it’s a big portion and the cheese eventually cools, making it tougher to keep eating, which you will want to do.
$14.25, 680 Ala Moana Blvd., #105, (808) 954-4955, myhighwayinn.com.
9. Chicken fat rice
The Pig & The Lady
Meet the chicken fat rice, a staple side at The Pig & The Lady (you’ll find it in a lot of the grilled meat dishes) that’s all about balance. It’s a subtle, yet thoroughly satisfying, take on jasmine rice. The grains are first cooked in chicken broth and turmeric for some slightly next-level flavor, then drizzled with chicken fat and topped with chilies. It complements your show-stopping entrée, yet still sings a backup to which local rice-lovers will give hearty applause.
$6, 83 N. King St., (808) 585-8255, thepigandthelady.com.
“My comfort food is noodles. Any kind of soupy noodles. Japanese ramen, Chinese duck noodle, wonton noodle soup, udon.”—Alan Wong, chef/owner, Alan Wong’s Honolulu, The Pineapple Room, Alan Wong’s Shanghai
10. Milk ’n’ cereal pancakes
Scratch Kitchen and Bake Shop
The Scratch folks roll at least three kinds of comfort into one short stack. The pancakes themselves taste lighter than they look, which makes them just the right partner for the sweet milk-and-cereal topping that transports us back to the comfort of cereal eaten in pajamas. The fruit on top plays a tasty supporting role while counterbalancing the sweetness. Call it a lovely breakfast for one, or split it with a friend alongside a savory choice. We’d go for the Loco Moco Royale.
11. Corn Chowder
Corn chowder is too often simply “potato soup with bits of corn.” Not here. The Maui sweet corn stands on its own, and this deceptively simple soup packs a complex combination of flavors. Fresh coconut milk and local lemongrass add a trace of Thai curry flavor, and fresh black pepper and cayenne give some spice. It also features celery, kale and tomato (all local), which add balanced diversity to the taste. For a hearty soup, this chowder’s quite subtle.
$10.95, 92-1048 Olani St., Suite 4-107, Kapolei, (808) 380-4086, monkeypodkitchen.com.
12. Grilled Stinky Cheese Sandwiches
The Tchin Tchin! Bar
Photo: Steve Czerniak
Ah, a grilled cheese sandwich and juice—was there ever a more satisfying after-school treat, as a kid? Well, turns out grownups really do have it better: The stinky grilled cheese sandwich at the Tchin Tchin! Bar has been upgraded with gooey, just-pungent-enough Taleggio cheese, smeared with a sweet onion marmalade to counterbalance the tang, and then garnished with house-made vegetable pickles. Pair it with a pinot or Côtes du Rhône from Tchin Tchin’s extensive wine list, and you’ve really got something. The sandwich comes cut into four points, but, hey, you’re an adult now—you don’t have to share if you don’t want to.
$12, 39 N. Hotel St., (808) 528-1888, thetchintchinbar.com.
13. Oxtail Ramen
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.
$18.95, 99-115 ‘Aiea Heights Drive, third floor, ‘Aiea, (808) 488-6854, aieabowl.com.
14. 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.
$9, 328 Cooke St., (808) 589-2337, honolulubeerworks.com.
15. 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, (808) 396-7697, royshawaii.com.
“Side Street Inn—farmers salad and fried pork chop. I always make them bring the salad first so I don’t feel guilty and eat only pig.”
—Nick Rolovich, UH football coach
16. 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., (808) 955-6505, mwrestaurant.com.
17. 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.
$14 (lunch), $17.50 (dinner), 83 N. King St., (808) 585-8255, thepigandthelady.com.
—Michelle Karr-Ueoka, pastry chef and co-owner, MW Restaurant and Artizen by MW
Classic vs. New School
18. Spam musubi
Fort Ruger Market
You cannot go wrong with a Fort Ruger Market musubi, but you can arrive too late. At 12:02 p.m. one recent weekday, the hot rack was mostly empty except for the basic Spam ($1.99), a Spam on furikake rice ($1.99) and the boiled hot dog musubi ($1.99). We opted for Spam + furikake because of the way it rides a double helping of furikake-flecked rice—like a Sandy Beach bodyboard.
$1.99, 3585 Alohea St., 96816, (808) 737-4531.
19. ‘Ahi musubi
Hōkū’s at The Kāhala
PHOTO: AARON YOSHINO
The menu around it may change, but the ‘ahi poke musubi has remained a fixture at Hōkū’s. It’s an elevated take on the modest musubi, with ‘ahi poke stuffed into a crisp-fried sushi rice ball and served with crab namasu and soy ginger. The rice ball is quartered to share, though only if you want to.
$20, 5000 Kāhala Ave., (808) 739-8760, kahalaresort.com/dining.
20. Pigs’ feet soup
The soup is simple: carrots, cabbage and bok choy, simmering in pork stock—plus generous pieces of pigs’ feet with meat soft enough to pull off the bone with just a pair of chopsticks. Ethel’s Grill’s menu is full of local favorites, but nothing beats this; served in a big bowl, it tastes like what your grandmother might’ve prepared when you got sick as a kid. We almost want to be under the weather more often.
$12.95, 232 Kalihi St., (808) 847-6467.
21. Specialty saimin
One of the oldest, most beloved of saimin stands, Hamura’s on Kaua‘i is known for its house-made noodles and secret-recipe broth. The James Beard Foundation even recognized it as an American classic in 2006. Serious fans get the Special Saimin, which comes fully loaded with won ton, roast pork, fishcake, chopped ham, veggies, green onions and a boiled egg.
$10 medium, $12 X-large, 2956 Kress St., Līhu‘e, (808) 245-3271.
22. Innovative Hot Mess
PHOTO: AARON YOSHINO
Yes, the Innovative Hot Mess is $20. But when the bowl arrives in front of you, full of a mind-blowing combination of four types of garlic, house-made char siu, aji tamago, menma, onion, sesame seeds and, most intriguing, fresh-shaved Parmesan cheese piled on top of the ramen, it’ll clearly be worth it. You can’t untaste this. But you won’t want to.
$20, multiple locations, aguramen.com.
Going Loco for Moco
Loco Moco a go-go
The loco moco is that most down-home of local inventions. What could be more basic, and more satisfying, than white rice, a hamburger patty and a sunny-side-up egg, doused with brown gravy? Still, Hawai‘i chefs can’t resist improving on a good thing; check out these inventive renditions of the plate-lunch fave.
Birth of a loco moco
Hilo is the hometown of the original loco moco, with the dish dating back to 1949 at Lincoln Grill, where, as the story goes, a group of hungry teen athletes came in looking for something cheap and filling to eat. (The owner threw together a beef patty with white rice and brown gravy. The egg came later.) Café 100 has continued Hilo’s famed reputation, serving more than 30 varieties of this simple dish with ingredients such as ‘ahi, chili, stew and Spam.
23. Koko Moco
Koko Head Café
PHOTOS: STEVE CZERNIAK
Lee Anne Wong’s Koko Moco is all about the little details: the delicious inch-thick local Maui Cattle Co. beef patty, the crispy garlic rice along the bottom of the skillet, the amazing flash-fried tempura kim chee that tops it all off.
24. Smokin’ moco
The Smokin’ Moco swaps hamburger for chopped lychee-wood-smoked meat. Then there’s gravy and two eggs fresh from Wahiawā. Portions are generous and, hey, pay a little more to get the fried rice and be even happier.
$14.95 (mini $9.95), myhighwayinn.com.
25. Pork Adobo Loco Moco
Scratch Kitchen and Bake Shop
26. Local Lobster Moco
40 Carrots, Bloomingdale’s
If Keāhole lobster tail, sautéed foie gras, mushrooms from Hāmākua and toasted bonito rice topped with a perfectly cooked local egg wasn’t enough, chef Jon Matsubara cooks Italian black truffles in a Madeira sauce, adding richness to an already-decadent dish.
27. short rib loco moco
This popular Hawai‘i Kai brunch spot went upscale with super-tender braised short ribs and a rich, house-made demi-glace. Bonus points if you order it with the café’s uber-flavorful fried rice.
$17.25, $19.25 with fried rice, moenacafe.com.
28. Gourmet loco moco
This one surprises first by color (the generous helping of Forbidden Rice is black-purple), then by subtlety (the Hāmākua mushroom gravy is a deep, dark reduction) and finally by the quality and intensity of the ground, Island-raised steak. EAT Honolulu caters so you will need to order six minimum.
29. Loco moco meatloaf
This version, which swaps out hamburger for meatloaf, should really be called a “local” moco: The meatloaf is made with local, grass-fed beef and it’s topped with a perfectly cooked local egg and Ho Farms vegetable fried rice.
30. Kamameshi hot pot rice bowl with butterfish
Eating House 1849
Photo: Courtesy of Eating House 1849
Eating House 1849 is a nod to one of Hawai‘i’s first restaurants, an 1800s hub of Hawaiian fusion cuisine that drew from local farmers, ranchers and fishermen. In that same vein, chef Roy Yamaguchi’s kamameshi hot pot rice bowl with butterfish pays homage to Japanese-influenced Hawai‘i bento lunches. Hearty and savory sweet, this kettle fried-rice dish shines thanks to the fresh-caught fish and a generous drizzling of spicy kabayaki sauce. The dish is slow-cooked in an iron pot called a kama—kamameshi translates to “kettle rice”—and is best enjoyed after a good stir.
$42, 2829 Ala Kalanikaumaka Road, Kōloa, (808) 742-5000, eatinghouse1849.com.
31. Classic Fondue
Art Café Hemingway
Kaua‘i’s Coconut Coast is a far cry from the snow-blanketed Swiss Alps, where gently bubbling fondue pots bring people together much like a round of pau hana beers. Yet nestled in a charming bluebird-blue building steps from the Kapa‘a shoreline is the unexpected Art Café Hemingway, where the cheese fondue is rich and oozing. A great beacon of the classic Swiss dish, this European-style art gallery and café’s velvety blend of white wine and melted alpine cheeses is authentic enough to make you second-guess your geocoordinates. Served over fire with a side plate of sliced sausage, apple, homemade bread and other treats for dunking, the fondue is best enjoyed communally.
$24 for one person or $18 to $19 per group member, sides not included, 4-1495 Kūhiō Highway, Kapa‘a, (808) 822-2250, artcafehemingway.com.
32. Salted caramel ice cream sundae
Jean Georges’ salted caramel ice cream sundae is the perfect balance of savory and sweet. Think of it as all your cinema favorites rolled into one, with three dainty dollops of creamy ice cream floated over a bed of crunchy popcorn and peanuts in a pool of chocolate sauce. It’s a textural delight. Topped with a sticky square of caramel brittle and an airy pillow of whipped cream, this dish is the ultimate one-two punch of dessert and after-midnight snack.
Part of the three-course prix-fixe menu, $90, 5520 Ka Haku Road, Princeville, (808) 826-2250, kauaigrill.com
33. Māla burrito
Frida’s Mexican beach house
Hawai‘i-Regional-Cuisine-pioneer chef Mark Ellman is back with a new, upscale Mexican restaurant. Located at Māla Wharf, Frida’s serves great, freshly caught seafood, but you know what your heart really wants: the oversize Māla Burrito, served wet with your choice of meat.
$22.95, 1287 Front St., Lahaina, (808) 661-1287, fridasmaui.com.
34. Pineapple upside-down cake
Hali‘imaile General Store
photo: courtesy hali‘imaile general store
You usually find pineapple upside-down cake at bakeries or potlucks—not at an award-winning restaurant. But chef/owner Bev Gannon has turned this classic into something decadent. These single-serving-size cakes are made with sweet Maui Gold pineapple, caramelized and baked with a buttery, house-made pound cake. It arrives warm and topped with whipped cream and a sweet slice of pineapple.
$12, 900 Hali‘imaile Road, Makawao, (808) 572-2666, hgsmaui.com.
35. All Things Pork Ramen
photo: david t. cole
Steaming, molasses-colored pork broth, steeped for two days with leeks, onions, aromatics, konbu, mushrooms and a secret ingredient, glazes chewy (Sun Noodle) noodles in perfect balance. Beneath there’s the hint of bacon, garlic and ginger from the dollop of slow-cooked tare (sauce) that melts into the broth, and on top there’s rich, thick-sliced char siu pork belly. It’s all garnished with pea shoots, an oozy boiled egg, crisp seaweed and spicy chicharrons. Lest you think it’s all too rich, a bite of soy-braised, citrusy ali‘i mushrooms brightens the porky flavors. Together this bowl is a soul-soothing umami bomb.
$12, Noodle Club, 67-1185 Māmalahoa Highway, A106, Waimea, (808) 885-8825, noodleclubwaimea.com.
36. Classic Cheesy Melt
The Red Barn
Sharp cheddar, Gruyere, Swiss and American cheeses melt seamlessly between thick slices of toothsome, artisan-made rosemary asiago bread, slathered in butter for a classic, crunchy grilled cheese sandwich. It’s accompanied by a zippy tomato bisque, Waimea cucumber dill pickle and Honoka‘a sweet potato chips. This is a small-kid-time favorite made better.
$9, Wednesdays and Saturdays, farmers markets, Pukalani Stables, 67-139 Pukalani Road, Waimea.
The phrase “comfort food” first appeared in 1966, when the Palm Beach Post used it in a story about obesity: “Adults, when under severe emotional stress, turn to what could be called ‘comfort food’—food associated with the security of childhood, like mother’s poached egg or famous chicken soup.”