Best of Honolulu 2014: Food
The 32 editorial and reader picks for tastiest food from our Best of Honolulu 2014 issue.
Best Uni Pasta
Ocean’s butter melting into hot pasta, its creamy brininess coating every strand—uni pasta is luxe comfort food defined, what you eat when you’re wearing sweatpants and a pearl necklace. Except you might want to leave the sweatpants at home when you head to Arancino at The Kahala for its decadent spaghetti ai ricci di mare (available a la carte at lunch or as part of the prix fixe dinner). What sets this one apart is the abundance of uni, which leaves a lingering sweetness to haunt your dreams.
Arancino at The Kahala, 5000 Kahala Ave., 380-4400, arancino.com
We tried more than a dozen pancakes around town, and, despite new competition in the past few months, it came down to two time-tested stacks. Cafe Kaila and Liliha Bakery served the two fluffiest and most tender pancakes our forks have ever met. There were slight differences that made the decision tough: Liliha Bakery’s are lighter and more delicate, while Cafe Kaila’s have a touch of cinnamon and come with real maple syrup. But, in the end, there could be only one winner, and it’s Liliha Bakery, for its no-frills, pure pancake perfection. Plus, you can get them for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and any time in-between.
Liliha Bakery, 515 N. Kuakini St., 531-1651, lilihabakeryhawaii.com
Best French Toast
Sweetbread French toast? We’re over you. Koko Head Cafe ditches the usually soggy, one-note dish for a version we like to think of as chicken-fried French toast. It’s rolled in cornflakes and deep-fried and, as if that weren’t enough, crowned by frosted-flake gelato and candied bacon.
Koko Head Cafe, 1145C 12th Ave., 732-8920, kokoheadcafe.com
Chris Sy of the one-man operation Breadshop has expanded his bread portfolio to include butter-laced pastries, from blackberry almond croissants to ones rolled with taegu (yes, taegu!) and spinach. Our favorites are the ones brushed with sugar before baking for a crackly, caramelized crust, like the raisin snails and cardamom buns. Breadshop has popped up at farmers markets and even the John A. Burns School of Medicine cafeteria, but Sy says he’s ready for his own spot now. “I’ve been in a perpetual state of opening a bakery for the last year,” he says. Check the Breadshop site for updates on where to get the goods.
If you’re still telling yourself there’s no good Mexican food in Hawaii, you haven’t been paying attention. A number of notable eateries slinging tacos have opened recently, making this arena more crowded than it’s been in years. Serg’s Mexican Kitchen ended up delivering the knockout punch with its Mexico City-style tacos: two griddled (essential to a terrific taco) and stacked corn tortillas piled high with well-seasoned meats (go for the chorizo, carne asada or al pastor).
Serg's Mexican Kitchen, 2740 E. Manoa Road, 988-8118.
Forget Peter Piper and his peck of pickled peppers. Instead, pick up Maui Preserved’s pickled pohole, which pairs locally grown fiddlehead ferns with a little lavender. They’ve got a savory snap; plus, the unfurling tops make for striking swizzle sticks in your cocktails.
Maui Preserved’s pickled pohole, Available at Whole Foods Kahala and Kailua, mauipreserved.com
Best Hot Sauce
Our drawers at work and kitchens at home are stocked with Adoboloco hot sauce. But we’re not the only ones who have an Adoboloco habit: Lee Anne Wong of Koko Head Café keeps a personal stash at her restaurant. “We normally serve Tabasco, but I keep Adoboloco on hand for the true hot-sauce connoisseurs,” she says. “I love the purity of flavor. There’s a hot sauce to fit everyone’s taste. I am particularly fond of the habanero because it reminds me of the traditional West Indian/Caribbean style hot sauces, and the Hamajang (made with kiawe-smoked ghost pepper) is the shizz nizz for its super local, super hot qualities.”
Adoboloco, Found at multiple locations including Whole Foods, adoboloco.com
Picking our favorite gelato maker, Il Gelato, wasn’t hard. What was hard was choosing a favorite flavor. Perhaps dark-chocolate gianduia, creamy and nutty with hazelnut; or the pistachio, made with Sicilian pistachios for an ultra-smooth and silky scoop? Would it be heresy to say that one of our favorite flavors isn’t even a gelato, but a sorbetto? The pineapple sorbetto is made with pure fruit and tastes of lush, summer pineapple. Owner Dirk Koeppenkastrop’s obsession with achieving the perfect texture ensures that even the dairyless sorbettos are rich and practically creamy. The intense flavors of both the gelato and sorbettos are unbeatable.
Il Gelato, multiple locations, including 501 Sumner St. and Kahala Mall, ilgelato-hawaii.com.
Best New Locally Grown Ingredient
We’re surrounded by water, and yet almost all of the shellfish we eat is imported. Not only that, we’re actually exporting baby oysters for West Coast companies. What’s up with that? Thankfully, the tide is turning. For the first time in decades, locally grown oysters are for sale in Hawaii. Kualoa Ranch has been looking beyond its ranch to its fishponds for ways to grow food and, just this year, brought these bivalves to market. We’re excited, because, of all the things we really prefer to eat as fresh as possible, oysters top our list. The oysters from Kualoa Ranch taste like none other: decidedly briny, with a minerally finish.
Kualoa Ranch oysters, Available at Kualoa Ranch’s visitor center. Reserve at kualoa.com/oysters-seafood
Bodhi Cafe’s smoothies are like the fruit stands of Honolulu’s Chinatown mixed with the healthy attitude of Whole Foods. You’ll find tropical fruits such as soursop blended with almond milk, or pineapple and mango sweetening a kale-and-Okinawan-spinach concoction. Thanh Bidwell, co-owner of the now-closed, beloved Spices, opened the smoothie and juice bar in the former restaurant space. He brings a Southeast Asian bent to his drinks, opting for locally grown fruits such as durian and green mango instead of the ubiquitous frozen berries you find everywhere else. Now that’s a sensible—and sweet—sip.
Bodhi Cafe, 2671 S. King St., Suite D, 949-2679, bodhihawaii.com
Best Steak Tartare
In a town where raw ‘ahi is king, it can be hard to find a good steak tartare. But it was a quest we undertook because there’s something deliciously primal about raw beef. It’s a staple of steakhouses and French brasseries, but given that we don’t have an abundance of the latter, we expanded our search into other cuisines. At Wada, we found a lovely and rich version with beef hand-sliced to order, spiked with sesame oil and chili and served with nori. Budnamujip’s yukhoe, the Korean steak tartare, was more refreshing, with crisp Asian pear and a squeeze of fresh lemon. But, in the end, a steakhouse trumped them all: BLT Steak, serving a classic version of hand-chopped beef, chunky, almost like poke, mixed with red onion and topped with fried capers for the perfect bite to cut through the meatiness.
BLT Steak, 223 Saratoga Road, 683-7440, e2hospitality.com/blt-steak-waikiki
Honolulu is a salad desert. Thank goodness for newcomer Bills Sydney, which brings a slew of fresh dishes to town. The most famous, of course, is its ricotta hotcakes. But the sleeper hit here is one of the best salads we’ve had in a long time: the quinoa salad. Shredded beets and sprouted sunflower seeds combine with quinoa, endives and feta, finished off with a shower of chili flakes and a squeeze of lime. It’s available in the downstairs café, which, incidentally, is also where you can find some of Honolulu’s most exciting ice cream sundaes. Because who said anything about skipping dessert?
Bills Sydney’s quinoa salad, 280 Beachwalk Ave., 922-1500, billshawaii.com
Best Pearl Milk Tea
Did we really need another pearl milk tea spot? Looking to Taste Tea on a recent, humid Sunday night, when the line was 30 people deep, the answer appeared to be a resounding yes. What sets Taste Tea apart: more than six varieties of teas brewed daily, including jasmine green tea and chrysanthemum pu-er tea (the fragrant flowers blended with a Chinese fermented tea), and perfectly cooked, chewy tapioca pearls. Customize the sweetness level of your tea and add anything from coffee jelly to ice cream to your cup.
Taste Tea, 1391 Kapiolani Blvd., Suite 105, 951-8288
Best On-the-Farm Treat
However you get to the Kahuku Farms’ Farm Cafe, whether it’s by tractor after the farm tour or by car coming up Kamehameha Highway, you have to get the hot, grilled banana bread, doused in caramel and haupia syrup and topped with apple-banana ice cream. The bananas come from the farm, of course, and the deliciousness from pure magic. At least, it seems that way.
The grilled banana bread at Kahuku Farms’ Farm Cafe, 56-800 Kamehameha Highway, Kahuku, 293-8159, kahukufarms.com
Best Hidden Gem for Noodles
Ireh, a humble little place on Keeaumoku Street, is somewhere you can go anytime, morning to evening, for ultimate Korean-food comfort. But if you think that means just jap chae and bibimbap, prepare for something different. Ireh offers noodle dishes not found elsewhere in town: “chewing noodle,” extra elastic, chewy noodles made with potato starch; herb-y, sesame-leaf, hand-shaved noodles that are more like shards of dough; and noodles in a refreshing, cold soy milk and fresh-ground peanut broth. The Korean grilled-meat palaces are getting all the buzz these days, but it’s this little shop, with its fresh and homey preparations, that quietly satisfies from day to night.
Ireh, 911 Keeaumoku St., 943-6000, irehrestaurant.com
Best Pour-Over Coffee
The single-cup pour-over method—the slow, low-tech way of brewing a cup of joe—has popped up as an option in coffee houses all over Oahu. At Beach Bum Cafe, Honolulu’s only “microbrew coffee house,” the pour-over isn’t an option, it’s the rule. “It’s simply the best way to prepare coffee,” says owner Dennis McQuoid. Beach Bum offers coffee varieties from all over Hawaii, and its knowledgeable baristas can talk at length about any of them.
Beach Bum Cafe, 1088 Bishop St., ground floor; 521-6699, beachbumcafe.com
Best Mai Tai
We asked cocktail scholar Randy Wong to help us find the best mai tai in Honolulu, using Trader Vic’s original 1944 recipe as the benchmark. Tiki’s Grill & Bar has a 1944 mai tai, but Wong found it wanting. “The right profile, but insanely sweet,” he said. Both Bevy and Salt have 1944 mai tais, too, and Wong found these to be complex, well-balanced cocktails. He liked them equally well. “Can’t they both be the best?” he asked. No, they can’t. Forced to break the tie, we drank up. We also liked them equally well, but we gave Salt’s an extra point for its grimacing tiki mug. Wong pointed out that Trader Vic did not serve his mai tai in a tiki mug. We’ll overlook that. We like a grownup drink in a cartoonish glass. And so, by a hair, Salt Bar & Kitchen’s 1944 mai tai takes it.
Salt Bar & Kitchen’s 1944 mai tai, 3605 Waialae Ave., 744-7567, salthonolulu.com
Best Eggs Benedict
Eggs Benedict are the rock stars of the breakfast and brunch world—all hedonism and artistic flair. Consider us groupies—we had to find the best. After soliciting a short list of well-reviewed favorites, we partied our way through town. What we decided, through the haze of the ensuing kanack attack, was this: Forget tradition. Longhi’s elevates eggs Benedict to a whole new level with its lobster variation: a fresh-baked baguette topped with Maine lobster and big, round egg yolks with fluffy whites, cloaked in a light hollandaise sauce. The lobster is tender, not chewy, the eggs poached to the perfect degree of doneness, and all the distinct flavors blend together in evenly balanced bites—no shortage of lobster here. It’s a bit pricier ($23) than your average Benedict, but when it comes to a rock-star breakfast, there’s no contest.
Longhi’s lobster Benedict, Ala Moana Center, 947-9899, longhis.com
In principle, kombucha sounds nasty: fermented tea, created by a culture of bacteria and yeast. Sometimes it tastes nasty, too, as if you left a can of POG out in the sun, long enough to give it a kick. But SKY Kombucha, which you can get on tap at Kokua Market, is not only drinkable, it’s actually refreshing and, yes, yummy. Chalk it up to SKY’s rotating natural flavors, which founders Shannon and David Yarber add after the fermentation process, and CO2, which pushes it out of the taps and adds more fizziness, making it like a healthy soda. Try the strawberry.
SKY Kombucha, Found at multiple locations including Kokua Market, $4/pint, skykombucha.com
Best Juice Bar
Whether you’re ready to refresh, rejuvenate or detox, Blue Tree Cafe has a variety of fresh juice blends and cleanses that Juice-istas are more than happy to talk you through. None of the juices include ice or additives—your cup is full of fruit, veggies and natural ingredients to give you a healthy boost. Feel free to swap out elements or throw in more of your favorites, or even create your own juice from scratch—Blue Tree’s flexibility and variety allow you to customize all of your drinks as if you were in your own kitchen, only it’s always stocked full. We like the Honey Badger, as much for its name as its taste.
Blue Tree Cafe,1009 Kapiolani Blvd., 591-2033
Best Grocery Store
Foodland, Multiple locations, foodland.com
Best Health Food Store
Whole Foods Market, Multiple locations, wholefoodsmarket.com/stores/honolulu
Best Place to Buy Poke
Foodland, Multiple locations, foodland.com
Liliha Bakery, 515 N. Kuakini St., 531-1651
Teddy’s Bigger Burgers, Multiple locations, teddysbiggerburgers.com
Best Wine Shop
Tamura’s Fine Wine & Liquors, Multiple locations, tamurasfinewine.com
Best Local Beverage Company
Kona Brewing Co., Available across the state, (808) 394-5662, konabrewingco.com
Best Local Snack Company
Wholesale Unlimited Inc., Multiple locations, wholesaleunlimitedhawaii.com
Best Local Food Company
May’s, Available across the state, 682-8305, mayshawaii.com
Best Food Truck
Camille’s On Wheels, 282-1740, Twitter: @camillesonwheel
Best Coffee Shop
Starbucks, Multiple locations, starbucks.com
Best Local Chocolate
Madre Chocolate, Multiple locations, 377-6440, madrechocolate.com