Best of Honolulu 2015: Food
The 32 editorial and reader picks for tastiest food from our Best of Honolulu 2015 issue.
Best of Food
Photos: Aaron Yoshino
For just 10 bucks, experience Wade Ueoka’s take on the classic ZipPac. The MW bento will forever spoil you for other bentos: It comes with thick slices of kalbi, Portuguese sausage, delicately fried tonkatsu and a house-made version of Spam. Yup, house-made. There are rice and pickled vegetables, too, as in ordinary bentos, though this one is anything but ordinary.
Available for takeout only, weekdays 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. 1538 Kapi‘olani Blvd., Suite 107, 955-6505, mwrestaurant.com
Best One-Woman Diner
Wait, Harry’s Café is run by a woman? Yup, a woman named Christy who didn’t bother changing the restaurant’s name when she bought it. You’ll recognize Harry’s Café by the “Home of the 99c Breakfast!” sign over the door. But that’s not why we come here (actually, the 99-cent breakfast no longer exists). The concrete façade hides a rare warmth: Inside, there are red-and-white checkered tablecloths, mismatched mugs and cups (some we recognize from a Magic Bullet set), and Christy’s motherly affection, which extends to sharing some of her personal stash of cookie butter. She serves solid breakfast food, blueberry pancakes, corned beef hash, and it’s the only place we’ve been where you can order a side of lup cheong. This is where we return to, over and over, post-surf session, post breakup, pre make up. It’s a place to be soothed and comforted—the perfect diner.
1101 Waimanu St., 593-7798
Best Jewish Nosh
Kvetching being a Ludlow Street sport, there is by definition no such thing as a satisfied customer at a delicatessen in New York City. But we’re willing to bet that any visitor from back East who’s missing a nice deli spread will be grateful for This Is It on Cooke Street and its Bishop Street outpost, This Is It Too. Mona Gelson started her first bagel company in Honolulu in 1979, and today with son Josh turns out the stuff of neurotic, Woody Allen-esque dreams: a chewy, flour-dusted bialy; bagels with the proper stretchy texture that comes of being boiled (and that are not the size of soccer balls); a lovely heaping lox plate; and, best of all, a loose pile of pastrami shavings on rye, moistly exhaling flavor instead of being compressed into hard slices. (No matter how high they stack it, pastrami has to breathe.) Gelson says the 443 Cooke St. bakery is where to go after temple.
This Is It, 443 Cooke St., 597-1037, and This Is It Too, 1001 Bishop St., thisisitbakeryanddeli.com
Best Brussels Sprouts
That we can have this category and a good number of readers will, instead of retching, keep reading, proves this sad, abused vegetable is finally having its moment to flutter its tiny little leaves in the spotlight. Roasted, fried and paired with bacon, Brussels sprouts are appearing on menus all over town, knocking out memories of the overcooked, mushy vegetable of our childhoods. Our favorite comes from 12th Ave Grill, where these babies are deep-fried and covered with cheddar crumbles, crispy pancetta, dried mango and toasted macadamia nuts. Crunchy and soft, salty and sweet—shine on baby, shine on.
1120 12th Ave., 732-9469, 12thavegrill.com
Best Salmon-Skin Handroll
One of our favorite izakayas, Imanas Tei, had already won over our stomachs with incomparable nabe, sparkling fresh sashimi and delicate fried gobo kakiage. But the menu was hiding a secret: the humble salmon-skin roll, not so humble at Imanas Tei. Here, it’s a handheld cornucopia filled with crispy fried salmon skin, chunks of meaty salmon, daikon sprouts, pickled carrots and a shower of tobiko that spills over like confetti. It’s a party wrapped in nori. Pictured here: the salmon-skin maki-mono.
2626 S. King St., 941-2626
Best Daikon Salad
Ah, the daikon, humbler than the potato, which at least gets fried, mashed, souffled, baked, gratin-ed. Whereas the daikon, more often than not, is boiled. Maybe simmered, if it’s feeling really fancy. But enter the daikon salad, a staple at many izakayas, sadly overlooked. Because daikon = boring in our minds. Until we tried it at Gazen. Here, shredded daikon is tossed with julienned carrots, bell peppers and cucumbers, in a light peanut-soy dressing. The really fun part? The crushed cashews and Japanese rice crackers mixed in give this salad all sorts of delightful textures. Welcome back to the table, daikon.
2840 Kapi‘olani Blvd., 737-0230
Best Mexican Hora Feliz
Offering ceviche at happy hour is an all-in move that only works if you get yours fresh. And Luibueno’s deliciously passes the test. The fish in the ceviche and in the $2 tacos is fresh caught, the brisket and al pastor tacos are heaping, Negro Modelo is on tap ($3.75) and there’s a good, classic margarita ($6).
Luibueno’s Happy Hour is weekdays 4 to 6 p.m. and every night from 9:30 to 10:30 p.m. 66-165 Kamehameha Highway, Hale‘iwa, 637-7717, luibueno.com
PHOTOS: AARON YOSHINO
Comfort foods shouldn’t be tricky to judge, but, even so, we were amazed when the humblest burrito shop we know of, La Taqueria Mission, unanimously won a blind tasting. Known better as “the place on Fort Street Mall,” La Taqueria has variously been Taqueria de Ricardo and Taqueria de Ramiro. The foil-wrapped torpedoes look the same under new owner Esteban, lately from San Francisco (and its celebrated Mission District Mexican food), yet do seem to have gotten better, while retaining retro-classic simplicity. The chunks of chile verde are large and juicy, the carnitas crispy and succulent, both fillings playing off the subtle flavoring of the pinto beans, rice and tomatoes. That La Taqueria Mission beat out burritos with fancier ingredients, more polished pedigrees and higher prices is almost as gratifying as its under-$7 price tag.
1148 Fort St. Mall, 532-8226
Best Upper Crust
Sometimes the best part of the pie is the crust. And the best upper crust we’ve had in years is the croissant-fluffy pastry cover of the Crab Fat Curry at The Pig and the Lady. Not always on the menu, this pot pie exhales a heavenly Dungeness steam when pierced. Warning: Dipped in the curry sauce, the crust will make you greedy.
83 N. King St., 585-8255, thepigandthelady.com
Best Way to Eat Fruit for Breakfast
We didn’t think Café Kaila’s fluffy, cinnamon-kissed pancakes could get any better. Then we saw every Japanese tourist around us ordering them with what looked like a fruit salad on top. It was apparently the secret that everyone seemed to know about except us, until now. Pile on all of Café Kaila’s fruit offerings, and you’ll get caramelized apples, bananas, strawberries and blueberries. All dusted with powdered sugar, it’s the prettiest plate ever, even if you can’t see the pancakes under the fruit. You barely need any maple syrup—the fruit lends all the sweetness you need.
Market City Shopping Center, 2919 Kapi‘olani Blvd., 732-3330, cafe-kaila-hawaii.com
Best Dim Sum Dessert
There’s not a lot of innovation in dessert at dim sum restaurants. Not that we were complaining—we were too busy making sure we weren’t burning our fingers and mouths on the fresh fried jin dui at Mei Sum. Then we discovered the mango mochi at Jade Dynasty. This isn’t mango-flavored mochi, it’s mango pudding inside mochi. How do they do it?! (We asked, but the chef is keeping this secret all wrapped up.) We love you, jin dui, but we also wholeheartedly embrace this new wonder as a lighter finish to dim sum.
1450 Ala Moana Blvd., 947-8818, jadedynastyhawaii.com
Best Banana Split
If you don’t know where to look, it can be damn hard to find a good banana split in this town. But once you know … you’ll find it’s been hiding in plain sight, day and night. The best banana split is served at Zippy’s dine-in restaurants (which means it’s available 24 hours a day!). It’s decadent and yet no frills. An oblong glass dish will barely contain the banana and three scoops of ice cream, but loses the battle against the thick, thick hot fudge, strawberry and pineapple toppings that spill over the edges. (The standard banana split comes with one scoop of chocolate ice cream and two scoops of vanilla—we think all vanilla is the way to go.) Mounds of whipped cream, a sprinkle of crushed peanuts—it’s hard not to go bananas at the sight of this. Bring a friend: It’s definitely made to split.
Multiple locations, at Zippy’s, dine-in side only, zippys.com
The piña cake is a uniquely Hawai‘i treat. It’s a soft, shortbreadlike crust encasing delightfully chunky pineapple. It’s not really cake, and it’s not a usual round cookie—it’s more like manju and a close kin to Taiwanese pineapple cakes. Piña Hawai‘i uses locally grown pineapple for the treats and delivers them to its cookie boutique in the Hilton Hawaiian Village every two days to ensure a fresh product.
Piña Hawai‘i at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, 2005 Kālia Road, 952-5919, pinahawaii.com
Best Roll Cake
If you could eat a cloud, this is what it would taste like: a light-as-air sponge cake rolled around a puff of whipped cream, gently cradling a fresh strawberry. The strawberry roll cake: so simple and perfect, and no one does it better than Kulu Kulu Cake. Something about its form (best eaten with your hands!) makes it more casual and comforting than a slice of a stately, upright cake. If the latter is for formal occasions, then the roll cake is for everyday ups and downs, telling life: I’m gonna have my cake and roll with it.
Inside Shirokiya, first floor, 1450 Ala Moana Blvd., kulukulucake.com
Best Roast Duck
We were sure the best roast duck had to be in Chinatown. It just had to be. Because that’s where all the best Chinese food is, right? Wrong. It turns out it’s in an ‘Aiea strip mall that also houses a killer lemon crunch cake and great Taiwanese-style shave ice: Roast Duck Kitchen’s mahogany-colored roast duck, most of the fat melted into the rich meat, scented with anise and ginger. Winner, winner, roast duck dinner.
99-115 ‘Aiea Heights Drive, ‘Aiea, 486-0005
Best Crispy Pork
Italians have their porchetta, Chinese have their roast pork and Filipinos have lechon. But not satisfied with just lechon, they also have crispy pata, a deep-fried pig leg. The best version is at Tiano’s in Waipahu, where crunchy pig skin encases soft, tender meat—no dry bits here. It’s served off the bone and chopped up, with a soy calamansi dipping sauce.
94-235 Hanawai Circle, Waipahu, 677-2992
Best Variation of Haupia
As much as we love Ted’s chocolate haupia cream pie, our new favorite adaptation of the coconut pudding dessert is Pomai Ku¯lolo’s haulolo, a smooth block of fresh haupia (the best we’ve tasted) atop a thin layer of kūlolo crust. It’s not too decadent, the savory crust balancing out the sweetness of the haupia, with just the right firmness, our teeth sinking through two magical desserts in one.
Various farmers markets, 699-6089, pomaikulolo.com
Best Kim Chee
We blind-taste-tested a number of kim chee—from jars distributed by kim chee conglomerate Halm’s, to other grocery store staples, to gourmet, small-batch kim chee products, to plastic tubs picked up from the corner store. And the surprising-but-why-are-we-surprised winners? Kim chee from two corner stores, the ones run by Koreans, where the kim chee is homemade and pungent, lights your tastebuds on fire with chili and leaves them with an afterglow of fishy umami: Sidewalk Deli and Number One Store.
Sidewalk Deli, 1154 Fort St. Mall, #107, 538-1688; Number One Store, 1638 10th Ave.
Best Homemade Waffle Cone
We’re slow eaters. We call it savoring. And that means we usually end up with ice cream on our arms and chins, which is why we love Wing Ice Cream’s waffle cones: They can stand up to the dripping scoops of Pretz-i-dent and Nutella Bella we can’t help but stack upon each other, with new flavors precariously perched on the melting tower that gets taller and drippier each time we come by (S’moreos? Two scoops, please). Somehow, the delicate and crunchy, hot-off-the-iron cones maintain their structure without turning into gooey messes. For that, they get an A. For tasting like a sugary wafer cookie, enriched with chocolate or sprinkles, they get an A+.
1145 Maunakea St., Suite 4 (entrance on North Pauahi Street), 536-4929
Liliko‘i, li hing shiso, strawberry ume, lava flow, guava—where else do sorbettos capture the culture and flavors of the Islands this perfectly? Via Gelato’s fresh-churned sorbettos deliver bright, cheery flavors we can’t get enough of. Pair a sorbetto with one of Via Gelato’s gelato for a perfect play of icy and creamy, fruity and lush.
1124 12th Ave., 732-2800
Best Moscow Mule
In our quest to find the city’s best Moscow mule, we found variations with different types of citrus, legit house-made ginger beer (sometimes with bits of fresh ginger), local honey. But, in order to be a true Moscow mule, our criteria were strict: Tangy lime juice, a spicy hit of ginger beer, some honest-to-Pete vodka and a lime wedge. Strong, but not too strong. And, for tradition’s sake, it damn well better be in a chilled copper mug. That’s exactly what you get at Manifest, where your tongue tingles with delight as you try to remember that this is, indeed, alcoholic, so slow your roll. While you’re there, go for the Manifest Mule, too, a variation that uses bourbon instead of vodka, and house-made liliko‘i shrub.
32 N. Hotel St., manifesthawaii.com
Best of Food Reader’s Pick
Best Local Chocolate Company
PHOTOS: AARON YOSHINO
Big Island Candies is probably best known for its rich, chocolate-dipped rectangles of shortbread cookie—the kind that come in a beautiful box, perfect for omiyage—but our readers also voted the Hilo company as having the best local chocolate, period. The manufacturing process starts with the highest grade of either milk or dark chocolate, which is then wrapped around all kinds of locally sourced treats. Hawaiian macadamia nuts, red chili toffee, Kona coffee beans, even ume shiso. Your mouth is watering now, isn’t it? It’s OK, when you’re buying a box of chocolates for someone else, just buy one more for yourself!
Ala Moana Center, 1450 Ala Moana Blvd., #1230, 946-9213, bigislandcandies.com
Best Place to Buy Poke
With an average of 30 varieties—many of them tweaked to their neighborhood taste—it’s no wonder Foodland wins our readers’ nod as best place to buy poke. While the locally owned chain starts with basic recipes for the classic standards (spicy, shoyu, limu, Hawaiian style), spokeswoman Sheryl Toda notes that each store has some say. “A store might select a milder shoyu, add a little less sesame oil, add a little more chili pepper, more wasabi, etc., and they do it based on customer feedback every day over the years,” she says. At Sack N Save Puainako on the Big Island, one of its most popular is “Idamay’s Special Poke,” created by employee Idamay Okinishi. An ‘ahi poi poke is going strong on Maui while a pineapple poke never really caught on. Spicy ‘ahi reigns as the most popular poke. If you figured Super Bowl Sunday as the best-selling poke day, you’d be wrong. It’s New Year’s Eve. Toda says, “Our lines start from one end of the store and go all the way to the other end.”
Locations statewide, foodland.com
Best Wine Shop
High spirits are automatic at Tamura’s Fine Wine & Liquors, whose three O‘ahu branches are famed for serving the casual imbiber heading to a BYOB restaurant with the same consideration they show connoisseurs of each store’s constantly rotating 2,000-bottle wine selection. The secret is in the sales staff, many of whom came from outside the business but were turned into experts and, at owner Glenn Tamura’s insistence, good listeners. “The store makes sure we do a lot of tasting,” says Ron Fujimura, a 16-year veteran of the 3496 Wai‘alae Ave. location. “That’s how we learn to become very open-minded, so that we don’t just recommend what we like. We learn to put ourselves in the customer’s shoes by asking them questions: What’s their pricing, what’s their style, what have they liked in the past? A lot of people ask for food pairings, but I tell them, bottom line, just drink what you like.” (Still, asked what to pair with a vigorous kim chee, he instantly recommends “something white, off-dry, semi-sweet, like a viognier … ” Well played, sir!)
Various locations, tamurasfinewine.com
Teddy’s Bigger Burgers
Multiple locations, teddysbiggerburgers.com
Best Coffee Shop
Island Vintage Coffee Inc.
1450 Ala Moana Blvd., #1128, 941-9300, islandvintagecoffee.com
Best Grocery Store
Multiple locations, foodland.com
Best Health Food Store
Whole Foods Market
Multiple locations, wholefoodsmarket.com
Best Local Beverage Company
Kona Brewing Co.
Multiple locations, konabrewingco.com
Best Local Food Company
Best Local Snack Company
Wholesale Unlimited Inc.
Multiple locations, wholesaleunlimitedhawaii.com
Multiple locations, lilihabakeryhawaii.com