Best of Honolulu 2017: Food
26 editorial and reader picks for the tastiest food in town.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
You know what they say: There’s no such thing as a bad pizza. And that’s what made this choice so tough. We visited our longtime favorite spots and a few newbies, asking ourselves, what is it that makes a truly great pie? In the end, newcomer Brick Fire Tavern couldn’t be beat. The soft, chewy crust is made in the traditional Neapolitan style (owners Matthew Resich and Inthira Marks trained in Naples). The 900-degree, wood-fired brick oven in the open kitchen, where you can watch each pizza come to life, is also from Italy and, thanks to its high temperature, pizzas cook in just 90 seconds. With fresh, local ingredients (and some Italian imports), including pulled-daily mozzarella, Brick Fire showcases simple flavors done right. The only downside? You have to eat fast—the pizza loses its magic after about 10 minutes, so grab a table inside the hip Chinatown restaurant and dig in.
16 N. Hotel St., (808) 369-2444, brickfiretavern.com.
Ice Cream Treat
Ice cream is always fun, but Sweet Creams turns this frozen treat—small cigar-shaped rolls of ice cream topped with everything from fresh fruit to gummy bears and Cocoa Pebbles—into something almost too pretty to eat. Sweet Creams owners Jeffrey Kao and Bari Carroll brought this Thai-inspired dessert to Hawai‘i last year with pop-ups, then opened a brick-and-mortar location across from Ala Moana Center in February. Choose from popular flavors (strawberry shortcake, cookies ’n’ cream) or create your own combination from scratch, then watch employees pour the liquid base onto an iced steel grill, chop up fruits and cereals to incorporate in the ice cream, and scrape it off into seven perfect rolls stuffed in a cup and decked out with more toppings.
1430 Kona St., #102, (808) 260-4725, sweetcreamshawaii.com.
SEE ALSO: First Look: Sweet Creams
If you’re any fan of bread, or of HONOLULU Magazine, Chris Sy’s name will be familiar. We’ve been gaga over his rustic-style loaves since he was selling them at farmers markets and even the cafeteria at the John A. Burns School of Medicine. (Not to mention his croissants, which we named as the best in town in 2014.) Now that Sy, an alumnus of Town, The French Laundry and Alinea, has opened up a brick-and-mortar bakery on Wai‘alae Avenue, featuring the same hearth-baked artisanal loaves he’s perfected elsewhere, we’re in carbohydrate heaven.
Pick up loaves of country bread ($8.50), featuring whole wheat and rye flours, or city bread ($8.50), which is closer to French bread, plus a range of other options, depending on what Sy’s baking that day. And, if you really love us, you’ll buy us a monthly Breadshop subscription ($34 a month), which guarantees one fresh loaf a week.
408 Wai‘alae Ave., Suite 104, breadsbybreadshop.com.
SEE ALSO: Breadshop Finds a New Home in Kaimukī
It may not seem obvious from its name what, exactly, Jewel or Juice in Kaimukī sells. But the acai bowl, which has been on the menu since the shop opened in 2006, is its single-most popular item. (The small, family-run shop started off selling both jewelry and juices, hence the name. Today, there are way more smoothies, breakfast bowls, blended ice coffees and fresh juices than earrings and necklaces.) The deluxe acai bowl ($7.25 for 16 ounces, $8.99 for 24 ounces) features a creamy blend of acai berries, local bananas, strawberries and apple juice, topped with slices of more bananas and strawberries, blueberries, shredded coconut, crunchy organic granola and a drizzle of honey. “Every bite is real fruit,” says owner Chris Chan. “It’s refreshing, delicious, and people like that it tastes good and is also healthy and nourishing.”
3619 Wai‘alae Ave., (808) 734-1700, jewelorjuice.com.
This celebrated fat bomb beloved by the hungover (and soon to be) traditionally features many layers of ham, turkey and cheese, preferably Gruyère, squeezed into a thick toast corset, then battered and griddled in butter. Intense and artery-clogging, a full Monte is not to be found on our shores, but Pint + Jigger’s is a downsized, hipster version done with style and grace. And you won’t need a two-hour nap afterward, either.
1936 S. King St., (808) 744-9593, pintandjigger.com.
Left to right: ‘Ulu cinnamon roll from Juicy Brew, Liliko‘i bars from Pipeline Bakeshop & Creamery, Grandona from Let Them Eat Cupcakes and healthy doughnuts from Baked Fit Hawai‘i.
Imagine splurging on a doughnut that’s sweet, locally made and contains enough protein to be breakfast. That’s why Angela Jordan started Baked Fit Hawai‘i: “I’ve always been a healthy baker for my family,” she says. She’s created low-glycemic-index doughnuts with whey protein and stevia in a rainbow of flavors. “Instead of a sugar rush, you get some good macronutrients,” she says. Try the sweet potato haupia and pumpkin cheesecake as well as strawberry and blueberry cheesecake. Order packs of two for $10 through Instagram for pickup.
The French croissant meets the Portuguese malassada in this beautiful, hapa love child combining the best of both worlds—the crispy outer layer of a croissant with the doughy, sweet, soft interior and sugar coating of a malassada. Behold, the Grandona at Let Them Eat Cupcakes. “We hand roll hundreds and hundreds of thin layers of sweet dough sandwiched between layers and layers of butter and sugar and then roll them into a knot and bake them until the sugar and butter create a sort of custardy caramel,” says owner/baker Kawehi Haug, “and then we toss them in a bit more sugar.” Grandona, which translates colloquially to “big mama” in Portuguese, is a fitting name for the oversize pastry, which is available on Fridays or by special order.
35 S. Beretania St., (808) 531-2253, cupcakes808.com.
To lay claim to the No. 1 liliko‘i bar in this town is to throw down a gauntlet to ambitious home bakers and a horde of finger-licking fanatics. But a taste test in HONOLULU’s offices produced a clear-cut victory for the triple-decked squares from Pipeline Bakeshop & Creamery. Owner and baker Gayla Young explains her approach: “Everything we make is from scratch in-house. We use a lot of butter. We get pure liliko‘i, no preservatives or additives, no food coloring. And no artificial flavoring. You want to maintain that tartness. For the bar, there’s a layer of cream cheese sandwiched between the liliko‘i and the crust. It all kind of works together.” This is a slight understatement; everything works great together.
3632 Wai‘alae Ave., #102, (808) 738-8200, pipelinebakeshop.com.
Sister chefs Jennifer and Christina Hee, formerly of Kale’s Natural Foods, opened Juicy Brew on Wai‘alae Avenue last year, where they sell all sorts of wholesome, local goodies, from omelets and waffles to burritos and salads. Not everything on the constantly changing menu is vegan, but many of the dishes are—and you can always expect to see ethically sourced ingredients used in unexpected ways, without sacrificing flavor. ‘Ulu cinnamon rolls? Cassava butter mochi? Beet cupcakes? Yes, please.
3392 Wai‘alae Ave., (808) 797-9177, juicybrewhawaii.com.
A couple of years ago, Bella Hughes and Harrison Rice started experimenting in their home kitchen with various flavors of māmaki tea, a plant packed with health benefits and endemic to Hawai‘i. Their goal was to create a shelf-stable tea in bottles with no sugar and actually brew the loose māmaki leaves—instead of using an extract—to maximize flavor and potency. A year later, the couple received the first shipment of 18,000 Shaka Tea bottles in three flavors—guava gingerblossom, pineapple mint and mango hibiscus—and secured orders from chef Ed Kenney and dozens of restaurants, shops, convenience stores and supermarkets across the state. Even sweeter, the couple donates 3 percent of the company’s profits to Kalihi Valley organization Ho‘oulu ‘Āina, which works to sustain the health of Hawai‘i residents through a connection to the land.
SEE ALSO: The Story Behind Shaka Tea
Order the potato ’n’ eggs ($14) for brunch at Over Easy in Kailua, because you might not find it anywhere else. Thick-cut French bread is stuffed with a sweet, house-made tomato jam, then draped in a silky potato purée and topped with crispy bacon crumbles and a seven-minute local egg. The sweet jam, the creamy purée, the salty bacon, the rich egg yolk—it all works.
418 Ku‘ulei Road, Kailua, (808) 260-1732, overeasyhi.com.
In 1979, Richard “Yasu” Hori, his wife, Janet, and their son Joel opened Holy’s Bakery Mānoa, making doughnuts, breads, pastries and fruit pies that were sold in markets, hotels and restaurants. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Yasu’s parents, Yoshio and Miyako Hori, started Holy’s Bakery—and those buttery frozen pies—in Kapa‘au on the Big Island. In the mid-’90s, Yasu and Janet retired and closed the bakery; Joel went to work as an air traffic controller. In 2014, Joel retired and got back into baking. That year, he and his wife, Jan, opened Hawaiian Pie Co. in Kalihi, whipping up classic apple, coconut, peach and pear pies (called Grandpa Yasu’s Pies on the menu) and inventive flavors that include passion-pear, caramel-apple and one called the Aloha Medley Pie with mango, peach, pineapple and strawberry. They all have Holy’s signature butter-laden crust. “The crust is pretty much the thing that everybody talks about,” Jan Hori says. The most popular fruit pie flavor right now is a liliko‘i-pear combo. The 9-inch pies are sold whole or by the slice, fresh or frozen.
508 Waiakamilo Road, (808) 988-7828, hawaiianpieco.com.
SEE ALSO: Who Can Say No to Pies By Grandpa?
Lam’s Kitchen hasn’t been in Chinatown for that long—less than 10 years—but it’s already well known for its chow fun, wide rice noodles accompanied by combinations of beef, pork, bitter melon, choy sum and fish. The tender, slightly chewy noodles are made fresh in the kitchen every morning. You can’t beat it.
1152 Maunakea St., #A, (808) 536-6222.
When it comes to nachos, you’ve gotta start from the bottom. And thin, fragile chips that buckle under the pressure of mounds of toppings just won’t do. That’s why we love the Grime Time Nachos at Encore Saloon. Owner Danny Kaaialii says Encore’s thick, extra-crispy chips are fried daily in house. “To me, that is the key,” he says. As both a former partner of Salt Kitchen & Tasting Bar and owner of Mexican-inspired Cocina in Kaka‘ako, he knows his stuff—even the pickled jalapeños are made in house to give the nachos that extra something. Along with vegetarian pinto beans, melted American cheese mixed with sautéed onions and jalapeños, red onion, cilantro and sour cream, “The house-fried chips stand up to the toppings, even to the last bite,” Kaaialii says, and we’ve found this to be true every time we stop by. “By paying attention to each nacho ingredient, the whole experience is better.”
10 N. Hotel St., (808) 531-8467, encoresaloon.com.
SEE ALSO: First Look: Encore Saloon in Chinatown
Best Matcha Dessert
Green tea ice cream isn’t anything new. But the matcha cream from Matcha Café Maiko in Waikīkī, served in freshly baked waffle cones, is otherworldly good. The house-made cream uses matcha organically grown (in a laborious process) in Harima Garden in Kyoto. While you can sample this rare, high-quality tea in various forms—iced lattes, frappes, shave ice—the most decadent is the Maiko Special ($9.20 for large, $7.80 for medium). This indulgent parfait, served in a cup, has all sorts of surprises: pieces of matcha chiffon cake, kanten jelly, water chestnuts, shiratama mochi, sweetened azuki beans and cornflakes, all topped with a swirl of creamy matcha soft serve.
2310 Kūhīo Ave., #143, (808) 396-8031, matchacafe-maiko.com.
The Sullivan Family of Companies first brought The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf to the Islands in 2005. Known for founding Hawai‘i’s first supermarket in 1948 with Foodland at Market City Shopping Center, the coffee franchise has since grown to 19 locations throughout Kauai, O‘ahu, Maui and the Big Island. Today, the brand has become Starbucks’ biggest local competitor—and for HONOLULU Magazine readers, the new popular favorite. Enjoy dozens of different varieties of coffee and tea, or try its signature ice-blended drinks, such as the original mocha or vanilla, hazelnut, or coffee-free pure chocolate or pom-blueberry. The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf also offers a wide seasonal selection, which currently includes pumpkin, chocolate mousse and salted butterscotch lattes or frozen drinks.
Multiple locations, coffeebeanhawaii.com.
Old-School Saimin Stand
Chef Mark “Gooch” Noguchi talks about Palace Saimin in Kalihi like it’s a holy place. And it may as well be. Opened by Kame Ige in 1946, it’s one of the oldest saimin stands in the state. And it’s still got that old-school charm: Japanese noren curtains separating the dining area and the kitchen, friendly maneki-neko and an old-fashioned menu board with just eight items. The cozy shop, now run by the Arakaki-Nakagawa family, still serves the original shrimp dashi and chewy noodles by Sun Noodle. A bowl of saimin with a barbecue stick: total comfort food.
1256 N. King St., (808) 841-9983, palacesaimin.com.
Wine from tamura’s Fine Wine & Liquors and Gluten-free cheesecake from Peace Café.
Since the 1920s, the Tamura family has been supplying Hawai‘i residents; first as a food market in Wai‘anae, then as a liquor and grocery store that Herbert Tamura and son Glenn spun off from the original family business in 1995. Today, Tamura Enterprises operates five Tamura’s Fine Wine & Liquors locations, three grocery stories and an express shop across O‘ahu and Maui. Whether you’re looking for the perfect bottle of wine, seasonal craft beer, rare whiskey (or some of the freshest poke around), Tamura’s is a one-stop destination for all your boozy needs.
Multiple locations, tamurasfinewine.com.
Peace Café is known as a vegan restaurant, but it really shines with its gluten-free desserts. Flavors of soft, chewy mochi cakes (matcha berry, kinako berry, chocolate strawberry, apple-banana cinnamon, kinako chocolate and brownie) and house-made ice creams (yuzu sherbet, chocolate, orange and more) rotate often and are made without dairy, eggs or refined sugar, instead using maple syrup as a sweetener. Our favorite dessert, though, is the cheesecake. The crust is made from nuts and dates, which create an earthy, textured base for the topping. It tastes just like a healthy Creamsicle.
2239 S. King St., (808) 951-7555, peacecafehawaii.com.
Everything at Boa Sushi is a cut above, but, trust us, you want the Boa Chirashi. It’s $15.95, yes, but for that you get an absolutely luxurious spread of amazingly fresh seafood, well above what you’ll find at any other downtown takeout sushi shop. The main show is the sliced array of thick, pristine ‘ahi, salmon, hamachi and even cured saba, on a bed of sushi rice. Added to that is cooked salmon, ikura, two slices of tamago and a pile of spicy ‘ahi. And then, of course, the usual ginger, wasabi, lemon slice and green onions. The HONOLULU Mag staff is a picky crew, but, anytime someone orders a Boa Chirashi, they’re the envy of the office, and usually inspire more people to go buy their own. This place is the real deal.
1111 Bishop St., Suite 4, (808) 585-8185.
SEE ALSO: First Look: Boa Sushi Café
At first, the idea of choosing between sliders seemed like an act of hubris destined to end in nightmare indigestion. Our extensive sampling indeed revealed an overreliance on sweet barbecue pork and assembly line production. But this same sameness made it relatively easy for a true standout to emerge: Tiki’s Grill & Bar. It doesn’t hurt that Tiki’s is notched on the second floor of the Aston Waikīkī Beach Hotel, overlooking the surf break, but it was the only place that offered a fish, pork and hamburger trio in a single order ($15). In sliders, variety matters. What’s way more important: These babies are chef-curated and local-sourced, just like grown-up food in white tablecloth restaurants. Fresh local fish, grass-fed Big Island beef, taro buns, local lettuce. The portions aren’t mingy, either, but real three-bite mouthfuls. You other guys, consider the bar raised.
2570 Kalākaua Ave., (808) 923-8454, tikisgrill.com.
Before Non deMello bought Agnes’ Portuguese Bake Shop, he had never had one of the bakery’s signature, hand-pulled malassadas ($1 each, $10.80 a dozen). When he first bit into one, he remembers thinking, “This is good. This is really good.” The recipe came with the bakery, and, for the past three decades, he’s kept it the same. Made to order, the malassadas are crispy on the outside, soft and doughy on the inside, with just enough white sugar to add sweetness and a slight crunch. (The hole in the middle—a traditional touch—allows the dough to cook more evenly.) You won’t find custard-filled or li hing-dusted malassadas here. “We keep it old school,” deMello says. “The best compliment I ever get is, ‘It’s just like my vovo (grandma) used to make.’”
46 Ho‘olai St., Kailua, (808) 262-5367.
Paniolo Chicken Salad.
Where can local residents go for an affordable early breakfast, pau hana pūpū and beers as well as late-night eats? As the jingle goes, “There’s no diner finer than Big City Diner.” In 1998, ‘Iolani grad Lane Muraoka opened the first Big City Diner in Kaimukī, offering local food favorites such as loco moco, Korean kalbi and “Grandma’s incredible” kim chee fried rice, plus classic diner fare including club sandwiches, chili dogs and an improbably good meatloaf. Six locations and nearly two decades later, Big City Diner is as big as ever. “We’re a family restaurant. So many of our customers are regulars who become lifelong friends,” says Muraoka. “We’ve had people meet working in the restaurant, then they get married and have kids. Different generations come and go, and restaurants can really become part of the community.”
Multiple locations, bigcitydinerhawaii.com.
An easy way to prove your knowledge of Mexican food used to be to shake your head and say, “There are just no tamales in this town.” Which, despite a couple of limited options, was pretty much the case. Now the wait is over, thanks to Tio’s Tamales, a small, clean and cheery hole in the wall on Nu‘uanu Avenue. Ray Mascarenas fills his elegant and flavorful packets of steamed masa with three fillings: a New Mexico Red of robust pork that sweats through the wrapper, which is a good thing; a Santa Fe Green of delicate chicken; and a roasted vegetable. One bite and you might postpone that trip back to SoCal. $2.50 apiece or $8.50 for three; plates available.
1329 Nu‘uanu Ave., (808) 531-8467.
Best Korean Plate Lunch
Korean Hibiscus BBQ owners Raymond and Shirley Kodani serve the kind of food they eat at home: yukgaejang (a spicy beef and veggie soup), mandoo kook soo and hamburger steak. Recently, the couple added something called “Grandma’s Special,” bulgogi stir-fried with jap chae (glass noodles), onions, carrots and other veggies that they serve to their granddaughters. All entrées come with hapa rice. “We soak the brown rice for 24 hours, then mix that with the white rice, then cook it,” Raymond Kodani explains. “It’s really humbug for the kitchen, but it’s so worth the effort.” Chef Ed Kenney is a huge fan: “You can taste the love in their food,” he says.
3221 Wai‘alae Ave., Suite A4, (808) 734-8232.
New Dessert Sensation
For almost a year now, the poi mochi doughnuts at Liliha Bakery have been the star of Island potlucks. “We experimented for two, three months before we rolled it out,” says assistant manager Rachelle Meadows. “It’s something I had before in ball form and it was a big hit, so I thought, why not try sell it to the public?” The sugary, segmented doughnuts are soft and chewy, with a bright purple inside that undoubtedly aided their rise to popularity (thanks, Instagram!). “We make thousands and thousands a day. The original coco puff is still our top seller and probably always will be … but the poi mochi doughnuts are right behind.”
Multiple locations, lilihabakeryhawaii.com.
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