Big Island Roundup

New options, old favorites and a lot of rental-car miles in between.

Photo by Olivier Koning

Neil Murphy’s food at Merriman’s is simple, direct, full of Big Island flavors, like these roasted Hamakua maitake mushrooms with Parmesan.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority has decreed that we can no longer call the Big Island the Big Island.  It’s the Island of Hawaii.

OK, except for two things. First, the inevitable confusion between the name of the island and the name of the state.  Second, everyone who lives here still calls it the Big Island, especially people who live on the Island of Hawaii.

So, if you will excuse my sloppy nomenclature, my problem with the Big Island is that I seldom spend enough time there.

Recently, however, I got a chance to stay long enough to put some serious miles on a rental car, from Kona to Hilo to Volcano to Waimea. My travels took me far from the Kohala Coast resort zone and its high-end eateries. Instead, I found a number of smaller, less expensive restaurants, some new to me and perhaps to you.

Merriman’s Restaurant

Merriman’s is hardly new. Peter Merriman began this farm-to-table restaurant in Waimea 20 years ago, long before the notion came into vogue. The restaurant has a wall of awards. But what’s it done lately?

A year ago, longtime executive chef Sandy Barr left the restaurant. “Then I got lucky,” says Merriman. 

Reeling from a bad divorce, a New York chef named Neil Murphy was willing to leave the kitchen at Park Avenue Café for this little restaurant in the wilds of Waimea.

The results have been extraordinary. Murphy has not altered the restaurant’s philosophy. “I feel like a shopper, not a chef,” he says. “I go out and get local ingredients, then try not to get in their way.”

For instance, five miles away, Hamakua Mushrooms grows maitake mushrooms in conditions so carefully monitored, the mushrooms come out in little bouquets, about the size of heads of broccoli.

Murphy takes a bouquet of maitake, bathes it in olive oil and roasts it with Parmesan cheese, topping it with some wilted arugula. “See, I hardly do anything,” he says.

Yes, but what he does is the right thing. Your best strategy is to order the nightly chef’s menu, and let Murphy do, or perhaps, “undo” his thing.

For instance, he might start you with guacamole, made with Hawi avocado. It’s topped with miniature cilantro, so fresh Murphy snips it from a still-growing plant right at your table. The chips are house-made with local potatoes, and the dish is accented with bright red cubes of Nakano Farms watermelon. “It’s nothing, it’s guacamole,” shrugs Murphy.



Here are some things John Heckathorn had to say in past months. Go to our Dining page to read more reviews!

• Kaiwa Waikiki
Waikıiki Beach Walk,
226 Lewers St.,

“One of the few culinary successes on the new Waikiki Beach Walk,” the restaurant is “a little Japanese jewel box of a place.” With food as stunning as the décor, “the best strategy is to start trying small plates at random.” Just don’t miss the imported octopus, which “manages the perfect texture.”


Reviewed in the November 2007 issue.

Murphy whips up salads with local tomatoes, figs, yellow watermelon, goat cheese and shavings of Serrano ham, all in an ice wine vinaigrette.
He makes tempura with some surprising ingredients—eggplant, fennel and avocado. “How do you find avocado firm enough to make tempura?” I asked.

“Get the right avocado,” says Murphy. “I buy these from this disreputable-looking guy who comes to the back door. I never ask where he gets them.”

Murphy puts together entrées with benign restraint. His grilled kampachi sits above a sauce that’s mainly reduced carrot juice, with a touch of butter.

He butchers his own Kahua Ranch lambs, offering up sliced tenderloin with sautéed organic Honopua Farms spinach, and a gratin of potatoes and fennel from Hirabara Farms.

Kurt and Pam Hirabara, from the farm, were in the restaurant. “I’m running out of these potatoes,” said Murphy. “Please grow some more.”

Among the desserts is something simple—tart ruby grapefruit segments, sprinkled with sugar and run under the broiler.

“These are the best grapefruits I’ve ever tasted,” says Murphy. “I get them from the yard of Michael Mondavi’s home down the coast. He said I could use things out of his garden. I’m not sure he meant I could raid all his trees.”

Murphy’s chef’s menu is $65 a head. Wine by the glass is extra—you can ask Merriman’s wine director, Jim Lunchick, for pairings. We were moderate in quantity, but not in quality, beginning with a Nicolas Feuillatte champagne and then a cold-climate Australian pinot noir, Tribute by T’Gallent. That ran the tab to more than $100 a person.

If you haven’t eaten at Merriman’s lately, you owe yourself another visit.

Hilo Bay Café
WAIAKEA CENTER // 315 MAKAALA STREET #109, HILO // 808-935-4939 // OPEN MONDAY-SATURDAY 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., SUNDAYS 5 to 9 p.m. // FREE PARKING, MAJOR CREDIT CARDS. //

Hilo Bay Café is not in a food court. It’s in a shopping center, cattycorner from a Wal-Mart and an OfficeMax, with a jammed parking lot. In other words, nothing that anyone from Honolulu isn’t already used to.

In fact, it’s a familiar sort of place, a modern shopping center café with a swoopy curved bar and track lighting, an upscale menu, plus the kind of esprit you find when there’s a line of people out the door waiting for a table.

The food’s the best I’ve had in Hilo: ahi poke sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds. Lots of warm-cold salads: warm apples in smoked bacon over organic spinach, or warm roasted organic beets over greens, with hearts of palm, candied macadamia nuts and feta cheese.
The entrées include a first-class, grass-fed Kulana ribeye, with a slice of savory bread pudding, full of herbs. “Stay away from that,” said my friend, as I reached for it.

All the way from Honolulu, I’d heard of this restaurant’s signature dish, the $10 chicken pot pie with its billowy hat of pastry. I had to order it, but was less than overwhelmed. It was full of chicken, but bland, and many of the “savory” vegetables inside had been previously frozen.

Hilo Bay Café has a full bar, a reasonable wine list. But, it was lunchtime and I was piloting a rental car in the Hilo rain, so we confined ourselves to organic house-made limeade with coconut milk, which tastes even better than it sounds. Lunch for two ran $50 with tip. Make a reservation, this place is packed. Too bad you can’t also reserve a space in the parking lot outside Wal-Mart.

Huli Sue’s BBQ & Grill
64-957 MAMALAHOA HIGHWAY, KAMUELA // 808-885-6268 // LUNCH 11:30 A.M. to 2:30 P.M.; DINNER 5 P.M.. to 10 P.M. //

PHOTO by Olivier Koning

The anti-salad:  A barbequed pork sandwich and its fried friends at Huli Sue’s.

You have to love Huli Sue’s. It’s the only restaurant I’ve ever been to where the daily special board lists what the restaurant is buying as well as selling. The day I was there, Huli Sue’s would buy all the citrus you brought into the restaurant. Located in Waimea, Huli Sue’s is sort of archly rustic. It’s a restaurant owned by sophisticates (who also own Fujimamas in Kona), but goes out of its way to pretend it is pure cowtown.

Somehow the conceit works: huge $12 hamburgers stacked high with chili and cheese; barbecue beef and pork sandwiches, with fries and crisp, fresh slaw.

I had time only for a quick lunch at Huli Sue’s, but one of these days I want to go back for dinner: pork chops in bourbon and brown sugar, with corn pudding; barbecued leg of lamb with chili water-pineapple sauce. Plus a full salad bar of stuff they grow themselves or buy from their prospective customers.


Kilauea Lodge and Restaurant
19-3948 OLD VOLCANO RD., VOLCANO VILLAGE // 808-967-7366 // DINNER NIGHTLY 5:30 P.M. to 9 P.M. //

Up in the chilly rain forest, Kilauea Lodge has a wonderful, homey feel to it: high-beamed ceilings, roaring fireplace, waitresses in dowdy dresses with warm, welcoming attitudes.


Here are some things John Heckathorn had to say in past months. Go to our Dining page to read more reviews!

• Licious Dishes
650 Iwilei Road #170, 536-9630.

Order a week’s worth of homemade raw, vegan dinners on Monday and pick them up on Friday. Each dish comes with ingredient lists and clear directions. The “living lasagna” is “the tastiest, richest thing you could imagine uncooked.” Heckathorn hogged the tacos with red pepper tortillas, fresh salsa and vegan sour “kreme.”


Reviewed in the September 2007 issue.

Perhaps it’s a hunting lodge thing, but the menu is heavy on game meats. My friend had antelope, not particularly gamey, but chewier and flatter in taste than I would have suspected.

I had “Safari Schnitzel”—which turned out to be Wiener Schnitzel made with ostrich instead of veal, pounded flat and tender, and topped with a white sauce, almost an alfredo, with the tart tang of citrus and capers. The glaze on the sauce indicated, to me at least, that it may have contained some artificial stabilizer. But nonetheless, the dish worked, warming you on a cold night. Dinner comes with soup. You have twochoices. The coconut-celery soup was the single worst combination of flavors I’ve ever encountered. I’d stick with the Alsatian soup, which, while salty, is full of beef and bacon heartiness.

Desserts were dessert-tray stuff—Grand Marnier crème brûlée, chocolate peanut butter cake. The latter reminded me of my mom’s cooking.

Dinner was not inexpensive, $140 for two. But the wine list was reasonable, including the bottle of game-meat-friendly Edmeades zinfandel ($35).

But here’s why you should love this restaurant. Many guests come here for their birthdays, but they don’t get the usual out-of-tune, dispirited “Happy Birthday to You” from the waitstaff with dessert.

Instead, Kilauea Lodge has its own signature birthday song, an uptempo number which assures the celebrant that, despite their advancing years, they “look good, look fine, hope you had a real good time.”

I did, and it wasn’t even my birthday.

Tex’s Drive In
45-690 PAKALANA ST., HONOKAA // 808-775-0598 //

Tex’s Drive In is a landmark on the long drive from Kona to Hilo, a tour bus stop and an official Visitors Center.

The name has nothing to do with Texas. It was founded by a family named Texeira.

Tex’s is an accomplished local drive in, with 90 items on the menu. Instead of mac salad, you can get a fresh mesclun of local greens on your $8.25 hamburger plate.

Tex’s has a display kitchen devoted solely to malassadas, which it claims are “world famous.” It sells 60,000 a month.

I paid my 48 cents for one and was disappointed. Tex’s malassadas are square, yeasty, heavy—more like a sugar-crusted dinner roll. At the risk of seeming O‘ahu-centric, you are much better off at Champion, Agnes’ or Leonard’s.

Fujimamas Kona

If Fujimamas were in Honolulu, say, tucked off Kapahulu Avenue, it would be a huge hit.

It’s got it all—a funky, trendy space, wooden tables, paper lanterns, outdoor seating. Plus a sushi bar and a modern Asian fusion pupu menu.

On top of that, before 6 p.m. the entire pupu menu is half off. “Order lots,” said the waitress. We had a few glasses of Sophia Coppola California sparkling wine and did just that.

Dinner kicked off with a seared ahi plate. Nothing subtle here; the ahi block had been rolled in togarashi, so that it lit up your tastebuds with fire.
There was enjoyable grilled eggplant, triangles of sautéed tofu steak and, best of all, a large plate of handmade Chinese noodles, in a deft sweet-and-sour sauce, stir-fried with mushrooms, which the menu called wild, but were clearly from Hamakua.

This light dinner, with tip and wine, totalled about $75, not cheap, but not bad for a few steps off the main tourist strip in Kona town.   


Jackie Rey’s Ohana Grill

On the Kona side of the island, you’re always looking for a decent restaurant that isn’t resort-priced.

Jackie Rey’s is an aggressively friendly restaurant, designed for locals.  Located right outside Kona town, it’s brightly colored—mango orange, starfruit yellow, lime green, all lit up.

When we got there, Jackie Rey’s was packed. Tuesday was “Angry Lobster Night,” when you could have a 1-1/4-pound lobster dinner for $29.95, the lobster from the cold ocean-water lab just down the road. But get there early, because, by 7:30, they may be already out of lobster.

The menu aims at foods for all moods, everything from $12.95 bacon-cheddar burgers to $29.95 steak and shrimp special. You can get Korean-style shortribs—a little too sweet in the marinade—with tempura vegetables. Or a thick slab of ahi, served over noodles and vegetables, with a dexterous ginger-shoyu glaze, and a palate-waking crust of wasabi.

Portions are big here. We barely made it through the lilikoi sorbet with fresh papaya for dessert.

Jackie Rey’s makes no pretense of being haute cuisine, but it’s the kind of place where you can have a hearty meal for a decent price in a relaxed setting. And that says a lot.