Cheap Food Hawai‘i: Your Guide to ‘Ono Meals and Killer Deals in Honolulu
We’ve tracked down some of Honolulu’s best cheap lunches, steaks, plate lunches and deliciously inexpensive upscale happy hours.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of HONOLULU Magazine and has since been updated in June 2019.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
Lunches Under $9
A cheap lunch needs to do more than fill us up until dinner. That’s why we scouted quite a few to come up with thirteen on O‘ahu that are so tasty we want you to try them, too.
Kalapawai Café & Deli, $8.99
Who doesn’t love a BLT, especially one with slices of avocado? Kalapawai Café & Deli in Kailua serves a lunch version, with a generous helping of crispy bacon, several slices of tomato and just enough avocado to give it a creamy texture without overwhelming the sandwich. It’s all stuffed between two slices of soft, white bread and served warm. Warning: It’s made to order, so it can take up to 10 minutes.
750 Kailua Road, Kailua, (808) 262-3354, kalapawaimarket.com
Waffle Dog with Chili
Hawai‘i’s Favorite Kitchens, $4.95
Three ultimate cheap-eats collide in this dish. It’s a hot dog baked in a waffle—the signature treat of the beloved KC Drive Inn (which closed in 2005)—topped with the hearty, scratch-made chili from historic Rainbow Drive-In. It’s so substantial you have to eat it with a fork.
3111 Castle St., (808) 744-0465, hawaiisfavoritekitchens.com
Mini Chicken Plate
Tanioka’s Seafood & Catering, $5.95
Tanioka’s in Waipahu may be best known for its fresh poke and Spam musubi. But its three kinds of boneless fried chicken—regular, garlic and mochiko—are just as popular and have been on the menu here for more than 20 years. (The regular chicken is the most popular at the store, though mochiko is ordered most for parties, and garlic for weddings and corporate events.) The recipe, like many served at this popular takeout spot, was inspired by Lynn Tanioka, who started the business with her husband, Mel, in 1978. “My mom made the chicken for us at home and it was so delicious, she decided to make it at work,” says Jasmine Tanioka, daughter of the founders and the company’s chief financial officer. “She still cooks for our whole family every week. My [son] tells everyone his grandma is the best cook in the world.” The mini plate, at just $5.95, is a cheap way to get your chicken fix. It comes with a piece of crispy, juicy chicken, a generous scoop of white rice and your choice of potato-mac salad or tossed salad. And, for that price, you won’t feel guilty about adding a Spam musubi ($1.95 each), too.
94-903 Farrington Highway, Waipahu, (808) 671-3779, taniokas.com
Curry Udon Set
Sushi Kahuna, $8
This little sushi-ya hidden in an arcade in Downtown Honolulu offers a great deal on udon combination lunches. For $8 you can get a small bowl of udon, Japanese-style curry and rice, along with eight pieces of California roll sushi. It’s a lot of food—and yummy, too. This combo used to be available on Mondays and Fridays only; now, the shop serves it every weekday.
212 Merchant St., (808) 545-7848
Smoked Salmon Toast
Arvo Café, $8.50
There’s no prettier dish than the toast at Arvo Café. This Aussie-inspired coffee shop serves this snack artistically arranged on rustic wooden planks with edible flowers. So Instagrammable! While it offers avocado and Nutella versions, the smoked salmon toast stands out, with cream cheese, spinach, onions, capers and tangy dill on fennel rye toast. It really tastes as good as it looks.
In the process of relocating to a new location at SALT at Our Kaka‘ako. Follow them on Instagram for updates.
Baker Dudes, three slices for $5
In 2014, Baker Dudes opened its first brick-and-mortar location on Alakea Street after years working the farmers market circuit. (The bakers still do them four times a week.) Popular items include signature stuffed croissants, liliko‘i bread and sourdough boules, all baked on site. But, in 2015, Baker Dudes started crafting 12-inch pizzas and selling slices as cheap lunches on the go. The Great White is a white-sauce pizza with various kinds of meat—sometimes prosciutto, sometimes bacon jam. Dat Pep is a traditional pepperoni with onion jam and fresh mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. The BJ Span is topped with bacon jam, spinach, feta, onions and cheese. The pizza offerings change daily. In September 2016, Baker Dudes opened a booth at the farmers market on Fort Street Mall on Tuesdays and Fridays, selling much of what it does in its 800-square-foot bakery just a couple of blocks away, including its pizza. Michael Rickett, general manager, says it’s all about the pizza’s sourdough crust, which is thin and bready. “Our crusts are really excellent,” he says. “My girlfriend is from New York and she says ours is the best ever. That says something.”
923 Alakea St., (808) 346-1697
Summer Roll and Tuna Roll Combo Pack
Fort Street Café, $7
Right in the thick of Downtown Honolulu foot traffic, Fort Street Café serves no-frills Vietnamese and Thai food, making it a popular stop for office workers and Hawai‘i Pacific University students. If you don’t want to wait for crispy fried egg noodles, Thai chicken curry or hot Vietnamese pho, head directly to the counter and grab a bento of chilled shrimp summer rolls and Vietnamese tuna (canned, not ‘ahi) rolls. The prepacked meal comes with peanut sauce for the summer rolls and basil and fish sauce for the tuna rolls. No waiting required.
1152 Fort Street Mall, (808) 536-0455
Grilled Cheese Sandwich
La Tour Café, $6.90
Cheese lovers will crave this gooey grilled cheese sandwich from La Tour Café. First, the bread—Pain La Tour—is a country sourdough that’s baked fresh in-house. (La Tour started as Ba-Le, a small Vietnamese sandwich shop in Chinatown in 1984, always making its own bread. Now, the company’s central bakery bakes sought-after artisanal breads that are served in La Tour’s four café locations. The sandwich shop is still there, too.) The grilled cheese sandwich was added to the café menu in 2014, says co-owner Brandon Lam, to accompany the popular tomato soup. Between the two toasted, buttery slices of sourdough are havarti, cheddar and ricotta, perfectly warm and melty enough to stretch when you pull apart the sandwich halves.
Various locations, latourcafe.com
La Crêperie, $5.99
This fast-casual crêperie—formerly called Le Crêpe Café—serves freshly made, traditional French crêpes and sandwiches that will satisfy your savory and sweet cravings. For a quick and simple lunch, try the caprese panini, which is stuffed with Swiss (not mozzarella) cheese, slices of tomatoes, lots of fresh basil and olive oil. (A great option for vegetarians.) It’s served hot out of the sandwich press, and there’s seating both in and outside the café.
1160 Fort Street Mall, (808) 599-8400, lacreperiehonolulu.com
Rada’s Piroscki, $1.92 each
Piroscki—or pirozhki—isn’t a common dish in Hawai‘i. Literally meaning “small pie,” this popular Russian bun is stuffed with meat—usually beef—or vegetables, baked or deep-fried and glazed with an egg wash for a golden sheen. Rada’s Piroscki, located on Fort Street Mall inside Vicky’s Filipino Food, may be the only place to serve the specialty locally. Imagine a big andagi stuffed with beef and cheese. That’s a piroscki. Rada’s offers three flavors: beef, cheese and mushrooms; beef, cheese and cabbage; and chicken, cheese and mushrooms. And there's no skimping on the fillings. These deep-fried dough balls are hefty and satisfying—for only $1.92 each. For $5.50, get one piroscki with fried squid and tossed salad.
1113 Fort St. Mall, (808) 533-2388
Kau Kau Grill, $5
Kau Kau Grill started off as a food truck in 2013, garnering a following for its super-tender baby back ribs topped with a house-made barbecue sauce and its signature Krazy Rice (a spicy fried rice made with the grill’s barbecue sauce and shredded pork rib meat). When it opened a brick-and-mortar location in Māpunapuna in early 2016, co-owner Miles Oyasato added more menu items, including fried saimin noodles. For $5, you can get a full clamshell packed of these noodles, well-seasoned (not too salty) and dotted with bits of Spam, carrots, kamaboko and green onions.
852 Māpunapuna St., (808) 476-5888
Costco, $1.50 includes a drink
We love gourmet dogs, but we’re also suckers for the ultimate cheap eat—150 pennies for a juicy hot dog so huge it falls out of its bun. Plus a drink! Costco serves 100 million dogs a year, four times more than sold at major league ballparks. Everyone loves a deal!
K’s Bento-ya, $8.50
Walking into K’s Bento-ya in Waipahu feels like entering a time warp back to simpler days when small, hole-in-the-wall okazu-ya would serve home-style favorites right from the kitchen. This tiny shop on the bottom floor of a two-story walk-up opened in 1987, serving hand-packed bentos with deep-fried chicken and inarizushi. There’s nothing gimmicky about this place. You have two choices: a basic bento with fried chicken and musubi for $7.50 and a deluxe box for $8.50. Opt for the latter, which comes with three pieces of golden fried chicken, Spam, luncheon meat, a hot dog, tofu, four kinds of sushi and a single boiled shrimp. On average, the shop makes about 300 bentos total and often sells out before lunch. (It opens at 5 a.m.) K’s only takes cash and is closed Sundays and Mondays. You’ve been warned.
94-164 Awalau St., #1, Waipahu, (808) 671-0160
SEE ALSO: First Look: Gochi Grill in Downtown
DRIVE IN OR TAKE OUT:
The plate lunch is the quintessential cheap eat in Hawai‘i. You get a complete meal—a meaty entrée, two scoops of rice, a side of mac salad or maybe even something healthier—on a single plate, most often a paper one. And cheap doesn’t have to mean low quality. Here are our favorite dishes and where we like to get them.
Rainbow Drive-In, $8.95
In 2014, fine-dining chef Hiroshi Fukui quietly took the role of vice president of dining and facilities at Rainbow Drive-In, the popular 58-year-old drive-in off Kapahulu Avenue, a departure from the world of linen napkins and prix fixe menus. It wasn’t a huge shock for Fukui, though, who started eating here when he first moved to Hawai‘i, when he was 12 years old. “I lived up the street from Rainbow’s and it was the first place I ever ate, so it has a lot of memories for me,” he says. His culinary handiwork is most evident in the hamburger steak ($8.95), which he tweaked earlier this year. He added breadcrumbs to the 100-percent beef patties to keep them moist—and they’re definitely juicier than we remember. The brown gravy, a signature of the drive-in, is still made from scratch every day. “I really don’t think the food has changed much since I got here and it doesn’t have to,” he says. “I believe in the ‘Don’t fix it if it’s not broken’ rule. I’m not here to change any recipe, just making the recipe more consistent and uniform.”
3308 Kanaina Ave., (808) 737-0177, rainbowdrivein.com
Fresh ‘Ahi Plate
Nico’s Pier 38, $13.25
The pan-seared, furikake-crusted ‘ahi ($13.25 for lunch, $20 at dinner) from Nico’s Pier 38 is a fillet dredged in briny furikake and sesame seeds, then seared to a medium-rare finish. It’s served with a ginger-garlic-cilantro dip, white or brown rice, and Nalo greens, mac salad or tender green beans sautéed in garlic. They do booming takeout business at the harbor-front restaurant, which doesn’t offer seated service. But, if you’ve got the time, stay, grab a table, order a beer, listen to some live Hawaiian music and relax.
129 N. Nimitz Highway, (808) 540-1377, nicospier38.com
Richie’s Drive Inn, $8.99
Open in 1982, Richie’s Drive Inn in Kalihi still operates a drive-thru. And not just a drive-up window where you pick up a phone order. It’s an honest-to-goodness drive-thru where you place your order at an intercom and pick it up at the next window, fast-food style. And, while the most popular plates have been the hamburger steak and boneless chicken, the bento is a secret specialty. It comes with shoyu chicken, teri beef, slices of Spam and luncheon meat, and a piece of grilled saba on a bed of rice topped with furikake for $8.99.
1178 N. King St., (808) 842-4004, richiesdriveinn.com
Sam’s Delicatessen, $11.75
Jammed between Bangkok Chef and a 24-hour laundromat on Nu‘uanu Avenue, Sam’s Delicatessen may not be an obvious spot for mochiko chicken. But this Korean takeout plates up addictive bites of chicken, coated in a mix of rice flour, shoyu, garlic and ginger and fried to a golden crispness. They’re served on a bed of white rice with your choice of four banchan (Korean side dishes), including kim chee, tofu, bean sprouts and corn, for $11.75.
1627 Nu‘uanu Ave., #2, (808) 524-7777
Chili has been on the menu since Zippy’s first opened on King Street in October 1966. Since then, the closely guarded recipe—fewer than 20 people of the company’s more than 2,000 employees know it and they’ve all signed nondisclosure agreements—has been the subject of countless debates. Does it have mayonnaise? Or peanut butter? Or chocolate? Actually, none of the above, according to the company. The current recipe was devised by founder Charlie Higa after he fired a temperamental cook on Thanksgiving in 1967. (The cook had a history of throwing pots and pans in the kitchen.) Higa had to learn to make the restaurant’s chili from that day on and tweaked the recipe to his taste. Back then, the kitchen staff would cook chili in a 5-gallon pot, selling about 120 pounds a day. Now, with more than 24 restaurants across three islands and boxed chili sold in stores, Zippy’s sells more than 110 tons of its signature dish every month. In an experiment in the mid-1990s, the restaurant unveiled several versions of its chili; the no-bean and vegetarian versions stuck. (The spicy and Texas-style chilis didn’t make the cut.) You can get it on fries, with a hot dog or as part of an omelet. But we like it simply with white rice and a scoop of mac salad.
Multiple locations, zippys.com
Dean’s Drive Inn, $12.50
Even Guy Fieri loves the teriyaki beef from Dean’s Drive Inn in Kāne‘ohe. The host of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on the Food Network shot an episode at the restaurant’s original location on Kamehameha Highway in March 2014—and, since then, business has been booming. So much so, owner Dean Mishima decided to move to a much larger location—more than four times the size—two blocks away in early 2015, in the space once occupied by a second Kāne‘ohe Zippy’s on William Henry Road. It’s even got a drive-thru window for pickup orders. After the ‘ahi cakes, the teri beef is the most popular item here. Mishima, who has spent 40 years in restaurants, 19 as the executive chef for Liberty House, uses tender bottom sirloin sliced thicker than typical plate-lunch fare. “You can order the thin stuff any place,” he says, manning the cash register after the lunch rush. “I spend a little more money and get a better quality meat.” The mini plate is $12.50, the regular is $14.50, with your choice of mac salad, tossed salad with French dressing or soup.
45-270 William Henry Road, Kāne‘ohe, (808) 247-1300
Sugoi Bento & Catering, $8.55
In 2000, with no experience running a restaurant, Zack Lee opened Sugoi Bento & Catering in City Square in Kalihi, putting up his 1995 Toyota 4-Runner as collateral for a loan. He had the idea of using local-style recipes from his brother, who attended culinary school, and a family friend, who wowed everyone at potlucks with her cooking skills, to open a small restaurant. “I had this crazy idea and just took a chance,” says Lee, now in his forties with two kids. “I thought our food was good, but I didn’t know if the public would like it. Nineteen years later, and here we are. We’re still here.” Though its menu features hamburger steak, bento, yakisoba and chicken katsu curry, the best-seller has always been the garlic chicken, perfectly fried and soaked in the restaurant’s house-made garlic sauce. Lee is particular about the consistency of his chicken, and carefully times the cooking to keep pieces soft and moist. And the crispy-fried skin? That’s the best part.
1286 Kalani St., B-106, (808) 841-7984, sugoihawaii.com
Soon’s Kal Bi Drive In $15.29
When “kalbi” is part of your name, the kalbi better be good. And Soon’s Kal Bi Drive In in Salt Lake offers a deal on its Korean barbecue beef short ribs. For $15.29, you get a plate of three tender short ribs, white rice and a side of namul with kim chee, bean sprouts and pickled cabbage.
Salt Lake Shopping Center, 898 Ala Liliko‘i St., (808) 836-7665
Cheap steak seems like an oxymoron, but we found two deals—one for sheer enormity, another for high quality—that won’t dent your paycheck.
When Hale‘iwa Joe’s first opened on the North Shore over 20 years ago—it’s been in Ha‘ikū for 19—the restaurant billed itself as a seafood grill. It was in its original name. “We never intended to be a prime rib house, but it just happened that way,” says Tim York, a managing partner. The whole roast the restaurant orders averages 20 pounds, with seven bones. That means each slab of meat served is about three pounds (precook weight). At $37.95, it’s the best deal at the restaurant, and often sells out. Regulars know: If you want the prime rib, get there when the restaurant opens at 4:30 p.m. “The demand is unbelievable,” York says.
46-336 Ha‘ikū Road, Kāne‘ohe, (808) 247-6671, haleiwajoes.com
Wagyu has long been considered the king of beef, boasting intense marbling for a buttery, melt-in-your-mouth experience. And it usually isn’t cheap. At Nobu Waikīkī, for example, it’s $34 per ounce. Morimoto Waikīkī sells its 1-pound U.S. wagyu rib eye for $68 à la carte. But an inexpensive way to sample the coveted wagyu is as an appetizer from d.k Steakhouse. For $14, the wagyu bresaola carpaccio presents whisper-thin slices of New Zealand wagyu beef that has been air-cured and dressed with lemon aioli. It also features an impressive roster of locally grown ingredients including baby arugula from Nalo Farms and asparagus from Twin Bridge Farms.
2552 Kalākaua Ave., (808) 931-6280, dksteakhouse.com
TUESDAYS: BEST DAY OF THE WEEK
Let’s Taco ’bout It
From hearty Norteno to artsy elegant, we’ve got your Taco Tuesday covered.
By Don Wallace
Búho Cocina y Cantina
The best taco in town? One bite into the al pastor carved (by Mexico City native Antonio) off the rotating rotissiere at this rooftop cantina may settle the issue once and for all—the tang of smoky barbacoa will take you back to the Baja carniceria of your youth. At $2 apiece on Taco Tuesday, you can make it rain with stewed chipotle chicken and sauteed veggie options, too. The taco fiesta continues the fifth of every month with Cinco de Búho, which runs, with live music and DJs, to midnight.
Waikīkī Shopping Plaza, 2250 Kalākaua Ave., Suite 525, (808) 922-2846, buhocantina.com
Artizen by MW
“Ethereal” doesn’t usually come to mind on Taco Tuesday, except when the taco cradles house marinated mahi nestled in cabbage, drizzled with chipotle lime crema and flecked with cilantro so the whole thing looks like a Jackson Pollock painting. Which figures, since this fleeting joy (2 for $10) is by Wade Ueoka of MW Restaurant, served at his café on the first floor of the Hawai‘i State Art Museum, Monday through Friday. Only drawback? No beer or alcohol is served.
250 S. Hotel St., (808) 524-0499, artizenbymw.com
Upscale Happy Hours
“Happy hour” is seven and a half hours. Which means you can snag either lunch or dinner for only $7 a dish. Choose from sliders, ‘ahi or steak tartare, a tenderloin kabob, lobster crostini and a mini loco moco. For $10, you can get the seafood combo or tenderloin medallions. Martinis and wine specials are $7, and draft beers $5.
2301 Kalākaua Ave., #301, 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily at the bar, (808) 922-3600
Asian and South American influences come together at Nobu. Take the beef kushiyaki anticuho, beef skewers cooked Peruvian-style with a spicy sauce ($6), or the tacos ($7): Though bite-size, they explode with umami. Each dish might seem cheap, but prices are for single servings and orders come with two. But, hey, an omakase easily tops $100, so maybe $50 for dinner’s not so bad.
1118 Ala Moana Blvd., 5 to 7 p.m. daily in the bar and lounge, (808) 237-6999
The Signature Prime Steak & Seafood
How fancy is The Signature? There’s a red carpet leading to a dedicated elevator in the Ala Moana Hotel. During happy hour, a handful of menu items drop down to half price, including steak tartare (now $7.95), Buffalo jumbo shrimp ($9.50) and filet mignon sliders ($7.50). The full-size Ultimate Bacon Cheeseburger is only $12 instead of $24. Though we have no complaints about the toppings, they might as well not even be there—the beef is just that good.
Ala Moana Hotel, 36th Floor, 410 Atkinson Drive, 5 to 6:30 p.m. daily in the bar area, (808) 949-3636