Comfort Food for the Soul: My Top 6 Restaurant Picks on O‘ahu Right Now
This classic post highlights Maria Burke’s favorite restaurants on her home island.
Editor’s note: Maria’s first post as Frolic’s digital dining editor was published in May 2021. Her choices resonate with timelessness and a love for the local food scene, making this post a hit then and still a classic today.
Maria Burke’s first job in food was behind the counter at Island Snow Kailua, making shave ice for sun-baked beachgoers. She’s since been a competitive mixologist, nightclub manager, cooking instructor, events director and even financial advisor. Back home after years in the Bay Area and Barcelona, Maria has a newly minted degree in Spanish from UH Mānoa. She loves live music and can often be found dancing, usually with food in hand. Maria is Frolic Hawai‘i and HONOLULU Magazine’s new Digital Dining Editor.
If you ask me to name my favorite places to eat on O‘ahu, don’t expect a simple answer. Instead, you’ll receive a lengthy list organized by category and cross-referenced by time of day, price point and ambience—complete with a Venn diagram and a brief deck of slides. Totally casual. Having spent the bulk of my life working both in the front and back of house in restaurants, bars, hotels and nightclubs, to say that I’m obsessive about the details that surround dining would be an understatement. For me, it’s always been about the whole experience. So whether it’s a fine dining restaurant or a neighborhood haunt, I’m delighted by the nuances of joy, artistry and passion.
Lately I’ve been gravitating towards those places that exemplify craft and consistency. And since moments of comfort and time spent with friends are more precious than ever, for me this has translated into a heightened sentimentality towards eating. My favorite places are a mix of old-school nostalgia, some finer but no less comforting delicacies, sublime patio ambience, and the most beautiful smoked brisket I have ever seen.
Maybe it’s the year spent away from crowds, or my general affection for privacy while I eat, but I love arriving at I-Naba relatively unnoticed and finding a quiet corner table to settle into. I-Naba is my favorite place to eat alone, primarily because I feel transported away from the hustle and bustle of life and free to just be. The service is toned down but efficient, an energy that encases varying levels of intensity—and in a way I enjoy feeling like a visitor to the charming, old Tokyo-esque world they’ve created. Everything in this place is non-pretentious and even more comforting for its calm consistency.
I also happen to love soba. It’s one of the few dishes I’m always in the mood for and the housemade noodles at I-Naba reinforce this. Firm and glossy, with just enough chew and flavor to marry effortlessly with a flavorful dipping sauce when ordered cold (zaru) or in a warm, savory dashi broth (kake). I love that I can order beautifully prepared tempura, sushi and broiled fish, as well as different chirashi combos that come with the soba. My usual fave is the uni, ikura and hotate chirashi with zaru soba, and sometimes I’ll add whitefish tempura. A close reading of the specials is a must, as is ending with warm kinako mochi bites—a treat that takes me back to New Year’s Eves when my calabash uncle would pass around plates of the sweet, toasty pillows to all us kids, giving us the final wind of the night.
Helena’s Hawaiian Food
Helena’s emits a sense of place that for many of us is intrinsically tied to the feeling of home. After two years of living in Barcelona, Helena’s remained the only food that I missed deep down in my soul. Even if I could have found some of the ingredients, I wouldn’t have been able to recreate the experience, which only would have made me miss it even more. Helena’s is a gathering place, a place for enjoying and talking story.
I often daydream of perfectly charred, fatty pipi kaula dipped into a pool of onions marinating in chili pepper water and shoyu—the bass line anchoring acidic pops of lomi salmon mixed with poi, while the sweet-savory melody of squid lū‘au melds with briny lomi ‘ahi and opihi. Each meal at Helena’s feels like a celebration. The crunch of fried butterfish bones dipped in gravy gets to join the party if there are enough people. Two cups of ice on the side are necessary for a concoction of strawberry and orange soda mixed at the table—iykyk. Helena’s will always be one of my favorite pieces of home.
Masa & Joyce
Growing up in Waimānalo, virtually everywhere to eat was a destination. These days I cherish my favorite Windward spots even more, having lost some longtime faves along the way. Masa & Joyce is my go-to when I have no idea what I want and I’m just really hungry—aka in an okazuya mood. What sets Masa & Joyce apart are many kinds of musubi, the namasu and the plates full of fresh handrolls always in the cold case.
I’ve ordered crowd-pleasing platters from the catering menus—for everything from my grandfather’s funeral to friends’ birthday parties. The chefs are always generous and the experience is easy. They keep it simple, and it’s so good. Wasabi, spicy ‘ahi and California hand rolls; sticky, sweet, candy-skin shoyu pork; fried chicken; ‘ahi balls and andagi are just a few of my favorites. They also have fresh sashimi and a slew of plate lunches, and they even give you shoyu options: Aloha or Kikkoman?
SEE ALSO: Best Okazuyas on O‘ahu: Our Top 5
I had all but sworn off dining in Waikīkī, but when I heard about La Vie at the Ritz-Carlton Residences, led by Shaymus Alwin and Dusty Grable, it seemed like a gem waiting to be discovered. The feeling is of intimacy in an open and airy space, very island French really—a balance of effortless luxury. Everything from the delightful interaction with the host to getting to drop my car at valet to setting foot in the serene patio dining room gels into perfection as the sun sets over Waikīkī.
I have only had good experiences at La Vie—that’s a bold statement for me. It has been my favorite place to celebrate. I especially love the menu format that allows you to dine on four desserts if you please! As one who manipulates dining companions so I can try EVERYTHING on a menu, it seems to have been created with people like me in mind—it’s fun and portions are perfectly sized. Between the current menu and the Chef’s Selections of over 20 options, dishes have been consistently exciting, tasty and unique, making it hard to go wrong. From Alaskan king crab legs brûléed with a rich shellfish sabayon, to a signature dish of silky sunchoke tofu and osetra caviar, creativity is abundant and the seafood steals the show. French-inspired desserts like a Mānoa honey soufflé are surprising and delicious, while the house truffled brioche babka is light yet rich. While La Vie may not be the most riveting dining experience, I don’t care—because it’s just so damn pleasurable.
This place is a cornerstone on my list of recommendations for great food on O‘ahu. It’s partially because of my obsession with copper pots, which Tamafuji uses for frying. Each cutlet, tenderloin, or piece of seafood is carefully coated in housemade panko then tossed into the magical cauldrons bubbling with golden oil, to be expertly retrieved once magnificently crispy. Plus, the straightforward style of table service is a refreshing break.
More than anything, I appreciate the simplicity of the menu: Tamafuji crafts a few dishes and makes them sing. I always order the oyster katsu, sometimes with shrimp and sometimes with the special pork loin with cheese added. I don’t mess around and neither do these folks. It all comes with mountains of fresh shredded cabbage, tart, crunchy pickles and silky rice—I like to stop and smile at each grain. Fragrant, toasted sesame seeds are pulverized by you, in preparation for deeply flavored katsu sauce. Talk about the details: Tonkatsu Tamafuji is full of them.
SEE ALSO: First Look: Tonkatsu Tamafuji
There is only one place that I will drive three hours round-trip from Waimānalo for, and it’s this place. I’ve watched barbecue competitions on TV for years, always wondering if I’d ever meet a perfectly smoked, jiggly piece of brisket. I salivated over smoke rings and different pepper coatings long before Sunset Smokehouse existed, but this place made all my barbecue dreams a reality. You may think I’m joking when I tell you that I’ve dreamed about barbecue, but I am not.
I usually get a half-pound of the peppery, luscious brisket, extra pickles and extra sweet rolls. In my car, I make mini brisket sandwiches, followed by bonus bites of the brisket, always with lots of sauce. The service is genuine and friendly; they ask questions because they want to make sure you have the best experience possible. These guys know their stuff and the food is comforting down to my toes. For me, hearing that they’re opening in Kaka‘ako might have been the best news of the year. Sunset Smokehouse is a tribute to simplicity and technique. It is the ultimate craving.
Update: Sunset Texas Barbecue opened at 443 Cooke St. in Kaka‘ako in late summer 2021.