Fire Up Your Tastebuds with These Spicy Food Finds in Honolulu
There’s no better way to celebrate International Hot and Spicy Foods Day on Jan. 16, 2018 with a dish or drink from this list.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
(This post was originally published online on Sept. 30, 2016.)
We love our sashimi cool, firm and smooth. And our steaks all buttery and warm and primally satisfying. But sometimes we crave heat. We like the slow-creeping heat that sneaks up on us and nips us in the back of the throat, and we like the punch-to-the-face heat that makes our eyes water before we even take our first bite. And though our Island foodscape isn’t inherently a spicy one, there are places we love that deliver the kick to work up a sweat at the dinner table. Here’s our list of go-to hot spots from mild to seriously spicy.
Disclaimer: We know that we can’t possibly provide a definitive heat rating on these dishes, but for our mouths, a one-pepper rating is a crowd-friendly heat, with a six-pepper ranking being the kind of heat that hits hard and lingers, but still packs as much flavor as heat.
Sometimes, a slow burn is all it takes to meet our need for heat. These dishes are the ones we get when we’re on our best behavior—sharing food with a mixed group of eaters who may or may not like it hot.
Dynamite Shrimp at Uncle Bo’s Pūpū Bar & Grill
559 Kapahulu Ave., $9
A go-to spot for pūpū seekers, Uncle Bo’s turns out appetizers like most places do entrées. We never leave without getting the Boca-Rota (garlic bread, prime rib, mushrooms and cheese … yeah, it’s a real thing), and then we get the Dynamite Shrimp for its complementary spicy-sweet-garlicky heat.
Cumin Lamb Chops at Hunan Cuisine
53 N. Beretania St., $24.95
At Hunan Cuisine in Chinatown, the star of the menu is this northwestern Chinese dish that dresses lamb chops in a warm, fragrant coat of cumin and red chilies and comes to the table looking much more wicked than it is. Any tongue numbing is courtesy of the Sichuan peppercorns, not the fried chilies piled on top. This lamb is pure comfort food, with just enough heat to keep us coming back for more.
Spicy Crab Manapua at Honolulu Kitchen
94-861 Farrington Highway, Waipahu, $1
We’re always surprised at how much heat this little ball of deep fried dough can hold. Honolulu Kitchen’s signature is its miniature golf-ball-size, deep-fried manapua that comes in more than 40 flavors and, while we dig most of them (Oreo manapua? Yes, please.), we’ll never leave Waipahu without packing some spicy crab manapua heat for the ride back to town.
We kick things up just a notch with these hotter-than-average dishes. You might break a sweat, you might not, but keep your beer handy. You’re going to want it.
Fireball ‘Ahi Poke at Fresh Catch
45-1118 Kamehameha Hwy., Kāne‘ohe
3109 Wai‘alae Ave.
Fresh Catch, one of our favorite purveyors of poke, has taken the traditional spicy ‘ahi poke and added a red-hot dose of Hawaiian chili pepper to take it from small-kine spicy to lip-tingling heat for its signature Fireball poke. For a less creamy version—but also a bit less spicy—the Firecracker poke packs a punch without the traditional addition of mayonnaise.
Jalapeño Peppers Stuffed With Pork Belly at Da Ala Cart
Various locations, $2
Jalapeño poppers have gotten an upgrade: Behold, the pork-belly-stuffed jalapeños. These smoky, grilled peppers are pretty much the perfect pūpū. Our only gripe is that the Da Ala Cart food truck guys don’t make them all the time. The stuffed peppers make occasional appearances on the quirky menu of various skewered meats (chicken gizzards, beef tongue) and morsels, and the only way to know when the porky peppers are available is to follow Da Ala Cart on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram and then show up at whatever curb or deserted parking lot they happen to be in. Show up early—they sell out quickly.
Dukbokki With Ramen at Café Duck Butt
901 Kawaiaha‘o St., $9
We love—love—a good, spicy dukbokki. The Korean comfort food of thick, soft, chewy rice-cake rods sautéed in a pool of dark red gochujang is everything. The Angry Korean Lady made our favorite dukbokki (we’re still mourning the closure of her Ah Lang restaurant), but then we found Café Duck Butt ’s version, and we’re hooked. At Duck Butt, they make rabokki—dukbokki with ramen and cheese! We’ll gladly forfeit some of the spice factor (this version is less spicy than we normally like it) for the addition of ramen noodles (ramen makes everything better) and cheese (ditto for cheese).
Heat seekers unite! Here’s where things get serious. Put on comfortable clothes, grab a hanky (your eyes, nose, brow and table-mates will thank you) and get down to business.
The Spicy Tonkotsu Ramen at Agu Ramen
Ward Village, 1200 Ala Moana Blvd., $13
LEVEL ONE: WARM
LEVEL THREE: NOW IT'S SPICY
EPIC LEVEL: MY TONGUE IS NUMB
In this city, a hot head’s best chance for a full-blown sweat fest around a table is by way of spicy broth—ramen broth, hot pot broth, spicy soup. At Agu Ramen, any of the ramen dishes can be made spicy. There are five levels of heat, with levels one and two being mild and spicy, and levels three through five … well, those come with a warning on the menu. The top of the scale, the “Epic Level,” is supposedly so hot, it’s beyond measure. The slow-simmered shoyu tonkotsu ramen is the perfect vehicle for level 5 heat. And if you like your heat to linger? You can even order the tonkotsu with a side of Parmesan cheese shaved right into the bowl. The high fat content of the cheese grabs onto the heat and sees to it that it hits every square millimeter of your mouth, tongue and throat—and then it just hangs out there. You’re welcome.
Spicy Broth at Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot
Ward Village, 1200 Ala Moana Blvd., from $12.95
Hot-pot spots are everywhere. Toss a fishball in just about any direction in Downtown Honolulu, and chances are it’ll land in a pot of boiling broth sitting on someone’s table. And while spicy broth is nothing out of the ordinary when it comes to hot-pot-style dining, we really dig the hot in Little Sheep’s pot. The spicy version of Little Sheep’s signature broth has all the great flavor of the original broth, made with 36 different spices and ingredients including red dates, goji berries, ginseng, black cardamom and garlic, plus a few handfuls of dried chilies. Large handfuls. There are easily hundreds and hundreds of chili peppers in the spicy broth, and we say: Bring. It. On. Need some heat relief? Ask for the steamed sesame bread and a pitcher of fresh watermelon juice.
Ghost Pepper Garlic Butter at Karai Crab
901 Hausten St., from $13
Spicy is in the name, so it’s not a huge surprise that we found our go-to spicy seafood place in Karai Crab, which translated from Japanese means “spicy crab.” What sets this place apart from all the other seafood and crab-boil spots is that, when they say they can make it spicy, they really mean it. The proof is in the ghost pepper garlic butter sauce.
Kae Jang at Sorabol
805 Ke‘eaumoku St., $24.99
We like our kae jang any way we can get it. The traditional shoyu-based version? Yes, please. The spicier gochujang version where the fermented raw crab is covered in a thick, red chili paste with heat so high you can smell it before you see it? Yes, yes, yes. We like Sorabol’s version for two reasons: It’s super spicy (and we can ask for more spice if we’re up for the challenge), and because we can get it anytime we want it. We love Korean restaurants that never close.
Spicy Haryali Kebab at Café Maharani
2509 S. King St., $16.99
These unassuming chicken kebabs, bathed in a yogurt marinade of cilantro, bell pepper and green chilies, look like they would deliver a sort of laid-back heat. Because when it comes to spice, red means fire hot and green means mild. Not in this case. These kebabs, made with Indian finger chilies, mean business. Sweaty, eye-watering business. But, while the heat factor is high, so is the flavor level, which doesn’t always happen with spicy food. At Maharani, spice is flavor, and this chicken has both in spades. Need something to help absorb the heat? Try a flame-cooked flatbread—roti, chapati, puri or naan—perfect pairings for the spicy main dish.
Spicy Fire Pickles at Brew’d Craft Pub
3441 Wai‘alae Ave., $5
We go to Brew’d for the beer, but we don’t leave without the pickles. We’re currently obsessed with our fave Scottish ale, Ola Dubh 18, and we have to have it with the fried deviled eggs and the Spicy Fire Pickles made with ghost peppers. Our suggestion for the perfect nosh: Put a pickle on an egg and chase it with the beer.
Nam Tok at Siam Garden Café
1130 N. Nimitz Hwy., $9.99
We like everything at Siam Garden Café. Every dish can be ordered as spicy as you want it, and we’re slaves to a good and hot Thai curry (chicken panang for the win) over sticky rice. But there’s something about a salad that packs serious heat that we can’t resist. Maybe it’s the cool mint and bright lime versus the devilish, mouth-numbing heat from the tiny Bird’s Eye peppers that has us hooked, but we can’t get enough of this northeastern-style meat salad. Grilled slices of beef or pork are tossed together with lime, mint, onions, roasted rice kernels and, of course, chili peppers for an addicting perfect storm of flavors and temperatures. Order it extra spicy, because there’s really no other way.
Our search for hot spots doesn’t end with food—we also love us some liquid heat. These pints and cocktails will nip you right in the throat, in the best possible way.
Scorched Strawberry at RumFire
Sheraton Waikīkī, 2255 Kalākaua Ave., $10
One of our favorite cocktails on the island, Rumfire’s Scorched Strawberry is a spicy-sweet revelation of strawberry rum, pineapple juice and chili pepper water, with a sugar and cayenne-pepper rim. Yes, yes, yes.
Jalapeño Mouth beer at Waikīkī Brewing Co.
1945 Kalākaua Ave., $6.50
Where most jalapeño beers taste sour, this amber ale from Waikīkī Brewing Co. is perfection. Spicy, but still a proper beer.
Rogue Sriracha Hot Stout at Brew’d Craft Pub
3441 Wai‘alae Ave., $22
It was only a matter of time before the folks at Rogue created a beer to pair with our collective love affair with Sriracha hot sauce. Lucky for us, Brew’d sells it by the bottle.
Cobra Commander at The Pig & The Lady
83 N. King St., $11
Spice and smoke go together like fish and poi, and when we want a cocktail that’s got both heat and fire, we get The Pig & The Lady’s Cobra Commander, a blend of avocado-infused tequila, grapefruit liqueur, fresh lime, salt and Sriracha ice cubes.
Our sweet tooth also has a spicy side. This is how we get our sweet heat fix.
Guava Hawaiian Chili Pepper Shave Ice at The Local
138 Hekili St., Kailua, $5.50
The Local makes killer shave ice. Our all-time fave? The guava-chili pepper with vanilla ice cream. The bright guava (and this is serious guava syrup, somewhere between guava jam and guava juice), the mild heat of the chili, the creamy ice cream and the cool shave ice are everything we want in a dessert.
Chipotle Allspice Chocolate Bar from Madre Chocolate
Available at Whole Foods Market locations, $7.99
This little bar made by local chocolatier Madre Chocolate is a warm, mildly spicy bit of chocolate bliss. Just enough of everything—chocolate and smoky chipotle chili—to satisfy a craving.
Mango Habanero Ice Pop from OnoPops
All farmers markets, $4
Made with straight-up mango purée and habanero peppers grown in owner Josh Welch’s in-laws’ garden, this pop delivers a mild heat that’s perfect against the sweet mango.