Hale ‘Aina Award Winners 2023: Seven That Slay
Out of 42 categories and almost 130 Hale ‘Aina award winners, these seven of your favorites stand out.
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Best Kaua‘i Restaurant
Calling itself “Kauaian kaiseki,” ‘Āina Kaua‘i uses farm-fresh ingredients to build kaiseki-style tasting menus that highlight the bounty of the Garden Island’s land and ocean. Chefs Mitch Muroff and Jabez Yohannes deftly combine their deep love of Kaua‘i flavors and food traditions with their admiration for Japanese cuisine to create daily-changing multi-course menus ($149/person) that have made this year’s gold winner one of the island’s most difficult dinner reservations to snag.
Think Sopranos-style spaghetti and meatballs and chicken parm: Gold winner Mad Bene slings rib-sticking Italian-American classics in a casual-cool atmosphere in Kapolei. Go for the Pappardelle Bolognese ($20), hand-cut pasta swirled with a silky, meaty 12-hour ragu, and don’t leave without also getting the Mad Garlic pizza ($18), wood-fired and topped with garlic prepared six different ways. Because, while garlic bread is the indisputable best friend of big bowls of pasta, a wood-fired garlic pizza this good is a very, very close second.
We’ve known it since our very first sip of Justin Park’s exquisite Flowers for You cocktail ($18): Park is a star. HONOLULU readers agree: Bar Leather Apron, which he co-owns with businessman Tom Park (no relation), won gold in its category. The hidden gem on the mezzanine level of an office building in Downtown Honolulu also won a James Beard Award this year, so now the whole world knows about it. As well it should. Every seat in the denlike lounge is fussed over by a small staff of bartenders trained by Park. This is inarguably the place to savor and sip the best cocktails in the city.
Egghead Café, this year’s bronze winner, is Stuffy Brunch’s quirkier cousin. In Kalihi, where breakfast options are otherwise a bit limited, Egghead is a surf-vibey spot whose menu puts it squarely in legit brunch restaurant territory—without the trappings of a traditional restaurant. Ten kinds of pancakes, seven kinds of omelets, seven kinds of eggs Benedict and five kinds of breakfast toasts (that wisely go beyond avocado) round out the offerings, along with signature items like the uber popular peanut butter and condensed milk French toast.
The home of the famed pork adobo fried rice omelet, Elena’s Restaurant took gold this year—one year shy of its 50th anniversary. The restaurant opened in 1974 and expanded with food trucks; its popular orange truck still roams the island. The lechon special, sari sari, chicken adobo and other Filipino classics keep Elena’s bustling—even more so now that the Honolulu Skyline’s Pouhala station is just steps away.
The late Mark Ellman was a force on the Maui restaurant scene. One of the 12 chefs who developed and promoted Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine, Ellman opened 18 restaurants after arriving on the island in the late ’80s to raise his family and build his restaurant empire. He was the chef and owner of Māla Ocean Tavern, Māla Wailea and Honu Seafood in Lahaina, and founder of the Maui Tacos fast-food chain. Frida’s Mexican Beach House was his last restaurant. After his death in February, his family decided to close Frida’s, but his legacy remains, and his fans have honored him and his beloved Mexican eatery with this year’s bronze award.
Japanese restaurant group Zetton Inc.’s eighth restaurant on O‘ahu, The Seaside in Waikīkī, takes home the silver award with its focus on raw, fresh seafood. Seaside is the first foray into, well, seafood for the eclectic group. Its other Hawai‘i restaurants include a steakhouse; a ramen shop; and Nature Waikīkī, whose French-inflected, locally sourced fare helped it win gold for Best New Restaurant in 2022.