The Best Things We Ate in Hawai‘i in 2021

Pizza, cupcakes, curry noodles, yakiniku: Top dishes still on the brain after a year of good eating.

 

What does a global pandemic do to your appreciation of food? If you’re like the Frolic team, it heightens it. Whether eating with friends, family or solo, whether it’s fine dining or food trucks or takeout, we don’t take these moments for granted any more, making the most delicious bites all the more memorable. Here’s a roundup of the best things we ate in Hawai‘i in 2021.

 

All-you-can-eat lunch special at Gyu-Kaku Japanese BBQ

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I’m a self-proclaimed carnivore. I also can be kinda cheap, so when I heard about Gyu-Kaku’s AYCE lunch special, I had to try it. At $27.95, it ain’t exactly the cheapest meal, but 11 of your 30 options are meat. While there are appetizers and veggies, my main concern is the meat. My stomach is only so big, so I have to be strategic. After some trial and error, the meat that I selected as my go-to is Kobe style nakaochi rib.

 

Cut into cubes, the steak has a healthy amount of seasoning that brings out its natural flavors. Savory and salty with pepper and the buttery richness of the fat, it’s so tasty that I usually eat it without the gluten-free dipping sauce. The more servings I have, the more I get my money’s worth! —Eric Baranda

Multiple locations, gyukakuhawaii.com, @gyukakuhi

 


 

Appetizers at Kapa Hale, Ni‘ihau venison pastrami at Et Al

Kapa Hale Char Siu Tako Melissa Chang

Photo: Melissa Chang

 

I’m torn between two dinners at two restaurants in Kāhala. Both meals, shared with old friends, brought back the joy of dining out which had been shelved for most of the pandemic. The first meal, at Kapa Hale, sparkled with three shared appetizers: the cauliflower, tako and raw fish carpaccio. All were prepared meticulously, the cauliflower and tako cooked to tender and not chewy. Little surprises that included grilled preserved lemon brought in an element of fun discovery. The second meal was a Hale ‘Aina special dinner at Et Al at Kāhala Mkt. While each of the five courses was lovely, if I had to choose just one, it would be the smoky Ni‘ihau venison pastrami, thinly sliced atop farro—with its satisfying chew—with fresh mission figs and micro arugula. —Robbie Dingeman

Kapa Hale, 4614 Kīlauea Ave., (808) 888-2060, kapahale.com, @4614kapahale. Et Al, 4210 Waialae Ave., (808) 732-2144, etalhawaii.com, @etalhawaii

 


 

Avocado garden curry and special seasonal salad at Tina’s Garden Cafe (Hilo)

Tinas Garden Cafe Curry And Seasonal Salad Pc Martha Cheng

Photo: Martha Cheng

 

This tiny spot in downtown Hilo cooks up modern Thai cuisine with Hawai‘i Island’s agricultural bounty, even using fresh coconut milk processed from local coconuts. So there’s an avocado garden curry that has at least an entire bombucha sized avocado in it, along with sliced fresh heart of palm and kabocha in an herbal and fresh green curry. And then, at the height of the season, the sweetest and juiciest salad with fresh watermelon, mango and lychee in a lime vinaigrette to balance out all the sweetness of summer. —Martha Cheng

168 Kamehameha Ave., Hilo, (808) 935-1166, tinasgardencafe.com

 


 

Bo cà ri gà at Piggy Smalls

Piggy Smalls Bo Ca Ri Ga Credit Katrina Valcourt

Photo: Katrina Valcourt

 

I am absolutely a sweet brunch person more than a savory brunch person, but since Piggy Smalls’ pho options rotate daily, I had to try one of the Saturday specials alongside my Hanoi egg coffee and butter pancakes. The bo cà ri gà, with a hearty curry broth, braised chicken wings, generous chunks of potato and egg noodles, had me coming back for seconds even with churro French toast sitting in front of me. And that’s saying something. —Katrina Valcourt

1200 Ala Moana Blvd., Suite 665, (808) 777-3588, thepigandthelady.com/piggysmalls, @piggysmallshawaii

 

SEE ALSO: Find 12 Vietnamese Noodle Soups on Piggy Smalls’ New Menu

 

Cupcakes at Pua Cake Studio

Pua Cupcakes Pc Melissa Chang

Photo: Melissa Chang

 

I know I like a place if I get in my car to drive outside my five-mile radius to get there. With Pua Cake Studio’s cupcakes, the cake is moist and the intricate buttercream flowers are completely edible. I especially like that many of the cupcakes (like the strawberry or liliko‘i) have a surprise fruit curd filling in the middle. I’ve gotten more cupcakes and even full-sized cakes from this place since they opened in Wahiawā a few months ago. —Melissa Chang

71 S. Kamehameha Hwy, puacakestudiohawaii.com, @puacakestudiohawaii

 


 

Japchae spring rolls at O’Kim’s Honolulu

 

Topping my list for 2021 are the crispy japchae spring rolls with pistachio aioli from one of my favorite chefs, Hyun Kim at O’Kim’s Honolulu. It’s almost like a pastry, with a light, flaky wrapper, nutty accents and subtly sweet Korean japchae noodles stuffed inside. I could eat these for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but that’s true of many dishes by Kim, who continues to turn out innovative, creative Korean fusion dishes that comfort and astonish. —Tracy Chan

1028 Nuuanu Ave., (808) 537-3787, okimshawaii.com, @okims_honolulu

 


 

Konbu maki at Kabuki Restaurant

Kabuki Restaurant Konbu Maki Pc Lee Tonouchi

Photo: Lee Tonouchi

 

Dis da bestest old ting I ate last year, cuz nahting beats comfort food. Due to da pandemic, we haven’t been having Tonouchi family gatherings so I nevah get for eat my aunty’s homemade konbu maki for couple years now. Luckily I can get my konbu maki fix by going to da okazuya window at Kabuki Restaurant and Delicatessen wea dey get super huge konbu maki ($3.75) das like four times da size of one regular konbu maki. Da ting so juicy and so ono. Available on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays. Friends who I send to Kabuki trip out when dey see ’em, cuz on top da menu it just says “konbu maki” so dey expect something normal size. Kabuki should rename theirs da Bombucha Konbu Maki. —Lee Tonouchi

98-020 Kamehameha Hwy, (808) 487-2424

 


 

Laotian sausage at Olay’s Thai Lao

Olays Lao Sausage

Photo: Mari Taketa

 

I love that there are chunks of pig skin in these fried sausages, heady with lemongrass and lime leaves. I start every meal at Olay’s Thai Lao with these sausages accompanied by sticky rice. —Martha Cheng

66 N. Hotel St., (808) 536-5300, olaysthaihawaii.com, @olays_thao_lao_cuisine

 

SEE ALSO: Chinatown’s Best Hidden Courtyard Is a Thai-Laotian Gem

 

Mad Garlic Pizza at Mad Bene

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Da bestest new ting I ate in 2021 wuz Mad Bene’s Mad Garlic Pizza ($18.50). Da waitress said das their most popular one! So I asked what’s da six ways dey do da garlic for da pizza, cuz da menu nevah say. She started rattling off all da ways dey feature da garlic, but I forget. Cuz she already had me after she said fried garlic. Lol. Da only ting bad wuz dat da pizza wuz TOO GOOD. How can someting be too good, you ask? Well, my pizza wuz so good that everybody wanted for eat my pizza instead of what dey ordered! —Lee Tonouchi

4450 Kapolei Pkwy, (808) 744-7400, madbene.com, @mad.bene

 

SEE ALSO: Mad Bene’s Legit East Coast Italian Is the Best Thing in Kapolei

 

Mile High Waialae Pie at 3660 on the Rise

Mile High Waialae Pie At 3660 On The Rise Pc Lauren Kaneshiro

Photo: Lauren Kaneshiro

 

When I think of a decadent sweet treat I always go back to the Mile High Waialae Pie from 3660 on the Rise. Filled with layers of Haagen Dazs vanilla and coffee ice cream, each bite is a burst of flavors. Topped with macadamia brittle and caramel and chocolate sauces, this dessert can be for two, or if you’re like me, maybe for one. —Lauren Kaneshiro

3660 Waialae Ave., (808) 737-1177, 3660ontherise.com, @3660ontherise

 


 

Miyazaki rib-eye roll at Han no Daidokoro

Ribeye Roll Hannodaidokoro Credit Thomas Obungen

Photo: Thomas Obungen

 

I’m taking it all the way back to the beginning of the year when I spent some of my stimulus check on dinner at Han no Daidokoro, the luxe yakiniku house in Ward Village. The grill-as-you-go A5 wagyu and washugyu tasting course is a meal reserved for special occasions. Even after many months of eating (very well), the fleeting bite of Miyazaki rib eye roll, also known as the enpitsu cut, kissed by the grill lives in my mind rent-free. The way it melts on the tongue and floods your taste buds with umami, saltiness and buttery beef fat, but only for a few seconds and then it’s gone. —Thomas Obungen

1108 Auahi St., Suite 150, (808) 517-3229, hannodaidokoro.com, @hannodaidokoro

 

SEE ALSO: Luxe Japanese Beef Elevates Yakiniku Grilling at Kaka‘ako’s Han no Daidokoro

 

Philly cheesesteak sandwich at Butcher & Bird

Butcher And Bird Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich Pc Gregg Hoshida

Photo: Gregg Hoshida

 

I didn’t go out to eat very much in 2021, so when I did it needed to mean something to my stomach. Enter the Philly cheesesteak sandwich from Butcher & Bird at Salt Kaka‘ako. A La Tour Bakehouse hoagie roll loaded with beautiful slices of steak, caramelized onions, mushrooms and cheese, this is best savored as you sit and people-watch at the outside counter. And while the sandwich is not made in Philly, it is certainly my jawn for 2021. —Gregg Hoshida

324 Coral St., (808) 762-8095, butcherandbirdhi.com, @butcherandbird

 


Smoked oxtail at Sunset Texas Barbecue

Sunset Texas Barbecue Smoked Oxtail Pc Maria Burke

Photo: Maria Burke

Back in August, I got to sample some special smoked meats at Sunset Texas Barbecue’s new location in Kaka‘ako. Surrounded by behemoth wood-fired smokers and with sweat forming on our brows, we watched pit master James Kim take out slabs of jiggling brisket covered in peppery bark, sausages, ribs—and perfectly smoked oxtail. The pockets of caramelized fat and smokey cartilage nestled against soft beef is something I’ll never forget. Alternating bites of rich oxtail with briny pickles and tangy sauce, I wished I could stop time. Kim has said that eventually these babies will be available for purchase. My runner-up choice for best dish of 2021 is also from Sunset: the giant and incredibly succulent smoked beef ribs. I used to think that brisket was my only love, but boy, was I wrong. —Maria Burke

 

443 Cooke St., (808) 476-1405, sunsetq.com, @sunsettxbbq