Vegan and Gluten-free Dining in Hawaii
Vegan? Gluten-free? Plant yourself at one of these eateries, where less is more.
If you’re meatless and/or wheatless, what are you to do in a place where the office Christmas party buffet has you eating a scoop of overcooked rice and limp iceberg salad, while your colleagues gorge on breaded mahi mahi, breaded chicken katsu, and wheat noodles dotted with char siu?
Honolulu has surprisingly few strictly vegetarian/vegan restaurants for a city that seems to have been colonized by posture-perfect yoga instructors. And there are zero gluten-free restaurants or bakeries (for now—see sidebar on right).
Thanks to our forward-thinking chefs who keep in step with the national trend of putting the spotlight on vegetables, vegetarians and, to a lesser extent, the gluten free can eat out well in Honolulu. In fact, a vegetarian can have a better meal at, say, Prima, than they can at one of the six official vegan restaurants, which for some reason try to recreate the meat-eating experience rather than be creative with produce. The phenomenon of vegetable-as-main-dish has taken root here, especially with the influx of transplanted chefs—carrots have starring (and delicious) roles at Prima, Whole Ox Deli and Vintage Cave Honolulu.
It's these restaurants that may make people rethink the possibility of being vegetarian. It no longer means having a monotonous diet of brown rice and tofu. The possibilities are endless. Here are a few you can take advantage of.
The real, raw deal
Vegetarian, vegans and raw-food acolytes rejoiced when farmers’ markets vendors Sylvia and Pete Thompson turned their prepared-foods Licious Dishes company into the restaurant Greens and Vines late last year. Even meat eaters get hooked on the macadamia nut spread and “living” lasagna, made with layers of zucchini, basil pesto, sundried tomato marinara, mac nut “ricotta,” spinach and tomatoes. It’s a dense block of nutrients that tastes good and is wheat-free.
I’m partial to Syl’s Garden Burger ($10.75)—instead of trying to imitate the beef experience, Thompson created her own flavor sensation, the all-veggie patty sandwiched between her onion “bread” (a mousepad of sweet oniony-ness) with date “mustard” and cashew “mayo.” The Thompsons are also hardcore oenophiles and hold special wine seminars featuring raw tapas. Visit the website for upcoming events.
Greens and Vines: 909 Kapiolani Blvd., 536-9680, greensandvines.com
Veggies of the day
It’s not on the menu, but Town’s vegetable plate ($22.50) is well known enough to get ordered up to nine times a night.
The veggie plate is “comprised of whatever we’ve got that day,” explains Ed Kenney. “We always have polenta on the line, so we add a scoop of that. It might include roasted mushrooms or bok choy—and five to six other items. It’s not hard to do. You don’t need to order in advance.”
While the kitchen doesn’t consciously have a vegetarian option on the daily changing menu, “it usually works out that way,” says Kenney. “Our risotto and gnocchi dishes often are vegetarian.”
Town easily accommodates gluten-free diners, too. “Like with our chicken with torn bread,” says Kenney, “we take out the bread and put in chunks of breadfruit or kalo.”
Town: 3435 Waialae Ave., 735-5900, townkaimuki.com
Haute Veg Pioneers
Alan Wong’s and Chef Mavro, two of the most lauded restaurants on Oahu, have long had vegetarian tasting menus that are as seasonal and delicious as the “regular” dishes. Chef Mavro posts the menu on its website—the spring vegetarian menu included a vegan dish that presented asparagus in four ways. Alan Wong’s will accommodate vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free menu requests—all you have to do is give the restaurant 48 to 72 hours notice. The tasting menu might include something like ginger-crusted tofu or kal bi-style grilled eggplant.
YOU'RE NOT ALONE
Five percent—3.14 million—of Americans consider themselves vegetarian, according to a 2012 Gallup poll. About a third of those people are vegans, which means besides not eating meat, they don’t consume any animal products, such as butter and eggs. And, despite all the “nose-to-tail” dinners and bacon blogs, meat consumption in the U.S. is on the decline.
In its long-term projections released last year, the USDA foresees annual average consumption of red meat and poultry falling from a high of more than 221 pounds per capita in 2007 to less than 198 pounds by the end of 2013. Which would explain the increase in numbers of flexitarians (people who follow a plant-based diet but will take a bite of your really delicious beef stew anyway).
Another 3.4 million Americans have celiac disease—an autoimmune disorder triggered by eating gluten, a form of protein found in wheat, barley and rye. In addition, countless others have gluten and wheat sensitivities. These people (including me) can’t stop at a Subway and have a sandwich. They can’t even eat a handful of arare—have a look at the ingredients label.
Last fall, Nobu Waikiki introduced a gluten-free menu. It’s short, but oh so good.
Along with sashimi selections—which you enjoy with wheat-free shoyu—is a hearts of palm pepperoncini ($20) that is the best raw-food dish available on the island. Using a special machine, the kitchen finely cuts the hearts of palm so they are like angel hair spaghetti, and tosses them with olive oil, garlic, chili flakes, salt, dry miso, and chives, with a little toupee of togarashi. The result is an achingly good plate of “I can’t believe it’s not pasta” deliciousness, while highlighting the versatility of hearts of palm. Greens and Vines does a “pasta” with zucchini, but it never rises above being a pile of zucchini.
Nobu Waikiki: Waikiki Parc Hotel, 2233 Helumoa Road, 237-6999
Surprise Waikiki spot for vegans
Executive chef Jason Peel has been doing exciting things at Roy’s Waikiki—like making deconstructed pork belly bao, and honey-glazed duck with a sour beet puree and julienned cantaloupe. And he hasn’t ignored those with dietary restrictions. His four-course vegan dinner is a winner—and a bargain at $41.50. You start with a spicy chickpea “tuna” roll that holds its own against the real thing. Next, Peel reworks the pork bao as a grilled mushroom bao with pickled hearts of palm (for the wheat-free, Peel subsitutes his refreshing watermelon “poke”—a lineup of deep pink watermelon cubes in a Thai-style chili vinaigrette and topped with puffed rice and fresh herbs). Finally, he gives spiced, seared tofu Moroccan flair in the form of preserved lemon-chili-basil foam and a relish of cranberries and candied nuts. Dessert is a fresh strawberry shortcake with whipped coconut cream and coconut-soy gelato (wheat-free folks get Il Gelato sorbetto).
Roy’s Waikiki: Embassy Suites, 226 Lewers St., 923-7697, royshawaii.com
For vegetarians and vegans who eat like they’re not
Simple Joy: The place for mock-meat eaters. At eclectic, all-vegan Simple Joy you can have a “burger,” “chickun” in a slew of pasta dishes, and faux shrimp tempura ($8.95-10.95). But why be a vegetarian if you’re so desperate for animal flesh that you’re willing to eat this food-like substance?
1145 S. King St., 591-1911, simplejoyhawaii.com
Loving Hut: The two locations tout “homemade vegan food” and it takes about as long as someone cooking at home to give you your lunch. Try the veggie take on everything from sweet and sour pork to chicken katsu ($7.50-9.50). Part of the international chain of Loving Huts started by the organization Supreme Master Ching Hai International.
1102 Pensacola St., 626-5626, lovinghut.us/honolulu. 1614 S. King St., 373-6465.
Opal Thai Food cook-owner Sanith “Opel” Sirichandhra is a vegetarian, so he’s highly attuned to meeting vegetarian and vegan needs. Don’t feel lame asking for “no fish sauce”—he understands. Try vegan drunken noodles, fried, firm tofu with garlic sauce or the sauteed eggplant, topped with crispy fried basil chips ($8.50).
Opal Thai Food: 66-460 Kamehameha Highway, Haleiwa; 381-8091
The lovely shoebox known as Peace Cafe, with its rustic communal table, is a top spot for vegetarians, though with a whole section of sandwiches, and bread sticks in the Caesar salad, the menu shrinks drastically if you’re gluten- or wheat-free. The bento boxes of hearty creations such as the yogini (brown rice, beans, greens and seaweed) and a Moroccan chickpea stew ($9.25) atop brown rice make this a popular go-to café for all walks of eaters.
Peace Cafe: 2239 S. King St., 951-7555.
Roots to carrot tops
Chefs Kevin Lee at Prima and Justin Yu at Whole Ox Deli both make mean pork belly dishes, but they also know their way around a carrot.
Lee came to Hawaii from New York’s Dovetail restaurant, which started doing vegetarian Mondays in 2010. “You’re able to be a lot more creative with fruits and vegetables than you are with a chicken breast or piece of lamb. There are only a few cooking techniques you can apply to proteins,” says Lee. Witness his recent balls of quinoa colored with spinach puree and accompanied by roasted carrots, their tips blackened with “carrot ash.” “When you receive carrots from MAO Farms,” explains Lee, three-quarters of their weight is the tops. Thinking of a way to use the whole vegetable, he burned the carrot tops in the restaurant’s woodfired oven then pulverized them with chili flakes and salt.
“We’re trying to do as many creative things with fruits and vegetables as we can,” Lee says. You can make a hearty veggie meal from the sides, such as pan-fried Brussels sprouts (ask them to hold the pancetta) and oven-roasted radicchio.
While the Whole Ox Deli continues to fuel ravenous meat eaters with its trademark dry-aged burger and gooey Philly cheesesteak on its lunch and late-night menus, chef Yu, previously of acclaimed Hawker Fare in Oakland, exercises his vegetable tendencies for his reservations-only Sunday night tasting menu ($50–75). He turns carrots into a grown up creamsicle in a bowl for his carrot-and-orange soup, and creates an earthy clusterfungus of meaty mushrooms.
VEGGIE ON WHEELS
The only dining options near your office are McDonalds and Zippy’s? You can have the vegetables come to you by ordering from Salad Envy. Online menu indicates which of the 16 different salads ($9.75-$13.75) are gluten free. I like the Synergy quinoa salad, and the hearty Indonesian curry bowl. All you need to do is get four other people to order, then Salad Envy will deliver directly to your building.
Salad Envy: Delivery only; saladenvy.com
At your service
At Vintage Cave Honolulu, ground zero for of-the-moment progressive dining, the reservationist asks if you have any dietary restrictions when you book your table. Chef Chris Kajioka is happy to accommodate vegetarian and gluten-free requests if alerted in advance. His nightly changing menus ($295) normally give top billing to vegetables, in dishes such as slow-roasted carrots with date-caper emulsion, and his signature charred cabbage leaves (though vegans can’t have the addictive broth made with anchovies). He keeps wheat-free shoyu on hand, and for his signature dish of caviar atop maple brioche, he substitutes his “fish skin” rice cracker—which I actually prefer, the better to savor the fish-egg flavor.
Vintage Cave Honolulu: 1450 Ala Moana Blvd., 441-1744, vintagecave.com