Visiting Big Island? These Eateries From Hilo to Kailua-Kona Are Worth Trying Out
Eating is as big as the great outdoors on the Big Island. Starting in Pāhoa—now in post-eruption recovery—let’s take a counter-clockwise food tour around the island.
The center of Pāhoa town, on the Akeakamai Loop, is a kipuka of restaurants.
Kaleo’s Bar and Grill literally rocks when the live music is happening. The kālua wonton and liliko‘i cheesecake are nice bookends to the mahi-mahi BLT. 965-5600.
Tin Shack Bakery does jalapeno cheddar sourdough bread very well, also eggs Benedict and wi-fi. 965-9659.
Lu’quin serves up old-school Mexican, as in the No. 11 Combination (veggie taco, veggie enchilada, veggie relleno, rice and beans for $12.75); you’d better like melted cheese. And slow service, as can happen in Pāhoa. But don’t let that harsh your mellow. Order a beer and soak up the vibe of a town reprieved from destruction. Tip well. Somebody may make another year because of you.
“Top of the world” sums up The Rim at Volcano House. The 95-percent locally sourced menu has steakhouse flair; the hefty Taste of Hawai‘i lunch special is a real deal. If it’s stormy or cool, there’s a roaring fire in the lobby at Uncle George’s Lounge, where you can order a beer and a savory burger. Best of all: breakfast after catching the Jaggar Glow show at dawn (see Outdoors). Volcanoes National Park, 1 Crater Road; 756-9625.
Mention you’re going to breakfast in Hilo and you may be drawn into picking between Ken’s Pancake House and Hawaiian Style Café. Don’t bite. Both are worthy. But good breakfasts are everywhere, it seems (like the entire Big Island).
Ken’s is 24 hours a day, so it has that late-night Wailana Coffee House vibe: crowded with locals who come for the oxtail stew, macadamia pancakes, sumo loco moco, and liliko‘i milkshake, but also to hone their banter against the seen-it-all expressions of the long-time waitresses. Hawaiian Style Cafe earns online mentions with its massive portions (see the mokosaurus, which includes a chicken cutlet, Spam, kālua pig and the usual loco moco egg and hamburger patty). But the smoked pork omelet has higher aspirations.
Ken’s Pancake House (1730 Kamehameha Ave., 935-8711); Hawaiian Style Café (681 Manono St.; 969-9265; also in Waimea, 65-1290 Kawaihae Road, 885-4295).
Of course, Café 100 is the open-air choice of folks who like it quieter and simpler (969 Kilauea Ave., 935-8683). Except simple doesn’t describe the Loco Moco menu, which has 30 variations including Chinese sausage, Kilauea Loco Moco (with kim chee) and of course the Super Moco. You can still get the basic original for $3.50. Sometimes there’s no improving on perfection.
If it’s just coffee you’re looking for (with homestyle sandwiches, pastries and other stuff), hit Just Cruisin’ drive-through on Kilauea Avenue. Or settle in at Hilo Shark’s Coffee for a morning affogato. 99 Keawe Street, near the Tsunami Museum on the waterfront.
The best intimate brunch is at Paul’s Place. After 25 years working in hotels on the Kona side, Paul Cubio cooks for only three tables. You’re next-door to the farmers market, so the fruit, fish and baked goods taste beyond fresh. 132 Punahoa St., 280-8646.
Like Paul Cubio of Paul’s, Moonstruck Patisserie’s Jackie Tan-De Witt is pulling off a personal vision after a long career in four-star hotel hospitality. 16 Furneaux Lane, 933 6868.
On a quiet Sunday morning when not a lot was stirring in downtown Hilo, we lucked into the eggs benedict and waffles at homey Bear’s Café (106 Keawe Street, 935-0708), which totally works its bric-a-brac yard sale aesthetic. Next-door’s Conscious Culture Café and Big Island Booch Kombucha draws a hipper (and dreadlockier) clientele for dishes like Brekky Sammy (scrambled eggs with ham, kim chee, and Puna goat cheese). Conscious Culture has kombucha on tap and stresses organic ingredients; the waffle is gluten-free buckwheat. 110 Keawe Street, 498-4779.
After the breakfast debate, it’s time to talk okazuya. Instead of yakking about whose tempura goes soggy fastest, split your party in two and order from both Kawamoto Store and Hilo Lunch Shop. Then enjoy the stuff vacation memories, and office debates, are made of. Kawamoto Store opens at 6 a.m.: 784 Kilauea Ave., 935-8209; Hilo Lunch Shop opens at 5:30 a.m.: 421 Kalanikoa St., 935-8273. Hint: go early, as in before breakfast.
The sun sets early in Hilo, around 4 p.m., thanks to the looming presence of Mauna Kea. So, instead of watching for the green flash at Hilo Bay Café, which perches high on stilts on the south end of the bay, you watch the shadow line devour the light on the sea—which, as you sip your Ho‘okipa (Hangar One, Solerno blood orange liqueur, papaya, basil, soda), starts looking like one of those fast-motion films run backwards. Or, after the Old Fashion Passion (Knob Creek Rye, liliko‘i, bitters, orange, cherries), like an eclipse. Taking over the space of a Japanese restaurant whose clientele, it’s rumored, aged out, this hipster-moderne bistro dishes up hyper-local fish, pork and beef in French, Japanese and Hawaiian-style preparations; the Hāmākua mushroom curry pot pie ($13) is mandatory. 123 Lihiwai St., 935-4939.
The most acclaimed Hilo restaurant in recent years? Moon and Turtle; 51 Kalākaua Street, 961-0599.
When you’re on vacation a big busy café in a historic waterfront building, like Café Pesto, can be just the ticket. Grab lunch instead of dinner—the menu’s much more interesting: try the Hāmākua mushroom and artichoke pizza with gorgonzola sauce, the seared ‘ahi poke with spinach, sip a beer, watch the scene. 308 Kamehameha Ave., 969-6640. If you want someplace quieter and funkier, Puka-Puka Kitchen (nearby at 270 Kamehameha Avenue, 933-2121) dishes up sophisticated and fresh dishes that pair Middle Eastern and Hawaiian flavors.
The Hilo Burger Joint brings a loud, cheerful, paniolo style as well as customized, 100-percent grass-fed Big Island hamburgers, complete with professional musicians who call Hilo home. 776 Kilauea Ave., 935-8880. For poke, don’t miss Suisan Fish Market and its foray into guava kim chee ‘ahi and mango habanero ‘ahi. 93 Lihiwai St., 935-9349.
Waimea to Kohala
Heading north, in Waimea/Kamuela you come to the original Merriman’s, where chef Peter Merriman helped launch the Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine Movement. It’s still a go-to restaurant, a rare achievement after 25 years. 65-1227 Opelo Road, 885-6822.
Almost across the street is Red Water Café, where we liked the $15 Fresh Catch Sandwich and the $20 Fuji Roll (tuna, crab, shrimp tempura and avocado). The menu is big on woks, stir-fries in half or full portions, such as the Liliko‘i Chicken Yellow Curry Wok with kabocha and vegetables. Regulars smiled to each other from across the room. The mix of horse people, Parker School types, and young romantics smiled at us, too. 65-1299 Kawaihae Road, 885-9299.
Up at the north end in Hāwī Town and North Kohala, every day is Earth Day—little shops and restaurants festooned with plants, banners, crystals. Nods go to Bamboo Restaurant & Gallery for good pulled pork, fish tacos, and a liliko‘i margarita (55-3415 Akoni Pule Highway, 889-5555); to Sushi Rock for the freshest fish, organic emphasis, and big city-ambitious dishes (55-3435 Akoni Pule Highway, 889-5900); and a classic general store K. Takata Store (55-3627 Akoni Pule Highway, 889-5413) on the edge of town, where you can grab poke for your hike to Pololū Valley.
If you’re from O‘ahu, you probably don’t want to mingle with the tourist horde. We get that. But while the clientele of the Kohala Coast resorts may appear to be from another planet (and on a different mission) than ours, don’t be afraid to try a mai tai on a hotel terrace and a plate of pūpū—especially if a dip at Hāpuna Beach puts you in the mood. The big hotels are all doing Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine to a degree, supporting local agriculture; the chef squads are often locally staffed; and there’s nothing wrong with poke avocado on the terrace of the Hale Kai at the Fairmont Orchid, or the seared ‘ahi wrap with Hirabara Farms greens served at the Mauna Kea’s Hau Tree lanai. (Do make sure you tuck in your shirt and inform your credit card company about the forthcoming bill.)
So, maybe you’re thinking: Did I really come all the way to the Big Island for poke? Yes, you did. Down in Kailua-Kona, da kine go-to is Umeke’s off Ali’i Drive (75-143 Hualalai Road, 329-3050); Nakoa Pabre has perfected the poke bomb, stuffing a familiar tofu skin with fish, thus solving the hand-carry problem that has plagued poke eaters for generations. It helped Yelpers make it a top pick this past year. Others swear by Da Poke Shack (76-6246 Alii Drive, 329-7653), which Pabre helped open, including protein-starved Ironman Triathloners who power-grind here. Even more impressive: sighting the Poke Shack, their fishing boat, moored right offshore.
Bite Me Fish Market and Grill (on the harbor waterside at 75-425 Kealakehe Parkway, 327-3474) is a favorite of scientists from NELHA, sport-fisher-people and those who prefer a little more grit and less glitz in their scene.
Looking for a celebration-worthy restaurant on Kona side that isn’t all hotel-y? The menu at Huggo’s Restaurant is a big, upscale, comfort-food hug: ribs, flatbread pizzas (the lobster and Hāmākua mushroom!), cioppino and, for a flashback to 1969, Huggo’s Teriyaki Steak (75-5828 Kahakai Road, 329-1493).
In Waikoloa, try chef Thepthikone Keosavang’s fave little Thai place, Lemongrass Express, in the Queen’s Shopping Center (69-201 Waikoloa Beach Drive, 886-3400).
As you head south toward Kealakekua and Captain Cook, the victuals become plainer, as befits the dramatic transition from busy Kona to the coffee uplands and then desert. The Manago Hotel’s porkchops receive retro-hero-worship, as do Annie’s Island Fresh Burgers (79-7460 Hawai‘i Belt Road, 324-6000). For fancier fare, many line up for The Strawberry Patch’s Americana-Euro-Thai roadside tables (79-7491 Mamalahoa Highway, 322-9060). Folks from Hilo will drive all the way to Teshimaʻs Restaurant for “the most authentic Japanese on the island,” which is saying something (79-7251 Mamalahoa Highway, 322-9140).