TK Yamada, who spent more than a decade working and roasting for other cafés, now has his own spot with an extraordinarily pleasant lānai.
Where to Eat on Your First Visit to O‘ahu
Raise your hand if you’ve been asked this question. Here’s a personal guide to everything from crack seed to loco moco.
Lately it seems like the entire country is coming to O‘ahu. If you’re reading this, you are either a first-time visitor or know a first-time visitor and need ideas. Here’s a guide for anyone looking to boost our local economy by patronizing local businesses and embracing Hawai‘i’s unique culture with respect: some of our most iconic foods, and my personal recommendations for the best places to get them.
Hawai‘i’s indigenous people have their own cuisine and locals love it. My favorite Hawaiian food restaurants are Helena’s Hawaiian Food and Highway Inn. Helena’s is kind of hard to find and has little parking, whereas Highway Inn is more convenient. Don’t shy away from poi! It’s really meant to be eaten as a starch, like rice or potatoes, so have it with kalua pig and lomi salmon. If you’re brave, try a lau lau (tender pork or chicken steamed in taro leaves, one of my favorite things) and pipikaula (dried cured meat).
If you cannot get a car, a good option is Kalo, located right in Waikīkī. Although it’s way more expensive than the first two, it’s worth it for the convenience—and the food is very good.
Helena’s Hawaiian Food, 1240 N School St., (808) 845-8044, helenashawaiianfood.com; Highway Inn, 680 Ala Moana Blvd., (808) 954-4955, myhighwayinn.com, @myhighwayinn; Kalo Hawaiian Food, 400 Royal Hawaiian Ave., (808) 931-6222, kalohawaiianfood.com
SEE ALSO: My Midnight Lū‘au from 7-Eleven
Upon landing in Honolulu on his first vacation home after taking office, former President Barack Obama famously proclaimed, “I’m going to get a plate lunch.” The plate lunch—a carbfest with a protein, two scoops of rice and a scoop of macaroni salad—is a staple of Hawai‘i’s local food culture. One of Obama’s favorite places (and ours) to get it is Rainbow Drive-In, whose original location just outside Waikīkī is popular with hungry surfers looking for a quick, filling and affordable meal. Shoyu chicken, barbecue beef or pork cutlet plates tend to be most popular; if you can’t decide, just get a mixed plate.
SEE ALSO: Best Kalihi Plate Lunch: Dad’s Top 5
Shaved ice—or shave ice, as locals call it—is much, much more than your average snow cone. The most popular stands sell cones or bowls of perfectly shaped mounds of ice, shaved to a super fluffy consistency using very sharp blades. On the back side of Rainbow Drive-In is Hawai‘i’s Favorite Kitchens, where you’ll find Shimazu Shave Ice. I’m not just telling you this because it’s convenient. Shimazu is one of the first places I think of when I want shave ice. The classic, for me, is strawberry, and if I’m feeling spendy, I’ll order a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the bottom. Visitors will probably want to order a rainbow to get to try more flavors.
3111 Castle St., @shimazu_shave_ice
I know poke is all over the world now, and I have seen it from the US mainland to Paris to Nigeria with a myriad of ingredients added to the raw fish, including fruits and nuts. It’s horrific. Eat it in Hawai‘i, where it’s done correctly—if not at Hawai‘i’s Favorite Kitchens (since you’re already there for shave ice), it’s worth the trek out to Kalihi to the classic Tamashiro Market, Alicia’s Market or the more contemporary Poke by the Pound. You can also get decent poke at Foodland, one of our local grocery chains.
Hawai‘i’s Favorite Kitchens, 3111 Castle St., @hawaiisfavoritekitchens; Tamashiro Market, 802 N King St., (808) 841-8047, tamashiromarket.com, @tamashiromarket; Alicia’s Market, 267 Mokauea St., (808) 841-1921, aliciasmarket.com, @aliciasmarket; Poke by the Pound, 322 Kalihi St., (808) 744-1222, pokebythepound.com, @pokebythepoundhi; Foodland has multiple locations, foodland.com, @foodlandhi
Locals will argue about their favorite garlic shrimp spot on O‘ahu’s North Shore, but Romy’s is unique: Its kitchen and dining area sit right next to its shrimp ponds. Every plate is cooked to order, and there is a long and constant line, so it can take about an hour to get your food. You’ll find it’s worth the wait, as the shrimp and prawns (when available) are super fresh and the butter-garlic sauce is an addicting savory mix that you’ll lick off your fingers. Whether you order your shrimp regular or spicy, try to sit near one of the sinks so you can easily wash your hands after peeling and eating all that messy, garlicky goodness.
56781 Kamehameha Hwy., (808) 232-2202, @romyskahukuprawnsandshrimp
Literally, this is not for the faint of heart: A classic loco moco is what cheat day dreams are made of, with a mound of rice topped with a hamburger patty and smothered in gravy, then topped with a fried egg. You can get this at most plate lunch places around the state, but my new favorite is from Aloha Table in Waikīkī, where they bump up the quality with two Kobe-style beef patties on short-grain rice from Japan. Their gravy is actually a demi-glace with mushrooms and onions, and it’s topped with two sunny-side eggs.
2238 Lau‘ula St. #2, (808) 922-2221, @alohatable_waikiki
Liliha Bakery has been an iconic venue for locals in the know since 1950, but it’s now known around the world for its famous Coco Puffs—chocolate cream puffs topped with their exclusive buttery Chantilly frosting. This combination provides a unique balance of sweet and salty as you bite into the pastry and the chocolate pudding explodes in your mouth. Coco Puffs are so popular that the bakery sells several thousand per day at three locations: the original just off Liliha Street and two recently opened locations in Ala Moana Center and on Nimitz Highway.
You’ve probably heard of ramen or chow mein, but the most popular, old-school noodle dish in Hawai‘i is saimin. This is a true mash-up that reflects the origins of the plantation workers who created it: Chinese noodles in Japanese broth topped with green onions, Spam and sometimes, Korean kim chee. My favorite is at Shige’s Saimin Stand in Wahiawā, whose house-made noodles have the perfect consistency. If you can’t make it out there, you can always go to Zippy’s, which is found all over Oahu.
SEE ALSO: Best Saimin: Our Top 5
Honolulu’s Chinatown is the oldest in the United States and you’ll find manapua (also known as char siu bao) everywhere. You can’t go wrong with most bakeries, but my go-to is Sing Cheong Yuan, a popular bakery and sweets shop—especially around major Chinese holidays. The bread is slightly sweet and has a generous amount of barbecued pork filling, which makes for a nice, quick lunch for about $2. If you’re hungry, add on some of the other dumplings in the bakery case for a real taste of Chinatown.
1027 Maunakea St., (808) 531-6688, @singcheongyuanbakery
Hawai‘i eaters love Spam so much, we consume more per capita than anywhere else in the US—about 5 million pounds a year, and we even have a festival to celebrate it. The most popular way to eat it: Spam musubi, where a slice of the canned meat is pan-fried, placed on a rectangular block of rice and wrapped in nori (Japanese seaweed). It’s salty and sweet, with carbs and protein—a perfect snack for people on the go. And since I’m usually grabbing it on the go, I often get mine from any 7-Eleven store in Hawai‘i. They have it in its purest, original form, but you can get variations with extras like fried egg, or breaded and fried into Spam katsu.
It’s an acquired taste, but locals love to snack on these Chinese preserved fruits, usually plums. Most are shipped in from Asia, and various stores here also make new creations to appeal to local tastes. Favorites include rock salt plum, pickled mango, lemon peel and salted ginger; the most popular, however, is the dried, salted li hing mui. It’s so popular that consumers and businesses use the powder at the bottom of the bag to make new dishes, drinks and snacks, including margaritas, cookies, ice cream and meat rubs. You can find this snack all over Chinatown and in convenience stores. Many, including me, get theirs from Kaimukī Crack Seed so they can point to their favorite jars, order by weight and have the treats scooped into bags.
Malassadas, or Portuguese doughnuts, are not like ordinary doughnuts. These balls of special sweet dough are deep-fried to light, airy perfection, then rolled in sugar. Sometimes you can get them filled with custard, chocolate or coconut cream. The most famous are at Leonard’s Bakery, located on Kapahulu Avenue just outside Waikīkī and at Leonard’s trucks around the island. Always made to order, these piping hot treats are beautifully crisp outside, and fluffy and chewy on the inside.