To plug into Hawaii’s contemporary food scene, there’s no better place to start than on the island of O‘ahu, home to star chefs, bountiful farmers markets, roadside drive-ins and family-run kitchens cooking up multi-ethnic mixed plates. Take a taste bud tour of O‘ahu with this circuit of culinary gems.
Eating like a local in Honolulu
Hawaii’s capital city is where homegrown chefs hit the big-time. No one is better known for island farm-to-table cuisine than Alan Wong, whose eponymous Honolulu restaurant hosts monthly farmers dinners. Menu classics like twice-cooked short ribs and ginger-crusted onaga (ruby snapper) infuse Asian techniques and ingredients with tastes that the first Polynesians brought with them to the island.
After hours, you might spy chefs hanging out at the Side Street Inn, a sports-bar kitchen near the Ala Moana Center mall. Bring all of your friends along to dig into the famous pan-fried pork chops, or get sticky fingers from the BBQ baby back ribs with Chinese hoisin or island liliko‘i (passion fruit) sauce.
During the day, dig deeper into O‘ahu’s native culinary past at Helena’s Hawaiian Foods, a simple storefront west of downtown that’s always crowded. Load up on kalua (slow-cooked) pork, lomilomi salmon (diced raw fish mixed with tomato and onion), pipikaula (beef jerky), ‘two-scoop’ sticky white rice and sour fermented poi (made from the taro plant) for your own miniature luau.
For more hole-in-the-wall kitchens that feed immigrants from all across Asia, go walking around Chinatown, where the historical streets are stuffed with noodle shops, dim-sum houses and take-out stalls, all steaming hot and brimming with authenticity.
‘Ono grinds’ beyond Waikiki Beach
Away from the high-rise hotels, Waikiki’s Kapahulu Ave is where you’ll find local-style ono grinds (‘good eats’). Feed your growling stomach after surfing at the neon-bedecked Rainbow Drive-In, which Barack Obama used to visit as a boy. Heaped mixed-plate lunches and loco moco, a mountain of rice topped with a hamburger patty, an egg and plenty of good brown gravy, are all budget-priced at this local favorite enclave.
Walk up the street to Waiola Shave Ice, a neighbourhood sweets shop making super-fine Hawaii-style snow cones doused in a rainbow of syrup flavours, with azuki beans or haupia (coconut cream) to really put them over the top. Just farther north, Leonard’s Bakery has been making hot malasadas (Portuguese doughnuts), rolled in sugar and stuffed with custard cream or tropically flavoured jelly, since 1952.
On Saturday mornings and Tuesday evenings, O'ahu’s best farmers market takes over the parking lot of Kapi‘olani Community College. Artisanal food producers, organic farmers and restaurant chefs gather across from Diamond Head State Park, which is handy for hiking off everything you’ve eaten afterwards!
Gobbling up the Windward Coast
Revel in the idyllic scenery and local flavours of the Windward Coast, an easy day trip from Honolulu. Brighten your morning at Lanikai Juice, which blends organic, island-grown fruit smoothies like ‘Da Kine’ with Maui pineapple, or load up on fruit bowls topped by local honey. Then head north along the coastal highway to He‘eia Kea Pier in Kane‘ohe, where you can stuff yourself on locally caught fish. Save your appetite for the Waiahole Poi Factory, where you can taste the Native Hawaiian staple poi, pounded fresh from taro root.
Next, make a quick stop to try the island-grown macadamia nuts at Tropical Farms near Kualoa Ranch. Past La‘ie, Kahuku is where O‘ahu’s island shrimp-truck phenomenon got its start beside aquaculture farms. Today, tourist demand outstrips production, so most of the shrimp is actually imported; but not at Romy’s, where you can devour your butter-garlic shrimp within view of the shrimp ponds. With time to spare, take a weekend tour of Kahuku Farms, whose simple roadside cafe serves papaya smoothies, fresh-picked veggie salads, and housemade apple-banana ice cream. There’s even onsite farm tours for the family to enjoy.
Grazing around the North Shore and back
In the morning, before hitting the epic winter waves at Sunset Beach, surfers chow down at Ted’s Bakery, where single plate lunches easily feed two and locals enjoy slice after slice of homebaked chocolate macadamia or haupia (coconut cream) pie. Hale‘iwa, the surf capital of the North Shore, is a must-stop for shave ice from Matsumoto’s, a sweet island staple that's worth the long lines. And in the nearby rural farm town of Waialua, not far from O‘ahu’s coffee-plantation fields, the Saturday farmer’s market is a locavore's treat.
Heading back toward Honolulu, pull over at the Dole Plantation in Wahiawa to get an up-close look at tropical pineapple plants. Wrap up your circle-island drive at the Poke Stop in Mililani or Waipahu, near Pearl Harbor. Take your pick of a half dozen flavours of poke (cubed raw fish seasoned with condiments) like ‘ahi tuna mixed with sweet onion or limu (seaweed). Tempura po’ boy sandwiches, blackened grilled fish and deconstructed sushi bowls are also among chef Elmer’s tasty hits.
Top annual food festivals on O'ahu
For even more foodie fun, time your visit to coincide with one of O‘ahu’s food festivals:
Hawaiʻi Food & Wine Festival – Honolulu’s gathering of chefs, farmers and island taste-makers in September.
Waikiki Spam Jam – Laugh-out-loud street festival celebrating Hawaii’s favourite canned meat product in late April.
This article was originally published in August 2012. It was updated in August 2017 by Andy Beth Miller.