When in Hawaii, eat like the locals do
For many visitors, “Hawaiian food” means the elegant regional cuisine served in resort restaurants. Others say it’s traditional luau fare. But ask locals what Hawaiian food means to them and chances are they’ll rave about hole-in-the-wall gems serving homespun comfort foods that reflect the islands’ melting pot culture. Think: Hawaii’s iconic plate lunch with the mainstay two scoops of rice and a scoop of macaroni salad.
That’s the kind of satisfying simplicity that inspired this list of favorite home-style Hawaiian eats. Bring an appetite and try ’em all.
Loco Moco on Lanai
Many Lanai residents start their day at side-by-side diners on Seventh Street — Canoes Lanai and Blue Ginger Café. A definite stick-to-your-ribs breakfast is Canoes’ infamous Loco Moco, with two scoops of rice, two hamburger patties, two eggs, and pan-fried mushrooms and onions with a side of gravy and macaroni salad.
Meat lovers will like the breakfast bento at Canoes with its two pieces of Spam, two slices of bacon, two Portuguese sausages, two eggs and white rice. Lunch hour brings with it another item popular with residents, Canoe’s furikake chicken, a battered, deep-fried dish flavored with dried seaweed and other seasonings.
Many a diner has waxed poetic over the Blue Ginger Café’s French toast made from homemade bread. Protein fans at Blue Ginger, though, go for the island’s namesake omelet that’s chock full of Portuguese sausage, bacon and fried rice. At lunch, Blue Ginger patrons clamor for another popular dish — fried saimin (wheat and egg noodles), wok-fried with Spam, green onions, scrambled eggs and kamaboko, or fish cake.
Takeout, Kauai style
Though there’s some debate over the origin of the plate lunch, many believe it evolved from the Japanese bento, a single-portion take-home lunch. Chef Mark Oyama has been putting his personal spin on Hawaii’s traditional plate lunch/ bento since 1999 when he opened the first of his two Kauai-based restaurants, both aptly named Mark’s Place. Located in Lihue and Lawai, the takeout-only restaurants draw long lunch lines of locals and in-the-know tourists who belly up to the counter for multiethnic dishes that favor regional ingredients. Try the Kona kampachi and the grilled shutome with roasted corn and smoked shrimp relish.
Barbecue and katsu on Oahu
Another purveyor of the plate lunch, L&L Hawaiian Barbecue has been going strong since 1976. And talk about popular. L&L has 180 locations in 10 states including 45 on Oahu alone. Founders Johnson Kam and Eddie Flores Jr. decided to branch out to the mainland with their Asian/American fusion cuisine in 1999 when they learned that customers jonesing for L&L barbecue were scheduling Hawaiian vacations in part just to get a fix.
One of the biggest sellers on the menu is the L&L Hawaiian BBQ mix plate that includes chicken, beef and short ribs. Another go-to Hawaiian fave is chicken katsu: boneless chicken coated with special seasonings and deep-fried with a side of L&L’s own secret sauce for dipping.
Ribs and rib-eyes on Molokai
A green tin roof and cheery yellow doors welcome visitors to “Molokai’s Eating Landmark,” otherwise known as the Kualapu’u Cookhouse. At lunchtime, tourists fresh from a mule ride in Kalaupapa National Historical Park take their cue from Molokai residents and order the roast pork or chicken stir-fry.
Dinner is a sophisticated surprise with favorites like the rib-eye steak with bacon-andcrab-wrapped shrimp or barbecue baby back ribs in homemade guava sauce.
Spam musubi and poke on Hawaii
Just three miles outside the airport is the Pine Tree Café — though visitors looking for pine trees to mark the local hot spot will miss it. Instead, look for surfers making their way from the adjacent Pine Trees Beach for some post-beach grub.
Perfect for refueling are menu items like the mahi mahi deluxe burger or the oven-roasted kalua pig with a side of cabbage. Looking deceptively like sushi is Spam musubi, a block of salted rice topped by a slice of Spam and wrapped in nori, or dried seaweed. For sides, steamed rice joins the traditional macaroni salad, but with a twist: Pine Tree adds potatoes, tuna and green peas to the mix. Another popular side dish — just perfect after a hot day at the beach — is poke, a ceviche-type mix of raw ahi tuna in shoyu soy sauce.
Lau lau and kalua pork on Maui
Generous portions are a big part of the Hawaiian plate lunch, but Da Kitchen’s Big Braddah Combo takes things a step further. It’s not uncommon to see two patrons snacking on a single serving of the hearty plate, which offers two selections from a list that includes teriyaki chicken, teriyaki beef, chicken katsu and kalua pork. Those looking for a moderately sized meal can check out the Hawaiian plate, with pork steamed in taro leaves (otherwise known as pork lau lau); kalua pork seasoned with Hawaiian salt; chicken long rice (a dish akin to a Hawaiian chicken noodle soup with ginger, green onion and rice noodles); as well as lomi salmon, a cold side dish of raw diced salmon mixed with tomatoes and Maui onions. Don’t forget to order a side of poi made from the native taro plant. It’s perfect for pork dipping. Other tempting dishes include the fish tempura, battered mahi mahi with Maui-style tartar sauce and the kalbi ribs (teriyaki short ribs that necessitate some serious finger licking).
— Bekah Wright, Special Advertising Sections Writer