Big things are happening on the small island of Oahu, so hang loose and get all the intel on rising chefs, new restaurants and more at Aloha Nation.
It's a curse and a blessing: Hawaiian food. It's a curse, because you can find only the fluffiest malasadas, legit squid luau, kalua pork and mountains of wispy shave ice on these tiny islands. But it's a blessing, because you're entitled to an all-you-can-aloha pig-out once you hit Hawaii's capital island of Oahu.
Don't worry, mainland eater, if the above sounds like gibberish to you. We've eaten our way around the island and have the gut to prove it. Here are the best of the best with insider tips from Hawaii-born chefs. And once you've tried them, you'll know the true meaning of ono (that's how locals say "delicious").
① Malasadas at Leonard's Bakery
Leonard and Margaret Rego introduced Hawaii to this Portuguese doughnut-brioche hybrid, and it's been a hit ever since. "Leonard's is THE BEST!" Eric Sakai, chef at Seattle's Restaurant Marron, says. "I've gone to other places both old and new, but nowhere does it like Leonard's. It's the most perfectly balanced malasada out there." Most people like them filled, jelly doughnut-style—haupia, or coconut pudding, is a popular choice—but honestly these little dough balls are best in their original coating of plain sugar, providing the perfect crunch and sweetness to the feathery malasada dough. 933 Kapahulu Ave.; 808-737-5591
② Poke at Ono Seafood
Sorry, L.A., but your recent poke bowl trend can't beat the original at this no-frills icon. Hunks of super-fresh fish, glossy with sweet soy sauce and freckled with slivers of scallions and limu, are mixed to order unlike most poke purveyors, who usually just let the fish sit in a big tub of seasoning all day. Try ahi or tako (octopus) or both, since you can go halfsies, and be sure to order it with rice to round out a full meal. 747 Kapahulu Ave.; 808-732-4806
③ Kalua Pork at Ono Hawaiian Foods
You know you're at the right place if you see every leather-strapped chair outside filled at this local legend (and don't you dare try to wait inside). "One of the most iconic places for Hawaiian food," Chris Kajioka, the chef behind up-and-coming Senia, says. "When I was younger, my parents used to pick up dinner there almost once a week." Generous helpings of old-school Hawaiian food come out on bright red lunch trays and come clattering down all at once, so it's best to restrain yourself when you order. Sticky poi, fragrant kalua pork shot with deliciously mushy taro leaves and crowd-pleasing chicken long rice are your best bets. 726 Kapahulu Ave.; 808-737-2275
RELATED Island Snacks on the Mainland »
④ Plate Lunch at Rainbow Drive-In
This roadside quick-service spot was hot way before its TV debut on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. "It was always important to locals due to philosophy: serving big-size portions at an affordable price," Crystine Ito, Rainbow's marketing manager, explains. Founders Seiju and Ayako Ifuku's blue-collar lunch joint had just a few things on the menu when it first opened in 1961: hamburger steak, fries, burger and chili. Nowadays customers line up for loco moco (hamburger steak over rice drenched in an uber-umami gravy and topped with a fried egg) and mix plate (combination of sweet-savory barbecued beef, mahi and chicken with mounds of rice and creamy, mayo-tossed macaroni salad). "You hit the spot with Rainbow Drive-In," Sakai says. "There are so many plate lunch places, but Rainbow's is number one." 3308 Kanaina Ave.; 808-737-0177
⑤ Spam Musubi at Mana Bu's
It's fairly easy to make Spam musubi on your own, but Manabu and Fumiyo Asaoka have made an art of Hawaii's beloved canned luncheon meat-and-rice sushi. The couple didn't grown up eating Spam musubi in their native Japan but had to put it on the menu when they opened their little shop 7 years ago. Each musubi is made to order: Slices of Spam are fried in soy, enveloped in hot rice and quickly wrapped in nori (dried seaweed), so the hot rice doesn't turn the nori into a filmy mess. The shop opens at 6:30 a.m., and it's best to get there on the earlier side, since Mana Bu's regularly sells out before noon. 1618 S. King St.; 808-358-0287
⑥ Shave Ice at Waiola Shave Ice
Like the Montagues and Capulets, shave ice allegiance is a thing here. People will judge if you're pro Matsumoto's or on Team Waiola. "Last time, I went Matsumoto's, but Waiola is still my favorite. I stick to Waiola no matter what they say. That's my place," Chung Chow, the chef/owner of Noreetuh in New York City, says. "It's soft, fluffy and really light. " And we have to agree, given Waiola's consistently snowy flecks of ice and sugary, satisfying syrups in flavors like POG (iconic passion fruit, orange, guava juice). Chow picks his flavor combo by color, but his pro move is getting the snowcap on top (a drizzle of condensed milk) to, well, cap it all off. Multiple locations
⑦ Saimin at Palace Saimin
It's not ramen, it's not wonton soup—it's saimin, a noodle soup mash-up Japanese and Chinese immigrants brought to the island during the wars. Porky but not as thick as tonkotsu and fishy like wonton soup, the broth is normally made from bits of pork bone and a slosh of dashi, then piled with scallions, luncheon meat or magenta-tinged barbecue pork, kamaboko (fish cakes) and springy eggy ramen-like noodles. And, here, at Palace Saimin, they do it the best, never straying from a nearly 70-year-old recipe. 1256 N. King St.; 808-841-9983
Please check your inbox to verify your email address.