The food revolution has hit the Hawaiian islands. Options for dining out – without breaking the bank – are better than ever before. Gone are the days of tasteless vegetables and lacklustre meats, thanks to the plethora of restaurateurs, chefs, and farmers who are changing the way food is grown, produced, cooked, and sold on the islands.
Here are some of the local joints I visited during my stay. It is but a small sample of the mouthwatering local fare you can find in Honolulu and beyond.
Monarch Seafoods is a seafood distributor in Kalihi with a small but well-stocked lunch counter that is flooded at lunchtime by area workers. There is no seating, but plenty of poke (raw, marinated diced fish), excellent lunch plates featuring fish, and even a selection of desserts.
Monarch makes some of the best and freshest poke on the island, with numerous varieties, including tako, ahi limu, and spicy ahi. Bring a cooler and go early to get the freshest selection. Their lunch plates win points among health-conscious locals for brown rice and a very nice Nalo Farms green salad with a tasty miso creamy garlic dressing. On my last visit to Monarch, my brother and I got crab-stuffed ahi rolls and ahi katsu rolls. The ahi in the katsu dish was just barely seared around the outside and still gem-like on the inside, perfectly cooked. The crab rolls were decadent and delicious. For more pics and reads on this local standout, see Kim Lehano’s article.
515 Kalihi St @ Colburn
Honolulu, HI 96819
The Food Company, tucked into the definitively suburban Enchanted Lake shopping center in Kailua, mixes up the concept of plate lunch with a good fish selection, salads, veggies, brown rice, and even pasta. Look to the colorful signboard to the left of the cash register for special dishes such as furikake mahi mahi, ahi katsu, and sesame-crusted ahi. I had a very good filet of blackened ahi laid on a bed of luscious macadamia pesto pasta. My friend Krista ordered golden brown crab cakes, hefty with crab, with brown rice and stir-fried veggies replacing the usual white rice and macaroni salad. The Food Company is also popular with locals for its surfer-sized breakfasts.
The Food Company
Enchanted Lake Shopping Center, to the right of Safeway
1020 Keolu Dr Ste D1
Kailua, HI 96734
For anyone who grew up in Honolulu in the 70s and 80s, eating tasteless food imported from the mainland, the Kapi’olani Community College (KCC) Farmer’s Market is an absolute revelation. Dozens of vendors, selling locally grown produce, flowers, foods for immediate consumption, and food products, gather on Saturday mornings on the KCC campus at the foot of Diamond Head to hawk their splendid wares.
The KCC farmer’s market is locavore foodie heaven, bar none. You can munch on strawberry mochi, imbibe lilikoi lemonade, and partake of fried green tomatoes. Meat lovers can try kalua pork sliders or freshly grilled Portuguese sausages. Enjoy garlic ahi or mochiko chicken plate lunches and Portuguese bean soup, or join the queues to sample Kona abalone or to try the popular pesto pizza with fresh tomato and mozzarella. Devour fresh-baked scones and cookies guilt-free, because you’re supporting the KCC culinary school. For unique gifts with an island flavor, pick up tropical jams and honeys, Hawaiian coffee, or even locally made chocolate. Get there early – the market closes at 11:00 am – and enjoy the vibrant, food-loving crowds.
KCC Farmer’s Market
Saturdays 7:30-11:00 am
Kapiolani Community College, Diamond Head Campus
4303 Diamond Head Road
Famed for the hot plate lunches and grilled sandwiches available at their outside counter, Diamond Head Market and Grill also has an outstanding bakery and fine selection of cold foods and grab-and-go fresh salads. My favorite was the salad topped with mochiko chicken; also available are grilled salmon or spicy ahi. Desserts are truly memorable and range from the genuinely local to just plain delicious. A marvelous haupia and okinawan sweet potato pie entrances the eye with creamy white and purple layers set on a brisee pastry crust. The famous blueberry cream cheese scone has won many a local and visitor’s heart. But I would just as soon go for one of the scrumptious PB&J cookie bars. Drop by, if you can snag a parking spot in the tiny front lot, and pick up a picnic lunch on your way to the beach; it’s an easy drive from here to any of the beach parks in town.
Diamond Head Market and Grill
3158 Monsarrat Avenue
Honolulu, HI 96815
I’ve got to give a shout-out to my good friend Michael Gelfo, who runs the snazzy Rock Island Cafe, a fun, family-run gem in the heart of an increasingly corporate and charmless Waikiki. On any given day, one or all of the members of the effervescent Gelfo family can be found manning the stations at Rock Island, which is a delightful blend of old-fashioned American diner, complete with soda fountain, and an impressive museum of memorabilia and collectibles from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Every evening, the staff performs rock-n-roll classics on Rock Island’s small center stage. Michael’s custom-made videos featuring favorite clips from musicals and concerts provide continuous entertainment. The refreshing chocolate haupia (coconut pudding) milkshake and oven-baked fries alone are worth a stop. The cafe is nestled in King’s Village; look for the statue of Elvis out front.
Rock Island Cafe
131 Kaiulani Ave
Honolulu, Hawaii 96815