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O’ahu Restaurants

Thanks to its blend of cultures and the increase in locally grown produce and meat, my island home, O’ahu, has truly come into its own as a culinary destination. From Ala Moana and downtown to the beachy ‘burbs of Kailua and Kaneohe, great-tasting—and reasonably priced—local cuisine abounds. Here are some new and old favorites discovered during my recent visit.

Hawaii Kai, Kailua, and Kaneohe

In and around town

Queen’s Surf Cafe & Lanai, Kapiolani Beach Park. The best value & atmosphere in Waikiki for plate lunch. Special touches, like wooden platters instead of styrofoam plates and a fruit and flower garnish, elevate this beachfront, outdoor eatery. You can’t beat the location, which comes complete with salt spray from Queen’s Surf and sunset views. Weekend barbecues are reportedly a bit insane; try a weekday breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Kapiolani Beach Park, beachfront, between Kapahulu Avenue and the Waikiki Aquarium.

Queen’s Surf Cafe and Lanai

Yataimura Food Court, Shirokiya, Ala Moana Shopping Center. Japanese specialty store Shirokiya’s in-house bakery, St. Germain, has long been the source of the finest bread and pastries in town. Now, the 2nd floor Yataimura food court is a destination in itself. With weekly food festivals, a beer garden, and everything from bento to ramen, curry to the homey vegetable-based crepe okonomiyaki, Yataimura offers a unique alternative to the mall’s generic fast-food court. Shirokiya store, 2nd floor, Ala Moana Shopping Center.

Cafe Julia. Hidden in a graceful courtyard in the historic YWCA building, Cafe Julia offers a pleasing respite in downtown Honolulu. Most cafe goers are employees of neighboring businesses, but the restaurant’s location across from I’olani Palace attracts visitors as well. Admire the soaring arches and original grillwork and the light and tasty Asian-Pacific fare. 1040 Richards Street, downtown Honolulu.

Cafe Julia, in the historic downtown YWCA building

Diamond Head Market and Grill. With a convenient location near Kapiolani Park and Kaimana (Sans Souci) Beach, Diamond Head Market and Grill is still a mainstay for tourists and locals alike. With scrumptious baked goods and only-in-Hawai’i grab-and-go deli items like Japanese sweet potato and beef stew, the Market remains my favorite part of this winning establishment. For lighter fare, skip the long line for plate lunch and burgers and grab a salad from the refrigerator case topped with mochiko chicken (chicken tenders coated in mochiko flour and fried), spicy ahi, or grilled salmon and tofu. 3575 Campbell Avenue at Monsarrat, Diamond Head.

Tamashiro Market. When I was growing up in Honolulu, buying fresh fish from Tamashiro Market was as much of a weekend tradition as going to the beach. This flourishing grocery also stocks farm-fresh produce and prepared food items, such as ten different kinds of poke and grab-and-go sushi, fried fish, and boiled edamame. 802 North King Street, Honolulu.

Poke at Tamashiro Fish Market

Sushi, high and low. In the Safeway Center on Kapahulu Avenue, very good quality sushi and other light Japanese food can be found at Ninja Sushi, where the super helpful and patient staff explain the dazzling array of menu items. For a higher end Japanese experience, try the unassuming but excellent Sushi Bistro on King, an authentic sushi and izakaya restaurant frequented by both local and visiting Japanese community. Ninja Sushi, 870 Kapahulu Avenue; Sushi Bistro, 1914 S. King Street, Moiliili.

Read about Hawai’i Kai, Kailua, and Kaneohe

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Hawai’i Kai, Kailua, and Kaneohe Restaurants

Uahi Island Grill, Kailua town. This small, casual restaurant serves inventive Asian-Pacific cuisine. The ahi salad and Jawaiian-style chicken were tasty, but what really sent me into a tizzy were the desserts. Chef Nick Yamada calls his burnt caramel tart, coated with Waialua Estate dark chocolate and macadamia nuts, a grown-up Twix bar, but I call it pure buttery chocolate heaven. 131 Hekili Street, Kailua town.

Pah Ke’s Chinese Restaurant, Kaneohe. A longtime favorite of Kaneohe residents, Pah Ke’s distinguishes itself with its Asia-Pacific menu items and its stellar desserts. An ahi chopped salad was tangy and flavorful. Peking Duck was served with the crisp skin tucked in house-made buns dabbed with plum sauce and the meat piled on a separate platter, a service that many Chinese restaurants in the States forgo. I’ve never been one for guava chiffon cake, but Pah Ke’s is the best I’ve ever tasted. Creamy lilikoi cheesecake is light and lovely, and the soymilk custard (far better than it sounds) was a nondairy revelation. 46-018 Kamehameha Highway, Kaneohe.

Yummy Korean BBQ. True to its name, this is freshly made and delicious Korean BBQ, with a choice of four vegetable sides—ranging from various kim chee to noodle salad—to accompany your smoky char-grilled meat and two scoops of rice. Meat jun, thin slices dipped in egg batter and fried, is the Korean answer to chicken-fried steak. Those with small appetites or no fridge to save leftovers may wish to opt for the mini-plate. With outdoor seating overlooking the marina, what better way is there to fuel yourself after a morning at the beach? Koko Marina Shopping Center, behind Cosmopolitan Sun Shop, as well as other locations.

Bubbies. Still the best and most creatively named ice cream on the island, with two locations: the original spot in Honolulu, with its blush-inducing, racily named sweets, across from the Varsity Theater, and a second location in the Koko Marina Shopping Center, where the desserts have family-friendly monikers. It’s not listed on the chalkboard menu, but you can get your ice cream dipped in chocolate coating for extra indulgence. 1010 University Avenue; Koko Marina Shopping Center near Zippy’s, 7192 Kalanianaole Hwy.

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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.

Ahi katsu from Monarch Seafoods

Ahi katsu plate from Monarch Seafoods

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.

Monarch Seafoods
515 Kalihi St @ Colburn
Honolulu, HI 96819
(808) 841-7877

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
(808) 262-6440
 

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.

Kona abalone

Kona abalone, one of the many treats available at the KCC Farmer's Market

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
Honolulu, Hawai’i

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
(808) 732-0077

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
King’s Village
131 Kaiulani Ave
Honolulu, Hawaii 96815
(808) 923-8033

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