What better way to experience the Hawaiian Islands than through your taste buds. Spanning mountain and sea, the aina or “land that feeds” is Hawaii’s bountiful backyard pantry, stocked with vegetable and tropical fruit farms, cattle ranches, and fresh seafood. However, it’s Hawaii’s rooted culture and centuries of introduced influences that give rise to our favorite menus: traditional Hawaiian food, Hawaii regional cuisine and local comfort foods. So, prepare to have your appetite piqued as we reveal a small sampling of fine dining experiences, family-style restaurants, and mom and pop eateries that make Hawaii a foodie’s paradise.
Traditional Hawaiian Food
Though there are many foods unique to Hawaii, not all are considered Hawaiian. The category of traditional Hawaiian food largely refers to dishes associated with native Hawaiian culture. A few mainstays of this cuisine include poi, a pounded taro paste; laulau, chicken or pork wrapped in ti leaves and steamed; kalua pig, pulled pork; and lomi salmon, a fresh tomato, onion and salmon salad. For a taste of it all, visit Waiahole Poi Factory, an Oahu food spot specializing in homemade Hawaiian food and hand-pounded poi. Shaped by more than 100 years in business, its tasty dishes are inspired by foods typically found at traditional Hawaiian luau. On Kauai, Hanalei Taro & Juice Co. is one of the island’s go-to spots for Hawaiian food.
Hawaiian Regional Cuisine
Since its founding in the 1990s, the Hawaii regional cuisine movement has also generated significant influence on Hawaii’s culinary scene, blending inspiration from the Islands’ diversity of ethnicities and their food flavors, ingredients and traditions. You can taste the constant evolution of the cooking style in the current restaurants of a few of its chef co-founders: on Oahu, Alan Wong’s Honolulu, Roy’s (Roy Yamaguchi) and Chef Mavro (George Mavrothalassitis); on the island of Hawaii, Merriman’s (Peter Merriman) and Sam Choy’s Kai Lanai; and on Maui, Mala Ocean Tavern (Mark Ellman); and Haliimaile General Store (Beverly Gannon). To experience a contemporary spin on Hawaii-inspired surf-and-turf menus alongside inventive desserts, check out Oahu restaurants Town and Mud Hen Water, which showcase chef-owner Ed Kenney’s modern interpretations of quintessential local dishes
Local Comfort Food
Often simple in their creation and nostalgic to generation upon generation of Hawaii families, the best and most beloved local comfort foods are everyday eats that both warm the heart and sate the appetite. One of these favorites is saimin, a savory Hawaii-born noodle soup reminiscent of Japanese ramen most often assembled with egg noodles in a bonito shrimp-flavored broth, and garnished with slivers of green onion, fishcake and, often, Spam. Hamura Saimin on Kauai serves up an authentic, no-frills bowl brimming with its secret recipe broth and housemade noodles. On the island of Maui, stop by Sam Sato’s for dry mein, a noodle-dipping twist on classic local-style saimin. Another classic Hawaii comfort food is loco moco, which, in its most basic recipe, is composed of a mound of warm rice topped with a burger patty, sunny side up egg and hearty helping of gravy all over. Try it at the island of Hawaii’s Cafe 100, self-proclaimed “home” eatery of this ultimate savory comfort food. With its unique spins on the classic loco moco recipe, Maui’s Da Kitchen is also a great place to indulge in a hearty bowl of the dish.