I know it’s a random connection, but Hawaii and I have a certain undeniable affinity. My girlfriend was born and raised in Hawaii and my mother spent the first 18 years of her life on the island of Oahu as the daughter of a Navy officer. My middle name is “Keakulani” which means beautiful flower from heaven. Needless to say- I can appreciate the culture both from a traveler’s perspective, as well as from inside the inner circle. Let me therefore share some insider’s knowledge on how to get the good eatin’ out of those islands.
First and foremost, you should know that in Hawaiian culture, the men and women are large and in charge for a reason. They fry anything they can, add butter like it was calorie-free, and slop mayo and other indistinguishable sauces on everything. The bad news is, it’s not helpful if you’re attempting to avoid cardiac arrest. The good news is, it tastes good.
Hawaii has multiple islands and many cultures represented, so a full culinary quest is something you need to experience yourself in order to understand the value of these islands’ diversity. Fine dining and exquisite cuisine is available at every price point. For the purposes of brevity and giving you a simple guide, there are three types of food I am going to review in this article:
1. Fast Food/Drive In
2. “Raw stuff” & seafood
DRIVE IN STYLE DINING
There are two main “drive in” style restaurants that you must visit, especially if you’re staying anywhere near Waikiki. One chain that you will see all over the island of Oahu is “Zippy’s.” You can dine in the restaurant, but most locals grab a plate to go. They are famous for their vegetarian chili which young islanders sell frozen and in bulk for school fundraisers. They’ve also got fantastic and convenient “zip pacs” which feature multiple protein options on a bed of rice. Cheap and extremely portable, you’ll see these restaurants every couple of blocks.
Another popular stop is “Rainbow Drive In.” The line is always long and there is a reason- they have fresh bbq meat, rice, and potato mac salad that the locals compete to eat just as much as the tourists. The parking lot is a mess, and the small seating area is a war zone. Bring your patience and a hefty appetite, the serving size is not small. Neither is the calorie count. I promise you though, the flavor, substantial portion size, and affordability makes this a stop worth every trip to the gym you need afterwards to maintain your girlish figure.
“RAW STUFF”/ SEAFOOD
Hawaiian culture is undeniably associated with the gifts from the sea. Islanders seemingly throw out a fishing line wherever they please and local sea cuisine is no joke.
Made of raw seafood marinated and seasoned, one thing that you absolutely must try before leaving the islands is “poke.” The most common varieties feature Ahi tuna or octopus- called “tako.” You should know that if you want to sound like a local, you’ll say “poh-kee,” but if you want to be true to the language, you’ll pronounce it “poh-keh.” No matter how you pronounce it, you’ll be enjoying something that is in every family’s refrigerator (which they call an icebox).
One must-stop shop is actually a hollowed out station wagon near the historic town of Haleiwa on the way to Northshore, Oahu. Ask anyone on the island and they will agree that “Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck” is the best. They’ve only got three items on their menu- all various preparations of huge shrimp served in the shell with legs attached. With two scoops of rice and a healthy helping of napkins- stick to the #1 (Scampi) and get your fingers dirty. The line is long and the price for a regular plate is $13. One of the more expensive stops you’ll ever make at a food truck, but one that you will never regret. www.giovannisshrimptruck.com
An exhaustive list of Hawaiian desserts exists somewhere on the internet, I’m sure. For now- let me direct you to the important parts. Once again- diets are not part of these recommendations.
Malasadas are a Portuguese-style donut, often filled with yummy concoctions ranging from “dobash” (chocolate) to “haupia” (coconut creme). The best place to get them is Leonard’s in Waikiki, and the line proves it. There is no sugar limitation in these recipes so get ready for some sweetness. If you just want a sample, bring cash because there is a $5 minimum charge and you’d be surprised at how many malasadas that will get you.
Another creme-filled sweet you’ll want to try is a “coco puff” from Liliha Bakery. These chocolate filled puffs are iced with chantilly and even green tea flavors. Per their website, “there is a reason we sell between 4,800 and 7,200 every day.” You can also stay for a scrumptious fresh breakfast, but you’ll have to wait in line for that. The packed bakery serves other great baked goods and coco puffs are also available by the frozen dozen. Use your GPS to find this spot near downtown Honolulu (on Liliha street off the H1 freeway).
Last but certainly not least is Hawaiian shaved ice. If you’re staying in Waikiki, you should stop at Waiola shaved ice. They shave the ice so finely that it actually has the same consistency as icecream. If you want to do as the Obamas do, you’ll stop at Matsumoto’s in historic Haleiwa town on the way to the Northshore. Either location, you should try it covered with condensed milk and with a scoop of vanilla icecream. It’s a heavenly treat when combating the island heat.