I love adventurous eating and local cultural food. Hawaii has opportunities for both.
Mainly, there’s a wonderful combination of both native Hawaiian foods and Asian cultural influences on Oahu. The Hawaiian food is reminiscent of some of the Polynesian dishes I had in Niue. And the Asian influences come from the large population of Japanese, Filipinos, Chinese, and Korean people living on Oahu.
I start with an in-depth description of some of the traditional Hawaiian cuisine I ate. Then I mostly list all of the other must-try foods and the places to eat them.
Don't forget, you can see the location of ever food spot in this post (and more) using My Interactive Oahu Map!
Quintessential Hawaiian Cuisine
The original Polynesian voyagers to Hawaii form the basis of what is commonly called "native" Hawaiian food.
Much of this food, including lau lau and kalua pig, was traditionally prepared in underground "earth" ovens. Today, you'll find native Hawaiian food served all over Oahu, mostly cooked above ground unless you get it at a luau.
One of the most authentic and highly recommended restaurants was Helena's. Around for 6 decades, this a true family-owned restaurant using traditional recipes. I also really enjoyed Ono Hawaiian Food which proudly shows off its many awards and visits from famous folks. Not to mention, Ono Hawaiian Foods was featured on the Food Network and for good reason!
Both of these places dual it out below as I select which one did each Hawaiian dish best.
Location: Ono Hawaiian Food
This is a Native Hawaiian dish consisting of a steamed taro leaf wrapped around either pork, beef, chicken, or fish.
Traditionally, it is prepared with pork in a very similar way to how Niueans cook much of their food—in an underground oven. While Niueans call it an umu, Hawaiians call their oven an imu! Close enough for me!
When I ordered this at Ono Hawaiian Food, I was given the largest helping of lau lau I had received anywhere!
Location: Ono Hawaiian Food or Helena’s Hawaiian Food
This was possible my most favorite Hawaiian food. Kalua pig is shredded pork cooked in an imu. It's salted and then cooks in its own juices so that it comes out perfectly moist in its own oils.
The best was taking a fork full of kalua pig and dipping it in poi…
Location: Helena’s Hawaiian food
A staple Hawaiian food, poi looks like a purple-brown paste. It's made from kalo (Hawaiian for the taro plant).
Poi is a bit of an acquired taste on its own. So try it and then try it again with Kalua pig. There’s something about these two dishes together that is wonderful!
Lomi Lomi Salmon
Location: Ono or Helena's Hawaiian Food
Lomi lomi salmon is the little bits of red and pink stuff sprinkled over my rice in the picture above.
It was actually hard to tell exactly what it was the first time I had it. It's a salad with diced tomatos, onions, and salted salmon served as a typical Hawaiian side dish.
Location: Helena’s Hawaiian Food
This was an out-of-this-world treat.
At Helena's, it's got a perfectly thin, crispy outer crust and is juicy on the inside without tasting fishy. I loved all of Helena’s classic Hawaiian cuisine, but this was done best!
Drive-in plate lunches
Location: Rainbow Drive-In in Waikiki or Loco Moco Drive Inn in Honolulu
It doesn't get much more Hawaiian than this.
A plate lunch from a local drive-in was the first meal I had when I arrived on Oahu. Drive-ins on Oahu are not where you go to watch a double feature film. They are more like a “drive up” and get out. You order at a walk-up window and have the option to eat at picnic tables outside.
Any drive-in will do. But people say the best are Rainbow or Loco Moco Drive-Ins.
I got the fish lau lau plate lunch from Leeward Drive-in near my Airbnb and I ate it in nearby West Loch Community Shoreline Park. All plate lunches come with a classic scoop or two of rice and hawaiian mac salad. Sometimes they also come with some noodles and a slice of haupia.
Location: Anywhere serving traditional Hawaiian food
This is a coconut milk based dessert that looks like a little square of white gelatin.
It’s sweet and delicious and will come with just about any traditional Hawaiian meal you order. You’ll often find it at luaus and weddings on Hawaii.
Location: Keeaumoku Seafood
Poke bowls are raw fish salad usually with some kind of Japanese or other Asian-inspired seasoning.
I tried Keeaumoku’s spicy sesame ahi tuna poke bowl. It was probably the freshest raw fish I ever ate. The outside of the fish is sprinkled with copious amounts of tobiko (Japanese for fish eggs!). I had never had anything like it before in my life. Tobiko was weird and kind of fun to eat! I only wish I had the chance to try more poke varieties (there are many).
Location: Any convenience store
I never actually tried this because—spam. It’s a slice of grilled spam over rice wrapped in seaweed. I found it all over. You can pick one up at almost any little corner shop or grocery, even some gift shops that sell food and drink!
You'll found many food trucks and food stops particularly on the North Shore of Oahu. Check out Haleiwa and the area across from Shark Cove for some of the best food trucks around.
Location: Giovanni’s in Haleiwa
Get here with time to spare. There’s almost always a long line to wait on, and it’s oh-so worth it if you love your garlic!
Location: HI BBQ in Kahuku
Pet some farm animals while you’re here and try not to think about the cute pig that probably became your meal! :(
Japanese, Chinese, and Korean
When visiting Chinatown, I happened upon the Chinese New Year celebration. There were tons of yummy food for sale.
But much of what I will describe below can be found all over since Asian culture is so pervasive throughout much of Oahu
Location: Marukame in Waikiki
This place is absolutely epic for udon noodles. The best I’ve ever had. There’s often a line for a very good reason and it goes fast.
Location: Chinese Cultural Plaza
I am sad to say I did not get to try the dim sum at the Chinese Cultural Plaza after so may people recommended it to me. If you've ever tried dim sum before, this is apparently the place to get it.
The above photo should make up for my lack of dim sum, though. There was SO MUCH GOOD FOOD at the new years street fair in Chinatown!
Location: Yummy Korean Food in Hawaii Kai
I found this place on a whim and it’s a gem! Huge portions of Korean-style food for a very reasonable price.
Jian Dui, Dumplings, and Baozi
Location: Char Hung Sut in Honolulu
I got to try some Hawaiian-style Cantonese dumplings and baozi (manapua, in Hawaii) at the Chinese New Year celebration. Sadly, Char Hung Sut was closed when I was in the area.
I also tried the fried sesame balls, called "Jian Dui," at the celebration. You can tell how excited I am to be eating one in the above photo. They come in different flavors. My favorite? Coconut, of course!
Location: Marukai Market Place in Honolulu
This is a huge Japanese grocery store with imported snacks, hints of Hawaii, and fresh-made Japanese food. Chefs are there all day making all kinds of delicious, authentic Japanese treats, like mochi—one of my favorites! It was made fresh and tasted the freshest I’ve ever had! So good!
Soursop Bubble tea
I found soursop again! At a bubble tea place in Honolulu’s Chinatown, there was a place with a wall of bubble tea options including my favorite obsession since Singapore.
The first time I had soursop was in Singapore and you’ll remember I was very excited to find it again in Florida. Now I can add Hawaii to the list of growing places selling my beloved fruit.
And now for some of my favorites. These are necessary to try when on Oahu and also best consumed when on any tropical island...
Location: Dole Plantation
Although maddeningly expensive, the pineapple on Hawaii is some of the freshest and ripest you'll find anywhere. To avoid the infalted prices, go to the Dole Plantation to sample it for free in their store. Find out how in my previous post all about my Dole Plantation visit.
There's nothing like fish that was caught within hours before it ended up on your plate. When on any island, you would be wise to take advantage of some of the freshest fish you'll ever eat!
Location: A Native Hawaiian at Shark's Cove
Wait to drink coconut water on Hawaii until it's served to you from the back of a native's truck. Seriously. It'll be the freshest ever.
A Native Hawaiian pulled up to the Shark's Cove parking lot with a huge cooler in the back of his pick-up. Inside were freshly picked coconuts that he cracked open on the spot and sold it to me. I felt good about paying him the $5 and even better about drinking this sweet, nutricious water directly from the source.
Fire Roasted Chicken
Locatio: Maui Mike's
It's no wonder Disney's recent Hawaii-based film, Moana, featured Hei Hei, a rooster side kick to the main character. Hens and roosters run around all over Oahu. They're absolutely everywhere! And so it's no wonder chicken is a major food there.
Maui Mike's does chicken the best. Fire-roasted to perfection!
Sweet Stuff & Cold Treats
I have a serious sweet tooth. And in the heat of Hawaii, it's difficult to stay cool. For me, there's no better way to satisfy both a sweet tooth and overheating than to combine sweet and icey into one treat. The following are Hawaiian foods that are sweet, icey, or the wonderful combination of both!
Location: Haleiwa Bowls in Haleiwa or Diamond Head Cove Health Bar in Honolulu
Possibly my most favorite discovery of all are these smoothie "bowls." They make a great, energy-boosting breakfast or a treat at any time of day.
Acai berries are the usual fruit used in the yogurt smoothie base at the bottom. Then granola, fresh fruit, coconut flakes, and honey are common toppings. I had a "mana bowl" at the Diamond Cove Health Bar that included bee pollen on it for extra protein. Yum!
Location: Leonard's Bakery
Originally Portuguese, these large sugared puff balls are often served up plain or filled with different flavored custards or creams. Don't get just one kind. Make sure to have them fill a box with a variety. I especially liked the custard- and the chocolate-filled malasadas.
Pipe ice cream
Why not fill a J-shaped tube of fried and sugared dough with ice cream?
Location: Dole Plantation
Pineapple flavored ice cream? Yes, please.
Location: The Aloha General Store
I was told I had to try this because it is a major Hawaiian treat. I wasn't really very excited to get this because I thought it would taste like a slushie or some other fake-tasting syrupy cold drink you would get at a gas station back in New York. I was so wrong!
Shaved ice is some kind of sweet, cloudy magic. Get it with vanilla ice cream on the bottom and icing (condensed milk) on top and taste a cool, creamy little piece of heaven.
Haupia pie and Macadamia nut cream pie
Location: Ted's Bakery
The bakeries around Hawaii or very well known for their pies. I'm not sure why pies are so prolific and popular there. Either way, one of the best places to get a pie is Ted's Bakery on the north shore.
They have a haupia cream pie that is to die for in combination with chocolate. Also, if you don't try something with macademia nuts on the island, you'll be missing out on the macademia nut farming craze in the area. So it might as well be i a pie that you have them. Both of these pies are awesome.
I do not think there is a better way to end a day (or a post!) than with a sunset that matches the sunset on the container of the pie you're eating. Mmmmm, mmm, mm!