You’re a full step behind if you think Honolulu is merely a place to throw back Mai Tais after gorging yourself with luau-style pupu platters. The Hawaiian capital’s rich culinary scene goes way beyond the predictable spread in tourist-clogged Waikiki. Those who leave the confines of their tony beach resorts are rewarded with a diverse lineup of food that is reflective of the Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Filipino flavors that converge in this island melting pot.
Roy Yamaguchi, the James Beard Award-winning visionary who ushered in Pacific Rim cooking with the opening of his first Roy’s restaurant in 1988, is a champion of Hawaii’s distinct breed of fusion food. “I think there is a greater appreciation and interest in an authentic Hawaiian cuisine as people have started to learn about the many ethnicities that make up our culinary culture. You now see new establishments that are inspired by our plantation and immigrant histories,” he explains. “In recent years there has also been a resurgence of the native Hawaiian culture and that has brought an explosion of young talent expressing themselves through food. It makes for an exciting dining culture here.”
When the city’s best chefs have the chance to break from making brisket bánh mì with Thai-basil chimichurri, or cold ginger rabbit with crunchy puffed rice, they want to explore the deep gastronomic roots in their backyard. Whether it’s a wholesome bowl of porridge, or cod that exemplifies the state’s little-known Puerto Rican ties, this is what eight well-known Hawaiian chefs like to eat when they’re kicking back in Honolulu.
Le says: “The owner is quite a character. He quietly roams around the restaurant, cracking jokes, going over menu recommendations, and always has a story for every conversation. Being able to speak multiple languages, he listens intently to the murmurings of his guests, looking for clues on where they come from. The food is always consistent, nourishing, and delicious. Order the whole Dungeness crab drowned in a spicy lemongrass and coconut curry. You have to break the shells with your hands, and the most fun part about the experience is licking your fingers. The stir-fried Chinese spinach is perfectly cooked and has lots of garlic, chile, and a magical sauce that he won’t tell me. It’s awesome with a bowl of broken rice.” (Photo: Yelp/Paul C.)
Kajioka says: “Ireh is a healthy Korean restaurant on a very busy street, but the food tastes like you’re eating it in someone’s home. I love getting the chewy, spicy noodles, and the vegetable rice porridge is delicious and comforting.” (Photo: Yelp/Conrad M.)
Kenney says: “Most people are not aware that in the early 1900’s a group of Puerto Rican farmworkers migrated to Hawaii seeking employment on the sugar plantations. Along with them came their favorite family recipes. Drawing from what ingredients were available, a uniquely Hawaiian version of Puerto Rican food was born and has continued to evolve over the past century. There is no better place on Oahu for gandule rice, pasteles, and bacalao salad.” (Photo: Yelp/Emi H.)
Cruz says: “They’re kind of famous, but still under-the-radar in the sense that there’s no advertising or marketing. They have the highest-quality products and the best-flavored salmon roll. I enjoy their ikura, negi hamachi, and fish bones.” (Photo: Yelp/Ramfis B.)
Yamaguchi says: “It’s located in a small, one-story building off the busy Kapahulu Ave in Kaimuki. They specialize in soups and have limited daily specials for dinner. It’s BYOB so you can bring your own shochu or awamori, the Okinawan spirit. I always order the pig’s feet soup, an Okinawan traditional dish. The broth is light and soaks up the flavor of the pork, and I can’t get enough of the pig’s feet, which are both glutenous and tender.” (Photo: Yelp/Denise K.)
Bancaco says: “My favorite part happens before any food arrives at your table. As you drive though one of the most aged residential areas of Oahu, you finally stumble on a 400-square-foot property that looks reminiscent of a Compton pawn shop. Inside there stands a 6’5”, 340 –pound chef in the kitchen with barely enough room to tie his shoe, a mama san, and Minaka, a ‘take no prisoners’ sort of host-server-owner. You get the feeling that you’ll order anything and everything Minaka tells you to—and love it. It’s humbling and somewhat cleansing.” (Photo: Yelp/Florence K.)
Chef/Owner at the Pili Group
Favorite under-the-radar spot: Palace Saimin (1256 N King St; 808-841-9983, palacesaimin.com)
Noguchi says: “Palace Saimin is just that—saimin, not ramen. Ramen is the hot trend right now; seems everyone’s gotta do a riff off of that. Some people are even gussying up saimin, but Palace is OG, using the same broth since I was a kid. It holds a sense of place and is intrinsically connected to true soul food cooking. I order the small saimin, five extra wun tun, three beef sticks, and a large H2O.” (Photo: Yelp/TH)
Lee Anne Wong
Chef/Owner at Koko Head Café and Hale Ohuna
Favorite under-the-radar spot: Izakaya Naru (2700 S King St; 808-951-0510, naru-honolulu.com)
Wong says: “Naru is an Okinawan izakaya featuring small dishes and a large shochu and awamori based drink list. The place is tiny, with fewer than 30 seats, and the lively Japanese atmosphere engulfs you as you forget you’re in a shopping plaza next to a 7-Eleven. The menu is always amazing and the staff is friendly and welcoming. Whenever I visit Naru it’s always with the intention of ordering these three words: ice cream baguette. I have a litany of voyeuristic Instagram odes to the ice cream baguette. It’s a genius ice cream sandwich, with ‘how do they do it’ wonderment attached to every bite. Other must-haves are the peanut tofu, gyoza, sukiyaki pizza, seared salted pork, and the taco rice, which tastes like Old El Paso bibimbap.” (Photo: Yelp/Kim)