An e-mail I sent to a friend who was visiting Hawaii for the very first time.
From: Harry Lin
Sent: Monday, April 29, 2002
To: Subject: Hawaii : eating while you're there
One of things that always irks me is when someone tells me they went to Hawaii and found the food disappointing. I ask them where they ate while there were there, and inevitably the answer is "at the hotel", or "at fast food chains", or, worse, "at a luau".
Eating out in Hawaii is one reason why Cyn & I go every year -- we love the food. Most of the best food is not fancy; it's blue-collar food (and you know me, I love workingman's grub). But it's all done with an Asian and/or tropical twist. If you remind yourself that you're not in Paris, San Francisco, or New Orleans, you can have a WONDERFUL time eating local food. And that's the key -- eat local, not chains you recognize from the mainland. And try to avoid hotel-prepped meals. Jump in the rental car and hit the local restaurants and diners!
Herewith, unsolicited, Harry's Eating Out In Hawaii Recs!
(1) Eat some "plate lunch". Plate lunch is a generic term in Hawaii, like "box lunch" or "brown bag" here on the mainland. It generally refers to a cheap, carbo-heavy meal of meat or fish + two scoops of white rice + mac or potato salad (and sometimes some other sides, like Korean kim-chee or marinated bean sprouts). You can find plate lunch just about anywhere; it's as ubiquitous as fast food (but it's local). I usually have BBQ'ed chicken or deep-fried chicken (known as "katsu") as the meat portion. Truth be told, Cyn & I eat plate lunch for like half our meals while we're in Hawaii. Yummy Korean BBQ is a local chain that serves excellent plate lunch and I think there are branches on Maui. Likewise with L & L Drive-Inn, another dependable local chain.
(2) Try some Spam sushi, sometimes called "musabi". This is exactly what it sounds like. Sushi, but instead of a delicate, tender, fresh piece of fish, it's made with a slab of Spam! I love it. You eat it without soy sauce or wasabi, just plain. The 7-11 stores often sell it alongside their microwave cheeseburgers (no joke). You buy two big-ass musabi's and toss them into your cooler and hit the beach and you're golden for the afternoon.
(3) If you MUST go to a fast food restaurant, go to a McDonald's and order the "saimin" (pronounced "sigh-minn"). It never fails to tickle me that the MickeyD's in Hawaii serve noodles. Saimin is essentially instant ramen with some fresh ingredients tossed in, and it's fun to get that plus a side of Chicken McNuggets or fries. I have a cousin from Hawaii who lives in Virginia now who says the one thing she really, really misses about Hawaii is that the McDonald's on the mainland don't serve saimin. BTW, saimin is a made-up food ... there's really no such thing as saimin but in Hawaii, so many different Asian ethnic groups mixed together that new foods were invented. You'll also find saimin at some local diners and plate-lunch restaurants.
(4) If you eat ice cream, skip Ben & Jerry's and Baskin-Robbins -- go for Lappert's. This is a local ice cream chain and they have lots of cool tropical flavors like passionfruit, guava, mango, etc. all hand-made with local ingredients. Always eat Lappert's if you're eating ice cream in Hawaii!
(5) Likewise, if you drink coffee, drink Kona coffee (coffee beans grown on the Kona coast of the Big Island). There's a reason Kona coffee beans cost twice as much as Colombian dark at Starbucks. Kona's flavor is smooth and mellow -- I not only drink lots of Kona coffee when in Hawaii, but I pick up Kona coffee beans covered in chocolate and pop them like breathmints! I'm wired after a few beans :-) Some of the local airlines serve Kona coffee on their flights.
(6) Besides coffee, the other local beverage we down by the gallon is Aloha-brand juices andPOG. Aloha is a brand, like Lipton or Pepsi, but it's local only. They sell juices like guava, passionfruit, etc. You can usually find six-packs of Aloha juices in all supermarkets. POG is an acronym for Passion-Orange-Guava, and is a juice that's just that, a combo of those three juices. Several local companies make POG.
(7) If you go to an upscale restaurant and they have local beef (e.g., steak), order it! The best local beef is raised on the Big Island and is often refered to as "Kamuela beef" (pronounced "cam-well-uh"), and it's all grass-fed, not grain-fed like Midwestern cattle. Local beef tastes gooooooood and is hormone- and pesticide-free.
(8) For breakfast some time, skip the hotel meal, venture out to a local diner-type restaurant, and order "loco moco" (pronounced "low-koh mow-koh"). Loco moco is a generic name for a dish, like "club sandwich" or "patty melt", and refers to this: one grilled hamburger patty set on top of a thick bed of white rice, covered with a fried sunny-side up egg and all doused with brown meat gravy. You have loco moco for breakfast and you're ready to hit the surf for hours!
(9) Speaking of breakfast, if the place you're eating at has it, order portugese sausage. This sausage is made of pork and is spicy and flavored like a Louisiana hotlink. They're considered breakfast meats by locals. Gotta love a culture where something as fatty and spicy as a Louisiana hotlink is considered a breakfast side. (Note: Some Hawaiian McDonald's serve portugese sausage during breakfast. Gotta love the MickeyD's in Hawaii!).
(10) If you do one really fancy dinner out, do it at Roy's. I'm pretty sure there's one on Maui. Roy Yamaguchi is like Hawaii's most famous chef ever. His restaurants are all superb. If you go, order fresh fish! We eat at the Roy's in Honolulu every time we go and always come away smiling and giddy. Order whatever fresh fish dishes are the specials -- he'll have stuff you've never tried, like opakapaka, ono, mahi-mahi, and they're always great.
(11) "Shave ice" is the Hawaiian version of a snowcone but the syrup flavors they add in Hawaii are different (more tropical and more Asian). I'm not a big fan of snowcones, so I'm not a big fan of shave ice, but if you like, get some. Try the weird flavors that you can't get in a mainland snowcone, like red-bean or lychee or coconut.
A few other notes: Most luaus are for tourists, so the food is bad and the entertainment is cheesy. Avoid. Super-authentic Hawaiian food that real Hawaiians ate years ago --- poi, lomi lomi, etc -- don't taste so good. Avoid. There are no real Italians or Mexicans of any sizeable number in Hawaii, so avoid Italian and Mexican food while in Hawaii. The Vietnamese food is often great and the Thai food too, but for some reason, there's shits loads of bad Chinese food in Hawaii, so you takes your chances on that. The Japanese food is usually great.
You're young, you live in LA, you'll go to Hawaii again, so you'll be able to try lots of different things. But do a few of these things and you're bound to have a good experience this first outing. If you come back and tell me you ate at Denny's, Outback Steakhouse, Burger King, Domino's, Taco Bell, and the hotel the whole time, I'm gonna kill you!