Last month, I wrote a Zagat feature article on hot, newer restaurants in Hawaii, including a number of standouts during my fantastic 2 weeks in December on Oahu and Kauai to end 2015.
In my Zagat feature, I cover a number of recommended restaurants The Pig & the Lady (my top choice), Pint + Jigger, Mud Hen Water, Koko Head Cafe (my top breakfast choice), Lucky Belly and Shirokiya Japanese market as well as cocktail destinations: The Pig & the Lady, Pint + Jigger, Mud Hen Water, Lucky Belly, LAperitif at La Mer. You can read the article for details on each place.
Sadly, I was disappointed by the bland sandwiches at Kaimuki Superette, a modern cafe that reads great “on paper”.
Here are some of my latest recommends in Kauai, while now I dig deeper into coffee, food, restaurants and drink in Honolulu the food mecca of Hawaii in addition to my recommends from last time on food (also here) and on drink.
MUSUBI CAFE IYASUME
A perpetual line didn’t stop me from returning multiple times to Musubi Cafe Iyasume, a humble hole-in-the-wall inconspicuously hidden in Waikiki, a treasure of local Hawaiian food and some of the best musubi in all of Hawaii (I’ve had some pretty great gas station musubi on Maui).
Yes, you can get quality spam musubi here, but there are take-out Japanese food specialties and an entire musubi menu (from spicy cod roe to fried chicken mayo musubi), served warm and freshly-made when your buzzer goes off. At not much more than $2 each, it’s one of the cheapest and most authentic meals in Waikiki.
DA HAWAIIAN POKE CO.
Looking like a chain in the Safeway Kapahulu Center (across the street from Leonard’s Bakery, below) with plans to expand to LA next take-out only Da Hawaiian Poke Co. is the kind of fast food place I dream of.
Fresh fish and all manner of toppings, whether furikake, sea urchin or yuzu ponzu sauce, give you the option of endless varieties of customized poke bowls. They are delicious and filling at around $11-14, while patient staff explain each ingredient if you ask. I so wish they’d come to SF.
NANZAN GIRO GIRO
Having dined at their sister restaurant in Kyoto, Japan, I was delighted to make it to Nanzan Giro Giro, a bright and bustling dining room centered by a long counter surrounding a huge open kitchen. This is Kyoto-style kaiseki where seasonal ingredients are showcased in delicate, artful tasting menus (here a reasonable $58 per person plus wine or sake).
Highlights are many from an ever-changing menu, including during my visit a king crab and foie gras manj? (a Japanese confection of flour, rice powder and buckwheat, typically filled with red bean paste, but here laden with the rich foie, surrounded by hearts of palm, dried daikon radish and corn sprouts). Black cod and soft roe tempura in cabbage soup was another beauty. Being one of merely a couple non-Japanese diners, I felt as I’ve returned to my beloved Japan.
Imanas Tei is a humble sushi and Japanese food restaurant packed with local Japanese families. Sashimi and sushi omakase meals/platters are a steal around $30 per person for each. Though you won’t find unusual cuts of fish here, everything is spanking fresh and staff aim to please. It’s a heartwarming, straightforward, familial restaurant.
Just open in December by the crew of the decent MW Restaurant, ArtiZen is a humble counter cafe (with a few tables) inside the stately Hawaii State Art Museum. Quality soups, sandwiches, salads and daily specials showcasing Hawaiian dishes make it an ideal lunch spot. The smoked opah fish melt ($10), like an elevated tuna melt, is downright perfection.
The one, the only. I make it to Leonard’s Bakery every visit. Little needs to be said except GO. Always. Cheap and fantastic, warm malasadas (especially my favorite lilikoi/passion fruit) are served straight out of the fryer, filled with all manner of goodness. One of THE great and defining tastes of Hawaii.
Heartwarming plate lunch favorite, Ethel’s Grill is a humble, longtime hole-in-the-wall not far from the Honolulu airport serving mixed plates, popular mochiko chicken and deep fried turkey tails.
It’s all about the rare, seared tataki sashimi in a house soy-based sauce, with silky fish so fresh it belies its modest surroundings.
TOP of WAIKIKI and SKY Waikiki
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Though at first glance these are touristy bars catering to a “scene-y” crowd and all that is true one of SF’s longtime great bar managers (formerly at Rye), Jen Ackrill, moved to Honolulu over a year ago and has upped the game on both menus.
Top of Waikiki is a revolving rooftop restaurant and bar with dramatic Waikiki views where some of her best cocktails are served.
SKY Waikiki is the open air “scene” around a huge firepit with dramatic views of the ocean and downtown Honolulu. Though Ackrill has to work with mainstream vodka, she walks a fine line of keeping things crowd-pleasing while not making the cocktail aficionado feel as if they have to sacrifice taste for that spectacular view.
At the Top of Waikiki, try Waikiki Tiki, a tart, vivacious combination of Hawaiian chili and cacao nib-infused cachaca (Brazilian sugarcane spirit), Giffards banana liqueur, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram and fresh lemon juice, subtle with spice and earthy cacao notes. At SKY, don’t miss the Deconstructed Mai Tai, mixing rum, orange curacao and orgeat, topped with a bright mai tai foam.
12th AVENUE GRILL
Another Kaimuki neighborhood spot, I wanted to try the food at 12th Avenue Grill but ran out free mealtimes. I am glad I tried the solid cocktails at what is a worthwhile drink stop.
Here, balance is in operation and there are plenty of whisk(e)y and booze-forward drinks outside of the typical island-centric cocktails one often finds locally. Standout drinks include the likes of Sage Fright: Smith & Cross Rum, Taylors Velvet Falernum, El Dorado 3 year rum, lime and sage.
I almost skipped Bevy twice. I walked out the first time but gave it one more chance days later when it was still loud and obnoxious with locals who got downright gross (one couple was blatantly making out at the bar, while others brought in a bunch of dogs who crowded around the bar). In most cities, I would never have the time to even give a place like this a second chance but since I was in town long enough to hit everything on my go-to list, I gave it another go.
It’s unfortunate to have the setting so loud and the crowd a dissuading factor as Bevy is attempting quality cocktails. Mai Thai ($12) worked best, combining Bacardi 8 year rum, orange curacao, velvet falernum, lemongrass and lime, topped with candied ginger foam. The drink is harmonious and playful.
Other cocktails, like Col. Mustard ($10), are more ambitious than delicious but still was a pleasurable drink of mustard-infused Buffalo Trace bourbon, Yellow Chartreuse, lemon and ginger (you can see a theme of island flavors here) with dehydrated blood orange garnish dotted with mustard seeds.
Via Gelato is a fantastic little shop in the charming Kaimuki neighborhood, perpetually packed with locals and families eating dreamy gelato. Try unique, Hawaiian-inspired flavors like soursop sorbet, li hing shiso, banana lilikoi, cinnamon bun and my favorites: green tea oreo and black sesame with haupia (coconut).
Despite the tricky name and packaging, Coldfyyre is inspired, interesting ice cream pulling on local ingredients and flavors in unexpected ways.
Found at the ever fantastic KCC Farmers Markets on Saturdays and Tuesdays, Green Sea ice cream is sweet and subtle but its key ingredient? Sea asparagus, a juicy, sea plant that bursts with green and sourced from another farmers market vendor. It’s not even as fresh and “green” as I’d liked but is more creamy and lush with a subtle hint of seaweed. Maui Mint is a wonderfully fresh burst of mint from the neighboring island, while flavors like lilikoi (passion fruit) or apple banana showcase fruits all sourced from local Oahu farms.
The Curb started as a food truck in 2011 and grew to 3 locations, easily providing the best coffee (pour over, cold brew, espresso drinks) I’ve had in Honolulu, a place where many coffee shops still feel stuck in the 1990s.
I frequented the tiny Kaimuki location where many of my SF coffee beans (Four Barrel, etc.) were being served and sold. But I went straight for pricey but good Oahu beans. I appreciated finding this third wave coffee oasis.
While third wave coffee is difficult to find in Hawaii in general and Kai Coffee still leans a bit weak in their espresso drinks (think a bit too much milk in a cappuccino), they are still the strongest coffee option I found in touristy Waikiki inside the open-air, ’70’s atrium of the Hyatt Regency Hotel. They pour a robust cold brew and pour over, using local beans.
Madre Chocolate was Hawaii’s first bean-to-bar chocolatier, with eco-friendly policies and some lovely chocolates (also available at KCC Farmers Market).
I’ve had their chocolate a few times before but visiting their shop allows one to taste all their bars and other specialties. Bonus points: they offer unique tastings and classes a few times a month, pairing their chocolates with rum, whiskey, wine and the like.