The Flavors of Aloha — From Food Trucks to Fine Dining
History, Hawaiian foods, and where to rest your head: A four-part series exploring Oahu
By Natalie Compagno and Greg Freitas April 11, 2023
This is the second of four travel stories on exploring Oahu, Hawaii.
Flavors of Aloha
Hawaiian food has deep cultural, spiritual, and historical significance. The taro plant, which gives us poi, is fundamental to the Hawaiian creation myth, known as the child of the sky god and the older brother of Native Hawaiians. Food is, in essence, part of their family tree.
For food lovers, Hawaii is also a haven of delectable and unique culinary traditions. Hawaiian food is a fusion of the different cuisines that have influenced the islands during the centuries, including Polynesian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, and Filipino. The result is a delightful mix of flavors, textures, and colors that reflects Hawaii’s diverse cultural roots.
On the island of Oahu, food enthusiasts can enjoy a wide variety of Hawaiian cuisine, from classic plate lunches to upscale fine-dining experiences. These top chefs and restaurants have earned a reputation for excellence in Honolulu and a bit beyond.
Brunch is everyone’s favorite weekend pastime and eating it beachside beneath the shadow of Diamond Head makes it even better. Follow a warm, lazy morning with a meal at The Hau Tree at Kaimana Beach Hotel. The kitchen crushes every brunch item you could dream of, from crab cake Benedict to French toast to shakshuka. Their motto is “rosé all day” and the cocktail menu is wildly inventive. Check out the pineapple coconut Negroni; it’s out of this world. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote beneath the 150-year-old trees during his time in Waikiki between 1889 and 1893. Given RLS’s affinity for gin, we like to think he may have imbibed said cocktail under those trees as well.
As one of the pioneers of Hawaii Regional Cuisine, Peter Merriman has been at the forefront of the island’s culinary scene for more than three decades. He owns several restaurants on Oahu, including Merriman’s Honolulu and Monkeypod Kitchen in Kapolei, and is known for his commitment to using fresh, locally-sourced ingredients to create innovative dishes that showcase the flavors of Hawaii. A new Waikiki location of Monkeypod will open in 2023 at the Outrigger Reef Resort.
Kani Ka Pila Grille at Outrigger Reef is the place to go for live Hawaiian music on the island. Each night from 6-8 p.m., guests and locals sway to island rhythms while dining on fresh poke, huli huli chicken, and fresh seafood. This is not a Don Ho “Tiny Bubbles” nostalgia tour. Each musical guest has been lovingly curated by the director of cultural events for the relevance and contribution to innovative Hawaiian sounds.
For a mix of art, culture, and a delicious meal, head to the café at HoMA. For more than 50 years, it’s been a great spot for a casual lunch or snack while exploring the excellent museum. The food is fresh, tasty, and reasonably priced, and the outdoor seating among the garden and art is magical. Afterward, stroll the galleries to enjoy many iconic pieces such as Nick Cave’s “Soundsuit 8:46” or the immersive experience “Awakening” by Rebecca Louise Law plus the many local Hawaiian artists and Asian art.
Chinatown & Kaka’ako
Those who haven’t explored Honolulu in a while are in for a treat. Just outside Waikiki, several neighborhoods have been revitalized and filled with wonderful places to eat and drink, perfect for a quick getaway or an extended walk.
The Pig and The Lady is a Vietnamese-inspired restaurant in Chinatown. The restaurant is known for its delicious banh mi sandwiches and pho. Chef Andrew Le graduated quickly from pop-up dinners to farmers markets to two restaurants with his bold dishes that pay homage to Vietnamese street food.
Just around the corner, Fête restaurant explores seasonal menus using island ingredients with global influences, from Korean fried chicken to Kauai coconut prawns. In 2022, chef Robynne Maii — who trained under Rocco DiSpirito at Union Pacific in NYC — became the first Hawaiian chef in 20 years to win a James Beard Award, and the first native Hawaiian woman ever.
Plate lunch is Hawaii’s comfort food, and it also tells the story of the islands. In the late 1800s, plantation owners imported labor from China, Japan, Korea, Portugal, and the Philippines, and strictly enforced the language barriers to prevent unionization. The plate lunch grew from workers sharing their food with each other as their only common language.
Go on a short excursion to eat like a local! Rainbow Drive-In is a Marination-lover’s dream, with enough spam musubi, loco moco, and linguica to conquer the heartiest of appetites. If there’s any room left, make a beeline to Leonard’s Bakery, celebrating eight decades of malasadas, the Portuguese doughnut without a hole.
Meals with a View
Seattle Ballard Elks and Fremont Elks members don’t forget your membership cards! Elks Lodge 616 in Honolulu has the best pau hana (literally “after work” but same as happy hour) on the island along with a private pool and ocean-front views and swimming. Enough work is everyone’s vacation mantra. Magnum P.I. fans will notice the valet and dining room look a lot like the King Kamehameha Club.
DECK is a trendy rooftop restaurant located on the Queen Kapiolani Hotel, with views of Diamond Head that make diners feel as if they could reach out and touch the top of the peak. Creative cuisine focuses on Hawaiian and Asian-inspired dishes, and the craft cocktail menu makes it the perfect spot for a pit stop before a night on the town in Waikiki. Happy hour runs daily from 2-4 p.m., because it really is always Pau Hana somewhere.
Italian food with a Hawaiian twist, served up by a master chef from Japan in a lush, romantic garden setting: now that’s the spirit of Aloha. Chef Ryo Takatsuka trained in Italy, but he infuses his menu with a global outlook at Noe at the Four Seasons Ko Olina. Try the whipped ricotta with truffle honey on house made focaccia, but beware—it is highly addicting.
At the same property, Mina’s Fish House hosts a raucous happy hour daily from 3-5pm. Don’t miss local style puu puus with that Mina touch, sunset ocean views, tiki torches, and a celebratory conch shell blowing to mark the end of another wonderful day in paradise.
Read more about exploring Oahu and the North Shore in the first of this four-part series here.
Natalie and Greg have written for Travel + Leisure, Fathom, Food52 in addition to Seattle magazine. They’ve been to 117 countries combined. Inbetween trips they live in a houseboat on Seattle’s Lake Union.