Hawaii has a multitude of delicious high-end dining options, but some of the best food in Hawaii is casual fare.
Find out where you can try some of these island-style local foods without waiting in restaurant lines!
Sample the Best Food in Hawaii
We’re not talking five-star, Michelin rated restaurants, here. Sure, those fancy meals are delicious and you’ll probably want to spend at least one night dining under the stars with an umbrella drink.
The real food of Hawaii, though? That’s what’s going to make your vacation special. Some of the best places to sample delicious food include little hole in the wall eateries, grocery stores, and food trucks.
First let’s talk about why very little of the delicious food in Hawai’i is considered traditional Hawaiian food. Pre-contact, the food eaten in Hawaii came from the ocean and from the canoe plants brought to the islands by Polynesians.
Since then, many different cultures have arrived in the Hawaiian Islands, each bringing their food customs. This has resulted in a rich and diverse local food culture. Visitors to the islands can sample quite an assortment of flavors!
From dine-in restaurants to take out food and meals you cook at home, your options for sampling the flavors of Hawaii are limitless. Seek out new flavors to try at farmers markets, stop and pick up a snack or a meal at the food trucks that pepper the islands, or (I know!) swing into the local convenience store to see what they have on offer. You might be surprised at how good the food is!
Public service announcement: Hawaii has a waste problem. The landfill space is limited. The Styrofoam cooler that you pick up at the market is cheap, but it’s going to end up in the garbage. If you’re visiting, seek out a place where you can rent your a cooler to keep your food fresh. Or borrow it from your Air BnB host. If you must buy one, look for the biodegradable type of cooler — many Hawaii grocery stores are carrying them these days. Beach gear is also often available to rent by the week.
Try a Hawaiian Plate Lunch
This isn’t a specific type of food, but rather a takeout meal style, if you will, with everything all on one plate. This is where you’ll sample what are considered traditional Hawaiian dishes. The main dishes usually consist of either lau lau or kalua pork, though other meat dishes can take center stage. The side dishes may include lomi lomi salmon, poi, or poke.
These easy take out meals always include two scoops of white rice and a scoop of macaroni salad or potato mac.
You’ve heard people talk about poi – the stuff they claim tastes like wallpaper paste. You might agree, but you’ve got to give it a try. This nutrient-dense food is made from starchy taro root. The Hawaiian name for this plant is kalo.
Poi is one of the first and arguably the best food in Hawaii for infants!
You’ll find poi served at most luaus, though what you get there will likely be a watered down version of the thicker, richer poi that graces the plates of local families. You can pick up better quality poi at most any supermarket.
Look for a big pile of fresh coconuts and a seller with a machete at the farmers markets you visit for the freshest coconut water you’ll ever have. Pick out your coconut and watch the machete fly, chipping away the tough outer husk to get to the delicious and refreshing coconut water inside.
Drink it with a straw, then see if you can open the coconut to reveal the flesh inside. It’s soft and much creamier than any coconut you’ve tried. This is what’s used to make coconut milk; squeezing the soft flesh through cheesecloth results in a milkier drink than coconut water.
Hawaii goes hand in hand with tropical fruit. Be sure to stop by the farmers market to pick up some of your favorites. Watch out, though — not all sellers are offering locally grown fruit. The stalls with large Dole boxes stacked nearby are suspect. Read more about Hawaii’s fruit options here.
Also known as breadfruit, this delicious starchy crop can be a bit elusive for visitors. You’ll be most likely to find it in the form of ‘ulu chips to snack on, but if you’re lucky enough to find a fresh one, you’ll need to know how to cook breadfruit.
Okinawan Sweet Potatoes
More common than the familiar orange sweet potato, these purple sweet potatoes are used more commonly in Hawaii, and not just at Thanksgiving! They are a common side dish at restaurants, served mashed or as an ingredient in potato salad. If you’re doing a lot of your own cooking while you’re visiting, pick some up at the grocery store.
Hawaiian Sea Salt
The traditional method of making salt is still practiced in a few locations in Hawaii. You’ll also find alaea salt, a pink salt colored by the red clay of the islands. These are excellent souvenirs to bring home! Just be mindful that the salt can attract attention at TSA. I’ve learned to pack it right on top so it’s easy for the agents to inspect.
To understand the meaning of the word Pa’akai, we split the words “Pa’a,” which means to be solid or hardened, and the word “kai” which means the ocean water, and thus the word “Pa’akai” means salt, which is the solid form of ocean water. Pa’akai was an important part of daily Hawaiian life.Hawaii news now
More tasty goodness! Macadamia nut trees grow well in the tropical conditions of Hawaii. The Mauna Loa brand, named for Hawaii’s famous volcano, is widely recognizable and readily available in most stores, but the production of those nuts has been largely outsourced. (Their website says the nuts are “inspired by Hawaii.”)
For a more local option, the Hamakua Macadamia Nut Company and Ahualoa Family Farms both use 100% locally grown nuts in their products.
Traditionally cooked underground in an earthen pit called an ‘imu, kalua pig is a holiday staple in the islands and a common dish served at large family gatherings.
Visitors can sample kalua pig — and often, watch it unearthed from its rustic underground oven — if you attend a luau. If you don’t, check the frozen section of the local supermarket, where you can buy a pound and warm it up yourself.
This island specialty is a favorite of locals and a must-try when you visit the islands. The standard loco moco consists of white rice topped with a ground beef patty, a fried egg, and brown gravy.
Portions are generally very, very large so if you don’t have a huge appetite, consider making it a meal for two. Not a fan of hamburger? No worries. Choose from a variety of other meats, such as Portuguese sausage, beef teri, shrimp, or the ever-present Spam.
Potato Mac Salad
This hybrid of everyone’s favorite picnic salad is a mainstay of the Hawaiian plate. Heavy on mayonnaise, this salad combines potatoes and macaroni noodles and often includes shredded carrots. Every chef has their own recipe, but if you like a starchy dish to go with a meal, you ought to give this one a try!
Speaking of Spam, if you’re looking for fast food in Hawaii, look beyond the familiar franchises and try something that you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else. Spam musubi is a slice of Spam luncheon meat and sticky rice wrapped in nori with seasonings like kukui nut relish or furikake.
You’ll also find other flavors of musubi — such as chicken or hot dog — but Spam is most prevalent.
The go-to fast lunch for people in the islands, you won’t find it in many restaurants. Instead, check the local supermarket or nearest gas station convenience store.
Pronounce po-kay, this raw fish dish is a favorite for residents and visitors alike. For the best flavor, get yours early in the day while the fish is still quite fresh. Ahi tuna is the standby and it comes in many versions: spicy, Hawaiian, sesame, and more.
You’ll find poke on many restaurant menus or grab plain poke or a poke bowl in the supermarket fish section for a meal on the go.
Want a little taste of the islands at home? Give one of these poke bowls a try!
Char Siu Bao
Char siu is Chinese BBQ pork. Char siu bao features the sweet, very red barbecued meat wrapped inside a thin bread dough.
These Chinese steamed pork buns are — surprisingly! — readily available at convenience stores. Stop for gas, grab a bun. They’re handy and easy to grab for lunch on the go, making them popular with the working crowd.
These little leaf-wrapped packets of goodness are a favorite of many. The process of making lau lau is time intensive. A piece of fish and a piece of pork is wrapped first in an edible luau leaf (the leaf from a taro plant) and then in long ti leaves.
To eat, you’ll unroll (and discard) the ti leaf and savor the cooked taro leaves, fish, and pork.
Lomi Lomi Salmon
Commonly served at luaus, this dish is made of salted raw salmon, tomatoes, bulb onions, and green onions. It’s often available at grocery stores sold alongside fresh fish at the fish counter.
Huli Huli Chicken
In the Hawaiian language, the word huli means to turn, or reverse. In the case of huli huli chicken, it refers to the turning of the bird, sometimes cooked rotisserie style. The meat is flavorful, and tender, often falling off the bone. It’s often sold as a fundraiser, sometimes available on menus, but more often, it’s a portable barbecue setup.
If you have qualms about buying food from a roadside stand, you’ll probably want to skip this one. But if you’re feeling adventurous, look for the long longs and sniff the air from the aroma of something delicious. This dish is so iconic, there’s even a song about it!
A saucy dish that’s flavored with soy sauce and ginger, this one is a favorite at private gatherings, in part because it’s easy to make in big batches. And also because it’s delicious! If you want to try it, check out the deli counter at supermarkets. It’s probably most readily available there.
Oahu’s north shore is famous for big wave surfing, but make the drive to “the country” and you’ll find yourself passing brightly colored trucks — some graffitied and somewhat questionable looking — hawking shrimp with hand-lettered signs. If you’re on Oahu, be sure to look for the famous shrimp trucks of Kahuku.
A natural evolution of the shrimp farms that have populated the flat Kahuku coastline for years, these shrimp trucks offer large, locally produced shrimp with a bit of island flare.
The aloha state sits smack dabs in the middle of the Pacific ocean, meaning that there is plenty of fish to choose from. Mahi mahi is one that’s a favorite. The tender, flaky white flesh is delicious. I recommend that you find a restaurant serving a macadamia nut encrusted mahi for a divine meal.
This is one of those meals you’ll only get to try if you get lucky. It’s not readily available commercially, and it’s a special treat if you know a diver who considers this their specialty.
If the state of Hawaii had an official baked good, the malasada would surely be it. Brought to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants, this hole-less doughnut, more square than round, is an island favorite.
Try them tossed in cinnamon-sugar or filled with luscious custard in tropical flavors like lilikoi, mango, or pineapple — or of course, chocolate.
While you’ll find these sweets at some grocery store bakeries, places like Tex Drive-In on Hawaii Island or Leonard’s on Oahu specialize in malasadas — you won’t be disappointed.
Serve them up with a cup of coffee or spot of Hawaii-grown tea and a napkin!
Call it shave ice, shaved ice, or ice shave, this must-try treat starts with finely shaved ice and is topped with brightly colored syrups in a vast array of flavors. Most are made with neon bright, sugary syrups. Not so at the Original Big Island Shave Ice Co. Their shave ice is made with fresh local fruits.
Order yours local style with azuki beans in the bottom. Or opt for a scoop of ice cream for a particularly decadent treat.
This coconut pudding is a gelatinous dessert with the rich flavor of coconut. It’s available plain, but can often show up in a haupia sweet potato pie, haupia cake, bars, or cheesecake.
The islands boast a number of specialty chocolatiers offering up some absolutely delicious chocolates. Check out Lavaloha, Kahi Ola Mau, or Manoa Chocolate for some absolutely delicious chocolate and perhaps a tour of their farm and facilities.
Mauna Kea Tea on Hawaii Island is one producer that makes delicious locally grown tea. Look for it in grocery stores, Whole Foods, or specialty stores.
Green tea, oolong tea, and black tea all come from the Camellia sinensis plant. The thing that makes these teas different is not so much in the leaf, but in the processing. Green tea is processed as quickly as possible to retain the nutrients and antioxidants. Oolong tea is allowed to oxidize for 18-24 hours or so. Black tea oxidizes for longer. Find out more about
Coffee drinkers, rejoice! There are so many coffee producers to choose from. Here’s a little hint, though: Read the label. Kona coffee isn’t Kona coffee unless it says 100% on the label. The ones that can’t make that claim are using just a small percentage of Kona coffee, using that term on the label, and well, it’s crap. Ka’u coffee is another one to look for.
Be sure to check out these great breweries in Kona, Hilo, and Waimea on Hawai’i Island!
Originally published August 2019; this post has been updated.
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