Here's what I wrote about a year ago in the Maui thread. Much of it is really about Honolulu. In a word, ramen. (And a burger at Halekulani, trust me):
Back from Hawaii; thanks to everyone for the tips. I really like Hawaii, particularly Honolulu. It's a real town with some rough edges behind the spectacular beach/shopping/humanity on parade extravaganza that is Waikiki. It's similar to Miami's South Beach or Santa Monica (I love both), but for me better than either. In Santa Monica, the beach is mostly a backdrop. The sand and surf is integral in Miami, but South Beach is nearly fatally tainted by hair gel and Axe body spray in a way that Waikiki is not.
This alley giving public access to the beach in Waikiki sums it up. To your left, old ladies and strippers doing laundry in coin-operated machines 100 yards from the sand.
To your right, the Royal Hawaiian, one of the most splendid of the seaside "pink ladies" (like the Don Cesar in St. Pete, still going strong after 100 years).
I could see Charlie Chan, Jack Lord or Dog the Bounty Hunter chasing bad guys down this alley.
Please don't throw a shoe at me, but after 9 days in Hawaii, I'm still of the opinion that it ranks pretty low in terms of tropical destinations for food. Certainly, all of Mexico and much of the Caribbean offer much more interesting and delicious food at both the local and "fancy" levels. (Never been to Thailand but can only imagine.) If you expand the comparison to summer seaside regulars such as New England, Florida and the Carolinas, I'm afraid the 51st state also lags. Local fish is maddeningly hard to find. I had a car and wasn't afraid to use it to get away from tourist zones for in-condo dinner shopping. No dice. NB, oddly enough, local beef is pretty easy to find, in burgers usually, and is terrific. More below on this.
Islanders swear by the ahi poke at Safeway, for example. While quite good, the tuna comes frozen from Asia. Even local-ish places such as Eskimo Candy and Alexander's in Maui mostly use frozen imported stuff. Allegedly local mahi was a fairly ubiquitous exception, though dolphin isn't a favorite of mine and it tended to be cooked into tough oblivion. One local fish was new to me and pretty swell: monchong, a formerly disfavored critter like so many other tasty fish. Had it a couple of times, including at Stella Blues in Kihei, Maui. I'll admit, it reminded me of grouper. And, Stella Blues gave me a serious sense of déjà vu. How is it that mid-scale restaurants in beach towns can be so alike, thousands of miles apart?
The one area where Hawaii stands tall, food-wise, is Japanese. Decades of free-spending, gastronomically patriotic/xenophobic Japanese tourists have made Hawaii, Honolulu most especially, a great spot for ramen, sushi, izakaya, okonomiyaki, you name it. If I could have convinced my family, I would have eaten Japanese each and every meal while in HI. As it was, Japanese meals were a strong plurality.
One of my favorites was Ramen Nakamura, smack in the middle of the main drag in Waikiki. Known for oxtail and tonkotsu, this shop often had a long line of Japanese tourists outside. Despite some language hurdles, our family was very welcome and some of the older Japanese tourists seemed equally astounded and pleased to see us slurping ramen at the bar. By the way, everyone knows this, but I was still blown away by the frequency with which Japanese tourists document their meals. I mean, the average Japanese tourist puts the most snap-happy LTHer to shame. Something like half the diners at this ramen shop were photographing noodles. Same thing at the Cold Stone and the Starbucks. Anyway, my pork bone(tonkotsu)/shoyu ramen was terrific. [The sign says cash only, Yen or US Dollars accepted.]
I also enjoyed the much more grungy Nisei ramen place across the street -- Ezogiku. Ambience was similar to Hamburger King, and the ramen was pretty good. The wide variety of not-necessarily-traditional condiments (Korean, Viet and Chinese stuff) lets you amp up the OK broth in a way you wouldn't with the serious, subtle stuff at Nakamura. There's ramen in airports, it's everywhere. The sheer number of options and the very high bar set by Japanese tourists has me thinking Honolulu is right there with LA and NY, very possibly better, for ramen. While Hawaii deserves its reputation for ridiculous tourist-gouging, I found the Japanese-oriented places to be real bargains, both relatively within HI and objectively as compared to mainland cities. I chalk it up to high standards and a Japanese economy that has been on the rocks much longer than ours.
Other than Japanese, Hawaii is good for, what else, Hawaiian. This cuisine has its limits. The best plate lunch or bowl of Spam saimin is still lunch truck or steam table fare. I sought out and went to the place that locals often cite as the best example of down home island food --maybe the Moon's Sandwich Shop of ono grinds, if I may. That place is Sam Sato's, currently operating out of an industrial complex near the airport in Maui. Closed on weekends, long waits, almost entirely locals-only. If there's a GNR in Hawaii, this is probably it.
Burgers, good. Breakfast (eggs with rice, spam and linguica (universally called "Portuguese Brand Sausage", regardless of the actual "brand")) very good. Dry saimin with fried egg and Spam on top, terrific.
Another noteworthy place is Home Maid Bakery, near Sato's and the airport in Maui. This place, to me, was like Andy's on Division (RIP) in a Hialeah-meets-Uptown space. Home Maid distributes around Maui and possibly on other islands. But you need to walk into the store and talk to the Filipina baker-ladies to get the best stuff. That best stuff includes terrific Filipino sweet bread (ensaymada) and malasadas, the Portuguese-ish paczki doppelgangers. The malasadas at Home Maid rival the best paczki here, though the Polish austerity of good paczki is missing, in a good way. These babies were filled with some of the best pastry custard I've ever tasted, and the custard-to-pastry ratio was way out of whack in favor of custard. Sorry, I ate the pictures.
Not much noteworthy and nice for me to say about the places in Maui closer to the beach. Like I said before, Stella Blues was pretty good. We also tried the much-heralded Japanese/Hawaiian fusion mini-empire Sansei. Food writers go gaga over this place's sushi and fish. I thought it was just pretty good. I tried to keep them honest by ordering [nigiri] sushi, even though the place is very much oriented toward lovers of wacky-ass crunch rolls with sweet mango teriyaki bbq mayo sauce -- i.e., not aimed at Japanese nationals, none of whom were apparent in the packed place. To my tastes, the sushi ranged from very good (yellowtail and ahi, presumably local) to something you might get at the mall, to be charitable (ama ebi and tako -- cooked, cold, rubber, both). I will note that the tamago was exemplary, which I know is a big deal to sushi fetishists. In Maui, Sansei is certainly among the best restaurants and should be visited. I just don't think many folks here would get that excited about it if the place were in a big mainland city.
I cooked a lot and found myself stymied time and again in my search for fresh local fish and produce in Maui, where we were 7 of the 9 days. Damned hard even to find local papayas and mangoes, though some local stands had good stuff. I have a feeling I'd have better luck in the outskirts of Honolulu. Suffice to say, the Gulf, Chesapeake, Low-Country, Door County, Cape Cod, whatever
crab shacks, oyster shanties, fish camps and lobster shacks that I love do not happen at the beach in HI. Or, if they do, they are much, much harder to find -- on foot, by car, on the Internet. Good thing I like ramen about as much as fried fish. Oh, and the local coffee deserves its reputation. Good local stuff just about everywhere.
A few stops on the way out are worth noting. The beachside restaurant at the Halukelani (one of the 3 classic old hotels in Waikiki, along with the Surfrider and Royal), House Without a Key (apparently of Charlie Chan fame), is well-loved by locals. Delightful. Not a word I use, but it was. The place is all class in a very unpretentious way. Although the menu is geared toward the Japanese who seem to pick this serene hotel over the other somewhat more lively grand dames, it holds a secret -- one of the best burgers I ever tasted. Loosely packed local beef from mellow Hawaiian cows cooked over charcoal was about as good as a burger gets. The problem is, I ordered the ramen (what else). Very nice, but not as good as my kid's burger.
Last, know that the plate lunch place in the Maui airport is a very fine example. For ten bucks, get the hand-carved roast beef, a ton of fried rice and a scoop of mac salad.
Anyway, I loved Hawaii and liked
the food. [Addresses to follow, sometime.]