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Dining in Hawaii

The Gang of 12

In the early days of Hawaii’s tourism industry, the food wasn’t anything to write home about. Continental cuisine ruled fine-dining kitchens. Meats and produce arrived much the same way visitors did: jet-lagged after a long journey from a far-off land. Island chefs struggled to revive limp iceberg lettuce and frozen cocktail shrimp—often letting outstanding ocean views make up for uninspired dishes. In 1991, 12 chefs staged a revolt. They partnered with local farmers, ditched the dictatorship of imported foods, and brought sun-ripened mango, crisp organic greens, and freshly caught uku (snapper) to the table. Coining the name Hawaii Regional Cuisine (HRC), they gave the world a taste of what happens when passionate, classically trained cooks have their way with ripe Pacific flavors.

Nearly 3 decades later, the movement to unite local farms and kitchens has only grown more vibrant. The HRC heavyweights continue to keep things hot in island kitchens, but they aren’t, by any means, the sole source of good eats in Hawaii.

Shops selling fresh steaming noodles abound in Oahu’s Chinatown. Francophiles will delight in the classic French cooking at La Mer on Oahu and Gerard’s on Maui. You’ll be hard-pressed to discover more authentic Japanese fare than can be had in the restaurants dotting Honolulu’s side streets.

Plate Lunches, Shave Ice & Food Trucks

Haute cuisine is alive and well in Hawaii, but equally important in the culinary pageant are good-value plate lunches, shave ice, and food trucks.

The plate lunch, like Hawaiian Pidgin, is a gift of the plantation era. You find plate lunches of various kinds served in to-go eateries across the state. They usually consist of some protein—fried mahi-mahi, say, or teriyaki beef, shoyu chicken, or chicken or pork cutlets served katsu-style: breaded, fried, and slathered in tangy sauce—accompanied by “two scoops rice,” macaroni salad, and a few leaves of green, typically julienned cabbage. Chili water and soy sauce are the condiments of choice. Like saimin—the local version of noodles in broth topped with scrambled eggs, green onions, and sometimes pork—the plate lunch is Hawaii’s version of comfort food.

Because this is Hawaii, at least a few fingerfuls of poi—steamed, pounded taro (the traditional Hawaiian staple crop)—are a must. Mix it with salty kalua pork (pork cooked in a Polynesian underground oven known as an imu) or lomi salmon (salted salmon with tomatoes and green onions). Other tasty Hawaiian foods include poke (pronounced po-kay), a popular appetizer made of cubed raw fish seasoned with onions, seaweed, and roasted kukui nuts); laulau, pork, chicken, or fish steamed in leaves; squid lūau, cooked in coconut milk and taro tops; haupia, creamy coconut pudding; and kūlolo, a steamed pudding of coconut, brown sugar, and taro.

For a sweet snack, the prevailing choice is shave ice. Particularly on hot, humid days, long lines of shave-ice lovers gather for heaps of finely shaved ice topped with sweet tropical syrups. Sweet-sour li hing mui is a favorite, and gourmet flavors include calamansi lime and red velvet cupcake. Aficionados order shave ice with ice cream and sweetened adzuki beans on the bottom or sweetened condensed milk on top.

on location in Hawaii

Hawaii’s iconic landscapes serve as a backdrop for numerous TV shows and films. Jumanji is the most recent blockbuster shot in the Aloha State, at Waimea Falls on Oahu and Rainbow Falls on Hawaii Island. Fans of Lost might recognize Mokuleia Beach on Oahu's North Shore as the site of the fictional plane crash. Episode three was shot in Oahu’s Kaaawa Valley, a lush and remote spot that appears in several movies, including 50 First Dates, Godzilla, and Pearl Harbor. Johnny Depp leaps into Kilauea Falls on Kauai in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston luxuriate at the Grand Wailea’s pool and pass through the lobby of the Mana Kai on Maui in Just Go With It.

The Descendants, Alexander Payne’s film about a dysfunctional Hawaii kamaaina (long-time resident) family, features a wealth of island scenery and music. George Clooney (as Matt King) and the cast spent 11 weeks shooting in Hawaii; it’s easy to trace their trail. Matt King’s house is on Old Pali Road in Nuuanu. When King runs down the hill to visit a friend, he’s greeted by Poppy, a pygmy goat standing beneath a 50-foot-tall lychee tree. Payne rented the plantation-style house—goat and all—from a local family and shot scenes there without changing a thing. Whether or not you’re a film buff, you should definitely pick up a copy of The Descendants soundtrack. This goldmine of modern and classic Hawaiian music features the very best island voices, from Gabby Pahinui to Keola Beamer, and includes several versions of the hauntingly beautiful anthem “Hiilawe.” You won’t find a better soundtrack for your Hawaiian vacation.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.