Eat Like a Local: The Best Cheap Food in Honolulu, Oahu
Updated March 2, 2023
Want to impress Hawaiian locals? Tell them you went to one of these places on your own. Waikiki is full of crummy tourist grub and chain restaurants, but don't waste your time on those. Hawaii has a distinct culture that includes food, and if you know where to go, you can eat cheap fare such as fresh ahi tuna, decadent one-of-a-kind pastries (like the ones at Leonard's Bakery, pictured), and heaping portions of the famous Hawaiian "plate lunch"—all within easy reach of the beaches.
Most of these joints have been cooking for generations of Oahuans (such as former Pres. Barack Obama), and staff members are all friendly to tourists. Just be aware that some of these family businesses are cash-only and might be closed on odd days of the week.
Less than a mile down Kalakaua Avenue from Waikiki Beach, Rainbow Drive-In has been serving honest grub for more than a half century. This is where cable food shows tend to stop first in their citywide roundups. The walk-up counter slings hefty portions of barbecue beef and the contemporary go-to lunch of loco moco (white rice, hamburger patty, fried egg, brown gravy). None of the dishes are what you'd call slimming—the special on Tuesday and Thursday is "spaghetti with wiener"—but this is the most iconic casual food joint in town.
It is as basic as duct tape and service is swift and transactional, but don't be deceived: Honoluluans have fond feelings for this counter-service diner in a strip mall. The chicken katsu is made to order and dusted with panko in the local style. The portions are massive yet the prices are puny, making this an excellent spot to try one of Hawaii's most peculiar and carbohydrate-rich culinary customs: fried rice for breakfast. Barack Obama used to eat here with his basketball team when he attend Punahou School in the 1970s.
If there's one meal that's essential to daily Hawaiian life, it's the "plate lunch." It comes in many variations, but the standard one has white rice, macaroni salad, and an entree. This variety, from Grace's Inn, has both a loco moco burger patty and chicken katsu, plus (somewhere under there) noodles. All that makes this a mixed plate. Not one variety of the plate lunch will leave you hungry.
Helena's Hawaiian Food, started by a first-generation Chinese-American woman in 1946, is famous in these parts for a lot of things—kalua pig cooked in an imu (underground oven) and poi (mashed taro)—but the dish to which most customers are addicted is the pipikaula short ribs, which are hung over the oven to dry. From squid cooked with luau leaves to cold lomi salmon salad with tomato, Helena's serves the island's version of soul food. This is the real stuff, and despite the restaurant's unassuming exterior in a western suburb, there may be no better place than Helena's to try the sort of home cooking your hosts grew up on.
Just up the road from Rainbow Drive-In, Leonard's opened its doors on July 1, 1952. When you stroll in—which you will not do, because there's almost always a line—the half-empty glass cases will make you think most items are sold out. Press on and order anyway. Leonard's is famous for its malasadas (pictured), Portuguese hot donuts filled to order with custard, chocolate, or haupia coconut cream and dusted with your choice of sugar, cinammon sugar, or li hing (salty dried plum powder, a jarring option preferred by locals). A few minutes after you order, your hot malasadas emerge in wax bags or a pink-and-white-box. Leonard's is like the Krispy Kreme of the islands; in the mornings, countless tour buses pull up and dispense out-of-towners who have heard tell of this decadent delicacy.
Tourists will encounter no shortage of also-rans in the shave ice department, as Waikiki has many stalls peddling snow cones in artificial flavors. But Waiola, which is in a converted three-bedroom home on a residential street right off Kapahulu Avenue, is not only cheaper but also better. Syrups are made in-house from cane sugar and kept refrigerated for freshness. And in the grand and arcane shave ice tradition, the vanilla flavor is blue. There are now two other locations in town, but this is the original spot as well as the longest-running shave ice stand on the island.
Getting a parking spot can require making a deal with the devil (walk 15 minutes inland from Waikiki Beach instead), but the one-room, counter-service Ono Seafood is popular for a reason. Owner Judy Samuka makes some of the best poke you've ever had. Poke, for the uninitiated, is diced fresh fish that's marinated with sesame oil, a little soy sauce, and maybe some salt, lime juice, wasabi, or cracked pepper, and then scooped in generous portions atop white rice. There are many varieties, but in Honolulu, making an addictive poke is a point of honor—and quality ingredients are easy to come by thanks to the daily fish auction that takes place by Pier 38 every morning. At Ono, you can pay much less for a half pound of food than you ever could at your local sushi shop.
Those who are in the know make Alicia's their first stop after arriving in Honolulu. The market is in an unpretentious commercial area about a 3-minute drive east of the airport. From the outside, you'd think you were entering an anonymous supermarket. Head straight toward the back, where there's a deli-style counter that dishes out a huge range of fresh delights. There are nearly a dozen types of Alicia's poke, which is about as celebrated as Ono's—the roast pork with crispy skin and kimchee is wildly coveted (although you'll have to eat it in your car, as there's no seating).
Alicia's, which (fortunately for us all) survived a fire in 2018, is also a good place to try some li hing—the same savory salted plum treat that Leonard's uses to dust some of its malasadas. Brought to the island years ago by Chinese workers, li hing has a distinct taste that's almost like licorice. It's one of the most popular flavors on the island, appearing in drinks, candies, salad dressings, and other foodstuffs you'd never think to use it with. Also make sure to try some "crack seed"—preserved fruit in which the seeds inside have been cracked to intensify flavor. This has been one of Oahu's favorite snacks for generations.
Another popular first-after-the-airport stop, Liliha Bakery is known for its coco puffs. Think of a cream puff filled with chocolate pudding and topped with a cool macadamia nut chantilly frosting. These things are so cunningly addictive that the bakery can sell more than 7,000 in a single day—a cooler is kept stocked with boxes of puffs for the steady stream of customers jonesing for a fix. In addition to its baked goods, Liliha also has an old-school lunch counter serving traditional all-American fare like pancakes and burgers.
A quick drive through the mountains northeast of Honolulu will bring you to the coastal town of Kailua, home of Island Snow, an iconic shave ice counter buried in a surf-and-skate shop. Island Snow attracts celebrities and world leaders alike—the Obamas have been known to stop by during Hawaiian vacations. In fact, the former president has a cone named after him: the Snowbama, featuring cherry, lanikai lime, and passion-guava.
Pictured: Then-President Barack Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha at Island Snow in December 2010
Island Snow's shop doubled in size after the attention brought by the presidential visits. While you're here, don't forget to have a look at the clothes for sale—everything is locally made. Of course, some Hawaiian experiences can never be packed in a suitcase.