I once dated a guy from Hawaii and recently, I’ve been wondering if I was in-love with him so much as I was in-love with the islands. I’ve visited Oahu three times this year (LAX-HNL flights feel like a hop and a skip compared to EWR-HNL) and just spent the past week at The Modern Honolulu, soaking in the sunshine while Los Angeles dropped to a frosty 40 degrees. I’m not a local, but Hawaii’s organic Asian-American culture always feels like home and the Asian fusion food fits my palate perfectly. Long before I book my tickets, I’m already dreaming of the ono (delicious) foods I can eat again. Here’s a list of my must-eats whenever I’m in town. These aren’t the most off-the-beaten-track or fancy restaurants, they’re just the places I must visit on every trip.
Ning’s Five Fave Oahu Eateries:
1. Kimukatsu: This Japanese Tonkatsu (the most popular Tonkatsu restaurant chain in Japan) boasts 25 layers of juicy pork in each extra-crispy fried cutlet. I particularly love the Katsu sandwich (photo, above), which is simply a tonkatsu pork cutlet with sweet/tangy tonkatsu sauce, wrapped in soft and fluffy Japanese sliced white bread. They make the sandwiches to order, so expect to wait about 15 minutes for your slice of piggy heaven.
2. Ono Hawaiian Foods: This hole-in-the-wall is a magnet for tourists seeking authentic traditional Hawaiian flavors such as lomi lomi salmon, lau lau, and poi. Personally, I’ve always found these preparations a bit on the bland and boring side (eating kahlua pig always makes me wish it were carnitas). What to order here is the Salt Beef and Watercress (with a bowl of rice—why is rice so much more delicious in Hawaii? stickier and sweeter?). This simple dish, with tender short rib and fresh green watercress in the most light yet flavorful beef broth you’ll ever taste. And Ono’s basic coconut haupia (a welcome, pudding-like sweet that arrives after every meal) is my standard for this traditional Hawaiian dessert.
3. Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck: Another tourist staple, the original shrimp truck on the North Shore is still the best, in my opinion. Unless you’re in a Chinese restaurant, green onions (or ginger!) do not belong on garlic shrimp. This simple shrimp scampi, with its sweet sweet garlic and sticky white rice is so delicious I’ve eaten it days in a row. I can finish a dozen shrimp plate on my own, but if you’re sharing the shrimp, make sure to pay the extra buck for two extra scoops of garlic rice (trust me).
4. Teddy’s Bigger Burgers: This local burger chain is so fresh it puts In & Out to shame. I’m obsessed with the squishy soft and slightly sweet Teddy’s bun. It’s thick enough to soak up the burger juices without getting soggy, but not so thick it mutes the burger’s flavor. Try the Hawaiian burger (smothered in teriyaki sauce with grilled pineapple) with Cheddar cheese.
5. Sarento’s at the top of the Ilikai: If this hotel looks familiar, that’s because it was in the opening sequence of the original “Hawaii Five-O” TV series. As an ’80s relic (complete with pastel turquoise decor), this Italian restaurant on the top floor of the Ilikai hotel (there’s even a special glass elevator that takes you up) is at high risk of being a cheesy tourist trap, but the food is delicious. Local ingredients, prepared in a classic Italian style, are truly spectacular and make for a very memorable meal. Try the meatball slider, with fried Maui onions. I’m just sad I went on the last night of my trip—because I couldn’t make another reservation before I left town!