In the mid-19th Century, a wave of immigrants arrived in Hawaii seeking work on the pineapple and sugarcane plantations. They stepped off boats that originated in China, the Philippines and Japan – among other places – and promptly changed the face of Hawaiian food. Injecting their local flavours and culinary subtleties into Hawaiian cuisine, their influence can still be tasted today at the top contemporary Hawaiian restaurants in Honolulu.
Whether it’s spam musubi (an inexpensive lunch meat wrapped in rice and nori, like sushi) and fish curries, pork tonkatsu or ramen, today’s Hawaiian cuisine is a mashup of Asian flavours with island-grown goods. Here are some of the best Hawaii restaurants in Honolulu to try on your next trip.
Alan Wong’s Honolulu
Alan Wong might be the most recognizable name throughout Hawaii for what was labelled “Hawaii Regional Cuisine” in the late 1980s. His Chinese ancestry and Japanese influences on Hawaiian foods have skyrocketed him to celebrity chef status. With dishes that cast a spotlight on single, impeccable items (i.e. a tomato from his favourite farm) Wong has elevated his well-rounded menu to the national stage. Dishes like ginger crusted fish, braised short rib with taro root and an aged, local coffee menu are just the tip of the iceberg.
Two products of the Alan Wong empire are the married duo, Michelle and Wade Ueoka – a pastry chef and chef de cuisine that “graduated” from Wong’s kitchen more than a decade ago. Having opened their own successful eatery, MW Restaurant, the couple have taken Hawaii Regional Cuisine to a glamorous new level, bringing in influences from places like Portugal, Spain, Vietnam and Thailand, as well as more familiar Japanese and Chinese flavourings. Soy braised pork belly bao buns with pickled jalapeno, unagi and butterfish arancini and ahi nachos with avocado salsa and rice cracker chips are just a sampling of the offerings here.
Chef Masaharu Morimoto is known all over the globe for his creative use of Japanese techniques. But his restaurant here in Waikiki, inside The Modern Honolulu hotel, blends his precise platings and knife cuts with the best offerings from Hawaiian waters and farms. His hamachi tartare is a work of art; diners scrape swaths of fish off a palate and dip into a variety of sauces like an artist at the canvas. His sashimi salad utilizes the freshest of the day’s catch, served up with a Caesar dressing and a quail egg, while Big Island harvested abalone is served takoyaki style, like the popular Japanese street food. Nearly every dish on Morimoto’s menu is a melding of Japanese meets Hawaiian cultures.
The proprietors at Lucky Belly in Oahu’s Chinatown have taken a small, corner bar and turned it into a modernized Japanese noodle joint with a Hawaiian twist. Dishes like the Shrimp Kim Chee Bowl feature tender shrimps set in a traditional Japanese ramen, served with a good dose of Korean kim chee. The Beast Bowl makes use of Hawaii’s affinity for all-things-meat, featuring brisket, short rib and oxtail in a hearty broth that’s simmered over 48 hours.
Over on Maui, one of the more unique dining experiences in Hawaii can be found at Capische?. The proprietors utilize two Japanese tepanyaki flat grills to prepare a mostly Italian menu, with French influences and Hawaiian ingredients. Appetizers like cured ono (a light, white fish from Hawaii’s waters) crostini with roasted local tomato relish, quail saltimbocca with pine nut butter, and kabocha pumpkin gnocchi with local lavender alfredo sauce are all prepared using the Japanese stove.
Header image © Morimoto Waikiki
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Have you tried any of these Hawaiian restaurants in Honolulu? Where do you go to eat in Hawaii? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Brian Berusch