Are you looking for the best Hawaiian restaurants in Hawaii? This guide from a Hawaii local has everything that you need to know!
One of the most amazing parts of Hawaiian culture is the food. From kalua pig to laulau to haupia, there are so many fantastic dishes to devour!
But one of the biggest mistakes that visitors to Hawaii make is visiting non-authentic Hawaiian restaurants. But that’s not their fault! Honestly, it can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between a Hawaiian restaurant that’s authentic and one that isn’t. Luckily, I’m here to help! Keep on reading for the most authentic Hawaiian restaurants in Hawaii.
What Is the Difference Between Hawaiian Food and Local Food?
Before I get into the best Hawaiian restaurants in Hawaii, it’s important to make the distinction between Hawaiian food and local food.
Hawaiian food is the food that the ancient Native Hawaiians ate before immigrants started coming to the islands. This includes a lot of the foods that you likely think of when picturing a luau, like kalua pig and poi.
Local food, on the other hand, is basically Hawaii’s regional cuisine. To understand local food, you first need to understand a brief history of modern Hawaii.
The History of Hawaii’s Local Food
In the 1800s, loads of immigrants came to Hawaii to work on the sugar plantations. This included people from Japan, China, Korea, the Philippines, and even Portugal. And since U.S. businesses owned these sugar plantations, there was a splash of American influence as well.
Together, all of these cultures came together to create delicious dishes that were a sort of fusion between the many cuisines. In other words, they created the foundation for Hawaii’s local food.
What Is Local Food, But NOT Hawaiian Food?
Many people get Hawaiian food and local food confused. For example, many people think that L&L Hawaiian Barbecue and their plate lunches (especially the famous loco moco) count as Hawaiian food. In reality, the dishes served at L&L are really local food.
Even poke (cubed, raw fish with lots of seasoning), what is considered to be an iconic Hawaii dish, has evolved to incorporate elements of Japanese cuisine. In other words, poke is more of a local food than a Hawaiian food. Shave ice, spam musubis, saimin, and malasadas are other local foods that are often mistaken to be Hawaiian food.
This article will only cover the best Hawaiian food in Hawaii. If you’re looking for the best local food in Hawaii, you won’t find that in this article. But to get you started on your local food search, a few of my favorites include Monkeypod Kitchen, Tin Roof Maui, and Koko Head Café. I also recommend checking out my Hawaii Food Bucket List.
What Are Some of the Best Traditional Hawaiian Foods?
The most well-known Hawaiian food is definitely kalua pig (sometimes also called kalua pork). Traditionally, an entire pig is cooked in a whole in the ground known as an imu. This process, which uses hot stones and takes several hours, is completely worth effort in order to achieve the tender, smoky result.
Lomi Lomi Salmon
Lomi lomi salmon, also called lomi salmon, is another tasty Hawaiian food. It’s basically a mixture of diced raw salmon, tomatoes, and onions.
The ancient Hawaiians obviously lived on islands. So it’s no surprise to find out that fresh fish made up a large part of their diets. When eating traditional Hawaiian foods, you can enjoy fish made using just about any method of cooking, although steaming is the most popular method.
Given that there are many types of fish swimming in Hawaii’s waters, the ancient Hawaiians had their fair share of fishspecies to choose from. Aku (ocean bonito), mahi mahi, ‘opelu (mackerel scad), and ahi (tuna) are just a few of the types of fish eaten by the ancient Hawaiians.
Laulau, sometimes also spelled lau lau, may be one of the coolest Hawaiian dishes. This dish is comprised of fish, pork, or chicken wrapped in ti leaves and then steamed. As a matter of fact, this dish can be steamed for up to 10 hours! This cooking process means that the protein inside of the leaves ends up extremely tender.
Poi is a thick, liquid purple substance made from pounded taro root. If you keep an eye out, you can find poi at many local grocery stores (although the section is usual quite small). That said, it’s pretty uncommon to see poi at restaurants. If anything, they’ll bake the poi into bread. This doesn’t really taste like poi, but it gives the bread a cool purple color.
Like kalua pig and laulau, squid luau is a Hawaiian dish that you’ll see served at quite a few Hawaiian restaurants in Hawaii. This is a dark green stew made with taro leaves, coconut milk, and octopus (or occasionally squid, so usually it’s a bit of a misnomer).
Pipikaula literally translates to “beef rope,” and this is a surprisingly accurate description. There are actually two versions of pipikaula. One is sort of like Hawaiian beef jerky, while the other is a pan-seared beef short rib version. The first version is the more popular version of pipikaula.
Last but not least, there’s haupia. Haupia is a creamy coconut dessert that has been enjoyed by Native Hawaiians for centuries. It’s the perfect way to finish off an authentic Hawaiian meal.
The Best Hawaiian Restaurants in Hawaii
The Best Hawaiian Restaurants on Oahu, Hawaii
Waiahole Poi Factory
Waiahole Poi Factory is undoubtedly one of the best Hawaiian restaurants in Hawaii. As the name states, this eatery specializes in the creation poi, a thick, purple, taro-based food. While at this Oahu eatery, you can actually watch the professionals pound taro into poi.
After you’re done watching the poi pounding demonstration, you can eat an authentic Hawaiian meal. The hand-pounded poi is obviously a must-have. And you can pair this side dish with other Hawaiian bites, like laulau squid lu’au, kalua pig, lomi salmon, and ho‘io salad (a fern-based salad).
If you’d like to end your time at Waiahole Poi Factory with a sweet delicacy, you won’t be disappointed. Try the kulolo bar, a taro-based treat that is one of the best desserts in Hawaii, or the fantastic haupia ice cream. Or you can get both in a dessert known as the sweet lady of Waiahole.
Helena’s Hawaiian Food
If you’re looking for the best Hawaiian restaurants in Honolulu, Helena’s Hawaiian Food definitely tops the list. Opened in 1946, this local eatery has been serving up delicious Hawaiian food for 75 years!
As if its longevity wasn’t enough to convince you to visit, Helena’s Hawaiian Food also boasts a prestigious James Beard Award! More specifically, it won the Regional Classic Award for its preservation of traditional Hawaiian food. You can’t ask for a better recommendation than that! As a matter of fact, that distinction alone makes Helena’s Hawaiian Food one of the best restaurants in Hawaii.
You really can’t go wrong with what you order at Helena’s Hawaiian Food. If you feel like there are just too many great options to choose from, don’t worry! You can simply order one of the set menus, depending on how hungry you are. These menus include many of the best Hawaiian dishes, including kalua pig, pipikaula short ribs, and the luau squid.
Highway Inn originally opened its doors in 1947 in Waipahu – right after Helena’s Hawaiian Food. Since then, it has gained so much popularity that it has opened two more locations, both in Honolulu. This expansion is a huge sign of Highway Inn’s fabulous food, since no other authentic Hawaiian restaurant in Hawaii has managed to open multiple locations.
Each of the Highway Inn locations has a slightly different menu, but they all have amazing Hawaiian dishes. The best way to try as many things as possible is by getting one of their signature combo plates.
Each of these combo plates come with pipikaula and haupia, and you can also opt to add some lomi salmon. Then, the question simply becomes which combo will you get? I recommend the Highway Inn tasting plate, the kalua pig combo, or the pork or chicken laulau combo.
The Best Hawaiian Restaurants on Maui, Hawaii
There are surprisingly very few authentic Hawaiian restaurants on Maui. For a long time, the go-to Hawaiian food spot on Maui was Poi by the Pound, but they closed their doors at the end of September 2021.
Since you can no longer visit Poi by the Pound, you can head to Huihui instead. Opened in July 2021, Huihui tries to take traditional Hawaiian dishes and elevate them – and they’ve succeeded.
The featured dish, the chef’s laulau, is definitely a must-try. While laulau typically only has one type of protein, the chef’s laulau at Huihui has pork, chicken, and cod. On top of that, there is an array of authentic Hawaiian side dishes, including poi, poholo oho salad (fiddle fern and seaweed salad), lomi lomi salmon, and Hawaiian sweet potato.
While the Hawaiian dishes are the most highlighted part of Huihui’s menu, it isn’t the only part. If you’re worried that some members of your group aren’t adventurous eaters, don’t worry! Huihui has some familiar dishes – with a fun island twist, of course – that they can enjoy instead. Opt for the ‘alaea rib eye, the braised pua‘a (pork) shank, or the ko‘ala half chicken.
The Best Hawaiian Restaurants on the Big Island of Hawaii
Kaaloa’s Super Js Authentic Hawaiian
Kaaloa’s Super Js Authentic Hawaiian is undoubtedly one of the best Hawaiian restaurants in Hawaii. This bright yellow, family-run restaurant boasts a perfect five-stars on Yelp, was featured on Food Network’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate, and usually sells out before closing time! In other words, thousands of people think that the dishes from Kaaloa’s Super Js Authentic Hawaiian are fantastic, and I have to agree.
Kaaloa’s Super Js Authentic Hawaiian serves up many Hawaiian dishes, including lomi salmon, chicken laulau, haupia, and kulolo. But the two most popular dishes are kalua pig & cabbage and pork laulau. As a matter of fact, their laulau is steamed for 8 to 10 hours, which means this mouthwatering dish is as tender as it can get!
Kanaka Kava may be one of the coolest Hawaiian restaurants in Hawaii. When most people think of authentic Hawaiian food, they often think of, well, food. They completely forget about traditional Hawaiian drinks, including kava.
Kava, also known as ‘awa in Hawaiian, is a drink that’s made from a plant of the same name. The drink has quite a bitter flavor, and it actually makes your mouth a little bit numb. This numbness comes from kava’s relaxing, sedative qualities, more specifically from the plant’s kavalactones.
You can enjoy this one-of-a-kind drink at Kanaka Kava in Kailua-Kona. Try the kava with juice or get a whole bowl of kava! You’ve definitely never had anything quite like it.
But, of course, Kanaka Kava can’t just thrive on one item, so it also has a fantastic Hawaiian food menu. Try the squid luau, kalua pork, opihi (limpets), and poi.
Kimo & Melia’s Hawaiian Grindz
This little eatery is a hidden gem. It opened in December 2020 and has managed to fly under the radar ever since. As a matter of fact, at the time of writing this article, this restaurant only has two Yelp reviews! But Kimo & Melia’s Hawaiian Grindz deserves a little more support, especially since they do a fantastic job of whipping up authentic Hawaiian food.
The process at Kimo & Melia’s Hawaiian Grindz is rather simple. You pick your main (or two), and it’ll automatically come with a couple of sides, like lomi salmon and pickled onion. The kalua pig, laulau, and squid luau are all fantastic main dishes.
As an added bonus, this Hawaiian restaurant also sells its delicious food by the half-pound and pound, so you can take it home and enjoy it! This is especially handy considering that Kimo & Melia’s Hawaiian Grindz is only open on Fridays and Saturdays from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m.
*Pro Tip: Since Kimo & Melia’s Hawaiian Grindz doesn’t currently serve dessert, you can head next door to Nicoco Hawaiian Gelato to enjoy some surprisingly tasty vegan gelato.
The Best Hawaiian Restaurants on Kauai, Hawaii
At Pono Market, you basically build your own plate based on your preferences. This is perfect if you’re hoping to enjoy a blend of Hawaiian and local food.
The entrees at Pono Market change based on the day of the week. Some of the Hawaiian entrees include pork laulau, chicken laulau, and kalua pig. As for the local entrees, try the pork adobo, chicken long rice, or shoyu (soy sauce) chicken.
Since many of the plates also come with a side of poke, you can enjoy that delicious dish as well! I always opt for the spicy ahi poke, but the shoyu (soy sauce) ahi, sesame ahi, salmon, and tako (octopus) are all worth a try.
Koloa Fish Market
Koloa Fish Market is primarily known for its fresh fish. In other words, it’s a great place to get some awesome poke.
That said, it’s a good place to get some authentic Hawaiian food as well. Koloa Fish Market has three different Hawaiian plates, which all include some variation of lomi salmon, rice, kalua pig, and laulau. It’s absolutely delicious!
Are there any other spots that I should add to this list of the best Hawaiian restaurants in Hawaii? Let me know in the comments below!
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