As a slow travel enthusiast, my travel dreams often involves uncovering those hard-to-reach hidden gems and immersing myself into the local way of life. Although this was only my first-time in Hawaii, this trip was enriching in so many ways as I got to connect with Hawaii’s culture, people and food.
For as long as I can remember, Hawaii has always been the epitome of paradise. Thoughts of Hawaii instantly conjures visions of its ancient volcanic landscape, dramatic coastlines, lush coconut palm trees and postcard perfect sapphire blue waters. Then there’s of course scenes from movies such as 50 First Dates and TV series Hawaii Five-0. That was as much as I knew about Hawaii — oh, and two other things. That the outlet shopping was worth bringing an empty suitcase for, and that it was the home of the spam musubi! I was most excited when the opportunity presented itself to finally visit this island paradise! Alas I was 20 weeks pregnant during this trip so I technically didn’t end up having any spam musubi but my trip companions (Zen, my sister and her hubby) assured me it was bloody delicious.
Firstly, the accommodation. Being my babymoon and all, we were spoilt at the Hilton Hawaiian Village‘s Ali’i Tower (2005 Kalia Rd, Honolulu, HI 96815, USA, hiltonhawaiianvillage.com) luxury oceanfront rooms. If you’re looking for the VIP treatment, then this is it. We were able to skip the long queues at the traditional front desk check-in and glided right up to the Ali’i Tower for an easy private check-in. You also get a chic black and white woven leather bracelet to wear during the stay which discreetly gives you access to the Ali’i Tower amenities and as well as some cheeky perks such as moving to the front of the line at any Hilton owned restaurant. The concierge can even make reservations to any Hilton owned restaurant, including those that do not normally take reservations!
The rooms offer a panoramic view of Waikiki Beach and let me tell you, there’s nothing quite like waking up to the turquoise waters and or getting front row seats to the breathtaking sunset from the private oasis of your beautifully-appointment suite.
My favourite part though, was the private terrace on the second floor (see photo below) which features a private pool, spa, sauna, fitness room and the Ocean View Terrace Bar.
One of the must-do experiences here is the rooftop Waikiki Starlight Luau which runs from Sunday to Thursday at 5:30pm. Although I usually do everything I can to avoid crowded touristy queues, however, we were sold the second they mentioned a buffet of Hawaiian delicacies. Our Golden Circle Premier Seating tickets ($141USD per adult or $92USD per child) granted us gorgeous fresh orchid leis, premier seating close to the stage and a mai tai punch plus one beverage. For another $20USD you can get an additional beverage, be seated at the front and centre or the stage and be first in line to enjoy the buffet.
When time came to hit the buffet, my years of experience from dining at self-service Chinese takeaways in shopping centre food courts back in the day came handy. You know, the type where you pay $10 for as much as you can fit onto a plate? My sister and I became so good at this that we used to easily share a single plate between the two of us. If you don’t want to line-up for your second serve here, pile those plates up high!
Starting with more solid foods to set a foundation on the plate, soba noodles and fried rice were complemented with Hawaiian classics such as huli huli chicken which has a sweet and savoury flavour profile with notes of pineapple juice, soy sauce, brown sugar, ketchup, ginger and garlic; kiawe smoked beef brisket topped with guava BBQ sauce, lomi lomi tomato & salmon salad, steamed purple Okinawa sweet potato and a whole suckling pig pulled pork (tip: ask for crackling). And for dessert, we couldn’t go past the haupia, a Hawaiian coconut pudding slice.
Full to the brim, we then sat back and enjoyed the Voyage Across the South Seas, a mesmerising performance of dances from Hawaii, Polynesia and the Pacific.
As you can see, with its five room towers, 20 bars and restaurants, 90 shops, five swimming pools, direct beach access, lagoon, garden grounds full of exotic birds and turtles and plenty of activities for adults and kids, Hilton Hawaiian Village is definitely a top choice for those looking for a self-contained resort.
For something more low-key and a little more central to the shops and restaurants of Waikiki, we also stayed at Hilton Garden Inn Waikiki Beach (330 Kūhiō Ave, Honolulu, HI 96815, USA, hiltongardeninn3.hilton.com/en/hotels/hawaii). Connected to both the mountain views and the ocean views, our bright and modern room was the perfect urban retreat. Our days here were a quieter and calmer affair. The breakfast buffet fuelled us with made-to-order omelettes, and an Americana spread of bagels, sausage patties, fried potato and more. We freely wandered from the outdoor pool and private cabanas to the well-equipped fitness room, and to the beach which was a short five minute stroll.
Now, onto what we ate.
One of the first things on our list was the garlic shrimp from Giovanni’s (66-472 Kamehameha Hwy, Haleiwa, HI 96712, USA, giovannisshrimptruck.com) food truck. I sadly caught the flu on the flight over so after several sleepless nights with the congestion, headache, fever and sneezing that comes with the flu, I was all ready for some punchy flavours to clear the system.
There’s a big debate on the best shrimp truck of the north shore of Oahu and I wish I had the time to sample them all, but being my first taste, Giovanni’s was sensational. It’s everything you would expect from fresh jumbo shrimp sauteed in olive oil and chopped garlic — so fragrantly garlickly, golden in colour and glistening with an irresistible sheen. A serve of scampi ($14) includes a dozen of the jumbo shrimp and two scoops of rice which was perfect for soaking up all that juice. If you’re game, the hot & spicy ($14) was out-of-this-world! I was excited when I read ‘no refunds’ in the description as it was guaranteed to be a legit hot sauce, and it definitely hit the spot! You can also request for the hot sauce on the side of any plate if you just want to tickle the tastebuds but if you can handle your spice, then go all out and get the hot & spicy because the burning lips was so totally worth it.
When talking about food in Honolulu, the chances are that The Pig and the Lady (83 N King St, Honolulu, HI 96817, USA, thepigandthelady.com) will be mentioned. From it’s humble beginnings as a pop-up restaurant and farmer’s market stall, The Pig and the Lady opened up a brick-and-mortar location in Chinatown in 2013 and has continually been winning new fans ever since. As lovers of modern Vietnamese cuisine, The Pig and the Lady was high up on our list too.
The exposed brick walls, high ceilings and industrial, canteen vibe was noticeably familiar and warm. The starters of twice-cooked Laotian fried chicken wings ($10) was a sumptuous prelude. I particularly loved the herb salad and the sharpness of the thinly sliced kaffir lime leaves which highlighted every bite of the crispy skinned wings. The shishito peppers ($7) were equally divine, the charred skin was blistered to perfection and topped with umami dust, parmesan and charred lemon.
My sister and I were also excited to relive a childhood favourite with the chanh muoi soda ($4) which features a distinctive saltiness from the preserved lemons. We all couldn’t go past the noodle soups for our mains with three of us getting the pho bac ($15) with Makaweli beef, calamansi, scallions, cilantro, black pepper and fresh rice noodles, and Zen getting the bun rieu tom ($16) for its tomatoy, crabby goodness. I always find Hanoi-style pho to be lighter than the southern-style pho so this was bland by comparison, but I really welcomed the strong herbaceous flavour and we all slurped up every last bit of broth satisfyingly.
As seafood aficionados, we made sure to visit a crab boil and Karai Crab (901 Hausten St, Honolulu, HI 96826, USA, karaicrab.com) is an unmissable local favourite. The restaurant is in the most unassuming location, almost invisible within the residential neighbourhood. The interior of the restaurant was a little dull and upon entrance, we were questioning Zen’s judgement as he had made the booking. However, as we were led outside to our table, I instantly understood why this restaurant was so highly rated. The entire front facade had completely hidden an expansive lush tropical garden complete with a large deck overlooking a pond; tall palms enveloped the tables as diners intimately devoured their seafood feast.
We almost ordered the entire menu because copious amounts of seafood is never a bad idea.
There was salt & pepper shrimp ($12), miso sake clams ($14), catfish with fries ($11), garlic noodles ($7), bacon jalapeno cornbread ($4), followed by the pièce de résistance, the signature crab boil. There’s a choice of seafood — shrimp ($13), ‘no mess’ shrimp ($13) which essentially means there’s no shell, live clams ($14), live mussels ($14), snow crab, king crab, dungeness crab and spiny lobster tail available at market price. To go with that, there was a choice of six seasonings (Karai Special, garlic butter, topical Hawaiian, lemongrass and lemon pepper) and four different spice levels (mild, cayenne, habanero and ghost pepper), and the option to add a Karai combo ($25) of shrimp, clams, mussels, potato, corn and sausage.
We donned on our bibs in preparation for a messy feast.
I loved the variety of textures at play across the table; the moist yet crumbly cornbread, the crispiness of the fried catfish, the juicyness of the clams, the complimentary icy sorbet soft serves to counter the spice, even the fact that we had to work through the protective shell of the shrimp and crabs to attain the reward of succulent, tender, flaky flesh. The only letdown were the potatoes which needed another 5 minutes in the boiler and weren’t cooked all the way through, but aside from that, our extra spicy — ghost pepper heat — Karai Special seasoning of garlic butter and Cajun spices was, as cliche as it is, finger licking good. This was the kind of seafood feast that dreams are made of.
OK, now, confession time. I secretly love Spam. I grew up having Spam sandwiches where a fried egg, a slab of pan-fried Spam and a drizzle of Sriracha would sit between two slices of fluffy white sandwich bread. It was always the perfect lazy Sunday breakfast or afternoon treat. I adore the Korean army stew (Budae Jjigae, 부대찌개) for the way it jazzes up canned ingredients such as Spam into something wonderful and while I’ve had Spam musubi in Sydney, I’ve always looked forward to having it at its origin in Japan. So that took us to Musubi Cafe Iyasume (427 Kuhio Ave, Honolulu, HI 96815, USA, tonsuke.com/eomusubiya).
For those unfamiliar, musubi is pretty much a handheld snack whereby a huge block of sushi rice is topped with various ingredients and belted together with seaweed. The Hawaiian classic is Spam musubi and it’s essentially available everywhere from convenient stores to hole-in-the-wall joints and high-end specialty shops.
We were reassured we’d come to the right place for Spam musubi the second we opened the door, to be greeted with a long table of spam musubi souvenirs. I wanted everything!
This shoe-boxed size eatery had no more than maybe ten seats but it’s a quick-service restaurant and diners don’t linger. With 18 types of Spam musubi on the menu, it was a dizzying decision for my travel companions. (Although the musubi is made to order, I decided to take the safer route and avoided having any due to the risk of listeria in pregnancy.)
I know you’re curious, so the Spam musubi menu was:
- Teriyaki Spam ($1.88)
- Egg Spam ($2.28)
- Bacon & egg Spam ($2.48)
- Avocado, bacon Spam ($2.48)
- Avocado, bacon & egg Spam ($2.68)
- Cheese Spam ($2.28)
- Plum Spam ($2.28)
- Cucumber ume Spam ($2.48)
- Egg cucumber Spam ($2.48)
- Green shiso herb Spam ($2.28)
- Red shiso herb Spam ($2.28)
- Green & red shiso herb Spam ($2.48)
- Takuan radish pickles Spam ($2.28)
- Kimuchi Spam ($2.28)
- Plum & sisho herb Spam ($2.48)
- Eel egg Spam ($3.78)
- Eel, egg & Shiso herb Spam ($3.99)
- Avocado, eel & egg Spam ($4.48)
On the topic of fried egg on Spam, another Hawaiian comfort dish is the Loco Moco, which we excitedly got to try at Topics Bar & Grill (hiltonhawaiianvillage.com/dining/tropics-bar-and-grill) at Hilton Hawaiian Village. Loco Moco consists of steamed rice topped with a juicy hamburger patty, fried egg and brown gravy. What’s there not to love?
If it’s even possible to love Hawaiian cuisine even more, enter the plate lunch, a quintessential Hawaiian meal. I wanted the authentic experience so we went to a L&L Hawaiian Barbecue (various locations, hawaiianbarbecue.com) and dined with the locals. We were particularly ravenous at the time which suited the occasion well because all the servings here were huge!
As you know, I love variety so the combination plates just jumped out at me. My Seafood Combo ($11.25) was a hearty plate of crumbed mahi mahi, fried shrimp and a choice of teriyaki steak, BBQ short ribs or BBQ chicken. Served in massive takeaway styrofoam boxes, everything was piled on an enormous mountain of white rice, shredded green cabbage and some creamy macaroni salad. The short ribs were surprisingly tender and the Kalbi flavour was delightfully tasty for a chain restaurant. There was enough here to feed three people and this just added to the diner atmosphere. I truly felt like I was in America.
While at Haleiwa for Giovanni’s, another queue we noticed was at Matsumoto Shave Ice (66-087 Kamehameha Highway, Hale‘iwa, matsumotoshaveice.com). To quote owner Stanley Matsumoto, “When you come to Hawaii, you have to eat shave ice, Leonard’s malasada and poke; It’s part of the tradition of Hawaii.” So that’s exactly what we did.
Stanley’s father, Mamoru Matsumoto founded Matsumoto Shave Ice back in the 1950’s when Haleiwa was a low-key coastal town surrounded by sugar and pineapple plantations and populated by old Hawaiian families and Japanese immigrants. Famed for their housemade syrups and feather-light flakes of ice (not to be confused with snow cones which have a crunchy ice texture), the shop now makes nearly 1200 servings a day!
It’s a smooth operation with menus handed out while you’re in the queue. By the time you reach the front entrance, the menus are passed to the back of the queue and you shuffle forward into a tightly packed space of Hawaiian souvenirs and groceries. From there, the staff serve you in an assembly line. Large blocks of ice are continuously reloaded into the machine and in seconds, the plastic bowls were filled with a pyramid of fine fluffy snow-like ice. Next comes the toppings – red azuki beans, vanilla ice-cream or mochi balls are all popular picks. A step to the right and you’re faced with a rainbow of glass bottles at the flavouring station. There are more than 40 flavours to choose from including fruity (banana, green apple, honeydew), tropical (mango, guava), candy-sweet (bubble gum, cotton candy, creamsicle), cocktail hour (piña colada) and exotic (dried salty plum, passion fruit).
By chance, we also discovered Marukame Udon (2310 Kuhio Avenue, Suite 124
Honolulu, HI, toridollusa.com/menu-waikiki.php) which was in walking distance from Hilton Garden Inn Waikiki Beach. There was a consistent queue here every day which got me curious. To our delight, we happened to be outside just as they were opening one day, and stepping into the shop to see fresh udon noodles being kneaded, sliced and boiled, instantly transported us to Japan. I’ve had instant udon more times than I can remember but fresh udon noodles made from scratch have a chewy springy texture that is far more delicate and irresistible. Throw in an abundant choice of sides from the self-serve tempura bar, and you have the perfect comfort meal.
While we were in the mood for authentic Japanese, we pretty much followed the Japanese tourists and locals to Ramen Nakamura (2141 Kalakaua Ave #1, Honolulu, HI 96815, USA), a tiny cash-only noodle shop that serves up a killer ox tail ramen in shoyu or miso flavour. It’s run like a tight-ship and seconds from ordering my ox tail ramen combo ($23.40), crispy gyozas, a small plate of fried rice and a large bowl of ramen appeared before me. The scent of fried garlic and the hearty yet clear broth sent me into a hypnotic state as I dived straight in. You see, in a traditional ramen shop, it’s our duty to start eating as soon as the bowl is delivered because if you let the noodles sit in the broth for too long, it becomes overcooked and mushy. So while this wasn’t the ideal location for my catch-up with friends we had bumped into from Sydney, we all agreed the ramen was as good as it gets.
Given this was my first time to any American state, my sister had advised that I couldn’t leave without trying Ihop (various locations, ihop.com), a diner-style chain that specialises in breakfast dishes. Her favourite order has always been the chicken and waffles ($12.99) which were four crispy chicken strips with Belgian waffles served with a honey mustard dipping sauce. We also tried the fried chicken ($15.99) — four pieces of fried chicken with mashed potatoes, whole kernel buttered corn and garlic bread and the country fried steak ($16.99), a golden-battered beef steak smothered in country gravy, served with mashed potatoes, steamed fresh broccoli and garlic bread. We dined mid-afternoon around 3pm so we were literally the only people in the diner but I could see the appeal of having breakfast at any time of day. The free refills on freshly brewed ice tea are a nice touch too.
Another chain restaurant we tried was Red Lobster (various locations, redlobster.com). Their claim to fame is having invented the popcorn shrimp back in the day; plus their complimentary Cheddar Bay Biscuits have developed a cult following — they’re buttery, cheesy, and still warm from the oven. As tempting as they were, we stopped ourselves at one to leave room for what we came for — shrimp and lobster goodness! The Parrot Isle Jumbo Coconut Shrimp ($17.49) was a favourite across the table – they’re crumbed with flaky bits of coconut and served with a pina colada sauce. The Roasted Maine Lobster Bake ($30.99) of petite Maine Lobster tails split and roasted with fresh tomatoes, served over linguini in a garlic and white wine broth gave us all food envy and we even ordered lobster for our sides because what is there not to love about lobster on lobster? The creamy Langostino Lobster mashed potatoes were insanely delicious. By the way, the portion sizes here were supersized in case you forget you were in America.
In terms of our bucket list, we of course had to take a scenic drive around the island in matching Hawaiian shirts…
And snorkel at Hanauma Bay…
We didn’t make it to everything on our wish list but here’s a few other things we dreamed of eating/doing:
Mochi Ice Cream from Bubbies Homemade Ice Cream and Desserts
Warm and humid weather in Hawaii meant we could eat ALL THE ICE CREAMS and shaved ice we wanted! @bubbies has so many flavors on the island chocolate espresso • lychee • blood orange • guava • green tea • mango Bubbies | Honolulu _________________________________ #bubbies #bubbiesicecream #bubbiesmochi #foodinhands #foodstacking #summereats #foodstack #visitoahu #hawaiisbestkitchens #allidoiseat #hawaiieats #808eats #eathawaii #kateatsHNL #eeeeeats #beautifulcuisines #eater #infatuation
Malasadas from Leonard’s Bakery
Dole Whip from Dole Plantation
Poke from Ono Seafood
“Order a ‘bowl’ at @ono.seafood, and you receive a foam box of rice and poke, no more, no less. The rice itself is impeccably fluffy and exhaling warmth, just enough to leave the fish in a cool blush.” @ligayamishan, who grew up in Hawaii, traces #poke to its source: where it comes from, who makes it and how we eat it. Her #NYTFood story is through our profile link. (Photo: @marcogarciaphotography)
Haiku Stairs (Stairway To Heaven)
Hawaii, I can’t wait to return with my baby girl in tow!