This article is a part of series of articles about my 2017 trip to Hawaii. Please see the table of contents that contains links to other chapters.
Food in Hawaii
In Hawaii, specifically Waikiki, you can find much of the usual fare: American (including popular chains such as Denny’s and McDonald’s), Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and of course Hawaiian. Cuisine whose origin is more physically distant like Latin, French, and Italian food seemed to be less common, and the only Italian restaurant we tried was pretty disappointing.
But above all–in keeping with I said about Japanese influence–Japanese food seemed to be the most common, and (acknowledging some possible bias on my part here) the most delicious. Although you can find elements of Japanese food in places you would least expect to (like piles of the extremely popular omusubi, also called onigiri, in nearly every convenience store), one of the best way to get a taste is food courts which specialize in variants of Japanese cuisine.
My favorite of these food courts is Shirokiya which is in the large Ala Moana mall in Waikiki, which as of time of this writing (late Jun 2017) celebrated its one-year anniversary. This place is a massive grid of restaurants that feels like a labyrinth and features things like: ramen (several styles), chanpon (like ramen but with special broth and more vegetables), gyoza, tempura, wagyu, confectionery, breads, and okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake). There is of course places to get alcohol (especially beer), and even a few non-Japanese shops like Indian and Vietnamese Pho. One of the only things we noticed they were lacking is a good sushi place. This may be to avoid competition with the Genki Sushi revolving sushi restaurant that is at another part in the mall, but due to negative feedback from several people we avoided that.
We enjoyed ourselves at Shirokiya several times times during the week and were never disappointed even a single time. In fact, I think the food we had there was the best of the entire trip, though to be fair we didn’t visit any expensive restaurants so they may be better food out there somewhere. But if I ever come back to Waikiki, I could see myself eating there at least once a day. My two favorites were the okonomiyaki at Takoyaki Yama Chan, and curry at the Indian place.
Besides the food, there is a handful of stores selling Japanese gifts, and even elaborately designed buddha statues of the twelve animals of the Japanese zodiac. Don’t worry, if you want to try your fortune at omikuji they are available for $1 a stick, so you can really feel like you are in Japan. I was lucky enough to draw daikichi.
There is another Japanese-inspired food court called Yokocho in the Waikiki Shopping Plaza. We only ate there once, at the Volcano Ramen place, but it was pretty good (though not above the quality of my two favorites in Portland, surprisingly). The selection there is not nearly as diverse, though the atmosphere is perhaps a bit better than Shirokiya, since each restaurant at Yokocho takes up more space, whereas Shirokiya is a bit more like a cafeteria where you set in a central table area. It seems that a few of the restaurants in Yokocho take only cash, though Volcano Ramen took credit cards.
There is another food court in the International Marketplace, which is walking distance from the Ilima hotel, but we had a pretty lousy experience there on both our first and second (final) attempts. The ramen was edible but had disappointing noodles and broth, and the hummus had a very odd un-hummus flavor (and we’ve had hummus in many places before). The atmosphere was nice there though, so if you are feeling daring (and have a thick wallet since it’s a little pricey) feel free to try it out.
One other restaurant I want to highly recommend, this one not part of a food court, is Marugame Udon. It’s literally a block away from Ilima, and has some amazing udon dishes and overall strong Japanese atmosphere. We were fortunate to stumble upon this in the morning before the lines get too long. Later in the day I have seen as many as 20-30 people waiting outside, so go early.
While you can find some Japanese food at regular convenience stores, if you are looking for a snack or an informal meal at your hotel room definitely try one of the Japanese convenient stores in Waikiki. The only one we visited was called Mitsuwa located on the 2nd floor of the International Marketplace. They have a good selection of Japanese sake, obento (boxed lunches), body care products, snacks, and many other things you can typically find in a Japanese konbini. There are two small restaurants in the back corner, and we tried the rightmost one. The miso ramen was a little lacking, but the salmon and ikura bowl was fresh and tasty.
While I am on the subject of Japanese stores, there is a large 24-hour Japanese one-stop shop called Don Quixote which has several stores in Hawaii, one of which (the Honolulu one) is very close to Waikiki. There wasn’t anything mind-blowing there, but if you have never been to Japan you might enjoy seeing some of the products they carry. There is a small Book Off store inside the same building which carries used Japanese books and manga, a great place for bargains. There is a series of Japanese restaurants outside the entrance of Don Quixote, but we didn’t get a chance to try them out (except the coffee place). I’d guess they are pretty delicious, though.
In the Ward Warehouse shopping center there is another Book Off that is much bigger than the one in Don Quixote and had an interesting selection of books. Unfortunately, when I was double checking the bookstore’s location online I discovered they are closing at the end of July 2017. I think it might be more a function of that plaza than the store itself, as the other stores weren’t too busy either. In the same plaza there was another Japanese store called Hakubundo, but they cater more to stationary and random anime stuff as opposed to books.
As a final note about food in Waikiki, we found a great dessert place called Banan which makes creamy cold treats made from banana and acai, with absolutely no dairy. I’ve tried a bunch of non-diary ice creams in my time, but Banan managed a nearly perfect texture with their special formulation. The main drawback is that the banana flavor was very strong (I didn’t try the acai), so if you don’t like banana you might not find it too palatable. But if you do, you’ve now found yourself one more healthy way to have a sweet snack. They have three sites in Honolulu; we went to the one on Waikiki beach within walking distance from our hotel.
Wow, lots to comment on here!
First of all, growing up Shirokiya was a fixture of Ala Moana shopping mall as a “Japanese department store”, and when I was last in Hawaii in March 2016 Shirokiya was having a “going out of business” sale. I didn’t realize they were actually morphing into a food court, or more precisely becoming a food-court only establishment. (Bit of trivia — the first Book Off in Hawaii was a small 10-foot corner space inside of Shirokiya.)
Visiting *from* Japan, we make it a rule to not eat Japanese unless it’s a local, long-established local variation. To be perfectly honest, we tend to eat a lot of Poke Bowls (or “poke-don”), which in the last few years has started to become known in Japan. It’s almost quasi-Japanese food since it’s raw fish at heart, and in fact we make it at home often because it’s so simple. It also helps that we rent a car, so we’re not limited to Waikiki. That said, Kapahulu Ave. is walking distance and has a lot of good places that locals eat at, including the best poke-dons on Oahu (Ono Seafoods).
Marugame Udon is such a fixture here that there’s no way I would stand in line in Waikiki, but I can understand the appeal.
Hakubundo, another fixture of my childhood — they always had the cool stickers and stationery.
Thanks, some interesting history notes there. Didn’t realize Shirokiya was a department store!