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10 Great Places to Try Hawaiian Food in Honolulu

SmarterTravel

With roots in Polynesian cuisine and a blend of ethnic influences from Japan, China, Portugal, and Korea, authentic Hawaiian cuisine features dishes that have been prepared on the Hawaiian islands for decades. Look on the menu for dishes like poi, kalua pig, lau lau, lomi salmon, and pipikaula when you want to try Hawaiian food in Honolulu.

Great Places to Try Hawaiian Food in Honolulu

If you want to try real, authentic Hawaiian food, you’ll have to skip the fine dining. Hawaiian food is food of the people, food of the earth. It’s unpretentious and very hearty, so prepare to eat a lot as we introduce you to 10 great places to try Hawaiian food in Honolulu.

Rainbow Drive-In

Rainbow drive-in
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A Honolulu classic which counts President Obama as a fan, Rainbow Drive-In is one of those old-school kitschy places you feel like you’ve seen in a movie. With neon lights and large awning for drive-up cars, this no frills drive-in specializes in burgers, sandwiches and plate lunches. In other words, classic Hawaiian food. Want to try authentic loco moco? This is the just the place. Other Rainbow faves include the mac salad, the chili tots and the slushie floats. The mixed plate is also popular, but be forewarned that it’s huge and enough for three to share.

Helena’s Hawaiian Food

Helena’s hawaiian food
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Don’t let the run-down facade put you off from trying Helena’s. A local favorite for traditional Hawaiian food—think kahlua pig, Pipikaula short ribs and lomi salmon—this no-frills diner is one of the long-standing greats when it comes to island cuisine. Service is warm and friendly, and photos chronicle the restaurant’s history over several decades. The combo plates come with a hefty helping of Hawaiian spirit, what the locals refer to as Aloha ‘aina.

Ethel’s Grill

Ethel’s grill
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The Hawaiian food spot for those in-the-know, Ethel’s Grill counts chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain—who famously lunched there on an episode of Parts Unknown—as one of its fans. Open for breakfast and lunch every day except Sunday, this unpretentious greasy spoon serves up cheap, large portions of Hawaiian food favorites, including what is possibly the best loco moco you’ll ever taste. Popular dishes range from a tataki sashimi plate to the crispy Mochiko chicken and garlic pork chops smothered in sweet garlic sauce. Come hungry and bring cash. 

Haili’s Hawaiian Foods

Haili’s hawaiian foods
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A family-run hole-in-the-wall that’s been making traditional Hawaiian food since the 1950s, Haili’s is a local staple for everything from Hawaiian plate lunch to poke bowls, stews, and Hawaiian barbecue. The unpretentious counter-service spot features a backlit picture menu to help with ordering. Preparations are homey and authentic, featuring traditional dishes such as kalua pig, pork lau lau, lomi salmon, poi, poke, and haupia for dessert. Many of the orders are served on multi-compartment cafeteria-food trays.

Uncle Bo’s Pupu Bar & Grill

Uncle bo's pupu bar & grill
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For fun atmosphere, large portions, affordable pricing, and a gastrobar-meets-Hawaiian-comfort-food type of cuisine, head to Uncle Bo’s Pupu Bar & Grill. Popular with locals and tourists alike, this is the place to order several pupus (appetizers) to share over beer or a cocktail. Favorites include Bo’s Big Nachos, made with kalua pig and melted mozzarella served over wonton chips; Uncle Bo’s dynamite shrimp, wok fried in chili aioli and topped with crispy panko; and Boca-Rota, a garlic cheese bread with prime rib strips, mushrooms, and mozzarella.

Diamond Head Market & Grill

Diamond head market & grill
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When you want to experience the Hawaiian food staple known as the plate lunch, you won’t go wrong with Diamond Head Market & Grill, a walk-up counter with a few picnic tables outside. Plate lunches here include a protein, a side salad, and a choice of brown or white rice. Choose from roughly 20 menu options, including loco moco, kalbi beef rib, char siu pork, or mixed plate of a few different items. A great, unpretentious option whether you’re headed to or from Diamond Head, this Hawaiian food cheap eats fave also offers terrific cakes and scones.

Uncle Clays House of Pure Aloha

Uncle clay’s house of pure aloha
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Halfway to Diamond Head and Makapu’u Point in the Aina Haina shopping center, you’ll find Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha. A mom-and-pop shop that’s been around for decades, this is the spot for feel-good happy vibes in the form of delectable Hawaiian shaved ice. The syrups are made in-house, using fresh fruit and ingredients sourced from the islands. The toppings, too, are fresh and all natural, like the bright luscious chunks of strawberries, naturally sweet pineapple, chewy house-made mochi balls.

You can order pre-set special flavors like Strawberry Dream or Choco Coco Paradise, or build your own in flavors like lilikoi, li hing, mango, or guava. Uncle Clay isn’t there every day anymore, but the warm and friendly staff have you covered. Besides, the best shaved ice on the island is worth a bit of a trek, isn’t it?

Hula Grill Waikiki

Hula grill waikiki
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For a taste of Hawaiian food in the heart of Waikiki, with a gorgeous ocean view to boot, the choice is easy: Hula Grill Waikiki. Located on the second floor of the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort above the ever-popular Duke’s, this all-day oceanfront cafe serves up breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

More upscale than most of the local diners that serve Hawaiian food in Honolulu, the menu features chef creations like poke tacos, coconut-crusted calamari, and crab-topped macadamia nut-crusted ono. Brunch is also excellent here, but make reservations ahead of time for the best patio seating.

Grace’s Inn

Grace’s inn
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One of President Obama’s old haunts from his time as a student on the island, Grace’s Inn is your classic Hawaiian food diner—think Denny’s, but locally owned with a menu that consists of plate lunches, lau lau, kalua pork, and more. Food is ordered at the counter, then delivered on plastic cafeteria trays. Though there is always a daily special menu, the musts here are the chicken katsu plate with our without curry, the mochiko chicken, and the loco moco.

Highway Inn

Grace’s inn
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Featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives with Guy Fieri, Highway Inn has been serving up traditional Hawaiian food since 1947. (This third-generation family-run establishment has been relocated to the trendy new SALT at Our Kakaako development.) While its claim to fame is its family recipe lau lau, you’ll find all the Hawaiian classics here: kalua pork, loco moco, chicken long rice, pipikaula, poi, haupia, and more. When in doubt, a Hawaiian combo plate covers the basics.

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– Original reporting by Mai Pham

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