Since 1950, Liliha Bakery has been one of Oahu’s brightest gems. This neighborhood coffee shop, diner, and bakery will provide you with some of Oahu’s tastiest treats or a well cooked sit down meal for a reasonable price. There are two locations – one at the original spot in the Makiki neighborhood on Liliha street and the other on the Nimitz Highway between downtown and Honolulu International Airport.
A couple of items from Liliha Bakery stand out for me. First, the signature Coco-Puffs – sweet chocolate filled cream puffs with a dab of mocha creme on them. Second are the Poi Mochi Donuts – these are chewy donuts made with rice gelatin and pounded taro (which gives them their purple color). Starting at 2 am each day, Liliha makes fresh and delicious treats better than any other bakery on the island.
One of the best things about the original location is the diner bar. If you want to feel what it was like to grab a meal at the diner in the 1950’s just sit down and wait for one of the waitresses to take your order. Watch the cooks dish your food in the kitchen and enjoy some thick coffee. Some of the cooks have been there for more than thirty years and the coffee may have been there with them. The diner food is classic local recipes like loco moco, saimin, Portuguese sausage and rice and pancakes. Open for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
The Hawaiian word for delicious is ‘Ono’. There are no shortage of ono restaurants in Hawaii and most of them are located in Honolulu or on the island of Oahu. The following are five places where you can get an ono meal that you will tell your friends about for as long as you are still able to talk and remember eating there…
Waioli Poi Factory – Midway up the windward side of Oahu you will find a tinroofed shack with delicious Hawaiian food for reasonable prices. The crowds have been growing at this local favorite – so I’m not going to post the address or hours – you’ll just have to find it on your own. Make sure you order the poi, the kalua pork, and the haupia!
Foodland Poke Bowls – Yes, there are lots and lots and lots of places to get fresh poke in Hawaii. We have hidden gems we won’t tell you about – but the thing that surprises a lot of people is that the best poke isn’t found at fancy restaurants – it’s found in local grocery stores, liquor stores, and side of the road markets where people go for lunch. Grab a spicy ahi poke bowl from any foodland seafood counter. You won’t be disappointed. In fact, you’ll probably go home and tell everyone it was the best poke you ever had!
Mike’s Huli Chicken I haven’t been to Mike’s Huli Huli Chicken since they left their Kahalu’u location a few months ago and moved to Kuhuku with all the other food trucks – but I’m sure that the food is just as good as it always was. Maybe it’s even better.
Fumi’s Kuhuku Shrimp There is a reason why Fumi’s is my favorite of all the Hawaiian Shrimp Trucks on Oahu – it’s because they cook it right, raise it right, and keep their sanitation on the obsessive compulsive side in their kitchen. They pull the shrimp from their family owned ponds and serve them with aloha (and lots of garlic).
Nico’s Pier 38 I’m jaded about Nico’s – because it used to be so much better than it is today. The truth is though , Nico’s Pier 38 is still one of those places that you have to go and you will remember forever as long as you order the swordfish or the furikake crusted ahi.
There are no shortage of delicious treats hidden away on Oahu and yes, many of them are tourist traps designed to capture Hawaii tourist dollars by getting you in the door with the hype that has grown around them. When you go to these five locations you will wait in line, you will be joined by hundreds of other tourists, and you will be happy that you went because your taste buds will be singing glorious hapa-haole chants.
If you’ve ever seen the movie Forest Gump where he goes on and on about shrimp this and shrimp that – it would be easy to substitute pineapple and have him talking about the Dole Plantation – pineapple Candy, pineapple dolls, pineapple bread, pineapple wine, pineapple magnets, pineapple t-shirts, pineapple cookies, pineapple books – everything pineapple happens at the Dole Plantation – plus a pineapple garden, a pineapple maze, and a pineapple railroad trip. And of course, the famous pineapple ice cream – Don’t forget the Dole Whip!
Leonards hasn’t gone into merchandising on the scale of the Dole Plantation, but they’ve still done an amazing job of branding themselves with the pink boxes, thier iconic Kapahulu signs, and of course the red and white malasada trucks they park all over the island. What’s the draw? The magical malasadas waiting inside! Always hot, light, delicious and so good that this little bakery usually has a huge line waiting outside of it! The record on my tours was a lady who ate seven of them – but one or two is perfect for most people.
Ted’s Bakery is a North Shore institition. The food tastes best after a day battling the surf at Sunset Beach or Banzai Pipeline – but let’s be honest – the food is only so-so but the pie! You go to Ted’s for the pie. Specifically the Chocolate Haupia Cream Pie. You might have to wait in line – but it’s worth it.
There aren’t a whole lot of attractions that offer your freebies in Hawaii. Tropical Farms is one of them. Offering free samples of their locally grown macadamia nuts and free macnut coffee for weary tour drivers (or anyone else). This is a great local, family owned and operated tourist trap with plenty of local products, local handicrafts, and of course, the tasty macadamia nuts. Go in the back and smash a raw one on a lava rock or go with the tasty caramel, garlic, or honey roasted variety. Any way about it – you’ll be glad you stopped at Tropical Farms.
Matsumoto Shave Ice is one of those places you need to go at least once. It gives you a solid baseline for what a Hawaiian Shave Ice is. Plus, you can buy one of those t-shirts with the cartoon version of Stanly Matsumoto on it. The general store is filled with a wide variety of tourist items but you know why you are there – shave ice with ice cream on bottom, sweetened condensed milk on top, and organic cane sugar syrups giving you a mind-blowing sugar rush.
The North Shore of Oahu is known mostly for surfing but there are those who head there just for the Chocolate Haupia Pie from Ted’s Bakery too. While the North Shore’s 7-mile-miracle of surf breaks draws crowds, dont’ be surprised to find crowds also lining up at Ted’s. It’s easy to whiz past it when you drive up the Windward Side, pass the Turtle Bay Resort, and are tantalizingly close to Sunset Beach. Ted’s doesn’t look like much – it’s a little plantation style complex with an awning and some tables in front.
Ted’s serves up breakfast and plate lunches as well as the famous Haupia Chocolate Cream Pie – and yes, they are a full bakery so you can buy other types of pie, donuts, breads, and more – but if you are like most people – one bite of the signature pie will convert you for life.
For those unfamiliar, haupia is a traditional Hawaiian coconut milk desert – almost like coconut jello. Ted’s brilliant innovation was to put it between layers of chocolate, whipped cream, and a perfect flaky crust. If there is a dessert in heaven, this is probably it.
The bakery started (like most things on Oahu) with the sugar cane industry. Ted’s grandfather worked on the North Shore in the sugar industry and eventually bought land from the Kuhuku Sugar Plantation that was too rocky for cultivation. A couple of decades later, his son, Takemitsu Nakumura opened the Sunset Beach Store in 1956. In 1987, Takemitsu’s son, Ted, opened Ted’s Bakery and the rest is history. His pies were a hit all over Oahu. Today Ted’s sells pies to restaurants and stores all over the island of Oahu. So, you can get the pies anywhere – but they always taste best at Ted’s.
My recommendation is that you buy the pie by the slice unless you have at least six people to help you eat a whole one – because otherwise, you will be tempted to eat it yourself!
In ancient times, Hawaiians harvested more than 2-million pounds of fish and shellfish each year – much of that came from fishponds. It’s estimated that there were more than 750 major fishponds in the islands at the time of Captain Cook’s arrival here. Hawaiians were one of a handful of civilizations who had mastered aquaculture. So, it’s great that aquaculture continues to this day – one of the best places to see and taste that is near the North Shore of Oahu in the little town of Kuhuku. Kuhuku was a sugar town until 1971 when sugar left.
In 1975, the State of Hawaii directed funding and research to develop oyster, fish, and shrimp farming in what had been taro patches, rice paddies, and small fish ponds. Today, the terms shrimp pond and shrimp trucks are almost synonyms for Kuhuku (which doesn’t mean shrimp or prawn, it means point).
Back in 1993, Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck was among the first to start selling the now famous garlic shrimp near Kuhuku and within a couple of years it was so popular that imitators had followed. Today there are literally dozens of shrimp trucks on Oahu. Some good, some bad, and some with bizarre stories. I will focus on the most popular ones here – Fumi’s, Giovanni’s, and Romy’s. There are others but you are taking your chances with them. Some of the names are Korean, Famous, Big Wave, Blue Wave, Garlic Shrimp, etc.
Fumi’s is my favorite – hands down. On a busy day they serve up to 2000 pounds of fresh shrimp caught from their ponds. Their menu has a wide variety of options, the best of which (in my opinion) are the butter garlic, spicy garlic, breaded coconut, boiled, and salt and pepper fried. There are actually two Fumi’s trucks – I prefer the blue building over the truck – rumor has it that there was a schism in the family and they parted ways – which is why there are two locations with two different menus on two different sides of the family shrimp ponds. Expect to wait in line 10-15 minutes and another 10-15 minutes for your food to cook. They have a lot of people working and they are incredibly efficient without sacrificing taste. 5-8 large shrimp with two scoops of rice, a scoop of cold canned corn (wierd), and a slice of pineapple.
Romy’s is also delicious but the wait is much longer and the prices are higher than Fumi’s. Expect a minimum of 20 minutes wait in line and 20 minutes or more for your food on an average day.Personally, I find their shrimp harder to peel and not as delicious as Fumi’s. They are also owners of the ponds behind them so the shrimp are guaranteed fresh.
Giovanni’s is the wierd one. Even though they started the whole thing – I almost never go there. Their prices are higher and the shrimp are not cooked to order – personally, I’m not a fan of the quality. The original owner’s Giovanni and his now ex-wife – sold the business in 1997 – and then split up. Apparently, the ex-wife wasn’t happy with the sale and tried to buy it back from the new owner who didn’t want to sell – so she hired a couple of thugs who kidnapped him and forced him to sell at gunpoint! She was arrested and the sale was nullified. At some point people began signing the truck and finally in 2006, the current owners bought the land the truck sits on. Since that time, the whole area around Govanni’s has become a sort of food truck mecca with everything from Fijian Indian curry to funnel cakes, Hawaiian BBQ, Da Bald Guy, Cheesus Crust Pizza, and more. Giovanni’s has built a pavillion and continue to sell buttery garlic scampi just like in the old days but without the kidnapping and extortion. If shrimp just isn’t your thing and you don’t like the vibe in Kuhuku, just keep heading down the coast until you reach Mike’s Huli Huli Chicken
Visitors often ask me – What is poke? And they say it so that it rhymes with the word joke…which is wrong but sort of cute and funny. Poke is a two syllable word that rhymes with ‘oh kay’ and it is one of the most wonderful contributions Hawaii has made to world cuisine.
Poke is usually yellowfin tuna but traditionally is made with octopus or aku which is a more oily type of tuna. The word poke means to slice – and that’s what it is – raw, sliced fish marinated with seaweed, salt, onions, and other flavorings. It can be eaten by itself or more often atop a bowl of brown or white rice – also known as the poke bowl (poh-kay bowl).
Traditional Hawaiian poke usually has salt, seaweed, kukui nuts, and not much else. Japanese influence has been heavily felt in Hawaiian cuisine so it’s more common to have soy sauce (shoyu), sesame oil, furikake (mix of seaweed, sesame seeds, and dried fish) or ponzu sauce. The most popular form of Hawaiian poke is probably the ‘spicy ahi’ which is onions, mayo, and sricha or chili oil.
Where to get poke depends on where you are. I love supporting my favorite poke spots – but I”m not going to ruin them by listing them on the internet, but I’m happy to provide a couple of great poke spots you can visit on Oahu.
The first is the closest supermarket in Honolulu. Times and Foodland both have great poke. Safeway doesn’t quite measure up but will work in a pinch. Go to the seafood section. Whole Foods is overpriced without tasting noticably better. The poke bar at Nico’s Pier 38 has great poke. Another superior poke stop is Tamura’s Liquor Stores – located in various locations around Oahu. Finally, there are a number of restaurants that offer pokebowls or poke as either an appetizer or a meal – in general, these are overpriced versions of what you get above but in a few cases – you will get superior sashimi grade poke that will knock your socks off. I prefer to stick with the markets for my poke – but if the only chance you get is to go to a restaurant – then I recommend Poke Bowls on Beach Walk in Waikiki. They’re poke is all locally sourced fish and they also try to use other local ingredients.
There are spectacular places to get poke on the Big Island, Maui, and Kauai – but you’re going to have to make friends with the locals to find out about them! 🙂
As far as getting great poke on the mainland – it’s very possible but here is what you want to do – get as close to the fresh fish as you can. Sure, you can get pretty good previously frozen poke in the Ozarks (I think) but it’s not going to taste as good as sashimi grade fresh ahi. There are a lot of poke bars popping up in various cities – I’ve heard some good things and some things that make me cringe in terms of how it’s prepared, what condiments are added, and more – ultimately – it’s your choice but remember – it should be raw and the additions shouldn’t overwhelm the flavor of the fish.
One of my favorite hidden gems on Oahu is the Manoa Chocolate Factory Tour. Located in Kailua in the upstairs of a nondescript building, this fun and informative chocolate tour will teach you about sustainable bean-to-bar chocolate and also treat your tastebuds to the exotic world of custom chocolate.
Started in 2010 by Dylan and Tammy Butterbaugh, Manoa chocolate takes it’s name from the University of Hawaii at Manoa – where they were both college students at the time. Their philosophy is simple – create great chocolate from great cacao and make sure that every step of the way is sustainable to farmers and producers. It all starts in Hawaii, the only state that can actually grow cacao commercially. The two started with home made equipment and a love of chocolate. Today they are in the top ten of bean to bar makers in the U.S. and the largest in the state of Hawaii.
Manoa Chocolate is located above Cinnamon’s Restaurant in Kailua at 315 Uluniu Ave. It’s not an intuitive location which is great because if you can find it, you can usually walk in and get the free 30 minute tour which starts with cacao and how it is grown and then moves on to how chocolate is made before ending with chocolate tea and a sampling of their amazing offerings – made from fair trade cacao they purchase from around the world – as well as Hawaii. Chocolate is a lot like wine and there are many different factors that go into creating the complex tastes.
They have recently opened a tasting room in the Hyatt Regency in Waikiki. Private tours and tastings can be booked through their website at the Manoa Chocolate website
I’m a big fan of Nico’s at Fishmarket at Pier 38 in Honolulu and of Nico’s in Kailua – just not as big a fan as I used to be.. This is a restaurant that I’ve been eating at since a friend introduced me to it back in 2004. At that time, it was a tiny little plate lunch joint right near the fish auction. Nico, a French chef and his two fishermen friends decided to showcase some of the amazing fish coming out of the auction and ‘Voila!”
It looked like this back then…and frankly…I miss it. There were rarely lines. The poke was the best in town at a really reasonable price and the food was something we describe in Hawaii as ‘Onolicious!” Which means as delicious as it gets.
The food and poke are still top rated, but, today, it’s grown to at least four times the original size. There is always a crowd. The poke is a bit pricey for a guy like me to enjoy it on a regular basis, and the whole thing feels … well, for lack of a better word … touristy. That’s the thing. Nico’s used to be a little hole in the wall plate lunch place for locals who knew about it, but these days…it’s mostly for the tourists. Yes, you still get your food in a styrofoam pack. Yes, you still order at the counter when you go in, but it’s by design…not by necessity. this is the Furikake Crusted Ahi Tuna with Nalo Greens…oh man. Yum. Still ono.
The original Nico’s is still located at Pier 38 off of Nimitz Highway – though it moved to a larger building from the one in the old picture right below – several years ago. It now has an enclosed outdoor seating area and a bar with an upscale feel despite the styrofoam packs. They’ve opened a second location in Kailua on the Windward side. I heard recently they closed down the poke bar there…but I’ve been for the Sunday Brunch and it was good – the thing was…it didn’t feel like Nico’s over there. It felt like a decent little restaurant.
I’m happy for their success…but a little bit sad that we lost what you see above. Below is a picture from a recent trip to the Pier 38 location – I still go, but it’s not like before when I’d decide to go and feel like doing the happy dance…
Most people head to central Oahu with one thing in mind – Pineapples and the Dole Plantation. Personally, there’s a better destination that I like to stop at – it’s not as old, not as touristy, and is all about one of life’s essentials – COFFEE!
Hawaiian Coffee is kind of a big deal. Everyone has heard of Kona Coffee. Kona is famous around the world for being a deep, rich, and tasty coffee. What makes it so are the perfect growing conditions on the island of Hawaii. Well guess what? We have perfect growing conditions on Oahu too. Our climate is ideal on the central Oahu plateau. Our soil is rich volcanic soil filled with nutrients (though mellowed by a few million years from the Big Island. Also, we have old, great coffee stock.
Green World Coffee opened up about a decade ago with the idea of creating a small family run operation that would give Oahu coffee some exposure to the world. It was started by Howard Green. The Waialua Estate coffee sold by the Dole company is pretty well known, but Green World decided to go small business style. They planted their coffee, they began their roasting operation, and they opened their doors.
Green World offers a small coffee garden on site, a great little cafe where they know how to make a good cappucino, and an absolutely lovely little gift shop. You can sample a half dozen coffees from different islands and blends from the world over. They also have their famous ‘Sex and Chocolate Tea’ which is delicious but a little disturbing if you stop to wonder what is in it. Green World roasts all of their own coffees on site so when you walk in, you will feel like you have entered coffee heaven.
Ask the people working about the coffee! They love to share information about the roasting, growing, harvesting, the various stages of the coffee and much more. You’ll find these are all incredibly friendly folks who truly embody the aloha spirit.
Green World Farm is just seven acres and about three thousand coffee trees. Open daily from 7am to 5pm with extended hours on weekends. The farm is located at 71-101 Kamehameha Hwy in Wahiawa.
If you are heading North afterwards – choose now whether to get a Dole Whip at the Dole Planation or to head on up to Haleiwa and get a shave ice at Matsumotos…or just get both…nobody is going to judge you for it.
There are certain foods that you have to eat when you come to Honolulu. One of them, is the famous Malasada from Leonard’s Bakery.
A malasada is a doughnut without a hole – a little bit crispy and a little bit chewy. They’ve been in Hawaii since the late 1800s when the Portuguese emigrated in large numbers to work in the sugar cane industry. Leonard’s Bakery opened in 1952 on Kapahulu avenue where they still sit today.
The bakery was opened by Margaret and Frank Leonard Rego Sr. It was Frank’s mother’s recipe that started them out but they adapted to the Hawaiian taste and soon were making pao doce – typically a meat stuffed pastry in Portugal – with chocolate, coconut, guava, and more. The bakery is still owned by the same family and run today by Leonard Rego Jr. and his adult children.
Leonard’s is a household name in Hawaii and neighbor islanders come and head straight for the bakery. You are always welcome when you bring the pink Leonard’s box or bag with you. They’ve sold nearly 200 million malasadas since opening…so they are doing something very right.
Like Dole Whip, Shave Ice, and Macadamia nuts. Malasada’s are a must try experience when you are in Hawaii. There are trucks at various points around the island which pick up the malasada dough from the main bakery in the morning and then make malasadas until they run out in the late morning.
It’s not rocket science…but there is definitely something magical about Leonard’s Malasadas. Whle Leonard’s does offer other baked goods – the malasadas are where it’s at. There are plain sugar, cinnamon sugar, and Li-hing (a dried chinese plum powder – sugar, salt taste), and then the filled ones. Dobash (chocolate), haupia (coconut), and a variety of fruit flavors such as lilikoi, mango, and guava. The coffee – …mmm…it tastes like it has been there since 1952. Definitely FBI coffee…stick to the malasadas.
I love a good cup of coffee. One of the great things about Hawaii is that we have a rich coffee history and we grow a wide variety of different coffees here. Our climate, our soil, our location – they are all perfect for coffee. I’ll talk more about that in a coming post…
For now, I wanted to let you know about a fun coffee experience I had yesterday in Waikiki. Technically, The Honolulu Coffee Experience Center sits on the edge of Ala Moana and Waikiki, but it’s close enough to just call it Waikiki. It’s right across from the Hawaii Convention Center on Kalakaua Avenue on the western end of Waikiki.
The building used to be a Hard Rock Cafe – or maybe a Planet Hollywood – and it went through some other businesses as well. It’s one of those places I drive by all the time and never pay attention to. My friend and I meet for coffee in a new location every couple of weeks and since neither of us had been here – it was a great option.
There is ample parking on the other side from the photo above. Inside there are terrific displays to educate you about coffee, where you can see the coffee beans being roasted while you sit at the bar, and you can watch the talented pastry chefs making their treasures behind the glass wall. A small gift shop and a closed in glass room that I never really figured out the purpose of – there was an espresso machine in there and a college age girl who appeared to be doing her homework inside. I know I missed something there…
The coffee itself was nice. I had an espresso with a croissant and was pleased that it was served on a small wood tray with some mineral water – the espresso itself was tasty with very little of the bitterness I usually find at other places that start with an S. We were able to order our coffee for there so we didn’t have to throw away paper cups and contribute to the garbage issues we face on Oahu. My friend had an Americano and no complaints about it.
The seating was fun with the aforementioned bar seats in the lowered center, a few tables around the lower center edges, and then scattered tables of different sizes on the upper (ground) level and a number of umbrella covered tables outside as well. Overall, it was a nice experience and a good cup of coffee. I recommend it.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of taking one of the tastiest tours in Hawaii. Anyone who has been on one of my tours, knows how much fun it is to get to sample the different treats from all over Oahu – but it’s not often that I get the chance to go out and discover hidden gems here on my own turf! This was one of those opportunities.
My new friend, Chef Matthew Gray picked me up at the Ala Moana Hotel with his fun team of foodies and a couple of other guests. There were nine of us all together. Now, just a heads up – Matthew, Gio, and Krystal took me to some incredible places – I’d been to a few of them – but mostly – they took me to hole in the wall places that after seventeen years of callling Oahu home and more than a decade as a guide – I had never been to! You might be waiting for me to spill the beans about where they took me – but I’m not going to. I’ll give you the gist of it, share a few pictures, and describe some of the foods we ate and a few of the secrets I learned – but to get the rest – you are going to have to take this awesome tour.
Heres’s the info to Book a Tour – Tell the Chef that Vagobond sent you:
First off – I love that this wasn’t an all day tour. If you’re here on vacation you can take this tour and still have plenty of time to go out and enjoy the beach, play some golf, or even take another tour – personally though – after this tour was done, I just wanted to relax with a Mai Tai. They’ll give you some recommendations at the end for where you can do that – or you can figure it out. The tour lasted from roughly 9am to 2pm. I was the last pickup so 9:30am and the last dropoff at 2pm. We were a small group so if you are with more or less folks at different hotels than your tour time may vary a bit.
From Ala Moana we headed into Honolulu where we sampled a little bit of everything. We had baked maunapua for breakfast and from there we took a trip into Chinatown where we visited a rice noodle factory, explored the shops and stalls, and then had a delightful walking tour that ended with a wonderful urban picnic right next to a busy marketplace. The colors, smells, sounds, and tastes were overwhelming. Gio and Christina brought tasty treat after savory delight for us to sample. I’d love to spill the beans here and tell you where and what – but that wouldn’t be any fun at all.
Of course we had the rice noodles we’d just watched being made and a variety of fresh tropical fruits as well as Chinese and Korean meats and other treats with Chef Matthew’s yummy sauces (he’ll share the recipe after the tour). Finally, we went to one of the most famous bakeries in Hawaii and ended with a sugar overload before falling into food comas on the way back home.
Through the day we were entertained with history, stories, culture, and recipes. This was a lot of fun and I recommend it highly. Thanks for the great day Chef Matthew! A hui ho!