Good eats in Honolulu, Hawaii

LA Times | Travel

Honolulu We are what we eat, that's a fact. But so, too, is this: We are where we eat. No dish is consumed apart from its place. Putting those two truths together, for me, means that I'm never more myself than when grazing my way through Honolulu. I know I'm supposed to come to Hawaii for t...

By Toni Salama // 07.08.08


We are what we eat, that's a fact. But so, too, is this: We are where we eat. No dish is consumed apart from its place. Putting those two truths together, for me, means that I'm never more myself than when grazing my way through Honolulu.

I know I'm supposed to come to Hawaii for the sand and the surf and the culture and the palm trees and the resorts and the mountains.

And I do get around to those things.

At the proper time.

After I've set the world right with a few good meals.

Come see what I mean. We'll hit a few of Honolulu's less temporal highlights between dishes. But right now, let's eat.

Day 1 starts with afternoon tea

By noon, our flight has landed and, allowing an hour or so for hotel transfers to Honolulu's Waikiki hotel zone, we mount the steps of the Moana Surfrider, breeze past the rocking chairs on the plantation-style front porch and cross through the turn-of-the-century lobby to the oceanfront veranda for afternoon tea, 1-4 p.m. (2365 Kalakaua Ave.; dining reservations: 808-921-4600;

I like to start here because the 1901 Moana is the oldest hotel on Waikiki Beach. It's a sentimental favorite, and I'm glad to see that the just-completed renovation and rebranding to Westin has kept this ritual. The wide, covered veranda, where we're seated for tea ($32, or $42 with champagne), wraps its colonnaded arms around the Banyan Court, named for an Indian banyan that has grown now to 75 feet high and 150 feet across. Scones and Devonshire cream never tasted so rich as when looking over the white porch railings to the chamois-colored sand of Waikiki Beach and, beyond, finding surfers bobbing in the blue-green water, waiting to catch a good wave.

After tea we'll walk across the courtyard's flagstones, take off our shoes and tread barefoot along the beach toward Diamond Head, past the surfboard and outrigger rentals and children playing tag with the waves. There under the palm trees in Kuhio Beach Park, we'll take a spot near the hula platform to watch the free demonstration just before sunset.

Pink-snapper dinner by the sea

We'll continue along the waterfront on one of the most pleasant miles you'll ever stroll as Waikiki's busy hotel zone gives way to the green zone of Queen Kapiolani Park and ends at the foot of Diamond Head in a midrise residential area so bucolic it might as well be on Kauai. We're headed to the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel for dinner on its oceanfront terrace, the Hau Tree Lanai (2863 Kalakaua Ave.; dining reservations: 808-921-7066; We're in luck: Not only have we arrived on an evening when there's live entertainment, but also on a day when pink snapper, a milder, sweeter cousin of red snapper, is among the catch of the day ($30-$40).

Cream puffs for bedtime

Before we turn in for the night, let's drop by Beard Papa Hawaii (2370 Kuhio Ave.; 808-922-8726;, the location that's inside the Food Pantry grocery store, and pick up some cream puffs to take back to the room. They bake these airy pastries ($1.75) on premises, and you can watch them fill your order -- and I mean this literally -- when they fit the puff onto the nozzle of a hand pump that smooshes the cream of your choice inside. Food Pantry is also the least expensive place I know of in Waikiki to buy milk, bottled water, juice, fresh fruit and other breakfast fixings, just in case our hotel doesn't have a free continental buffet. By the way, our hotel is in Waikiki. Only a handful of other hotels are located elsewhere on this island.

Day 2 brings an early grab-and-go

As soon as we finish coffee and continental at the hotel, we'll head out to Pearl Harbor first thing. We want to arrive at the USS Arizona Visitor Center (free; from Nimitz Highway/H-1 West, take exit No. 15A, USS Arizona/Stadium; 808-422-0561; when it opens at 7:30 a.m. so that we can be among the first to view the documentary film about the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor before boarding the boat to the USS Arizona Memorial. The memorial honors the 1,177 service members who died aboard the vessel during Japan's aerial assault. The structure spans the midsection of the battleship that sank in nine minutes after taking a bomb in the forward magazine.

When we leave, we'll have time before lunch to tour one more World War II vessel here: either the battleship USS Missouri ($16; Arizona Memorial Drive; 877-644-4896;, upon whose deck the Sept. 2, 1945, Japanese surrender ceremony took place; or the submarine USS Bowfin ($10; Arizona Memorial Drive; 808-423-1341;, a war veteran that retired from active service to become a set in the television miniseries, "War and Remembrance."

A light lunch on the way to the beach

On our way back to Waikiki, we'll stop by Longhi's Ala Moana (reservations: 808-947-9899;, in the pleasantly rehabbed Ala Moana Shopping Center (1450 Ala Moana Blvd.). The restaurant's generous scoop of chunky chicken salad on a bed of lettuce ($15) makes for a refreshing break. And our server is so glamorous I'll bet she's on break from her regular job as a Las Vegas showgirl.

If we miss the noon rush, we ought to be able to sit near the windows, from which we can see right across the road to Ala Moana Beach Park, a wonderful place to walk off lunch. Compared to Waikiki, this beach is practically deserted.

Japanese sweet in the neighborhood

We can't leave this part of town without one more trip back to the Ala Moana Shopping Center for a dessert tour through Shirokiya (808-973-9111;, a Japanese department store and deli on two levels. The dry goods range from kimonos and electronics to dishes and dried squid. All of that makes browsing a kick. But on a more serious note: The first floor has a French bakery in one corner and, across the aisle, an ice cream counter that sells Mochi Cream. These frozen desserts ($1.50) are about the size of a golf ball and glisten in the sort of display case an Amsterdam diamond merchant might envy. Each perfectly formed orb is made of a frozen creamy center much like the texture of tofu ice cream. The center is completely encased in a second substance, a type of rice dough, that reminds me of marshmallows. They come in several dozen colors and flavors ranging from raspberry to coffee.

The second floor is dominated by chef stations that serve-up fried vegetables or fish, bento and sushi, for example. But this visit is about dessert. You can thank me later for steering you away from the Marion crepes. Regardless of how many locals stand in long lines to get their order, these waffle cones filled with ho-hum ice cream and mostly canned fruit are not worth the wait or the $5 price tag. What we want is the counter where they make the little dumplings that look like hush puppies but taste like fried pies. They're golf-ball sized, too (two for $1), and the best are the sweet potato and the pumpkin.

Evening prowl on Lewers Street

We should be back in Waikiki in time to appreciate the afternoon sun bathing everything it touches in golden light. This is a nice time of day to stroll along Ala Wai, the backside of Waikiki, and watch paddle teams canoeing the narrow canal. Actually, if we can't afford a beachfront hotel, staying at a place along Ala Wai is the next best thing. Maybe even preferable. I love it when I can get a room with a balcony that has an unobstructed view of the canal.

Looking past the canal, there's the clutch of neighborhoods that climbs the foothills of the Koolau Mountains, up to the point where the land rises too steeply for development. The deep green palisades form a dramatic backdrop for the light-reflecting houses. If it's a clear day, the mountain peaks will stand out razor sharp against a deep blue sky. If it's overcast, then they'll disappear into Rubenesque clouds cast in volcanic oranges and pinks, or moody purples, depending.

Our ultimate goal for the evening is coconut cake (with coffee, $12), the signature dessert at Halekulani Hotel (2199 Kalia Rd., at Lewers; dining reservations: 808-923-2311; This airy, not-too-sweet confection is most memorably eaten on the terrace of the waterfront House Without a Key restaurant, to the murmur of the surf and the strains of a slack-key guitar.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. On the way there, we really should ogle the makeover of Lewers Street, a former skid row now so chichi it makes Beverly Hills' Rodeo Drive look like a desperate housewife in comparison. Wave-shaped glass awnings and a grassy courtyard anchored by a gurgling fountain at long last make a fitting approach to Halekulani, at the far end of the street.

Among the new art galleries, trendy bars and designer surf shops are some restaurants where we can really beef up. It's a hard choice. We can go for a very upscale version of the humble Hawaiian mainstay, loco moco, at Roy's Waikiki Beach (226 Lewers St.; 808-923-7697; Loco moco ordinarily is a scoop of rice topped with fried egg, hamburger patty and gravy; and it costs $4-$7 in local eateries. But the Roy's version ($19) uses meatloaf and shiitake pan sauce, among other ingredients. Or we could get the toasted brisket-and-jack sandwich ($14.95) with potato salad at Giovanni Pastrami (227 Lewers St.), where their philosophy is to leave a little fat on the meat because it just tastes better that way.

Day 3 dawns over french toast

If I could bring an entire business back with me on the plane, it would be Satura Cakes (2233 Kalakaua Ave.; 808-537-1206; There are several locations around town, but the one hiding by a side entrance to the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center has the best setting, just off the jungly grounds of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Their version of french toast ($2.50) takes on the texture of a syrup-heavy sponge cake, baked as though erupting from a cupcake form. The upper crust is, in fact, toasty, and sprinkled with powdered sugar. We'll have them top it off with whipped cream and take it just outside near the statue of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, a direct descendant of King Kamehameha the Great, and whose estate established and continues to operate the Kamehameha Schools.

Now, before we get into trouble with all the other temptations in Satura Cakes' display cases, this is a good time to hit the high places. We'll take the panoramic drive that locals swear by: Round Top Road, which becomes Tantalus Drive. The route peters out near the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl Crater. It's a military cemetery where more than 33,000 soldiers are buried. Others whose bodies were never recovered also are memorialized here.

This dormant volcano crater is a peaceful place from which to look out over the expanse of Honolulu, a white city pressed between the mountains and the sea.

From Punchbowl, it's easy to catch the Pali Highway on up to Nuuanu Pali, a heart-stopping overlook with a fierce updraft, where King Kamehameha defeated rival forces by sending them over the cliff. We'll stay on the safe side of this precipice and come back down to Chinatown, a Honolulu neighborhood about 4 miles northwest of Waikiki.

Progressive lunch in Chinatown

This neighborhood is centered in the area between North King Street, North Beretania Street, River Street and Nuuanu Avenue. But it's as much a state of mind as it is a physical address. It's easy to spend a good half day wandering these few blocks, stopping to watch leis being strung, peeking into herb shops, discovering people at their prayers behind the rising smoke of incense, navigating sidewalks crowded with elderly women picking through the day's produce as they make their purchases.

Those scenes are all on the route as we stop first for beef ball soup ($6) at the hard-to-find Pho Huong Lan Vietnamese Restaurant (100 N. Beretania, No. 129B, inside the Asia Mall off the Chinatown Cultural Center; 808-538-6707), where the air is perfumed with lemon grass. Next up are onion pancakes ($3.95) at Little Village Noodle House (1113 Smith St.; 808-545-3008), where the staff refuses to disclose the secret ingredients in the accompanying vinegar-and-soy-based dipping sauce. We'll finish with whatever looks good on the dim sum cart ($5 per dish, give or take) at Mei Sum Dim Sum (65 N. Pauahi St.; 808-531-3268).

That's a pretty full day. So on our way back to Waikiki, we'll drive by, or rather between, the gold-and-black King Kamehameha statue and the Iolani Palace. It's hard to stop here because parking is scarce. But I have to admit that I never try very hard to find a space. Honestly, I don't stop because I have mixed feelings about both the statue and the palace.

While it's great that this is one of four statues of Hawaii's most famous king, it looks nothing like portraits of the man himself -- his features have been Westernized -- and the pose is Roman, like others I've seen of Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus.

The Iolani, while it's a graceful building and the only royal palace on U.S. soil, is ultimately a sad place: Queen Liliuokalani was held under house arrest here after being forced to abdicate the throne.

I'd rather move on to happier pursuits, like dinner.

The 'Prince' and the pyramid

Keoni's by Keo's (2375 Kuhio Ave.; 808-922-9888; might be mistaken for a florist shop, so many oversized arrangements fill its space. It would be a heavenly place to just sit and relax, even if we didn't place an order.

But the fragrances of ginger and garlic soon have us calling for the "Evil Jungle Prince," a curry based on coconut milk and customized by our own personal preferences for spiciness and choice of meats or tofu.

Just to prove that chocolate really does go with everything, we'll finish with the chocolate pyramid, a dense, dark interior covered by a smooth dark ganache that, especially after the "Prince," raises a philosophical question about prices. Do the prince and pyramid really total just $27, or should we add airfare to that?

Now it's up to you

Well, in three days, or really two and a half, you've gotten the lay of the land and a taste of the town.

There are dozens of other places I wish I had the space to describe. But with these meals under your belt, you're off to a good start and ready to tackle the rest of town on your own.

Or, do what I did last time out and sign up for one of Hawaii Food Tours' outings. (You can read more about its Hole-in-the-Wall Tour in the attached story.