When people reconnect to the places that they had visited, perhaps they recall a panorama or an encounter with a local, a new adventure explored or a cultural performance experienced. For me it’s usually a dish. On my visit to Hawaii, when I had visited Oahu, Maui, and the Big Island, the three dishes that continue to bring me back to those distant islands are served below.
Three of the Best Meals in Hawaii
Oahu: Helena’s Hawaiian Kitchen
On the island of Oahu, in one of the less ostentatious sections of Honolulu, stands Helena’s Hawaiian Kitchen. This longtime tenant of 1240 North School Street has all the hangings that speak to its importance: certifications and letters from the Hawaiian House or Representatives and Senate, pipikaula short ribs that are being preheated above the stove, and a random photograph of Bill Murray after he stopped in for a meal. And in the way that a Bill Murray cameo can launch a film from indie to cult status, the quality of the little tapas-sized dishes served up at Helena’s have launched this restaurant from eatery to institution. While it’s hard to find a bad bite as your fork navigates the clutter of plastic dishes filled with juicy kalua pig, steaky butterfish collar, and lomi salmon, where the fishiness is muted with onions, scallions, and tomatoes, you can’t leave Helena’s without diving into the laulau. Wrapped like a present in a slightly bitter taro leaf, the soft pork and fish are stuffed together to bring out a trinity of flavors.
The Grand Wailea is a busy and beautiful five-star resort, but the large, thatched, open-air restaurant that occupies the far corner of the property is like a six-star destination on account of the food. Humuhumunukunukuapua’a, the Hawaiian name for a type of fish, serves art and culture that triples as food. Everything that is plated seems to have been inspired by the island and then reinterpreted by the chef: juicy scallops are paired with potato pancakes, yuzu, and a truffle cream sauce, while Hawaii’s Asian influence lends itself to the spicy beef salad touched with sesame oil and seeds, elder flower syrup and pickled onions, fruit escabeche and greens that come from a farm on the island where the soil is hand-tilled to keep the worms happy. But of the many dishes, the most provocative was sashimi laid beneath celery and ginger-infused shave ice. (Shave ice, spelled incorrectly and universally in Hawaii, is the archipelago’s dessert of choice, yet it was the only time I had seen it reinterpreted to such brilliance.) And while I liked mai tais enough, the Trader Vic’s Original Mai Tai, which wasn’t on the menu, but recommended when I told my waiter of my proclivity for strong, dark rum, was the perfect complement to the powerful offerings at Humuhumunukunukuapua’a
Hawaii Island: Kalua Koa Cafe and Garden
During my time on Oahu, I sought out the Hukilau Cafe, the restaurant where Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler meet in Fifty First Dates. I’m not a romantic, but I fell in love with the idea of waffle-house breakfasts. When I did find the Hukilau Cafe it was far from what I had envisioned, both in architecture and in cuisine. But for my last meal on the Big Island, I found the Kalua Koa Cafe and Garden, high up in the hills of Kona. Carp ponds and vine-covered trellises complement the farm-to-table menu. And while they didn’t have waffle houses, the French toast and Kona coffee were two simple pleasures that make me recall the islands.