When preparing for your trip to Oahu, people will warn you that it is “SOOO expensive!” They will tell you that you can find some of the best food in America there, but it’s “really outrageously expensive.” You may assume that either your pockets or your bellies will be empty at the end of your stay. But I’m here to tell you that it is just not true. You can eat some delicious native Hawaiian food (well, modern-day native Hawaiian, anyway) without breaking the bank and without venturing too far off the beaten path.
1 – shave ice
Everybody does it. Tour buses come through. They sell as many t-shirts as they do shave ice. The lines are long. But Matsumoto’s, the iconic shack in the town of Hale’iwa, delivers the goods. Local friends recommended that we try our shave ice with ice cream and a snow cap, so that is what we did. The bottom of a cone is filled with vanilla ice cream, followed by your choice of flavor of shave ice (I went for the pickled mango) and the “snow cap” is a pour of sweetened condensed milk on top. Whoa, Nelly. Fruity creamy fluffy sweet salty and cold deliciousness.
2 – malasada
Before I went to Oahu, I asked several friends from Hawaii what they would recommend. Each and every one of them said “OhmyGodyouhavetogotoLeonardsandgetmalasadas!” Just like that. So we did. We found Leonards a mile or so from the beach in Waikiki. We had been told to go early in the morning and to be sure and get fresh salted plum flavor. So we did. We got some plain ones, which, like any fresh hot doughnut, was delightful. When we tried the salted plum ones, though, we understood the enthusiasm. If you haven’t experienced the li hing mui flavor, you are in for a treat. Sweet, salty, slightly fruity — it is heaven on the tongue.
3 – garlic shrimp
On the highway that circles the island, up towards the northern tip in Kahuku, there’s a white van, covered with graffiti, that emits the finest smell known to a hungry traveler: cooking garlic. And this garlic is cooking with shrimp. Beautiful, plump, pearly white shrimp served over rice and coated with that sauce. Butter, oil, and garlic coat the shrimp and and flavor the rice just enough to leave you licking your fork (or finger) for the last taste.
4 – poke
Poke is a marinated raw seafood salad available in any grocery store deli case. Octopus, tuna, or other seafood is marinated with sea salt, soy sauce, seaweed, sesame oil, and crushed kukui nuts. Our insider information led us to the local Safeway in Waikiki, which had a very nice version, but to be honest, it was great wherever we went on the island. (And trust me, we tried a lot of it!)
5 – plate lunch
In just about any casual restaurant in Hawaii, you’ll see a menu item called “Plate Lunch.” This is comfort food of the islands, right here. Two scoops of rice, a scoop of macaroni salad, and a main dish of some kind of gravy- or sauce-laden protein. You might want to try the Rainbow Diner’s version: the Loco Moco – a hamburger patty with gravy topped with a fried egg.
6 – spam musubi
Here’s one of those “only in Hawaii” foods. It looks like a piece of sushi, a nice oblong piece of pinkness on a perfectly matching shape of rice, perhaps wrapped with a bit of seaweed. But instead of the fresh salmon on top, it’s Spam. Yes, the spiced ham in a can is beloved by Hawaiians, and appears in any local 7-11 as Spam Musubi. Try it! It’s saltily satisfying.
View Local Favorite Food on Oahu in a larger map
Try all these and know you’ve eaten like a local, and save your dollars for a very expensive but totally luxurious cocktail at a beachfront bar in Waikiki to drink like a tourist.