Cultural food experiences for first-time visitors to Oahu

With a plethora of restaurants, we tend to think that Oahu is the best island for foodies. Ono (good) food is such a huge part of Oahu’s culture. Speaking from experience, I don’t think I’ve ever come home from a trip to Oahu on a weight deficit.

We are going to share our favorite spots that in many cases are highly favored by local residents as well. Let’s take a look at some of the islands’s unique foods so that you can plan to give them a try as you explore Oahu.

Breakfast Foods

Pancakes – As we mentioned in the Kauai guide, Hawaii-style pancakes incorporate tropical fruit flavors, macadamia nuts and coconut syrup. They’re typically generously sized, too. For pancakes on Oahu, we recommend Eggs n’Things and Cinnamon’s. At Cinnamon’s we like the Guava Chiffon and the Liliko’i (passion fruit) Chiffon style pancakes.

Banana and macadamia nut pancakes from Eggs n’Things

Loco Moco – The loco moco is a layered breakfast starting with rice, a hamburger patty (or other protein), gravy and a fried egg. It’s a breakfast that will “stick to your ribs” for days when you’re out hiking. You’ll see loco moco’s on just about every breakfast menu in Hawaii. Actually, it’s a meal that is not just for breakfast as you’ll see it on lunch menus as well. KHON2 ranked the top 10 loco moco spots on Oahu.

Portuguese sausage – This breakfast meat is a type of cured, sometimes spicy pork sausage. You might see it on breakfast buffets and on many breakfast menus on Oahu.

Bakery Items

Coco Puffs – This delightful pastry is our absolute favorite in all of Hawaii. In a recent article we highlighted the beloved Coco Puff from Liliha Bakeries on Oahu.

Liliha bakery coco puffs
Two de-lish-ous Coco Puffs

Malasadas – Another Portuguese influence in Hawaii’s food culture is the malasada, which is similar to a filled doughnut. Leonard’s Bakery in Honolulu near Waikiki is THE place to get malasadas. You’ll see a steady stream of locals and tourists at Leonard’s Bakery.

Chocolate Haupia Pie from Ted’s Bakery on the North Shore is another very yummy treat to try. It’s a layer of chocolate pudding with a layer of haupia (coconut pudding) and topped off with whipped cream.

Lunch & Snack

North Shore Shrimp Trucks in Kahuku have been popular way before food trucks became trendy. Romy’s and Giovanni’s have been serving up shrimp for decades.

Kulua pork sandwiches are on many lunch menus across the  Hawaiian Islands. It’s shredded pork that is traditionally cooked in an imu with a subtle smoky flavor. We’ve also had Kulua pork served nacho-style and that’s really tasty. You’ll also likely see Kulua pork as an entree item on an Oahu luau menu.

“Plate lunch” or “mixed plate” is always on a menu the locals’ favorite lunch spots. These lunches usually include a choice of teriyaki chicken, huli huli (marinated and barbecued) chicken, fish, kulua pork, hamburger patty, fish or other protein plus white rice and macaroni salad. Near Waikiki, Rainbow Inn is known for their local-style lunches and dinners. Another great lunch spot for “plate lunch” is Nico’s Pier 38. We especially like their seafood dishes. In our opinion, plate lunches can be hit or miss, so our advice is to consider sharing your first mixed plate with your travel partner until you find what you like best.

Example of a local-style plate lunch with rice, mac salad, kulua pork and lomi lomi salmon. (Lomi lomi salmon is salmon tomatoes and onion.)

SPAM Musubi is a very popular lunch/snack item for local residents. It’s a slice of SPAM served sushi-style. Hawaii’s 7-Eleven stores are well known for their SPAM Musubi.

Poke is very popular in Hawaii. It’s cubed ahi tuna (raw) blended with onion, soy sauce and sesame oil. There are other creative versions of poke. Look for it as an appetizer or lunch menu item at just about any restaurant. You can find it in Oahu grocery stores.

Fresh tropical fruits are exceptionally delicious in Hawaii. Try island-grown papaya, pineapple, mango, guava, passion fruit, bananas (particularly apple bananas) and, of course, pineapple. A great place to find locally-grown fruits is at an Oahu farmers market. KCC Farmer’s Market is perhaps Oahu’s biggest and best farmers market.

Delicious, sweet and juicy Hawaii-grown pineapple

Dinner

Fresh local fish is exceptionally good in Hawaii, especially with the Hawaii regional cuisine preparations. Of course, if you like sushi, you’ll be in sushi paradise in Hawaii. Most of our favorite Oahu restaurants serve delicious fresh fish. Some fish that you’ll often see on Hawaii dinner menus are:

  • Ahi (tuna)
  • Mahi Mahi
  • Ono (wahoo)
  • Opakapaka (pink snapper)
  • Onaga (long-tail red snapper)
  • Monchong
  • Opah (moonfish)
  • Butterfish (black cod) is not a local fish, but you will likely see it on menus in Hawaii. The Hawaii-style preparation of butterfish is with miso. We especially like Sansei’s miso butterfish.
Seared Ahi with a kale salad from Oahu

Okinawa purple sweet potatoes is a side dish we enjoy with dinner. These potatoes have a gorgeous purple color and are very tasty.

An array of sweet potatoes served on the luau buffet of Paradise Cove.

Kahuku or Oahu North Shore sweet corn is another good side dish to try, but it might be more difficult to find.

luau is a lovely presentation of a dinner and a Polynesian dance show. Most luau companies offer a buffet of local favorite items. You’ll even get a chance to try poi, which is much loved in Hawaii, but perhaps an acquired-taste for visitors. So, a luau offers a nice opportunity to sample local foods to help you discover Hawaii foods that you like. That was how I first learned about kulua pork and now I rarely miss a chance to order it whenever I see it. Here is a list of Oahu luau companies.

Desserts

Shave Ice is a refreshing treat that’s like a snow cone, but so much better. The ice is softer and absorbs the flavor toppings very nicely. If you have an opportunity to try shave ice with ice cream on the bottom and topped (“snow capped”) with sweetened-condensed milk, we recommend that. Hali’ewa on Oahu’s North Shore is perhaps the best place in all of Hawaii to get shave ice.

Shave Ice

Hula Pie from Hula Grill or Duke’s Waikiki is a huge, very sharable slice of macadamia nut ice cream pie with hot fudge sauce. We love it!

Dole Whip is soft-serve, ice-cream-ish dessert that incorporates pineapple. Dole Plantation sells it. We’ve also seen a Dole Whip station in the Honolulu airport.

So, as you can see there are many ono foods to sample on your Oahu vacation! We hope you enjoy them!

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