A Hawaiian getaway is as enchanting as it gets -- stunning landscapes, a laidback pace, and a multi-cultural mix.
Hawaii is a totally unique place and, especially when it comes to food, unlike anywhere else. But, with eight major islands to choose from, how do you choose the best ideal island for you?
Lucky for food lovers like us, Hawaii – specifically the islands of Hawaii, Oahu, Maui, and Kauai – boasts food cultures that are just as unique as each island’s character. With everything from farm-fresh eats to elevated fusion, meat enthusiasts and veggie lovers alike can find a Hawaiian island to match their food preferences.
So the question then becomes not whether you should book a flight to Hawaii but which is the best Hawaiian island to visit. Our advice is to let your tastebuds lead the way and here is our guide to the best Hawaiian island for your food personality:
For Meat Lovers: Hawaii Island (aka Big Island)
As the youngest, yet geographically largest Hawaiian island, dramatic black sand beaches or the natural wonders of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park are obvious reasons to jetset to the Island of Hawaii.
Though as travelers keen on tasting the world, scouting the best spots to sample prized local grass-fed beef tops our list of must-dos, which is a foodie find many don’t know much about. What’s the deal with beef? The explanation requires a look back at Hawaii Island’s cowboy history.
On Hawaii Island, paniolo (a word of Spanish origin used to refer to cowboys in Hawaii) culture runs deep. In the late 18th century, cattle arrived as gifts for King Kamehameha I, who placed a kapu – aka a law, meaning forbidden – on killing the animals. As a result, the cattle population grew until Mexican vaqueros arrived to teach Hawaiians how to wrangle and manage them, and thus was born a very vibrant (and very much alive today) cowboy culture.
Today, Big Island beef feature prominently on restaurant menus across the state of Hawaii including on the island at Four Seasons Hualalai, Village Burger in Waimea, and Foster’s Kitchen in Kailua-Kona. That means Hawaii Island produces most of the beef in Hawaii, with most of it from large ranches like Parker Ranch (which, fun fact, is one of the oldest and largest cattle ranches in the United States).
With all that beef culture, it's likely no surprise that Hawaii Island – specifically, Cafe 100 in Hilo – is the de facto birthplace of the local dish known as the Loco Moco aka a cooked beef patty tops a scoop or two of rice, is drenched in gravy, and topped with an egg. Another good bet for Loco Moco is Ken’s House of Pancakes. They offer a Keiki Moco, meaning a smaller portion – as you know from our local Hawaii food terms glossary, keiki means child in Hawaiian – as many plates at local diners and cafes are large enough to feed two people.
For Farm Fresh Eats: Island Of Maui
Foodies craving true farm-to-table eats should detour from the famous road to Hana and venture into Maui’s interior, to the area known as Maui’s Upcountry. The Upcountry region includes the small towns of Paia, Kula, Makawao and the area encompassing Haleakala Crater.
Thanks to higher elevations along the slopes of Haleakala, the Upcountry vibe is literally more chill – think low-key rustic charm, just like the region’s food.
For a taste of Upcountry’s fresh eats, visit Kula’s Upcountry Farmers Market, open every Saturday morning. Family-run Oko’a Farms sells organically grown produce from bunches of radishes to huge avocados, ginger to citrus fruits, and colorful string beans. Stroll through the rest of the market to find ono prepared foods too, from vegan miso ramen and mushroom omelets over a bed of sprouts and a side of sweet potato hash.
To feed our cheese cravings, Surfing Goat Dairy is the perfect pit stop to pick up local chevre. They’ve got flavor options for days, including chevre made with sun-dried tomatoes or Maui lavender – and is quite possibly from their neighbor, Ali’i Kula Lavender.
For a sit-down experience, we’re eagerly anticipating the 2018 opening of Maui chef Sheldon Simeon’s Lineage restaurant. Even though the restaurant will open at The Shops at Wailea on the West side of the island (not in Upcountry) – we hear he’s been studying Hawaiian cooking techniques as part of his research. One technique is pipi, a paniolo tradition – which is also a defining characteristic of Upcountry, by the way – of drying beef.
For Modern Fusion Food: Oahu Island
Salt & Wind Travel founder Aida Mollenkamp has described Oahu as the Hawaiian island with the most mature food and drink scene and that is very much the case. Honolulu, the island’s (and state’s!) largest city is home to upscale food courts, chef-driven dinner destinations, and chic – but never pretentious, because we’re talking about Hawaii of course – brunch cafes (not to mention lots of casual cafes, diners, and food stands) serving up the classics with a regional twist.
In the Instagram-worthy Surfjack Hotel in Waikiki, Chef Ed Kenney’s Mahina & Suns restaurant is the hip place to be for brunch (and lunch and dinner, to be honest) where – every first Sunday of the month – you can nosh on avo toast and chocolate mochi waffles in the presence of a live DJ set.
Speaking of Waikiki, upscale food halls like The Street Food Hall by Chef Michael Mina host a carousel of flavors, from ramen, burgers on Hawaiian sweet potato rolls, to Mediterranean-inspired wraps filled with roasted salmon and fennel or harissa-grilled chicken and pickled vegetables.
For a culinary splurge, snag a reservation for Senia’s Chef’s Counter tasting menu. Helmed by Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush, who both hail from celebrated NYC restaurant Per Se, the constantly evolving menu means dishes starring scratch pasta or oysters may or may not be in the rotation on a given season.
And let’s not forget about cocktails at go-to spots including sleek Bar Leather Apron (nominated for a James Beard Award) for crafted libations and the patio at Tchin Tchin wine bar in Chinatown for an atmospheric evening.
For Plant-Based Eaters: Kauai Island
Also known as the garden isle, Kauai island is the greenest of them all (it’s also the oldest island FYI). From the woodsy mountains of Koke’e to the working taro fields in Hanalei, there’s a whole lot of nature packed into what is also one of the smallest islands in the chain.
That said, it’s no wonder plant-forward finds are easy to come by on Kauai, and you’ll find them at newer restaurants like Our Place Kauai in Kapaa, a snug little town full of indie vibes. The vegan and vegetarian-friendly restaurant serve a constantly rotating menu of dishes driven by locally grown produce, as jackfruit lettuce wraps with mango ginger bbq sauce and carrot and purple daikon pickles. Or, try Mermaids Cafe, next to Java Kai – a great spot to caffeinate.
On the Southside of the island, established eatery Kalaheo Cafe just off the side of Kaumuali’i highway makes an array of salads with Kalaheo greens and dressings like roasted garlic and basil and fresh papaya seed.
In Lihue, family-run The Greenery Cafe whips up organic soups, salads, and plates, including a coconut-ginger mung bean soup and an avocado wrap with mint, basil, and lemon aioli.
How about you? Do you have recommendations for what to eat on each Hawaiian island? Let us know in the comments below!
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More Hawaii On Salt & Wind Travel
- The Immersive Food Experiences For Your Next Trip To Hawaii
- The Local Food Terms You Need To Know Before You Travel To Hawaii
- Not Sure Which Hawaiian Island To Visit? Let Your Food Personality Lead You!
Photo Credit: Opening photo by Emmanuel Hidalgo