On our way home from Maui, we had a layover in Honolulu which turned into a two-day foodie tour! Japan has been on our travel wish list for so long, we figured eating around Hawaii was probably the next best thing until that happens. Walking down Kalakaua Ave (strip where the main beachside hotels are located), it felt like Vegas meets Japantown. The Cheesecake Factory, with signs and menus in Japanese, was quite the hot spot with a line around the block. If you can resist such exquisite cuisine (lol), we found a number of little spots with delicious and affordable food, all within walking-distance around Waikiki!
Here are some of the memorable places we ate at, plus a quick review of where we stayed!
What it is: Seasoned meat cutlet (usually chicken or pork) that’s breaded, fried, and cut into strips. Often served with rice, soup and side dishes.
Where to get it: Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin. Katsu is a seemingly simple dish, but it can be very bad (soggy, greasy) when done poorly, and scrumptious (light crispy batter, juicy and flavorful meat) when done right. The pork katsu here did not disappoint. Their lunch sets are also a great value, and include unlimited miso soup, rice, and shredded cabbage.
What it is: Cubes of raw fish mixed with seasonings and toppings, served by itself or over rice. My favorite Hawaiian specialty!
Where to get it: Maguro Brothers. Their team closes the Chinatown location around 3pm to go open the Waikiki one at 5:30PM. The one in Waikiki is literally a take-out counter in a parking lot with no tables. Their fish was so good and fresh, I’m drooling as I type this! You feel full afterwards but not heavy, unlike with some other foods. Their prices are also amazing for sushi – a chirashi and poke combo (pictured in my white to-go box) is under $15!
What it is: Dessert made with ice finely shaved from a block, topped with fruit puree syrups and other fun stuff.
Where to get it: Island Vintage Shave Ice. This stand is right on the sidewalk of Kalakaua Ave so we feared it was a tourist trap, but it turned out to be our favorite. We went twice and tried the lilikoi, strawberry, and mango flavors (over soft serve ice cream), which all tasted notably like real fruit puree and not artificial.
We also tried Lemona, which is next door to Maguro Brothers and closes right before they open, so you can enjoy a shave ice while waiting for your poke fix! They take care in making all of their toppings (even the condensed milk) from scratch, with in-season ingredients.
What it is: A thicker, round wheat flour noodle typically served in a light Japanese broth.
Where to get it: Marukame Udon. This place has thousands of rave reviews, but I want to set expectations and say the beauty of their food is in the simplicity. There’s nothing about the flavors that are knock-your-socks-off. But if you appreciate a good bowl of fresh udon noodles (made right in front of you), then this place sure hits the spot! Everything pictured above was about ~$20 in total.
Marukame opens at 7AM, which is awesome for those who love noodles as breakfast! It’s assembly-line style, so you pick up a tray and scoot along, getting your noodles, toppings, then tempura sides. So this picture menu wasn’t clear to us novices, but option #1 Niku Udon is with broth, and #3 Nikutama Udon is with a more concentrated sauce instead of broth (we got #3 and wondered why there was so little “soup”). Niku doesn’t come with their perfectly-cooked egg, so definitely add one if you get that!
What it is: Basically a big piece of sushi with marinated, seared Spam on top instead of fish, secured with nori seaweed and wrapped in saran for portability. It’s the brainchild of Japanese Americans living in Hawaii post-WWII, making the most of a questionable canned meat that sustained troops stationed there. I’m sure the soldiers never wanted to see Spam again, but I for one am glad it stuck around!
Where to get it: Musubi Cafe Iyasume. This little cafe had tons of choices (bacon, egg, and avocado was popular), including several without Spam for those who aren’t too keen on that. The ones we ordered all came out fresh, with the rice still soft and warm through the wrapping. I stuffed my purse with musubi and loved refueling on ’em throughout the day!
After strolling along Waikiki beach and seeing all the 5-year olds surfing effortlessly (as I stuffed my face with musubi), I decided to look up lessons on a whim. Nick told me it was a very bad idea, considering I can barely balance on one leg on land without toppling over.
Nevertheless I called up Mickey’s Surf School last-minute, and it honestly ended up being so much fun! Mickey was super laid back, yet patient and very attentive to our individual needs/ skill levels. With his help I somehow caught a few waves, to the surprise of my husband who has “surfing experience” yet did more face plants than I could count ; ) If you go, just make sure you wear something secure, because it’s something else to emerge victoriously from a wave only to find yourself topless (apparently this is all too common)! You don’t really feel this in the water, but it’s also an amazing workout. My arms and abs were sore for days afterwards!
Nick booked our hotel, which I was nervous about, since he usually likes places that are a little too hipster for my taste. The Surfjack Hotel was renovated just last year, and I was pleasantly surprised by the surfy bungalow vibes with mid-century design. The regular rooms are reasonably priced, and they have a few penthouse units that you can upgrade to at check-in for a fee.
The penthouse suite we got was bright and comfortable, with a separate bedroom and spacious wrap-around lanai (deck). If you can get the pool-facing suite with bistro lights on the lanai, that one looked amazing! I also loved the Davines bath products (sold at Barney’s), so much that the Asian grandma in me came out and asked housekeeping for extras toiletries to hoard…hehe.
I do want to mention the Surfjack is in a slightly eclectic corner of the neighborhood, about a 10 minute walk from the beach. They have bikes, beach chairs and towels that you can use. If you want to stay right on the beach, I loved the southern mansion-style aesthetic of the Moana Surfrider hotel.
We had a very short stay this time and didn’t get to see much beyond one tourist-heavy area, so I’d love to hear any of your recommendations and favorite spots for a return visit!