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slow food on the Big Island, or the road less traveled.

I've been scouring CH for info about eating in Hawaii, and have found some great ideas about dining and things to do.
We're headed to the Big Island in a couple weeks (the first couple weeks of June), so any additional thoughts would be welcome. We are particularly looking for regional food, be it a roadside stand like Ceviche Dave's or something worth splurging for like Merriman's. We'd also like to visit some farms and would be interested in any farm/chef collaborations. We will have a kitchenette while there and plan on doing some cooking too-- any recipes or sources would be welcome as well. We'll spend a week on the Kona side and a week near Hilo.

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  1. Just out of curiosity, where are you folks coming in from? it might be easier to answer your questions based on what your expectations are. Definitely look for the farmers markets, especially the one in Hilo.

    3 Replies
    1. re: KaimukiMan

      We're coming from the bountiful Northwest US-- Portland to be precise. So we abound with farmers markets and will love seeing those on the Big Island. We also have fantastic cooks, and are willing to splurge on a good meal when it's worth it, however we are almost always most delighted by hole in the wall places offering something local, interesting and heartfelt. We've heard good things about Two Ladies mochi.
      Thanks so much for any other thoughts and suggestions.

      1. re: eating as a fine art

        here is a list of farmers markets on the big island:


        if you have trouble with that link it was referenced from this one:


        near the bottom of the page are listings for the various islands.

        other than the one in Hilo, the one at cooper center at volcano is pretty good, the others i just dont know much about. I have a feeling that they are going to seem small compared to what you are used to seeing in the portland area. Sadly some of the vendors will be pulling oranges out of a sunkist box, or bananas from a chiquita box, but not most of them. From the few I have been to most of the sellers are really into what they are doing and will refer you to others who share a particular interest you have.

        I was kind of surprised at how many are listed.

        1. re: KaimukiMan

          Wow, this is great, thank you!!
          We heard about a farm/chef collaboration between Merriman's and a farm they source from, where you do a farm tour then head back to Merriman's for dinner with the produce you saw on the farm-- does anyone else know about other chef/farm collaboration like that?
          Or agritourism?

    2. I've been here 6 days now. My advice is to cook most of your meals, and pretty much east out when you're driving around at lunch time. Use your west coast rules: carry cash and keep your eyes peeled for farm stands, visit ALL the farmer's markets, avoid touristy looking places. There is great food to buy everywhere, look for locally produced stuff (KTA stores are OK and have great Asian stuff, and the Health-food store in Waimea has lots of local stuff: labeled HOFA Hawaii Organic Farmers Association).

      What part of the island are you staying at?

      The restaurants here are generally expensive, and you either pay a lot (like at Merriman's) or go cheap and funky (like Hawaiian Style in Waimea). The people are wonderful and gracious everywhere, and despite people complaining about slowness, you won't notice it if you just relax and soak up the good vibes.


      North Kohala: Hawaiian Style in Waimea (breakfast and lunch). Get the loco moco, or chicken and long rice (really bean thread type noodles). Havi: Bamboo is good. The Waimea and Hawi Saturday farmers markets are both good (but the Hilo on Sat and Wed. is mind blowing: the more organic type produce is back by the wall). If there's a little blond girl selling stir-fry greens in Hawi, by all means buy them. Also, the bananas are incredible and make superlative Daquiris. In coffee country, Holuakoa cafe is really nice (but three of us spent $100 for lunch, although we did drink a nice bottle of wine). Elsewhere in Kona, there is a decent wine store (although we found good deals at the Waimea KTA too), google it and stop in. Kim Crawford NZ Sauv. Blanc for $21 a bottle is a good deal for Hawaii, and pairs perfectly with Mac Nuts.

      BEST PLACE: is in Kwaihae: a little fish store called "da fish place" just off the road where it bends toward Hawi. It's all delicious.

      Hilo we had a less great experience with (except the farmer's market). Cafe 100 is the cultural stop for more loco moco, but coming from Portland, be prepared for gravy and white rice (that goes for Hawaiian Style too). Dotty's was our other old standby, but has been replaced by a IHOP (rrrgh!!).

      Harriman's is also gone, and the place replacing it is stil being painted (or was yesterday). We tried a place called Ohana grill, and it was properly executed, but quite plain.

      The resort section of Kohala is full of fancy restaurants (in the resort complexes), fancy prices, and fancy people. If that's where you're staying, there will probably be something serviceable, but I encourage you to get out of there and mingle with the real Hawaiian people as much as you can, and also go to as many parks as you can.

      Final tip (not food related): drive over the saddle road once between Waimea and Hilo. It's incredible.

      4 Replies
      1. re: dnamj

        for something to replace Dotty's give Ken's a shot. Not gourmet by any means, but good local-coffee-shop food, open 24 hours. And yes, it is a greasy spoon - with all the good and bad that comes with that label.

        1. re: KaimukiMan

          I do love me a greasy spoon from time to time. Hashbrowns might be my choice for my last supper. And truffles and duck confit.

        2. re: dnamj

          Wowza, this is fantastic, thank you! I love the drive tip, too.
          Our plan is to eat as little resort food as possible (we may have to do a lu'au for the fun/kitsch factor), make our own meals and find whatever local haunts we can, be they fancy or hole in the wall. We'll be on the Kona side and the Hilo side, both.
          Please let me know anything else fabulous that you come across.

          We're sorry that we've somehow picked a time to go with no local festival or farm dinners... unless anyone knows about something that I haven't found yet?

          1. re: dnamj

            "Final tip (not food related): drive over the saddle road once between Waimea and Hilo. It's incredible"

            Not very sound advice there for many reasons. Before any one takes that advice carefully read your rental contract. The road is NOT always driveable let alone safe. Visibility is often so poor there's not much to see any how.
            We hit a great farmers market on the South end of the island (Punaluu?) and Hawi was great as well.

          2. I live part time on the Big Island and I think you have some great info below. Also, make sure to go to Al's Liquors in Waimea. It looks like nothing from the outside but he has some amazing wines inside. He also is part of the Slow Food Hawaii movement and has some cheeses, meats and salumis. He can get you other items you may want. Waimea has a nice market on Saturdays. Lots of organic. Restaurants are not great on the island but you can find some very good sushi at Kenichi (at the Mauna Lani Shops or down in Keahou). I was there last week and got really nice mangos and rambutan at the silly and touristy market down in Kona at the corner of Alii Drive and Hualalai Road. Have fun!

            10 Replies
            1. re: chefmama2

              This is a great tip, thanks! Our extended family is going to be with us part of the time, so liquor will be a necessity. :) And I love having someone we can get great charcuterie from and ask for insight.

              1. re: chefmama2

                I've only been to the Big Island once, but I can vouch for the food at Kenichi. My family and I had dinner there one night and it was excellent. We had a few kinds of sushi and various other things; all of it was very good. It helped that we were staying within walking distance!

                One of my goals for my next visit (hopefully next January) is to find more fresh fish and farmer's markets. This thread will be a nice reference.

                And I wholeheartedly agree about driving over the saddle road. If you can catch it when the weather is clear, you won't find another drive like it.

                Edit: I should also add that we really like the bakery in Punalu'u.

                1. re: BigE

                  My husband is concerned about the road conditions for the saddle road drive-- will an economy rental car be able to handle them?
                  I'd love to do the drive, so I'm hoping the answer is that the conditions are fine :)

                  1. re: eating as a fine art

                    The road is generally fine (if it is raining very hard you might want to check locally, but it is paved and really no big deal.) Any standard car (including an economy) can handle it just fine. The drive up Mauna Kea is a different story altogether, and I wouldn't do it in anything but 4WD, and probably not then.) Driving the saddle road used to invalidate many rental car contracts, but that was probably because of its isolation more than anything. (don't know if it still is frowned on by rental car companies). However, to keep this reply food-oriented more or less, don't count on any restaurant stops along the saddle road; definitely remote in spots.

                    I completely agree with the Kenichi Pacific recommendations, even if you don't like sushi: their cooked mains are terrific. More pacific rim than Japanese.

                    I also agree with the recommendation to eat out at lunch while driving around, and to cook most of the rest of your meals. I'd be happy to spend a week on the Big Island and only go out to dinner once, (at Kenichi).

                    Keauhou Shopping Center: Kenichi Pacific
                    Keauhou HI, Keauhou, HI

                    1. re: eating as a fine art

                      "My husband is concerned about the road conditions for the saddle road drive-- will an economy rental car be able to handle them?"

                      You should be concerned. There is some very poor advice being dispensed here. Your rental contract from any of the major rental companies EXCLUDES the saddle road. This is absolutely NOT the place for an economy or compact auto. The road is paved but can be dangerous at times and conditions change quickly. This may all change once the new construction is complete but don't expect the rental companies to lift the restrictions. Break down here and you will be buying the car and paying the rental company for their lost revenue. Some of the companies are very serious about this.
                      There is no chow on that route AFAIK. The drive around the Island is very pleasant and has numerous food stands and places to explore for chow. Take this route and you miss many of them.

                      1. re: Fritter

                        I think these "dangerous" and "not allowed by rental companies" reports about the Saddle Road must be old. Our extended family drove two rental cars (from major rental companies) legally over the Saddle Road two summers ago with no problems at all except that it was pretty boring (clouds hid the mountains).

                        1. re: Mick Ruthven

                          No standard rental on the Big Island allows you to drive over the saddle road.
                          It's not against the law it just violates your contract so if you break down or get in an accident you just bought the car.
                          Do some research people and read your contract before you decide to go.
                          Their's no chow on this route and visibility is poor a lot of the time any how. Just because it's paved does not mean that it's well maintained. This road is barely two lanes in places. If you are really bent on trying this and you want to drive the entire saddle road be sure to at least rent a 4x4 and hopefully you do that through Harpers.
                          IMO you miss some of the best chow spots and farmers markets on the Island if you are short on time and take this route instead of driving around the Island.


                          1. re: Fritter

                            Since that doesn't match my experience of two years ago, I thought I'd check some car rental agencies in Kailua-Kona. I found that Budget does allow its cars on the Saddle Road (not off the Saddle Road up the mountain) and Enterprise does not. Hertz and Avis both put me on hold for longer than I was willing to wait. So if you want to drive the Saddle Road, get your car from a place that allows it. Some of it isn't paved so if that bothers you, don't do it (it didn't bother us). That said, I agree with Fritter that it's not a great drive. I guess I'm glad we did it just to have done it, but I wouldn't bother to do it again.

                            1. re: Mick Ruthven

                              Re Saddle Road. The rental car prohibition is obsolete. The road is completely paved now. -- smoother, wider and with better line paintaining on the Hilo side than on the Kohala side, tho' roadwork is still going on (or was 3 weeks ago). My husband and I drove or smallest possible Avis car through some rain and heavy fog at the apex of the road. We slowed down. No big deal. My brother- and sister-in-law drove a fancier Chrysler convertible up saddle road and up to the observatory visitor center at 9,000+/- feet a few days later. Tuned to sea level, the car had no oomph going uphill, but there was no problem either.

                              Even tho' we technically weren't supposed to, my son and I drove an economy rental car over saddle road 7 or 8 years ago, before the center stretch was paved. We do live in Colorado and are accustomed to narrow mountain roads, w/ or w/out pavement, so that might make a difference.

                              I like to take the road around the island going from the Kona/Kohala side, stopping for yummies either in Waimea or elsewere en route to Hilo/Volcanoes Natl Park and Saddle Road on the way back

                              1. re: ClaireWalter

                                This is getting a little far afield from the chow, with the focus on rental car contracts and the like. If anyone has anything else to add, we'd ask that you start a new thread on Not About Food and link from here, rather than distracting further from the chow talk. Thanks!

                2. In Honokaa is Tex Drive In, very popular with very good and fresh malasadas and an ahi sandwich I really liked. Here's a pic:


                  Tex Drive In & Restaurant
                  45-690 Pakalana St, Honokaa, HI 96727

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Mick Ruthven

                    We just returned from the Big Island this morning. For greasy spoons, it doesn't get any greasier or better than Hawaiian Style Grill up Waimea near Parker Ranch.Huge portions. Small prices. Pix at http://culinary-colorado.blogspot.com.... Kenichi is a small, very upscale restaurant group (there's one in Aspen). Right now, it is offering a three-course early dinner for under $20. We didn't go there but went to a very pleasant Thai restaurant in that same shopping center. Can't recall name right now. Also had uninpsired beer/drinks and greasy apps at Drysdales (or is it Drysdale's Two?) in the same shopping center another evening after a hike.

                    In Kailua Kona, Rapanui Island Cafe in a small arcade just off the waterfront has good, reasonably priced mostly SE Asian fare. Pix at http://culinary-colorado.blogspot.com... . Also good and well priced Vietnamese lunch and early dinner (till 9) at Ba-Le in the Kona Coast Shopping Center. Pix to come when I get a chance. Agree w/ Mick R re. Tex Drive-In's malasadas. Terrific.

                  2. To: eating as a fine art - I'm a big CH fan and just checked this Hawaii board. Wife and I are going to Big Island for 11 days, /18 thru 6/28. We are from San Francisco area, (no bigger CH boards!!) and will be staying at Waikoaloa Marriott resort. So, we will be looking at your reports of what you find, from greasy spoons to Merrimans. Keep us all posted with your findings!!! Will definitely drive the Saddle road in our compact rental. First visit to Big Island. Been to Maui, that "curve road" to Hana is nothing compared to Hwy 1 from Big Sur to Mendocino, CA!!!

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: diner101

                      Diner 101 - Saddle Road is being widened and straightened.

                      1. re: ClaireWalter

                        We drove it two years ago in a rental car and it wasn't a problem at all. The weather was overcast most of the way (not unusual) so there was really no view of the mountains, just the "moonscape"-type scenery caused by past lava flows. All of us thought it was a thing to do once but saw no reason to do it again.

                        1. re: Mick Ruthven

                          >We drove it two years ago in a rental car and it wasn't a problem at all<

                          See my post above where I checked and some car rental companies allow driving on the Saddle Road and some don't.

                      2. re: diner101

                        "Will definitely drive the Saddle road in our compact rental"

                        The saddle road is no place for a compact rental no matter who you rent it from. If you are staying in Waikoloa there is a nice shopping plaza there with a Roy's, Ruth's Chris and a newer Sansei. We really enjoyed the sushi at Norios in the Fairmont as well as Browns Beach House. It's very cool eating at Browns out side as they light the torches.

                      3. I had better than average meals at 3 places not listed so far, unless I missed them.

                        There is a cafeteria-style buffet at the Kilauea Military Camp in Volcano very near the Park entrance. Additionally, their grill is staffed for hamburgers, hotdogs and more, which is included in the price. It was very reasonable and surprisingly good. I’m not military, but my money was good there. It was better than the golf course, IMO.

                        Kilauea Lodge in Volcano is a highly rated restaurant. There were 10 of us and our food was all good.

                        The Bamboo Restaurant in Hawi Town was good. They describe themselves as: “Creative Pacific Rim cuisine in the authentic ‘old Hawaii’ atmosphere. Casual, fun and affordable“. That seems about right.

                        I read today that the Kilauea crater is becoming more active. It glows brightly now and the visitor center on the rim is staying open later to accommodate the onlookers. We hiked down and across the old crater. The more recent crater was just emitting vog (sulfur gas and fog) in March (click 1st picture below to enlarge). Also, I drove a 7-passenger, rented van up a peak to remain nameless off a nameless road, without any incident or problem (only 6 in the van). There’s not much of a view, but that’s Maui in the background (click 2nd picture).

                        1. When in Hilo go by the KTA market and check out their seafood and deli sections. Also the baked goods. Delicious stuff and super fresh fish. It's a locals place so service can be gruff.

                          Go to Kawate Seed Shop - 1990 Kinoole St - and try some cracked seed. I don't know if they give samples. I love the stuff.

                          The seafood buffet at the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel on Fri and Sat nights are excellent. All the locals go there. Last time I was there I ran into my cousins. Yes, I was born and raised in Hilo.

                          Blanes' Drive In is where the locals go for plate lunch. Once again, this is a locals place and the service may come across as gruff.

                          Cafe 100 isn't as good as it used to be. My cousins say that they used pre-formed burger patties now so they don't go there. And my aunt (her mom) worked there for over 50 years!

                          Breakfast in Hilo - Ken's House of Pancakes is the place to go.

                          The Hilo Farmer's Market is fabulous.

                          If you are into flowers go to the Ebesugawa Sister's flower shop on Furneaux lane. One of my aunts is the one of the little old ladies there. They have the best flowers in the islands.

                          For Italian Cafe Pesto is excellent. Great pizzas, pastas and salads. Good mainland style service too. One of the best restaurants in Hilo and a favorite of mine.

                          Hilo Bay Cafe is another really good upscale place.

                          For sit down local food try Nori's Saimin and Snacks - 688 Kinoole St, #124.

                          For Thai food I like Sombat's. It's over by the Ken's House of Pancakes.

                          I don't think Merriman's is worth it. It's pretty good but not world class. IMO, Hilo Bay Cafe and Cafe Pesto are better, for the money.

                          Hilo Bay Cafe
                          315 Makaala St, Hilo, HI 96720

                          Cafe Pesto
                          308 Kamehameha Ave # 101, Hilo, HI

                          Sombat's Fresh Thai Cuisine
                          88 Kanoelehua Ave, Hilo, HI 96720

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: caille en sarcophage

                            Agreed that all three of these are very good, with Cafe Pesto being in third place. Also enjoy Pescatore in Hilo. While certainly not as good as "big city" italian on the mainland, it's a great meal in Hawaii, and as good as italian get's on the Big Island.
                            Have to TOTALLY disagree with your comment about Merriman's. While it clearly costs significantly more, these other places are not in the same league. I can't afford Merriman's on a regular basis, but the only other place on the Big Island that had better food was Alan Wong's which is now gone. While a good meal at any of the three mentioned (and I'd add Huli Sue's to that list) is very satisfying and cheaper, you don't get the delicious soups, waimea vegetables or subleties of Merriman's.....when you feel like spending the $$$. My problem with Merriman's is the menu is a bit limited and after the second visit seems too small.

                          2. don't miss the Holuakoa Cafe in tiny Holualoa town, above Kailua-Kona, in Waimea: breakfast/lunch=Hawaiian Style Cafe, lunch/dinner=HuliSue's and/or Fujimammas. expensive dinner=Merriman's, Kailua-Kona: Rapanui, Big Island Grill, Original Thai, Kenichi Pacific, south Kona=Keii Cafe...ka'ahele malu