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Aug 18, 2011 08:10 AM

great regional specialties of the big Island

I am headed to the big Island and want to know what authentic Hawaiian specialties/restaurants/produce to experience. Ramen? Passion fruit? Would love to hear everyone's favorites.

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  1. You've opened a potentially very wide-ranging would help to answer if you say what you already know. If you are living on O'ahu and already know the answer to your questions about Honolulu, info about the Big Island might be quite different than if you've never been to Hawaii at all.

    Assuming it is the latter, the first thing to say is that there is a big difference between using the term "Hawaiian" and the term "local" in these kinds of queries. Hawaiian refers to a fairly narrow, but vitally important set of foods and traditions, while local refers to a very broad range of things, including the foodways of the original Polynesians and everyone who has come since Captain Cook, and the wonderful and varied mix that has resulted. That would leave out Mainland-based chains and most of what you would find in resort areas.

    Also, the Big Island, while big, doesn't have the diversity of restaurants you find on O'ahu, a function of the much smaller population, but it does have proportionately a lot more agriculture and fresh, local foods available...macadamia nuts and coffee, for example.

    Locals won't generally consider expensive fine-dining restaurants at resorts catering to tourists to be on their map of what is authentic, but some of those high-end places may be just what you are looking for if they use local ingredients.

    Since you mention ramen, you can find the local version, saimin, at local places, some with Japanese-American backgrounds, but often in drive ins and diner-type places that a Mainland visitor might never imagine would be serving soup. Ramen will only be in found in Japan-Japanese restaurants, generally in resort areas. I'll leave it to others to recommend specific choices for these. I will say my favorite Asian-style soup dish is the pho at Ba-le in Kailua-Kona...favored for both flavor and reasonable price, but I'd be glad to hear what others say about their favorite Big Island saimin.

    One authentic local favorite you might or might not want to consider is Loco Moco...supposedly invented at Cafe 100 in Hilo. A classic comfort food consisting of a bowl of rice, topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg, and brown gravy over all. I don't particularly like the Cafe 100 version and don't have a Big Island favorite, so would be glad to hear what others say.

    Same goes for spam musubi...basically a giant sushi take-out snack. Rice base, slice of spam doused in teriyaki sauce, and held together by a nori seaweed strip. These are sold in mini-marts and local markets, as well as many other places...usually not found in sit-down restaurants. My favorite is sold at the "upper" store in Volcano Village. Surprisingly, some people on O'ahu say they like the ones at 7-11 best, but there are lots to choose from all over the state.

    Passion fruit is lilikoi in Hawaii, and you should have no trouble finding it at farmer's markets, along with papaya, mangoes (in season), guavas, oranges, melons, etc etc. Lilikoi is very tart, and most folks enjoy it as a flavoring in drinks and jelly, not by itself. Big Island produces more papaya than the rest of the state, both solo (yellow flesh) and sunrise (orange) flesh that look alike on the outside, but the sellers in the markets can tell you which is which. Then there are the GMO and non-GMO versions...a whole 'nother matter. I like the sunrise best myself. Guavas can sometimes be found growing alongside back roads...don't overdo them, as they may speed up your GI system.

    Best (largest) farmer's market: Hilo waterfront on Saturday morning, smaller on Wednesday, a few vendors nearly every day. Here is a link for others statewide:

    Maybe if you say where you will be spending time on the Big Island (Kona side or Hilo side) and be more specific about the kinds of things you like, you may get better feedback.

    Lilikoi Cafe
    67-1185 Mamalahoa Hwy Spc H143, Kamuela, HI 96743

    Cafe 100
    969 Kilauea Ave, Hilo, HI 96720

    1. I think Macaraca does a pretty good job of outlining the fairly broad net your question casts. "Authentic Hawaiian specialties" is fairly vague. Are we sticking only to Polynesian food? Or are we talking about a decidedly Texas type barbecue place (Huli Sue's), in the decidedly Texas type cattle town of Waimea? 100% Kona coffee comes to mind. (Be careful of blends that use other beans.) I suspect you might have to be a little more specific with your question and your travel plans. Many people never make it to the other side of the island.

      4 Replies
      1. re: ladybugthepug

        Thank you so much! I realize that I need to be more specific and appreciate your broad sweep of the cuisine. We are spending time in both Hilo and in Kona and have already had some lovely food, most notably the poke(s) and Suisan in Hilo. I am very excited to try both the saimin and the spam Musubi as well as to visit the farmer's markets as you suggest. One place we did discover was Ed's Bakery near Hilo which has 100 types of jams/jellies including lilikoi and banana macadamia nut. Again, thank you for your suggestions.

        1. re: lesliejonath

          Glad you are enjoying your visit. For really good lunch or dinner in Hilo I recommend Hilo Bay Cafe in an unlikely location in a mall next to WalMart...fresh and local ingredients; moderate to upscale, at least for Hilo. Search this board for recs in Volcano. For a special treat at the mothership of one of the original chefs of Hawaii Regional Cuisine try Merriman's Restaurant in Kamuela/Waimea. May be a splurge, but well worth it. A local favorite south of Kona is Teshima's for local Japanese, and a bit further south, Manago Hotel with a real 50's vibe....both much more inexpensive, but where long time locals dine out.

          Hilo Bay Cafe
          315 Makaala St, Hilo, HI 96720

          Manago Hotel
          Captain Cook, Kealakekua, HI 96750

          Teshima's Restaurant
          79-7251 Mamalahoa Highway, Kealakekua, HI 96750

          1. re: lesliejonath

            Some of my favs are:

            1. Hamakua mushrooms.

            2. "One Ton" Chips. So yummy. Try with poke.

            3. Mochi & manju from Two Ladies Kitchen in Hilo. We used to get an assortment of the mochi and manju to take back to Oahu from Hilo on the plane (pre-TSA...not sure if mochi, particularly the kind with bean inside is allowed as carryon). Their stawberry mochi is super good, but I was always amazed at the variety of the mochi and manju they produce. It can be sort of a catch-22, should order in advance to make sure you get some (they sell out!) but you should go by to see what they have to make sure you get a good selection.

            4. Ohelo berry jam & poha berry jam. Very special treats.

            1. re: lesliejonath

              I am so very glad to hear that you included Hilo. Too many do not.

              There, though NOT Hawaiian, we enjoyed Cafe Pesto.

              Aloha, and travel safely,


              Cafe Pesto
              308 Kamehameha Ave # 101, Hilo, HI