The 12 Must-Have Cheap Eats in Honolulu, Hawaii

Here in Honolulu, we love to eat. Food is the backbone of our island and it only takes one visit to understand why. From hot sugar-dusted malasadas to shave ice, poke (before it was trendy), and hearty bowls of saimin, the food in Hawaii is a melting pot of cultures. At the beach, in food courts, or even at the corner grocery, finding a high quality and affordable meal is easy.

Below is a collection of iconic cheap eats, the local foods that are fresh and fast, accessible, and delicious. Most importantly, they are all unique to the island. Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a local, consider this list a starter guide to the most essential street foods and easy-to-find bites Honolulu has to offer.


Poke Bowls

Poke bowls are all the rage now, but we’ve been eating chopped and marinated fish over rice for decades here in Hawaii. Most of the new places on the mainland make poke to order, or fancy it up. But “real” poke is pre-made (very important because you want the fish to soak in all the sauce/marinade) and usually sold by the pound.

Where to get it:

Ahi Assasins 2570 S Beretania St., Honolulu; website. Vital Intel: The owners catch the fish daily, and the poke is simple, good, and fresh. It’s also super affordable (available by the pound or $7 for a bowl). What more can you ask for? If you’re only having one poke bowl in Honolulu, do it here.

Foodland Multiple locations; website. Vital Intel: Foodland is a supermarket with many locations throughout the state. They have a quality poke bar where you can purchase by the pound or order bowls to go. Don’t be shy about asking for a taste before deciding on a flavor.


Hawaiian Plate

Not to be confused with plate lunch (more on that below), Hawaiian plate consists of many components — too many to break down where to find the best individually. Where to begin? First there must be rice, poi, mac salad, and chicken long rice. Add on from there. Lau lau and tripe stew. Lomi salmon and luau squid. And of course, haupia for dessert (haupia is a Hawaiian sweet that’s a cross between coconut milk pudding and jelly, see chocolate-haupia below). Head to one of these places below and order lots to share (or one of the set combos if dining solo).

Where to get it:

Helena’s Hawaiian Food 1240 N School St., Honolulu; website. Vital intel: This is heaven for Hawaiian food. You’ll want (and should get) everything. Chicken long rice, mac salad, luau squid… it’s all dreamy. The pipikaula (short ribs) is also out of this world. Go early — unless you want to wait in line and/or go crazy trying to find a parking spot — and bring cash.

Highway Inn Kaka’ako 680 Ala Moana Blvd. #105, Honolulu; website. Vital intel: A more approachable but still delicious and authentic spot for Hawaiian food cravings. On Thursdays, you can get fresh kulolo (a traditional grated taro and coconut milk dessert) flown in from Kauai.


Shave Ice

Super-fine ice shaved into a bowl and finished with syrup: While there are similar versions around the world (like snow cones, halo-halo, kakigori, etc), the ones in Hawaii are in a league of their own. Biased? Perhaps. But the ice here is fluffy, light, and literally melt-in-your-mouth perfect. Couple that with natural syrups (often made from local fruits) and toppings (like azuki beans, ice cream, and fresh mochi balls) and you’ll see why.

Where to get it:

The Local 137 Hekili St. #108, Kailua; website. Vital Intel: All-natural flavors and a super delicate shave makes the Local worth the drive to Kailua. Keep an eye out for the seasonal syrups (like pickled mango and guava). You can put up to three flavors in an order.

Your Kitchen 1423 10th Ave., Honolulu Vital Intel: The “tropical bowl” is the thing to order here. It’s a giant portion of half-mango and half-haupia shave ice topped with housemade haupia ice cream (one of the best in town).


Spam Musubi

The thing about Spam musubi is that there is no right or wrong way about it as long as you have the three essentials: rice, Spam, and nori. There are a million variations. Some like Spam sliced straight from the can, others like it pan-fried in shoyu until extra crispy. Thick slice, thin slice. Spam on top, Spam in the middle. More rice, less rice. Some places even layer in an egg (or top it with a quail egg). You can get Spam musubi everywhere from 7-11 (a very popular spot for musubis) to fine-dining restaurants.

Where to get it:

Fort Ruger Market 3585 Alohea Ave., Honolulu, HI 96816; website. Vital Intel: Find classic Spam musubi plus a ton of other variations at this convenience store/plate lunch spot/musubi stop. Look out for musubis with mochiko chicken, Portuguese sausage, plus bacon-and-egg and shoyuhot dogs.

Musubi Cafe Iyasume 2427 Kuhio Ave., Honolulu; website. Vital Intel: This tiny shop is devoted to  musubi. You can get Spam musubis plain or paired with anything from cheese to shiso or ume, and even topped with avocado, egg, and/or bacon. They do a nice job with the rice here.


Mochi

Mochi, a sweet rice cake with Japanese origins, is casual snack in Hawaii. You’ll find it at the office potluck gathering, at a friend’s house on any given afternoon, and if you’re lucky, in the car when your parents pick you up from the airport. Hawaii’s mochi is less formal than traditional Japanese mochi. Texturally, it’s softer, and less delicate. It’s often sold by the pound or in box sets. Classic flavors like azuki bean are popular, but there are no hard rules; locals happily embrace mochi in flavors from peanut butter to blueberry cheesecake and chocolate-haupia.

Where to get it:

Nisshodo Candy Store 1095 Dillingham Blvd., Honolulu; website. Vital Intel: Order the chichi dango(plain, rectangular cuts of mochi made from mochiko flour). These are sold by the pound and not to be missed: Order half-plain and half-dusted in kinako (roasted soybean powder). Nisshodo also makes manju from wheat flour — it’s like a soft cookie shell stuffed with a sweet bean filling, and some places steam it, Nisshodo offers a baked version. It’s available in many traditional (like white bean and red bean) and modern flavors (like peanut butter).

Saturday Grandma’s Mochi at Made in Hawaii Foods 2071 S Beretania St., Honoluluwebsite. Vital Intel: Saturday Grandma’s Mochi sells out early at the Farmer’s Market each weekend. The best way to avoid the crowd is to stop by their brick-and-mortar on South Beretania (which no one seems to know about) or pre-order by phone for pick-up. Don’t miss the lilikoi (passionfruit) cheesecake mochi.

Happy Hearts Mochi Order online for pickup at Natsunoya Tea House, 1935 Makanani Dr., Honolulu; website. Vital Intel: Bento #4, pictured above, is the way to go: one each of all the classic plus fresh strawberry mochi (a whole strawberry wrapped in azuki bean paste and mochi). The haupia-stuffed mochi (which comes in plain, chocolate, and hazelnut-coffee flavors) is heaven.


Malasadas

Imagine a hot yeast doughnut meets brioche, but a little eggier; fried to a deep, dark brown; and then rolled in sugar. That’s a malasada. The roots are Portuguese, but like many things that come here, it’s become Hawaiian-izied over the years. Malasadas are a very personal thing; for each person that prefers Leonard’s, there’s another that sticks by Champion’s.

Where to get it:

Punahou Carnival 1601 Punahou St., Honolulu; website. Vital Intel: The best malasadas on the island (they say the secret is a tiny bit of nutmeg and cinnamon mixed into the sugar) are only available the first weekend of every February, when the Punahou school hosts its annual carnival. It’s worth planning a trip around.

Leonard’s Bakery 933 Kapahulu Ave., Honolulu; website. Vital Intel: A Honolulu institution loved by locals and tourists, Leonard’s makes malasadas in a range of flavors. Get them dusted in cinnamon-sugar or li hing mui sugar (li hing mui is a salty dried plum powder that gets paired with everything from fresh fruit to cocktails in Hawaii), and stuffed with custard, dobash (chocolate pudding), or haupia. Only getting one? Make it the sugar-dusted classic.

Champion Malasadas 1926 S Beretania St., Honolulu; website. Vital intel: Champion’s is less crowded and chaotic than Leonard’s. Because there’s less foot traffic, every malasada is fried to order — and nothing beats a freshly fried malasada. (While you’re here, pick up one of its signature mini chiffon cakes for snacking later.)


Sashimi

Sashimi on the mainland tends to be a special, sushi night treat. But in Hawaii, we eat a ton of fresh fish, and sashimi often shows up at a casual dinner or takeout lunch. Whether simply sliced and piled over rice so that you can take it to go, or sold by the large plate/pound, you can always count on finding high quality sashimi for fair prices. It’s one of the best parts about eating in Hawaii.

Where to get it:

Kyung’s Seafood 1269 S King St., Honolulu; website. Vital Intel: A centrally-located hole-in-the-wall frequented by chefs and locals in the know. Come with friends and get the large sashimi platter to share. Order up a few hot dishes, strawberry soju slush (for real), and call it a night. They also make great poke (especially the salmon-ahi mix).

Maguro Brothers Hawaii 1039 Kekaulike St. #113, Honolulu; website. Vital Intel: Located inside a Chinatown seafood and vegetable market, this tiny spot is primarily takeout, but they have a few seats. Order big, beautiful sashimi platters to-go or, for lunch, you can get sashimi donburi bowls (served over rice). The daily offerings include maguro, chu-toro, and king salmon. Definitely add a side of ikura and/or uni.


Plate Lunch

Plate lunch is a broad term and there are many way to interpret it. To simplify, there’s rice, macaroni salad (though opting to sub in green salad is getting trendy), and meat (mochicko chicken, garlic shrimp, hamburger steak, etc.). It’s a complete meal served in a plastic or styrofoam container or paper plate. Not fancy, super delicious. You’ll hear it used in context like: “What’d you have for lunch?” followed by “Got a plate lunch from Rainbow’s today”; “Will you order me the mochiko chicken plate lunch from Diamond Head Grill?”; “Let’s get Korean plate lunch for dinner” (see photo).

Like Spam musubi, there is no “correct” way to create a plate lunch. There is just a lot of variety, all boiling down to personal preference.

Where to get it:

Rainbow Drive-In 3308 Kanaina Ave., Honolulu; website. Vital Intel: Rainbow’s is the classic. The “Mix Plate” gives you a taste of the most popular dishes, though the chili dog plate is also great. Don’t forget the slush float for dessert.

Romy’s Kahuku Prawns & Shrimp 56-781 Kamehameha Highway, Kahuku; website. Vital Intel: The butter garlic shrimp plate and li hing mui pineapples (for pre-lunch snack or dessert) are musts. There’s always a wait (usually 45 minutes) so phone in your order early or wait it out at Kahuku Farms across the street, where you can devour a grilled banana bread ice cream sundae.

Gina’s B-B-Q Market City Shopping Center, 2919 Kapiolani Blvd., Honolulu; website. Vital Intel: Everything about this place is wonderful. Go here for Korean plate lunch, order the Gina’s Special, and share it with a friend — it’s gigantic. Gina’s also makes super japchae and potato salad, and her kalbi and barbecue chicken are outstanding.


Coco Puffs

These are a Hawaii classic and they come from one bakery: Liliha Bakery. A Coco Puff is composed of three parts: choux pastry, chocolate pudding, and chantilly. It’s the size of a golf ball and served chilled. The pastry is stuffed with the pudding — super thick and not toochocolate-y — then crowned with chantilly. Chantilly usually refers to whipped cream, but in Hawaii chantilly is a frosting made from lots of egg yolks, sugar, and butter. FYI, you’ll also spot green tea Coco Puffs at the bakery, but don’t be tempted. They’re not nearly as good as the original chocolate.

Where to get it:

Liliha Bakery 515 N Kuakini St, Honolulu; website. Vital intel: The original and the best. Liliha Bakery sells between 4,800 to 7,200 Coco Puffs daily. They make many other baked goods — and it’s also a restaurant — so if you have room for more, get the pancake/waffle batter, dobash cake, and butter rolls (dine-in and they’ll split, butter, and grill the rolls on a flat top).


Manapua

A manapua is essentially a giant char siu bao, a steamed bun filled with fatty roast pork. One is a snack, two is a meal. Some places offer steamed manapuas, and other do baked. Char siu is the classic filling, though nowadays you’ll find everything from curried manapua to sweet ones filled with black sesame and sweet potato.

Where to get it:

Chun Wah Kam Multiple locations; website. Vital Intel: Here manapua is offered in a variety of flavors including thai curry chicken, kalua pig, and honey garlic chicken. There’s even mini manapuas.

Char Hung Sut 64 N Pauahi St., Honolulu. Vital Intel: Come to this old-school Chinatown classic for the steamed char siu manapua.


Chocolate-Haupia

Chocolate-haupia is not a specific dessert but a flavor combination that is popular in Hawaii. There’s chocolate-haupia mochi (as mentioned in the mochi section), there’s chocolate-haupiapies, and chocolate-haupia layered on shortbread. These two flavors go together perfectly and you’ll see them in many dessert offerings across the island.

Where to get it:

Ted’s Bakery 59-024 Kamehameha Highway, Haleiwa; website. Vital Intel: Home of the famous Cchocolate-haupia pie. The original location of Ted’s is on the North Shore (a must visit for any island road trip), but you can also find their pies at supermarkets across the island. It’s super simple: pie crust filled with a bottom layer of chocolate pudding, a top layer of haupia, and topped with whipped cream. Ted’s also makes chocolate-haupia cake — try both and compare.

Via Gelato 1142 12th Ave., Kaimuki; website. Vital Intel: Get a cone with half-chocolate and half-haupia.

Yama’s Fish Market 2332 Young St., Honolulu; website. Vital intel: This is also a great spot to pick up a Hawaiian plate lunch, but make sure to look for the refrigerated case to the right when you enter. That’s where you’ll find the chocolate-haupia brownie.


Saimin

In the same way that Hawaii is a literal melting pot of cultures, saimin is a melting pot of noodle soup. It’s a bit like Japanese ramen, a bit like Chinese wonton mein, and a bit like Filipino pancitnoodles. This is comfort food: Clear, hot broth, saimin noodles, and toppings that most commonly include green onions, char siu and/or Spam, and kamaboko (fish cake).

Where to get it:

Palace Saimin 1256 N King St., Honolulu; website. Vital Intel: Pay particular attention to the broth — they use both pork and shrimp. Add an order of barbecue sticks (bite-size pieces of beef skewered onto a stick, marinated in a sauce akin to teriyaki, and broiled) to make a complete meal. Palace also offers saidon, which is saimin and udon mixed in the same bowl.

Jane’s Fountain 1719 Liliha St., Honolulu. Vital Intel: Come the nostalgic decor, stay for the saimin. Wonton mein (which is saimin with pork and/or shrimp dumplings) plus a barbecue stick is the go-to order here.

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