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Hawaii is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world, renowned for its stunning natural scenery and welcoming hospitality. While the beaches and scenery attract many visitors, the unique cuisine and dining culture are also a huge draw. Eating like a local while in Hawaii provides the chance to dive into the rich history and flavors of Polynesian and Hawaiian foods. If you’re planning a trip to Hawaii and want to experience authentic Hawaiian dining, read on for an overview of the local cuisine, must-try dishes, popular restaurants, and tips for eating like a Hawaii resident.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Some quintessential Hawaiian foods to look for include fresh fish like mahi mahi, poke, lau lau, haupia, shave ice, and taro rolls. Try local favorites like saimin and loco moco at small plate lunch spots or food trucks. Visit the popular restaurants Helena’s Hawaiian Food and Ono Hawaiian BBQ for great Hawaiian plates. Opt for plate lunch, try shave ice daily, and don’t forget tasty local snacks like crack seed. Also check out the many farms, food trucks, and night markets across the islands for delicious local bites.

Overview of Hawaiian Cuisine

When visiting Hawaii, one of the best ways to immerse yourself in the local culture is through its cuisine. Hawaiian cuisine is a unique blend of Polynesian, Asian, and European influences, resulting in a vibrant and diverse culinary experience. From fresh seafood to tropical fruits, the flavors of Hawaii are sure to tantalize your taste buds. In this article, we will explore the origins and influences, staple ingredients and flavors, and popular dishes and specialties of Hawaiian cuisine.

Origins and Influences

Hawaiian cuisine has a rich history that is deeply rooted in the traditions of the Polynesian people who first settled the islands. The Polynesians brought with them taro, a starchy root vegetable that is still a staple in Hawaiian cuisine today. Over the centuries, Hawaii has also been influenced by Asian and European immigrants, who introduced new ingredients and cooking techniques. The fusion of these diverse culinary traditions has created a unique and exciting food culture in Hawaii.

Staple Ingredients and Flavors

One of the key ingredients in Hawaiian cuisine is poi, a traditional Hawaiian dish made from pounded taro root. Poi has a thick, smooth consistency and a slightly sour taste. It is often served alongside other dishes, such as kalua pork, which is slow-roasted in an underground oven called an imu. Another staple ingredient is coconut, which is used in a variety of dishes and desserts. The tropical flavors of pineapple, mango, and passion fruit are also commonly found in Hawaiian cuisine.

The flavors of Hawaiian cuisine are known for their balance of sweetness, saltiness, and umami. Many dishes are infused with the smoky flavor of grilled meats or the rich taste of soy sauce and ginger. Traditional Hawaiian seasonings, such as sea salt and alaea salt (a red volcanic clay salt), add depth and complexity to the dishes.

Popular Dishes and Specialties

Hawaii is famous for its seafood, and one of the most popular dishes is poke. Poke is a raw fish salad typically made with ahi tuna marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, and other seasonings. It is often served over a bed of rice or mixed greens. Another popular dish is loco moco, which is a hearty meal consisting of a hamburger patty topped with a fried egg and gravy, served over rice.

Kalua pig, as mentioned earlier, is a must-try dish in Hawaii. The slow-roasted pork has a smoky flavor and tender texture that melts in your mouth. Spam musubi, a combination of spam (canned meat), rice, and nori (seaweed), is a popular snack in Hawaii. It is a tasty and convenient option for those on the go.

For dessert, don’t miss out on trying haupia, a coconut pudding, or malasadas, Portuguese-style fried doughnuts. These sweet treats are sure to satisfy your sweet tooth.

Now that you have an overview of Hawaiian cuisine, you can confidently embark on your culinary journey to eat like a local in Hawaii. Whether you’re indulging in traditional dishes or exploring the innovative fusion cuisine, Hawaii offers a wide range of flavors and experiences for every palate.

Must-Try Hawaiian Dishes and Foods

Fresh Hawaiian Fish

When you’re in Hawaii, you simply can’t miss out on trying the fresh Hawaiian fish. With its ideal location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii boasts a variety of delicious and unique fish, such as mahi-mahi, ono, and ahi. Whether you enjoy it grilled, seared, or in a poke bowl, the freshness and flavor of Hawaiian fish is unmatched.


Poke is a traditional Hawaiian dish that has gained popularity worldwide. It is typically made with raw fish, usually ahi tuna, marinated in a savory sauce and mixed with various ingredients like soy sauce, sesame oil, seaweed, and onions. The combination of flavors and textures in poke is truly amazing – it’s a refreshing and satisfying dish that you don’t want to miss.

Lau Lau

Lau Lau is a classic Hawaiian dish that consists of pork, fish, or chicken wrapped in taro leaves and then steamed to perfection. The result is a tender and flavorful meat that is infused with the earthy taste of the taro leaves. This traditional dish is often served with rice and poi, a staple food made from taro root.

Loco Moco

Loco Moco is a popular Hawaiian comfort food that is perfect for breakfast or lunch. It typically consists of a bed of rice topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg, and smothered in rich brown gravy. The combination of flavors and textures in Loco Moco is a true delight for your taste buds.

Plate Lunch

The plate lunch is a quintessential Hawaiian meal that originated in the plantation days. It typically includes a main dish, such as teriyaki chicken or kalua pork, served with rice and macaroni salad. The plate lunch is a hearty and satisfying meal that reflects the diverse culinary influences in Hawaii.


Haupia is a traditional Hawaiian coconut dessert that is often served at luaus and other special occasions. It has a creamy and smooth texture similar to pudding and is made with coconut milk, sugar, and cornstarch. Haupia is a sweet treat that will transport you to a tropical paradise with every bite.

Shave Ice

When it comes to beating the Hawaiian heat, there’s nothing quite like shave ice. This refreshing treat is made by shaving a block of ice into fine, fluffy flakes and then topping it with flavored syrups. From classic flavors like strawberry and pineapple to unique combinations like li hing mui and passion fruit, shave ice is a must-try dessert in Hawaii.

Crack Seed

Crack seed is a popular snack in Hawaii that consists of dried fruits, such as plums, apricots, and cherries, that are coated in a sweet and salty seasoning. It’s the perfect combination of flavors and textures – sweet, salty, and chewy. Whether you’re craving something sweet or savory, crack seed is a delicious snack that locals love.

Best Restaurants for Hawaiian Food

When visiting Hawaii, one of the best ways to immerse yourself in the local culture is by indulging in the unique and flavorful Hawaiian cuisine. From traditional dishes to modern twists, the islands offer a wide range of dining options that will satisfy any food lover’s palate. Here are some of the best restaurants in Hawaii to experience authentic Hawaiian food:

1. Helena’s Hawaiian Food

Helena’s Hawaiian Food is a legendary establishment that has been serving traditional Hawaiian cuisine for over 70 years. Located in Honolulu, this family-owned restaurant offers a menu filled with mouthwatering dishes like kalua pork, lomi salmon, and laulau. The cozy atmosphere and friendly staff make dining at Helena’s a truly memorable experience.

2. Ono Hawaiian BBQ

If you’re looking for a casual dining spot with a modern twist on Hawaiian classics, Ono Hawaiian BBQ is the place to go. With multiple locations across the islands, you can enjoy their popular plate lunches filled with tender grilled meats, macaroni salad, and rice. Don’t forget to try their famous Hawaiian barbecue sauce!

3. Rainbow Drive-In

A local favorite since 1961, Rainbow Drive-In is a must-visit for anyone craving a taste of classic Hawaiian comfort food. This iconic diner offers a diverse menu that includes favorites like loco moco, teriyaki chicken, and chili dogs. The generous portions and affordable prices make Rainbow Drive-In a great choice for a filling meal.

4. Leonard’s Bakery

No trip to Hawaii would be complete without indulging in malasadas, a delicious Portuguese-inspired treat. Leonard’s Bakery, located in Honolulu, is famous for their freshly baked malasadas filled with various flavors such as haupia (coconut), custard, and chocolate. These sweet treats are a must-try for anyone with a sweet tooth!

5. Highway Inn

If you’re interested in trying traditional Hawaiian dishes with a modern twist, Highway Inn is the perfect place to go. With locations in Honolulu and Waipahu, this family-owned restaurant offers a menu that highlights local ingredients and flavors. From kalua pig sliders to ahi poke bowls, Highway Inn offers a wide range of options that showcase the best of Hawaiian cuisine.

6. Small Plates and Plate Lunch Joints

For those who enjoy trying a variety of dishes, exploring the small plates and plate lunch joints in Hawaii is a must. These establishments offer a wide range of options in smaller portions, allowing you to sample different flavors without feeling overwhelmed. Some popular small plate options include spam musubi, poke bowls, and kalbi short ribs.

7. Food Trucks

Hawaii’s food truck scene has exploded in recent years, offering a diverse range of culinary delights. From fresh seafood to mouthwatering barbecue, you can find food trucks serving up delicious Hawaiian specialties all over the islands. Be sure to check out popular food truck gatherings like Eat the Street or the Kauai Food Truck Festival for a truly unique dining experience.

Tips for Eating Like a Local in Hawaii

Look for Plate Lunch Options

When it comes to experiencing the true flavors of Hawaii, plate lunches are a must-try! These hearty and satisfying meals typically consist of a main protein, such as kalua pork or teriyaki chicken, served with rice and macaroni salad. You can find plate lunch options at local eateries and food trucks throughout the islands. Don’t be afraid to ask the locals for their recommendations – they’ll be more than happy to point you in the right direction.

Try Local Specialties Like Saimin and Malasadas

To truly immerse yourself in the local food culture, be sure to sample some of Hawaii’s unique specialties. Saimin, a noodle soup with Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino influences, is a beloved comfort food among locals. Malasadas, Portuguese-style donuts, are another popular treat you won’t want to miss. These deep-fried pastries are often filled with delicious flavors like haupia (coconut) or lilikoi (passion fruit).

Order Shave Ice Daily

When the Hawaiian sun is blazing, there’s no better way to cool down than with a refreshing shave ice. This iconic treat features finely shaved ice topped with an assortment of flavored syrups. For an authentic local experience, try adding a scoop of vanilla ice cream or sweetened condensed milk on top. Don’t forget to snap a picture of your colorful creation before you dig in – it’s sure to make your friends jealous!

Check out Farms, Markets, and Food Trucks

For a taste of the freshest local produce and unique culinary creations, be sure to explore Hawaii’s farms, markets, and food trucks. Visit farmers markets to discover an abundance of tropical fruits, like juicy pineapples and sweet mangoes. Food trucks are also a popular choice for authentic and delicious local cuisine. You can find everything from Hawaiian-style poke bowls to mouthwatering garlic shrimp.

Embrace Spam!

Believe it or not, Spam holds a special place in the hearts of many Hawaiians. Introduced during World War II, Spam quickly became a staple in the local diet and has remained popular ever since. You’ll find it incorporated into various dishes, such as Spam musubi (a sushi-like snack) and Spam fried rice. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it – you might just discover a new favorite!

Savor the Fresh Seafood

With its abundant coastline and rich marine life, Hawaii is a paradise for seafood lovers. From succulent mahi-mahi to buttery ahi tuna, the islands offer a wide variety of fresh and delicious seafood options. Be sure to try some of the local favorites like poke (marinated raw fish), grilled opah, or garlic butter shrimp. Whether you’re dining at a fancy seafood restaurant or enjoying a casual beachside fish fry, the flavors of the ocean will leave you craving for more.


Hawaii offers an abundance of delicious local cuisine that reflects the islands’ Polynesian roots and diverse modern influences. From juicy poke bowls to piping hot plate lunches and shave ice, savoring the local food in Hawaii provides a tasty way to connect with the islands’ culture and communities. Exploring popular restaurants as well as more under-the-radar spots will ensure you get a full taste of Hawaii’s unique culinary traditions. With some guidance on local favorites, restaurant options, and eating tips, it’s easy to eat like a Hawaii resident during your time in paradise.

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