There is certainly no shortage of delicious food to eat in Hawaii. Many of the restaurants on Oahu get the most fame, but the Big Island is also full of gems, given all of the lush farms around Hilo and Honokaa and bountiful cattle in Waimea. Being less familiar with the food and restaurant scene on the Big Island, I sought advice from my mother, who in turn wrote two pages full of recommendations on places to stay, shop, and of course, EAT. We took her advice from the very start upon our landing in Hilo, seeking out the place she says she "dreams of."
An award-winning family restaurant, Cafe Pesto is considered an innovator in locally-sourced Hawaii cuisine. In one word, the food can best be described as fresh. From the lilikoi (passion fruit) juice to the crispy crab cakes and crunchy green salad, I couldn't believe how much flavor was bursting in my mouth during my first meal at Cafe Pesto in Hilo. During our week-long visit to the Big Island, we dined at Cafe Pesto four times, once driving all the way to Kawaihae from Waimea just for another taste. Having eaten the crab cake salad, mahi mahi sandwich, and sundried tomato pizza to name a few, each dish was equally as enchanting as the last. My mother was right--I officially dream of eating at this place.
Kava, or Hawaiian 'awa
No trip to Hawaii is complete without sampling the local kava. In each major city of the Big Island, we had no trouble finding a kava bar and congregating among locals and travelers while sipping bowls. What is kava? Also known as 'awa, it is a tropical plant whose Latin name means "intoxicating pepper." It does indeed have a bit of an intoxicating effect when consumed, but nowhere near the effects of say alcohol. To consume kava, the roots of the kava plant are dried, powdered, and mixed with water. When consumed, the active ingredient in kava (kavalactone) has a soothing, relaxing effect on the mind and body. Kava may also cause numbness or tingling in the mouth, but nothing is permanent or severe. Here are a few notable kava bars we stopped at numerous times throughout our stay.
After a morning of horseback riding in the Waipio Valley, we asked our hosts where we could grab a bite to eat. The answer was overwhelmingly TEX Drive In, which reminded me that it had also been suggested by my mother. Located in the nearby town of Honoka'a, we grabbed lunch at TEX two days in a row, enthralled by their purely local Hawaiian menu. The menu focused on their famous burgers, but also listed local plate lunch favorites such as chicken katsu and Korean fried chicken.
By far their most famous tasty treats are the malasadas. Balls of yeast dough that are deep fried and coated with sugar, malasadas are the Portuguese donut and a favorite among Hawaii locals. Newer versions of the malasada now sell them filled with cremes, jams, and jellies, but in my opinion, the plain malasada or haupia (coconut creme) filled ones are hands down the best. TEX's malasadas certainly did not disappoint!
Speaking of malasada, we would be remiss to not mention our stop at the Punalu'u Bake Shop. A 4-acre tropical estate, Punalu'u Bake Shop is conveniently located right between Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Kailua-Kona. It made for a nice snack stop during our drive to Kona. The bake shop is renowned for its Hawaiian sweet bread, but this stop was for malasadas only. I ordered a taro malasada, expecting it to be filled with taro creme. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the bread had taro flavoring, making it lighter, yet tasty all the same.
In the mountainous Big Island town of Waimea (or Kamuela), it's hard to navigate the town without seeing the influence of the Parker family. Its biggest form of influence in the Parker Ranch, one of the oldest ranches in the United States. Today, it is a working cattle ranch full of paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys) producing lots of locally raised beef. The question that was on my mind was where can I taste some of this fresh beef? It wasn't until we were leaving Waimea at around dinner time that we happened to stop by Village Burger. Located in the Parker Ranch strip mall by Starbucks, I initially had my doubts until I dug into the delicious, juicy morsels. We shared the Kahua Ranch wagyu beef burger and the Hamakua mushroom burger, savoring every last bite.
For those who fancy seafood, a stop at Colin Nakagawa's Seaside Restaurant in Hilo is a must. The restaurant is located at the edge of 30 acres of natural fishponds, which is where Nakagawa raises 7 kinds of fish: mullet, aholehole, catfish, golden tilapia, rainbow trout, carp, and papio. When a fish is ordered in the restaurant, it is freshly caught from the "backyard" of sorts, and brought in to be prepared. You can't get fish much fresher than that. During my visit, I was curious about aholehole, a fish I hadn't heard of. Upon looking it up on my phone, I read that aholehole was a bony fish that resembled the freshwater sunfishes. Out of curiosity, I ordered it and received two whole medium-sized fish. They were lightly battered and deep fried, but overall the seasoning was very minimal, which wasn't quite to my tasting, although the flavor of the fish was nice and very distinct. I also wasn't a fan of the multitude of tiny bones within this fish. Still, a fantastic little restaurant with a great view and lots to be learned.
As Seattleites, it should come as no surprise that one of our primary objectives while in Kona was to drink LOTS of Kona coffee. It wasn't any trouble finding a place that served it, but we fell particularly in love with Cafe Kona de Pele. Located in the newer strip mall surrounded by corporate restaurants. The nice cafe serves not only coffee, but desserts, which are what initially attracted us to fill our coconut ice cream cravings. The coffee also proved to be tasty, coming from the Kona de Pele coffee farm in the Captain Cook region.
Are we missing any notable restaurants? Let us know if the comments below!