OAHU’S NEXT WAVE of maverick chefs, finding inspiration in a rich culinary heritage and an abundance of surf-to-table seafood and just-picked produce, are turning Honolulu into the next foodie frontier.
The pig, poi and pineapple luau long synonymous with the Hawaiian Islands is certainly fun, but did leave some room for innovation. And 25 years ago that’s just what happened when a band of 12 chefs created Hawaii Regional Cuisine — the beginning of one of the most exciting culinary scenes in the country.
These stellar chefs freely mixed local ingredients with cooking styles from all the immigrant cultures. It was as if they took the flavors and cooking traditions from the Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Thai, Vietnamese, Koreans, Portuguese, Polynesians, French and Italians and threw them into a giant pot.
These culinary champions, among them Alan Wong, Roy Yamaguchi and George Mavrothalassitis, began building relationships with local farmers, fishermen and aquaculturists, promising they would buy Hawaiian if the farmers produced more variety and promised top quality. The cooks have since gone on to enormously successful careers — books, TV shows and critical acclaim, including prestigious James Beard Foundation awards — and their Oahu restaurants continue to get rave reviews, also providing the training ground for the next generation of chefs.
Yamaguchi and Wong chair the annual Hawaii Food and Wine Festival, where local and international celebrity chefs celebrate the islands’ bounty with signature dishes containing grown-in-Hawaii ingredients. In its sixth year, the festival takes place over three weekends in October on multiple islands and features more than 100 chefs, vintners and distillers from around the world.
Today, new farm-to-fork pioneers are adding twists to an ever-evolving cuisine with more local flavors and more traditional Hawaiian foods than ever before. They’ve amped up their commitment to sustainability, to local farmers, fishers and ranchers and almost-forgotten ingredients. They’re cooking fare that’s more accessible in presentation and price and giving food lovers yet another reason to visit Honolulu.
Koko Head Cafe, a brunch-all-day eatery, is tucked away in the eclectic Waikiki-adjacent neighborhood of Kaimuki.
WHY POPULAR Hipsters love chef Lee Anne Wong’s take on Hawaiian home cooking. A New Yorker, she trained at the French Culinary Institute; worked in kitchens all over the world; garnered TV cred on the Food Network, the Cooking Channel, Bravo’s Top Chef and its spin-off Top Chef Masters; and wrote a cookbook, Dumplings All Day Wong.
WHAT TO ORDER Kimchi bacon cheddar scones; $5. Dumplings All Day Wong (dumplings of the day); price varies. Breakfast Bibimbap with bacon, Portuguese sausage, heritage ham, kimchi, soy-mirin shiitake mushrooms, ong choy, sesame carrots, bean sprouts and sunny-side-up egg, served over crispy garlic rice in a hot skillet; $15.
INSIDER TIPS Walk-ins only, worth the wait.
✱ 1145c 12th Avenue, 808.732.8920, kokoheadcafe.com
The Pig & The Lady is chef Andrew Le’s talkof- the-town Chinatown restaurant.
WHY POPULAR Born in Honolulu to Vietnamese parents, Le serves updates of his mother’s Vietnamese street food recipes. He attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York, was 2014 James Beard Foundation Rising Chef of the Year semifinalist, and earned his toque as sous chef to chef George Mavrothalassitis of Chef Mavro.
WHAT TO ORDER P&L Pho is brisket roasted for 12 hours, rare beef, smoked bacon, fresh ginger, Tokyo negi, sawtooth herb, pickled chili and black pepper; $14. Pho French Dip is a 12-hour-roasted brisket sandwich, glazed with barbecue sauce, Thai basil chimichurri, charred bean sprouts, onion and cilantro, meant to be dunked into pho broth; $15.
INSIDER TIP Reservations are a must; go after visiting Pearl Harbor or if you get off your flight hungry.
✱ 83 N. King Street, 808.585.8255, thepigandthelady.com
Mud Hen Water in Kaimuki (the name is the Hawaiian translation of “Ka imu ki,” or the “ti root oven”) is run by native son chef Ed Kenney, whose mantra is “local first, organic whenever possible, with aloha always.”
WHY POPULAR This casual restaurant and Kenney’s others — Town, Kaimuki Superette, and the newly opened Mahina & Sun’s — are all lively gathering places. Tune in to his latest venture, Family Ingredients, a new PBS-TV series he hosts that traces the origins of Hawaiian dishes to their roots around the world. Not quite a documentary or a cooking show, it features Hawaii’s communities, diverse cultures and culinary adventures.
WHAT TO ORDER Beet salad with beets, avocado, gorilla ogo and smoked macadamia nuts; $8. I’a Lawalu is a’uku (swordfish) buried in coals, served with steamed green banana and seasonal veggies covered in coconut cream; $26.
INSIDER TIP Millennials love the bar scene; the bartenders muddle fresh turmeric, arugula and sage into cocktails.
✱ 3452 Waialae Avenue, 808.737.6000, mudhenwater.com