Being so tourist-centered, you pay a premium for good food in Waikiki. There are some hidden gems though. I previously detailed some of the best places to eat in Waikiki that won’t break the bank. Just outside of Waikiki, on the other side of the Ala Wai Canal, are a host of delicious options.
From homestyle Hawaiian to amazing katsu, you’ll find it all in the Moiliili and Kapuhulu neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are a short walk from Waikiki and an even shorter bus ride.
In no particular order, here are my top picks for what to eat outside of Waikiki:
If Oahu had an In-N-Out or Sonics, Rainbow Drive-In might be it. Easily, spotted by its neon signage at night, Rainbow Drive-In is an icon when it comes to local establishments. Though there are a few locations today, this main one is located on Kapahulu Avenue on the southeastern edge of Waikiki.
Opened in 1961 by Seiju Ifuku, Rainbow Drive-In focused on keeping prices low and food fast to help working people and the local Waikiki beach crowd enjoy lunch quickly. Today, Rainbow Drive-In is known worldwide for its cheap local eats.
If you’re looking for something healthy, you might want to skip this joint. It’s just down-to-earth, delicious, homestyle Hawaiian food here. Most of the dishes are a healthy portion of meat with rice.
I enjoyed the side portion chili rice and loco moco on my last visit. It was the perfect size considering that I wanted to eat both dishes.
Yama’s Fish Market
If your hotel is located on the northwest part of Waikiki, this next location is a little closer.
Yama Fish Market is one of my top two picks for poke on Oahu—the other is at the end of this post. Yama Fish Market features a variety of different poke and side dishes. From simple soy sauce poke to miso tako (octopus) poke, they have what it takes to satisfy all kinds of palates.
In case you’ve never heard of poke before, poke means “to slice” or “cut crosswise into pieces.” Preparation varies, but the most basic forms are lightly marinated cuts of fish with seaweed. Some of the earliest poke may have come from fisherman using discarded pieces of their catches for a quick snack.
Unlike mainland poke, there are not sauces to choose, nor swath of condiments to add on top. Poke here is simply the marinated fish with rice.
Here are Yama’s Fish Market, you can order poke in various weights. They list the price per pound, but you can get smaller amounts as well.
Yama’s Fish Market also has plates like lau lau that are equally as amazing. If you’re looking for Hawaiian snacks or desserts, you’ll also find these here.
We ordered two combos which included our choice of poke, side, and rice.
This tako poke was amazing.
The soy sauce ahi poke is classic.
For our rice, we got this rice that had hijiki seaweed in it topped with furikake.
This is how everything looked to go. They packaged the poke separately from the rice, so as to preserve the texture of the rice—unlike having everything piled on top, like they might on the Mainland.
All in all, from the poke to lunch plates, I haven’t been disappointed. Hope you enjoy this one too!
One random note: Yama Fish Market has slightly odd hours, so check before going to the shop.
Waiola Shave Ice
Shave ice is as Hawaiian as leis, aloha, and surfing. Not surprisingly, you can find shave ice most everywhere. The cold ice is a refreshing treat, especially on hot days.
One of my top recommendations, near Waikiki for shave ice is Waiola Shave Ice.
Waiola Shave Ice has two locations on right outside of Waikiki on opposite ends.
You’ll know you’re in the right place when you see this cute shave ice mascots outside. The Waiola Street location is a little less flashy than the one on Mokihana Street. Both locations have a store that you can purchase a variety of snacks from.
They have many flavors to choose from. No matter what you choose, I would add the azuki and condensed milk for an even more complex and delicious experience.
When I cook for myself, I typically boil or lightly pan-fry dishes. Fried food isn’t really something I gravitate towards, but I would line up for a few hours for the fried food at Tonkatsu Tamafuji.
If you haven’t figured it out, Tonkatsu Tamafuji is known for their katsu. These are pieces of meat that are battered in breadcrumbs and deep-fried.
After choosing your katsu dish, you’re given a mortar and pestle to grind sesame seeds.
As you grind the sesame seeds, you can smell the rawness of the sesame seed oil.
When you’ve ground to satisfaction, you can add either of these sauces to your sesame seeds.
There is a sweet and spicy sauce that is ladled into your bowl. The sweet sauce says 甘 which is the character for sweet. The spicy sauce says 辛 which is the character for spicy.
Not long after you’ve finished this process, your katsu will arrive—fresh out of the fryer.
Each katsu dish comes with shredded cabbage which is eaten to compliment the katsu. You’re able to get more cabbage for free, if you feel so inclined. There’s actually someone that walks around with a bowl of shredded cabbage in the way that there might be someone at a fancy Italian restaurant walking around with a fresh cheese mill.
Our katsu also came with our choice of rice—five grain rice in our case.
The miso soup is a nice compliment to the tonkatsu as well.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing to me was the selection of pickles that they provide to every table. Our selection included salted/sour plum (うめぼし / umeboshi), pickled daikon (たくあん / takuan), and pickled cabbage (つけもの / tsukemono).
They will request that you use the tongs to place the pickles on your plate (as opposed to using your chopsticks).
From beginning to end, I was amazed at the flavor of the tonkatsu. It’s definitely the top katsu place I’ve been to in the US.
Considering that we had tried to eat at Tonkatsu Tamafuji twice before getting in on the third time, it was well worth it. Go early, make sure that your party is small, as well as all accounted for for the best chance at getting seated.
A short distance from Tonkatsu Tamafuji, also on Kapuhulu Avenue is Leonard’s Bakery. Known for its malasadas, Leonard’s Bakery stands among giants like Liliha Bakery and Matsumoto Shave Ice. Numerous publications even list malasadas, popularized by Leonard’s Bakery, as one of the top Hawaiian cuisines to try.
We arrived a little late, so there were some items that were unavailable on the shelves. What we were here for, though, were the malasadas.
The malasada is a Portuguese donut that doesn’t have a hole in the middle. Original variations lack filling, but Hawaiian malasadas tend to have a variety of fillings including haupia (coconut).
We got a li hing mui (because when in Hawaii, right?), cinnamon sugar, and passion fruit puff. The passion fruit was a seasonal flavor. I’m not a huge fan of li hing mui powder, but it was still great. The texture of the donut is perfect. It’s everything you would want in a donut without a hole and more.
Ono Seafood serves poke. It’s one of my top two poke recommendations near Waikiki.
This is one of the smallest establishments on this list. There’s room for ordering and a small table outside for eating.
Many places that use some kind of modifier in their name run the risk of sounding pretentious—not Ono Seafood. ‘Ono, meaning delicious, is indeed delicious seafood.
Unlike Yama’s Fish Market, Ono Seafood has a smaller selection of poke. This doesn’t diminish how great the poke is though. They also allow you to order poke as a combo (2 flavors) if you’re stuck between two choices.
We enjoyed Ono at the airport before we flew back to the Mainland. The portion was just right. It was the perfect finish to our Hawaiian adventure.
Hope these eateries make your trip to O’ahu a little more flavorful! Let me know if there are any other establishments I should check out and add to this list.