The true gems of Hawaii are not the “big white tablecloth” restaurants, but rather the small, family-owned businesses that struggle to stay afloat. These businesses rely on good word of mouth from locals and tourists who are willing to step outside their comfort zone. This blog post will cover some of my favorite discoveries on the Big Island, Hawaii. I will also cover a couple of places I was not able to visit, either due to lack of time or a belly that was already full. All of the restaurants that I am covering in this post use locally grown ingredients and provide a glimpse of what it is like to eat like a local. We tried many restaurants, cafes, food shacks during our trip through the Hawaiian Island, but these were our favorites! Next time you visit the Hawaiian Island, I highly encourage you to experience the love from these small business owners and love comes in the form of good food.
Best Discovery – Da Poke Shack (My Favorite Restaurant on the Island)
If you visit the Kona side of the Island, I highly recommend that you visit Da Poke Shack. Located on Ali Road and tucked into a little parking lot, this place is easy to miss if you do not know what you are looking for. Using the Kona Pier as a reference point, head south on Ali road, and in about 2 miles you will see their little sign on the right and a small parking lot. Turn in for gastronomic pleasure!
So what is so special about Da Poke Shack? Three things: their fresh fish,
amazing recipes, and great value! For those who are unfamiliar with poke (pronounced Poh-Keh and translated to “sliced”), it is simply cubed pieces of raw tuna that are tossed in a simple wet sauce and seasoning. This simple preparation allows you to enjoy the natural flavors of the ahi that are enhanced by the sauce. Da Poke Shack is known for their fresh fish. At the prompting of the cashier, I opened an over-sized cooler to find two 100-pound yellow fin tunas, which still had clear eyes and pink gills — I swear it was still moving a little. Don’t be squeamish, this is the circle of life and fish protein always tastes best freshout of the ocean. While I was ordering, they were still butchering one of the larger fish! I have never seen a whole 100-pound tuna being cut down with a saw and butcher knife. It was a cool experience to watch: every piece of the fish being accounted for (nothing goes to waste!).
Their poke comes in six different flavors and the flavors change daily (I know this fact because I visited at least 3 times while we were there!). One of my and my wife’s favorite flavors of ahi poke was called “Dynamite,” which was made with pureed avocado, onions, soy sauce, and a mildly hot spice. The “Kileau” was a spicy poke made with chilies, sweet soy sauce and sesame seeds. This poke variation had a slow ambient sizzle that provided a pleasant zing to compliment the fish. The “Sweet Sesame” was a nice combination of salty (soy), sweet (sugar), and nutty (sesame seeds and oil). This combination really made the fish flavor pop out. IMPORTANT! Be sure to request samples; the staff is extremely friendly and wants to help you pick the right poke for your preferences. I tried all 6 types before I decided.
The poke is served as a “poke bowl,” which includes 1/3 pound of fresh poke, one side and a scoop of rice. The poke lunch plate includes a 2/3 pound of poke, two sides and 2 scoops of rice. Don’t be fooled by the appearance, this is A LOT OF FOOD! The bowl was enough to fill me up for hours.
Their sides are as impressive as their poke. Your choices include the standard Hawaiian-style potato-and-macaroni salad, although their best sides are the pickled seaweed salad and kimchi mussels. The mussels were fresh and the kimchi made the dish spicy like a Kardashian sister. I also recommend that you request the furikake (salty seasoning, sesame seeds, and chopped dried seaweed) be sprinkled on your rice….it really sets off the flavors.
Da Poke Shack does a very brisk business due to their positive word of mouth and the best Yelp review I have ever seen. If you are visiting the Big Island, this is one place you must visit at least once to experience what poke should taste like. Unfortunately I will have a very hard time eating raw poke again without comparing it to Da Poke Shack. This is one of the problems associated with experiencing great food; everything else seems less vivid afterward.
76-6246 Alii Dr Kailua-Kona
Up Country Bakery
This place was an accidental discovery and accidental discoveries are my favorite! While we were driving to Big Island Bees we stopped in the town of Captain Cooks for a diet cola boost. We asked the lady behind the counter if they had soda, because I was looking for caffeine. She gave me a motherly smile and said that they did not serve Coke, but they could make us a really good iced coffee from scratch. It was obvious that these folks were into healthy living and using local fresh ingredients. I was all smiles at this discovery, and then we started chatting. We had accidentally discovered a bakery that is built on a passion for food and a love for good vibes. The Up Country Bakery and Café had a focus on fresh, locally grown, organic and gluten-free dishes and baked goods. The bakery is owned by locals Antoinette and Jon Sharfin and managed by their partners Jeff and Jess Yeoman. I have a feeling that these guys are transplants, as I saw a lot of New York-style bagel and deli fare on the menu.
There a couple things that are must try’s on their menu, first and foremost is their made-from-scratch banana bread. This was some of the best banana bread I had ever tasted. The flavors of banana and nuts popped out as I chewed on the moist cake. We tried their bagel, too; it was also fresh and could tell it was made in the true New York style. The only thing missing was the O.G. New York water; although the volcanic minerals in the water were a nice substitution. Since this is a “whole living” café, we also got a couple shots of their locally grown wheat grass. I don’t normally order wheat grass, due to the slight bitter aftertaste that I have experienced in California, but I must say the wheatgrass shot at the Up Country Bakery was smooth and had a sweet finish. Jess told me that their wheatgrass is grown by a woman who lives in Captain Cook and that the wheatgrass is the best she has ever tasted as well. This café had deli items such as sandwiches, salads and organic chili and soups. You will not regret your visit here. If you are in the area at night, stop here for some coffee and to watch local musicians perform. There’s lots of love and good feelings at this place; you will leave feeling like family. For the record, I never did get caffeine there, but the wheatgrass did the trick.
82-6127 Mamaloha Hwy, Captain Cook, HI (808) 323-2266
Kona Chips is a made-from-scratch potato chip factory down the street from the Up Country Bakery. This is a 50 year old company started in a wooden shack that has slowly expanded their operations to their current setup, connected to the Manago Hotel. When you pass through the town of Captain Cook, you will see a sign saying “fresh potato chips.” If you go inside their store, you will see their full line of potato chips, fresh dried fruits, cookies and local nuts. Their potato chips are made on the premises using original equipment purchased by the Deguchi Family. This equipment thin slices local potatoes and deep fries them in a kettle. They then dry the chips in a method called “spinning,” which ensures that the chips are crispy. I tried a couple of their fresh chips and I can say that they were amazing, crispy, aerated and that they had clean flavor on the taste buds. They had a couple of flavor lines, but my favorite chips where the ones with the furikake (seasoning, sesame seeds, chopped dried seaweed), which was the same stuff sprinkled on the poke bowls. The furikake added the right amount of saltiness to the chips. This place is worth the stop to try their chips while you are there and even pick up their travel-friendly containers of chips to take home, but they most likely will not make it home.
82-6155 Mamalahoa HighwayCaptain Cook
This is the same style of burger as Annie’s, but a quick service version. Village Burger is located in the Waimea Village in the north side of the Island and down the street from the Waimea Farmer’s Market. Waimea is known for their cattle ranches and vegetables, so it draws most of their ingredients from the immediate area. Village Burger is tucked away adjacent to a food court in the Waimea Village shopping center. This place looks very unimpressive unless you know that this is one of the top rated hamburger places in the country. This burger joint has garnered a strong local following and has received national media coverage from USA Today.
Village Burger has an open kitchen, so you can watch the chefs breaking
down primal cuts of beef into chunks and then grinding it into hamburger patties. I timed the process and it took less than 15 minutes for the beef to go from carnal cut to burger on the grill. That’s fresh! The cattle used in their beef are pasture raised without hormones and antibiotics. Their beef is sourced locally, so you can taste the freshness. Most items in the burger were grown or made within a 30 mile radius; many of the items are grown less than five miles away.
Their burgers are offered in traditional burger form with sirloin and brisket ground together to create a very juicy burger that has a somewhat fluffy and crumbly texture. They also have a “Hawaii Red Veal” burger, made from 100% veal (young calf) and a Wygu (Kobe Style) beef burger.
We ordered the Hawaii Rancher’s beef, made with briskit and chuck. This should have been the perfect burger, but they overcooked my burger. The burgers are cooked to order, so I ordered medium. Although, when I cut the burger open, it was well-done. The result was a tasty, but crumbly burger. Despite the lack of pink meat, it was still juicy. I looked around and noticed that I was the only one with a Duke Nukem burger. Normally I would send it back, but there was a very long line and we had to be back in Kona ASAP for another appointment. As I walked out I kept hearing people say that it was the best burger they ever had….I left jealous.
67-1185 Mamalahoa Hwy Kamuela, HI 96743-7906
Annie’s Island Fresh Burgers
This is another eatery that has a reputation for using the freshest ingredients and amazing dishes. This restaurant is located just south of Captain Cook’s on Highway 11. Annie’s Island Fresh Burgers only uses Big Island, Hawaii grass-fed beef and local organic tomatoes, onions and house made pickles. This restaurant was recommended by a local whom I sat next to on the plane. She insisted that this place is way better than “Village Burger” on the Waimea side of the island. Their menu features grass-fed burger variations, fish sandwiches and salads. The restaurant has a nice open-air feel that matches this tropically lush side of the Island. The meat is freshly ground at the restaurant and provides for some really juicy burgers. The fish in the sandwiches is really fresh and I recommend the Ono if it is available. At this restaurant you can try the steakhouse burger, which actually uses mushrooms from the “Hamakua Mushroom Farm” that I will mention in the agritourism section. The burgers were cooked to a perfect medium and the meat was juicy and flavorful. The fish sandwich I ordered was the Fresh Catch Wasabi Sandwich, which featured their ono with a wasabi sauce (just right amount of nose burn), tempura onions and fresh cucumbers. Expect to pay about $15+ for each plate. It is a little on the pricey side, but worth it.
Ste 105, 79-7460 Mamalahoa Highway Kealakekua, HI 96750
Island Lava Java
This was one of the best breakfasts in downtown Kona! When I think of a tourist-saturated downtown area, I usually think of bad food. Although I must say I found that downtown Kona’s restaurant scene wasn’t all tourist traps, there were actually many gems that locals enjoy. One of my favorite finds on the Island was a little coffee shop called Island Lava Java. This is a coffee shop and café that caters to the breakfast and lunch crowd. Like all of the places I have recommended, they use high quality, local ingredients that are more expensive, but provide better flavors. For example, they use local grass-fed beef, local organic goat cheese, local fruit and house baked bread. This place oozes with farm-to-tables practices and it’s rewarded for their flavorful food. Island Lava Java was awarded best breakfast by “West Hawaii Today” magazine.
We actually stumbled upon this place by accident due to my wife’s obsessive compulsive fit to try to find Macadamia Nut pancakes. This is one of the times I’ll admit my wife’s ADD behaviors paid off and lead to an excellent discovery. So of course you can guess what my wife ordered: macadamia nut pancakes. I ordered one of their daily breakfast specials, which included fresh fish, eggs, and home fries. Yes, you did read that correctly — I did say fresh fish with breakfast. The fresh fish of the day was ono, and I had it with my eggs over easy! Yes!!!! To balance out the meal, my wife also got their garden omelet with goat cheese. The ono was seasoned simply, with salt and coarse grain pepper, and was extremely juicy.
We both agreed that the vegetable and goat cheese omelet rocked the mike and stole attention from the other dishes. The farm fresh eggs were stuffed with a medley of fresh green vegetables, herbs and organic goat cheese. The eggs were bright and rich; the goat cheese was pleasantly pungent and creamy and had a pleasant aroma. The vegetables were a delight and helped bring together the rich flavors of the eggs and goat cheese.
The macadamia nut pancakes were fantastic; nicely browned and aerated fluffy. They were festooned with locally grown macadamia nuts. This dish added a mellow sweetness to our meal and kind of acted as a desert for our breakfast.
75-5799 Alii Dr Ste A1Kailua Kona, HI 96740
Places I missed
Unfortunately you ony have three meals in the day and you can not try everything I missed a couple places that were on my “Must Try” list. Although I can not describe my personal experience from the food, I can provide insights I gained from other travelers, bloggers and conversation with locals.
An old school Captain Cook area restaurant, still managed by the original owner. Did I mention the owner is 107 years old and she still works the floor with the rest of her employees? The building shows its age, a sign of a younger Kona. The restaurant started as a store in 1929 and still thrives in the same plantation style building. Shizukos Teshima, often referred to as “Grandma Teshima” by locals, is everyone’s grandma and will ensure you are properly fed! Her miso soup and sukiyaki has a cult following on the island. The restaurant is open from the early morning, serving omelets, fish and rice (Japanese breakfast). The lunch hour brings a steady flood of tourists who either stumble upon this place or have been referred from travel books or word of mouth. Lunch and dinner offers traditional Japanese fare made from 100+ year old Japanese recipes including fresh sushi, sashimi, tempura, sukiyaki, teriyaki and pickled vegetables. Locals told me that their shrimp tempura was the best due to its size, sweet fresh flavor and light/crispy crust.
79-7251 Mamalahoa Hwy Kealakekua
Another “must try at least once” kind of restaurant. The hotel was founded in 1917 when the Captain Cook area was a full day trip from Kona. The restaurant is attached to the hotel lobby and is only open for a couple of hours during each meal session. For example, they are open from 7-9 am for breakfast, 11-2 pm for lunch, and 5-7:30 pm for dinner. You’d better plan ahead if you want to eat there. They are known for their pork chops, drenched in onions and brown gravy. The meat is sourced from a local farm, so it is guaranteed fresh. Although the recipe is old in presentation, the flavor was fresh and vibrant. The restaurant also serves island-caught fresh fish, steak and liver.
2-6151 Mamalahoa Hwy Captain Cook
Link to the other Hawaii Gastromic Journey Posts
- Hawaii Gastromic Journey Part 2 – Hole in the Walls, Mom & Pop’s
- Hawaii Gastromic Journey Part 3 – Big Island, Hawaii Farmer’s Markets and CoOps
- Hawaii Gastromic Journey Part 4 - Wine, Honey and Coffee, Hawaii’s Artisanal Farmers
- Hawaii Gastromic Journey Part 5 - Sketchy, But Awesome! Carts, Shacks, Dives
- Hawaii Gastromic Journey Part 7 – While Visiting Volcano Park, Awesome Things to Eat
- Hawaii Gastromic Journey Part 6 – Fine Dining (coming Nov, 2012)
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