Best of Hawaii
Best Cheap Restaurants on Oahu (under $20)
Nico's Pier 38
Price: $6.95 to $10
Downtown workers, fishermen and savvy tourists have a favorite seafood restaurant in Honolulu: Nico's Pier 38. And we agree. The seafood here is so fresh, you know it just came off the boat. Actually, the Honolulu Fish Auction is next door; each day, owner Nicolas Chaize chooses what he'll serve that day. Try the pan-seared ahi ($8.45) or the succulent opah ($8.15); the seafood plates are accompanied by fresh organic baby greens and rice. Order inside and eat on the busy patio or at a picnic table near the fishing boats.
Helena's Hawaiian Foods
Prices: $2.25 to $15.65
If you're looking for aloha spirit, Helena's is the place. This funky hole in the wall is a Honolulu icon. Locals come here for real Hawaiian food; visitors in the know skip the hotel luau and drop by to taste kalua pig ($2.90), poi ($2.25), squid luau ($3.15) and fried butterfish collar ($3.95). The James Beard Foundation called Helena's "a regional classic."
Mei Sum Dim Sum
Prices: $1.95 to $3.15
Dim sum isn't just for breakfast or lunch at Mei Sum. This popular Chinatown cafe serves it from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Steaming carts make the rounds displaying dumplings ($2.35), spareribs ($2.35), barbecued pork ($2.35), spring rolls ($1.95) and baked treats. Around you, other diners are gossiping, conducting business, socializing and drinking hot tea. You may have to wait for a seat here, but it's worth it.
Prices: $4.50 to $16.95
Little Village ranks high on many best-places-to-dine-in-Chinatown lists, as well it should. The emphasis at this busy noodle house is on healthful, tasty food, with vegetarian substitutes available for all dishes. Murals, bead curtains, statuary and other Asian décor give the restaurant more character than many Chinese cookeries. It's not for the indecisive, though: The menu lists more than 100 items, with most dishes priced at about $7.50.
We loved. . . the pecan spinach salad ($6.25) and the honey walnut shrimp ($13.95), both house specialties.
Side Street Inn
Prices: $6.50 to $20
Side Street Inn is wildly popular with locals, especially local chefs. No one is more surprised than owner Colin Nishida, who likes to remind diners, "We're a bar that serves food. We're not a restaurant that serves alcohol." So go there to kick back with a few beers or to watch a game; the rambling, unassuming bar has 11 TVs and video screens. Nishida's creations arrive at the table in large dishes meant for sharing. Try the BBQ baby back ribs ($15) or the special fried rice ($10).
Seoul Garden Yakiniku
Prices: $8.95 to $22.95
Honolulu is known for its Asian cuisines, and if you enjoy Korean food, Seoul Garden Yakiniku is the place. The restaurant, near the Hawaii Convention Center and Ala Moana Hotel, caters to office workers at lunch ($5.95 to $8.95) and tourists at night. Owner Yun Hee Im opened the comfortable, clubby-looking restaurant five years ago. Try the yakiniku (bite-sized morsels of grilled meat), grilled corvina ($14.95) or oxtail soup ($8.95). And if you're a novice, just ask a waitress to explain the cuisine.
This Japanese department store in giant Ala Moana Shopping Center is a giant in its own right and another unusual place to grab a meal. You can visit the store to buy electronics, but once you venture onto the food floor, you might be distracted for hours. Shirokiya has dozens of things for customers to taste: sliced octopus, seasoned squid with eggs, fried sardines. OK, so maybe none of these appeals. But there's also a snack bar and deli with such things as ramen noodles, sockeye salmon and great tempura. We tried the salmon bento box ($6.70) and curry udon ($7.45). Both were hits.
Prices: $8 to $10.50
Aloha food may be tasty, but it can be salty and high in fat and carbs. To balance our 20-under-$20 list, we visited Well Bento, where healthful meals are the only thing on the menu. This tiny takeout joint isn't much to look at -- a small kitchen on the second floor of a commercial building -- but beautiful plates of organic fruits, vegetables, seafoods and tofu are produced inside Tod Brown's hole-in-the-wall eatery. Try the grilled salmon plate, served with salad and brown rice ($9.30) or the Zen macrobiotic ($8), a vegetarian plate with boiled root vegetables.
Halekulani's House Without a Key
Price: $9.50 to $19.50
Locals recommend sitting down at a table here exactly at sunset, but even if you miss that precise window, be sure to get here between 6 and 8 p.m. The attraction, besides a spectacular setting overlooking the Pacific, is elegant Kanoe Miller, a former Miss Hawaii who dances a graceful hula every night except Sunday in front of the setting sun. The venue is an indoor-outdoor restaurant and lounge at the Halekulani Resort, one of Waikiki's premier hotels. Have a seat and order a glass of wine ($7.50) and appetizers, or perhaps a Caesar salad ($10), spaghetti ($12) or dessert ($7.50), and watch Miller wow the audience. She's accompanied by various groups playing traditional Hawaiian music.
Duke's Canoe Club
Prices: $6.95 to $14.95
This Waikiki landmark is too pricey to make our list for dinner, but try it at lunch (buffet $12.95) or for late-night meals. Inside, the motif is South Seas casual; on the Lanai patio, the view is 100% only-in-Hawaii: glowing tiki torches, waves curling slowly along the beach, the Waikiki skyline. Order a mai tai ($6.75) and a Beachside burger ($7.50), soak up the tropical ambiance and pity your co-workers trapped at home in an office cubicle.
Fatty's Chinese Kitchen
Price: Most dishes $6.50
This tiny takeout or eat-in Chinese cookery is behind the International Marketplace, an easy-to-reach location for the Waikiki tourist set. Tourists often miss it, but locals don't. They line up for the Cantonese stir-fry that's cooked as they watch. The restaurant, which has been in the same location below the Miramar Hotel for 27 years, has nine plastic chairs outside and 11 stools at its well-worn counter inside. Among the popular dishes are chicken and mushroom stir fry, beef curry over rice and a sea bass plate.
Price: $12 to $28
In the mood for a big meal? Perhaps some sumo-sized pancakes or maybe a tureen of the Japanese soup saimin? Take a seat at MAC 24-7, a new Waikiki restaurant in the Hilton Prince Kuhio Hotel. Any time of day or night, diners find a diverse, well-priced menu with some special XXL offerings. Choose Mac Daddy pancakes ($12) in combinations such as banana, walnut and chocolate chunk or the Elvis, peanut butter and bacon. The flapjacks are bigger than a dinner plate. In the mood for pasta? Order the white cheddar mac and cheese ($12).
We loved . . . the sweet and smoky pulled pork kalua sandwich ($12) and the "killer" cupcakes (our favorite was the warm macadamia nut bread pudding cupcake for $6.)
Prices: $8.99 to $23.95
The surf's always up at LuLu's, which has a five-star view of Waikiki Beach and its wave action. The casual, open-air diner has an unobstructed second-floor view of the beach. Counters along the beach-facing walls allow customers to belly up to a bar and watch the surf. The restaurant is cute, with knotty-pine paneling, surfboards and outrigger paddles decorating the walls. It's open 22 hours daily. Burgers are the specialty; try the Magnum P.I. with bacon, cheddar and guacamole ($9.95).
Farmers Open Market
Step right up to the produce stand: The state's best farmers market takes place from 7:30 to 11 a.m. Saturdays at Kapiolani Community College, on the back side of Diamond Head Crater (a 10-minute drive from Waikiki). You don't need access to a kitchen to appreciate the bounty here. The booths include many stocked with prepared foods. On the Saturday morning we visited, we ogled blue lotus oxtail soup ($5), garlic shrimp "scampi" ($7), a beef curry bento box ($6) and ended with a blueberry bread pudding with vanilla sauce ($3).
North Shore shrimp trucks
Prices: $8 to $11
Cast a wide net for lunch or dinner the next time you drive to Oahu's North Shore. Scattered along Kamehameha Highway, from Haleiwa to Kahuku, are trucks selling barbecued shrimp, chicken and steak plates, most served Hawaiian plate-lunch style, with steamed white rice and salad. One of the first of the dozen or so trucks you'll encounter is Big Wave Shrimp Co., where a billboard of a surfboard-riding cartoon shrimp welcomes customers. You may run into the crew of the TV show "Lost" here; they film nearby and drop in occasionally for lunch. Several more shrimp trucks, some of them converted RVs, can be found past Turtle Bay Resort, including Giovanni's Aloha Shrimp, one of the best known. It's at 59-565 Kamehameha Highway.
Price: $6 to $18
If you're planning to drive around the island, don't miss Pah Ke's in suburban Kaneohe. It's in an aging strip mall. The restaurant itself looks much like any local Chinese cookery. But Pah Ke's modest surroundings can't hide the creativity of chef Raymond Siu. Siu specializes in Chinese-Hawaiian regional cuisine, using as many local ingredients as possible. Pah Ke has an extensive menu -- 148 items -- but that doesn't stop Siu. Tell him the kinds of things you like, and he'll whip up something special for you.