We’ve traveled all over the world, and even we are surprised that we’d never made it to Hawaii. When we eloped, though, we were both glad that it was an all-new experience for both of us. Aside from figuring out what to do and where to stay, we were most excited about what to eat in Waikiki and Honolulu. Here are our tips for the best cheap, local eats that even a picky eater like Josh enjoyed!
What’s in this post:
- Rainbow Drive-In
- Leonard’s Bakery
- Marugame Udon
- Coco Ichibanya
- McDonald’s (for Breakfast)
- Ala Moana Center
- Royal Hawaiian Center
- Lawson Station
- Honorable Mention: Raising Cane’s
One of the most iconic places you can eat in Honolulu is Rainbow Drive-In. We’d seen so many articles and videos about it, so we were excited but not entirely sure it was going to live up to the hype. Like most things in Hawaii, it exceeded our expectations.
We chose the original location in Waikiki which was less than 10 minutes from our hotel. We noticed that there is outdoor seating (although, some of it was closed off due to the pandemic) and even a shop to purchase t-shirts and memorabilia.
You’ll walk up to a window to order, and then step back to wait for your food to be prepared. When I heard Josh’s name being called, my stomach literally started growling. I was hungry, but also incredibly curious and excited about the food. We packed it up in a thermal bag I bought for the trip and on the lanai in our hotel room.
We went on a day when I knew they’d be ordering what I was most looking forward to — Shoyu Chicken! Plate lunches in Hawaii are served with two scoops of rice and a serving of Hawaiian macaroni salad. Normally, I eat only white meat, but the Shoyu Chicken is made with bone-in thighs. It was absolutely delicious! The meat was fall-off-the-bone tender and full of flavor, the rice was sticky, and the mac salad was the best I’d had on the island.
Josh got the Mixed Plate which consists of three proteins (fish, chicken, and beef), two scoops of rice, and macaroni salad. It was a huge serving, so I was wondering if he could finish it all but he had no problems. It was too good to leave even one bite behind. He’s picky, so I was really impressed!
Whether it was blog posts, YouTube videos, or even TikToks, we’d seen enough about Leonard’s Bakery to know we had to try it! They specialize in malasadas, a Portuguese donut that’s incredibly popular in Hawaii. It took a bit of effort to get our hands on some, but it was worth the effort.
The parking lot is tight at Leonard’s Bakery if you’re lucky enough to get a spot at all. We had to wait until something on the street opened up before we could park because it was so busy. Then, joined the line which wrapped around the outside of the building. At this point, I noticed that we could have just called ahead and placed our order, so if you want to save time, use this option!
After slowly making our way inside, we ordered a half dozen donuts including Original, Cinnamon Sugar, Haupia (kind of like coconut), Dobash (chocolate), Li Hing (sweet and sour sugar), and the featured flavor, Strawberry. My absolute favorite kind of donut is strawberry-filled, so I was thrilled to see it featured that day!
By the time we got back to our hotel, the malasadas were still delightfully warm. Every single flavor was super delicious, and there was plenty of filling. The strawberry oozed out all over my hand, and I can honestly say that despite the messiness, it was one of the best dessert experiences I’ve ever had.
One of our food goals on the trip was to have slow-cooked pork in Hawaii. We heard that Kono’s Northshore was the way to go. We went to a couple of locations, notably in the North Shore and Kailua, and were disappointed by the food handling and mask situation. People weren’t wearing their masks properly and one guy was using his cell phone near the food preparation area. So, we left.
Then, one night we spotted the small location in Waikiki while we were waiting for our noodles (see below) to be ready. We peeked in, saw that the workers and space seemed sanitary, and ordered BBQ Pork Bomber, which is basically a pulled pork burrito. It was our last night and we’d already ordered dinner from elsewhere, but we decided to split this as an appetizer.
The Bomber was…the bomb! The pork was tender, flavorful, delicious, and perfectly balanced with the rice, onions, and cheese. The tortilla wrap tasted fresh and was a great texture. It came with some homemade chips, which were also very good. I’m glad we got to try Kono’s, but I do wish that as a company they made sanitary operations more of a priority.
When we were walking around Waikiki one night, we spotted a massive line outside a restaurant. It was Marugame Udon. We had heard it was popular (and were familiar from our trips to Japan), but we were still surprised by the number of people standing outside. Rather than join the queue, though, we placed our order online while we looked around.
One of the coolest things is that you can watch the noodles being made through the huge windows. It was fascinating to watch the orders go from being a mound of dough through the assembly line of workers. We chose the signature Curry Udon, and after putting it in our thermal bag, headed back to our room.
We were thrilled to see that the noodles and broth were packaged separately. In Japan, even at convenience stores, udon meals are packaged the same way and it’s something we love because it keeps the noodles from getting too soggy.
The noodles themselves were thick and firm, but still tender to bite. The texture was amazing! The broth was thick and very flavorful, and everything tasted incredibly fresh. We love curry, but it got a bit overwhelming after a while (maybe because we’d already had curry that day), so I’d choose the Curry Nikutama (their best-selling Nikutama Udon which is served with seasoned sweet beef, soft egg in a curry sauce) if I could do it all over again. At $9, though, this was a steal!
In Japan, our favorite place to go for curry rice is Coco Ichibanya. You just can’t beat it! We were thrilled to learn that there were several locations around Honolulu! One day when we were visiting Pearl Harbor, we found one in the area. We had been looking for a quick fast food place, but immediately did a U-Turn to get back to Coco.
While the curry sauce at American locations is thinner than in Japan, and eating in your rental car isn’t the same as gazing out from the second story of my beloved spot in Kyoto, it still has that great taste. That first bite felt like heaven!
We both got chicken katsu, of course. We’re picky about this dish because we both love it so much. The breading at this Coco Ichibanya location was perfect. The chicken was crispy and crunchy on the outside but tender and juicy on the inside. I wish I could teleport there right now!
Sooooo…we heard a lot about Zippy’s before heading to Hawaii. I’ll be honest, though, every location I looked at on Google Maps looked run down and janky. This isn’t a big deal for most people, but because my OCD is always scanning for trouble, the way a restaurant looks often determines whether I eat there. That being said, my heart knows that sometimes those rough-looking spots have the best food.
We decided to give it a shot and checked out the location in Kailua. There was no indoor seating, so this was another meal we ate in the rental car. We’d checked out the extensive menu ahead of time, which is something I strongly recommend. There are many, many items on Zippy’s menu, so make sure you’re prepared to order at the counter or drive-thru.
We shared an order of spaghetti with garlic bread but also had our own individual meals. I chose the Korean Fried Chicken, which came with rice and macaroni salad. Was it the best Korean Fried Chicken I’ve ever had? No. Was it good for a drive-thru restaurant that doesn’t specialize in Korean food? Yes. And the rice and macaroni salad definitely completed the meal. I was satisfied!
Josh got the Loco Moco plate, which consisted of a hamburger steak, rice, and macaroni salad with two island eggs and rice smothered with brown gravy. He’d never had a Loco Moco before and decided to be adventurous, which is a big deal for someone who self-identifies as a picky eater! He was very, very happy with his choice and said he’d easily have it again!
We had to get a plate of spaghetti with garlic bread. This was the small size! I’m going to be so honest. THIS was the best part of my Zippy’s experience. I really do love spaghetti and I’m pretty particular, so I wasn’t sure how drive-thru pasta was gonna taste. Yes, there were some noodles stuck together, but that was part of the homecooked charm of this place. I’d have this again and again if I lived in Hawaii!
McDonald’s (for Breakfast)
We did not go all the way to Hawaii to eat fast food burgers and fries. Period. We were, however, very excited to try the local McDonald’s breakfast. At home, we usually eat rice, eggs, and miso soup to start the day, so we were hoping to find something that could give us something similar.
For his meal, Josh picked the Local Platter Deluxe. This came with a mound of sticky rice, scrambled eggs, two slices of Spam, and three slices of Portuguese sausage. I chose the Sausage Portuguese Rice which was the same as Josh’s only without the Spam. Both meals came with packets of soy sauce on the side.
We ate at a lot of places while we were in Hawaii, and this McDonald’s rice was among the best we had the whole time. We really couldn’t believe it. The texture was perfect and was a great foundation for our protein-rich breakfast. It’s really too bad that we can’t get that where we live.
We’ve already talked about the H-Mart in Honolulu as well as the one in Los Angeles, so be sure to check out those posts for more details. The one in Hawaii was amazing, though, because it had an entire food hall on the second floor! We could have eaten there every day if I’m honest.
If you’ve ever wanted to try popular Korean dishes like doenjang jjigae (soybean stew), japchae (sweet potato glass noodles), or Korean fried chicken, you’ve got to head to H-Mart. It’s a little pricy, but the portions are very generous and the service is great. We were able to fill up on one small order of Korean fried chicken from
Ala Moana Center
One of the most popular shopping centers in Honolulu is the Ala Moana Center. We had a great time checking out the BTS Pop Up Store and Kpop Friends Hawaii shop where we spent way too much money. We also enjoyed a lot of food and drink at the outdoor mall!
Honestly, you can eat just about anything at Ala Moana whether it’s fast food or a fancier sit-down restaurant on the rooftop. We kept it super casual and had Korean corn dogs from Holy Cow Corn Dog, Raising Cane’s, Coco Ichibanya, and even a delicious custom milk tea from The Alley.
One thing we’d definitely recommend trying? Jollibee. It’s so unique and famous! The Phillippines-based chain is very famous in Asia and has a diverse menu. You’ll find fried chicken, burgers, and even spaghetti with a red sauce made from bananas! It’s pretty sweet, but you can’t beat the novelty of a banana spaghetti sauce!
Royal Hawaiian Center
We stayed at the Sheraton Waikiki which shares a roundabout with the Royal Hawaiian Center. I’d have to write a whole separate post just to scratch the surface on all that you can find there, but for now, I’ll simply suggest checking out the food options.
We especially recommend the Royal Hawaiian’s Pa’ina Lanai Food Court. There, you’ll find the popular Hawaiian burger chain, Mahaloha Burger, as well as familiar chain restaurants. Our favorite, though, was the Japanese-style cake shop Kulu Kulu. It earned the Honolulu Star-Advertiser people’s Choice award for Best Bakery in Honolulu and it’s easy to see why. We went back for the Japanese cheesecake, Rainbow cake, and Strawberry Shortcake over and over again!
While we tried to eat local as much as we could, we did grab takeout from PF Chang’s since it was so close to our hotel. It was perfect for a quiet wedding night dinner on the lanai in our hotel room. Using the thermal carrier I mentioned earlier, the food was still piping hot by the time we sat down to eat and it was glorious overlooking the ocean!
Whenever we’re in Japan, we absolutely love eating at Lawson Station. One time, someone dragged me for this on Twitter, which is just one more reason why social media sucks. What’s wrong with enjoying a meal from convenience stores, especially if it’s a good one? But I digress…
Anyway, Josh and I were thrilled to learn that there was a Lawson Station in the lobby of our hotel. Did it have the Jumbo American Dogs (corndogs) or fried chicken that we love at the Japanese locations? No. Did it have a nice selection of drinks and foods, including frozen desserts that we adore? YES. Josh was able to get his precious Samanco fish-shaped ice cream bars while I guzzled my favorite Japanese bottled teas. I also tried an ice cream sandwich
There were a variety of ready-made foods, self-serve soup, and even onigiri. Plus, it had the hot water dispensers that you find in Japanese convenience stores so you could buy one of the many ramens and cook it on the spot. I was tempted, I really was, but I had to save room for local goodies.
As mentioned, it’s really common to catch a quick meal at a convenience store in Asia. In Japan, the big three are Lawson, Family Mart, and 7-11. There are many 7-11 locations in Waikiki and Honolulu. Sometimes, right across the street from each other! While they aren’t quite the same in Hawaii, you will find some foods you’d find at Japanese 7-11.
One of my favorite things in Japan is spaghetti and meat sauce, so I was happy to find one hot and ready at the 7-11 near my hotel! Again, it wasn’t exactly the same but it was close and we thoroughly enjoyed sharing one of these convenience entrees as a snack until we could have a full meal.
You’ll also find a lot of the same great chips, snacks, and drinks you’d be able to get in Japan. This was really convenient when we were on the go. This is something I really miss now that I’m back in Idaho. Oh, you’ll also see some great local stuff like Manapua (steamed dough stuff with different kinds of fillings)!
Honorable Mention: Raising Cane’s
Living in Virginia, we really took Raising Cane’s for granted. Honestly, I’m not a huge fried chicken and french fries kind of person, but this place is an exception. Whenever we travel, we check if there’s a location at our destination, and if there is, we’ve gotta go! We landed in Waikiki late in the evening, so fast food was our best option. We drove straight to Raising Cane’s from the airport!
The chicken tenders are thick and juicy with just the right amount of breading. It’s also hard to argue with crinkle-cut fries, especially when they’re done right. Growing up in Montreal, one of my favorite places, Benny’s, uses crinkle cuts in their meals so I’m a little biased. Raising Cane’s also throws in a delicious piece of toasted bread. My favorite thing, though, is the sauce. I’ve seen TikToks of people dipping into vats of this sauce. It’s so good. It’s what really brings the meal together.