Locals' List: Best Places to Eat on Oahu
1. Liliha Bakery
For the longest time, Liliha Bakery’s chantilly cake, a chocolate cake with a rich buttercream frosting, was its best seller. Although it still may be a popular cake, the coco puffs are what put Liliha on the map. They have a light crust, are filled with a light chocolate cream and are topped with a dollop of chantilly frosting. The bakery still has seating at a retro 1950s diner counter, and if you ever plan to sit down to eat, you have to try a butter roll with your meal. The butter rolls are toasted on the grill until 1 side is golden brown. When served, they come with a bright pinkish, nuclear-looking jelly. Once you spread that on top of that roll, it will become your next delicious guilty pleasure.
What’s cool: If you end up liking the signature jelly or coco puffs, they can be packaged up for you so you can take them home. The waffles are also great here, with a very soft and airy texture.
2. Romy's Kahuku Prawns & Shrimp
If you've never visited Oahu’s North Shore before, a local will agree that it is mandatory for first-timers to get their hands dirty peeling and eating garlic shrimp. Romy's Kahuku Prawns & Shrimp is a family-run business and has been raising and serving savory seafood for years. The butter and garlic sauteed shrimp is the signature dish; it comes with a generous amount of succulent garlic shrimp, soft rice and a secret shoyu sauce for dipping. There are also other seafood choices, such as the sweet and spicy plate, which adds a little kick to your shrimp, juicy steamed prawns and even fried sunfish.
What’s cool: Romy’s Kahuku Prawns & Shrimp serves fresh prawns and shrimps daily. When Hawaiians say "fresh," they mean they raise prawns and shrimp on the premises. Diners will be able to see some of the farming pools next to the dining area.
3. Helena's Hawaiian Food
In the heart of Kalihi lies one of the state's oldest Hawaiian food eateries, Helena’s Hawaiian Food. Serving traditional Hawaiian food using the family secret recipes of founder Helen Chock, this restaurant introduces visitors to how Hawaiian food should taste. If you want to try a little bit of everything Helena's has to offer, order “Menu D.” It comes with the traditional tasty kalua pig, semi-salty lomi salmon, appetizing pipikaula (dried beef) short ribs and luau squid. Save room for the haupia (coconut) dessert. If you want to try melt-in-your-mouth goodness, order the Fried Butterfish Collar as a side dish.
What’s cool: If you look behind the counter, you will see the fresh pipikaula, Hawaii's version of beef jerk, hanging over the stove.
4. Fresh Catch
Hawaii is lucky to have a fresh supply of seafood right in its backyard. Poke — raw, bite-size pieces of fish covered in seasonings — is a common seafood dish that many visitors and locals eat. Fresh Catch certainly has some of the freshest and tastiest poke on the island. Whether you choose the bold firecracker poke or the simple and traditional poke, order at least 1/4 pound to taste. Other options include the poke bowl, which is served over a mound of soft Asian rice. If you are really hungry, try one of the plate lunches, such as the crab-stuffed ahi plate — crab and ahi rolled together in seaweed and then deep-fried, leaving a crunchy outside but soft center.
What’s cool: If you want something to satisfy your sweet tooth, ask for the red velvet chocolate-chip cupcakes, a special homemade treat baked by the owner’s wife.
5. Uncle Clay's House of Pure Aloha
Shaved ice is Hawaii’s iconic dessert. It’s the perfect way to cool down and beat the summer heat. At Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha (HOPA), the shaved ice comes in a bowl of delicious fruity syrup topped with things such as the signature sweet dream sauce, locally made ice cream from Lalamilo Farms, fresh fruit, mochi or adzuki beans. If you're thirsty, get an icy or a shaved ice tea. Small, locally made snacks including li hing mui seeds, cuttlefish or even taro chips are also available if you need a quick bite.
What’s cool: Li hing mui is a sweet, dried plum flavor (really popular among the locals); HOPA makes this flavor in-house, and it is a must-try.
6. Aiea Bowl
There are few bowling alleys around Oahu, but 1 place that makes cosmic bowling look cool while causing taste buds to water at the same time is Aiea Bowl. It's known for its tasty fried chicken, which is crispy on the outside and tender inside. The secret is in the sweet soy sauce with heavy garlic and light chili flakes. The restaurant is also known for some of its signature desserts. Aiea Bowl has one of the best pumpkin crunch desserts on the island: a thick, buttery crust with a cinnamon pumpkin center and whipped cream topping. If you want a flavor that’s refreshing, try the lemon toffee cake. The 3-layer cake is zesty and covered with airy whipped topping that is dotted with toffee bits.
What’s cool: Aiea Bowl constantly has something going on daily. Every month, it has a different menu for Tasty Tuesday, a fine-dining, 5-course, prix-fixe menu experience.
7. Rainbow Drive-In
There are many iconic places to eat on Oahu, and Rainbow Drive-In is one of them. Serving up a bunch of local favorites, it is known for plate lunches that come with rice, heavy macaroni salad and your choice of meat. Choose among spam and eggs, hamburger steak or shoyu chicken. If you can't decide, snag a bento box or a mixed plate: teriyaki BBQ chicken, mahi and some boneless chicken. Rainbow is also famous for its loco moco plate, which is hamburger and egg smothered in thick gravy. But if that is too big for you, downsize to a bowl. Want to cool down while eating your plate lunch? Grab an ice-cold slushy float, a strawberry iced drink with vanilla ice cream.
What’s cool: Adjacent to Rainbow is a retail store called the Rainbow Tiki. Buy some memorabilia or gifts for loved ones, such as Hawaiian-style chili seasoning or a shaka neko ceramic cat that's said to bring good luck and good surf.