Eat Your Way Through Hilo, Hawaii

This foodie paradise is the place to find the freshest poke, traditional loco moco and some of the best mochi outside of Japan.

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Photo By: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Daeja Fallas

Photo By: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Blake Bronstad

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Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

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Photo By: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Daeja Fallas

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

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Two Ladies Kitchen

It would be easy to walk past the tiny Two Ladies Kitchen if not for the line that usually spills out the door. Crowds come for its much-loved mochi, a Japanese dessert made from a glutinous rice paste. Nora Uchida and her aunt Tomi Tokeshi are the two ladies behind the independent operation, in business for about 25 years. Now an iconic part of Hilo’s food landscape, Two Ladies produces almost two dozen kinds of the colorful treats, whose flavors include lilikoi (passionfruit), sweet potato and butter. Consider pre-ordering the strawberry mochi, filled with an entire strawberry, as it tends to sell out, but the gigantic strawberry shortcake mochi is an excellent substitute. The seasonal poha berry (or gooseberry) and the grape-stuffed mochi are other options that you aren't likely to find elsewhere. The indecisive can choose a pre-assembled assortment, but it’s more fun to customize your own box.

Cafe 100

The high-caloric loco moco is a common fast food staple in Hawaii that traditionally consists of rice topped with a gravy-smothered burger and fried egg. Its exact origins are murky, although the loco moco is believed to have first appeared in Hilo in the late '40s as a way to provide cheap, filling fare for workers and teens. Cafe 100, in operation since 1946, became associated with serving the dish, and has since trademarked itself as the loco moco’s home. Along with the classic, you can find more than a dozen iterations here, including spam, chili, Portuguese sausage and ahi tuna. While Cafe 100 serves other worthy items like beef stew, sour poi and ube (purple yam) ice cream, the wallet-friendly loco moco remains the main attraction.

Suisan Fish Market

While poke places are now easier than ever to find across the U.S., Hawaii is still home to the gold standard. And in Hilo, Suisan Fish Market reigns among the poke options. Come hungry for gigantic portions of fish fresh off the boat, which are accompanied by your choice of rice and veggies. The spicy ahi tuna is a popular pick, but there’s a large selection to choose from. Though there are a few picnic tables out front, nearby beaches provide a more scenic backdrop.

Perfect Harmony

There’s no sign for the tea shop, which lends a speakeasy feel at the back of Perfect Harmony’s boutique. After browsing the store’s global collection of eco-friendly clothes and spiritual items, slip into the back room for an extensive tea menu. The options include locally-grown green tea made with dried coconut from the Island of Hawaii, a variety of pu-erh teas, a type of aged tea from China known for its big-bodied flavor and many more. To really soak up the ambiance, settle in on a comfortable floor cushion while browsing a small collection of local and spiritual books — or time your visit to catch a live performance.

Kawamoto Store

Follow the locals to Kawamoto Store for some of the best shrimp tempura, spam musubi, fried chicken, cone sushi and more. The affordable take-out spot offers a mix of Hawaiian, Filipino, Japanese and Chinese dishes behind a case, but get there early to ensure the best selection. After finalizing your choices, strike out for a beachside picnic table.

Wilson's by the Bay

Don’t leave Hilo without trying the shave ice — known locally as ice shave — which is syrup-flavored crushed ice. Even a keiki (kid) size at Wilson's by the Bay could be considered a large portion and will set you back a whopping two dollars. Opt for one of the local flavors like lilikoi, coconut or lychee, or go all out by ordering a rainbow ice shave with ice cream.

Hilo Farmers Market

Although the centrally-located Hilo Farmers Market is open seven days a week, Wednesday and Saturday are the largest market days with more than 200 vendors selling all manner of food and crafts. Depending on the season, this is the place to find avocados the size of a coconut, lychee, jackfruit, durian, spam musubi, taro leaves, malasadas (Portuguese doughnuts) on a stick, lilikoi bread pudding, poke bowls, Thai food, local coffee and so much more. On the craft side, Hawaiian war clubs, glassworks, jewelry, clothes and Hawaiian print quilts are among the many finds.

Bayfront Kava Bar

Kava is becoming a trendy drink across the U.S., but its Polynesian roots stretch back hundreds of years. Kava is a bitter, plant-based liquid long prized for its mild sedative properties (minus the sleepiness). Try it at the casual outdoor Bayfront Kava Bar, where freshly-brewed kava is ladled from a large bowl on the counter into a shell cup. It’s even better when there’s live music, creating the perfect environment for total relaxation.

Moon and Turtle

Moon & Turtle’s reputation extends beyond Hilo, attracting diners for its locally-sourced, ever-changing menu of Asian-fusion dishes. Among its recent highlights, (all served family style) are salty fish fried rice, butter-soft smoky sashimi in a chili pepper-infused soy sauce, wild boar linguine and crispy chow fun with locally-raised beef. Save room for lilikoi cream pie (pictured), made fresh at Hilo’s Papa’a Palaoa Bakery. The bakery is also worth a separate trip.

Takenoko Sushi

If you know at least a year in advance that you’ll be visiting Hilo, then it’s worth trying to score a reservation at acclaimed sushi spot Takenoko. Otherwise, the tiny space, located in a strip mall, is already fully booked for lunch and dinner through the end of 2018. Those lucky enough to gain entry will be treated to some of the best sushi and Japanese dishes outside of Japan.

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