Honolulu Is the Next Foodie Frontier

Conde Nast Traveler
Photographer: Peden & Munk
Molecular gastronomy finally arrived on Oahu about a year ago, at Vintage Cave, where you'll find dishes like this one: roasted, raw, and pickled carrots with pea emulsion and ginger powder.

Forget the surf: Honolulu is in the midst of a culinary revolution, with a bumper crop of new food trucks, farmers' markets, pop-ups, and restaurants making it America's latest gourmet destination.

Should you find yourself on the island of Oahu on a Saturday morning, you'd be wise to leave your hotel room early and hightail it up to Diamond Head Road. Not to hike the mile uphill to the crater's summit—heavens no!—but to grab a parking spot at Honolulu's Kapi'olani Community College, whose campus fans out on the mountain's backside, just before the island's biggest farmers' market opens at 7:30 a.m.

Fair warning, however: You won't be the only tourist. As far as Oahu's non-swimmable attractions go, the KCC market—as it's known—is inching to the top of the list. But in the early-morning sunshine, before the line gets too long for the macadamia nut-pesto pizza (topped with candy-sweet heirloom tomatoes grown on the North Shore) and the succulent barbecued abalone, farmed off the Big Island's Kona coast, you'll be shopping and snacking alongside a manageable, mostly local crowd. A few bites in and you'll figure out what these locals already know: Hawaii has some uniquely sensational food. And Honolulu, that lonely capital adrift in the Pacific, the very same one that hosts an annual Spam Jam its favorite canned meat, is finally getting festival in honor of its favorite canned meat, is finally getting serious about what it eats.

Photographer: Peden & Munk

A basil, lemon, vodka, and hawaiian chile pepper cocktail at Town. Close

A basil, lemon, vodka, and hawaiian chile pepper cocktail at Town.

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Photographer: Peden & Munk

A basil, lemon, vodka, and hawaiian chile pepper cocktail at Town.

The only surprise is how long it's taken. The city has always had the makings of a first-rate food town, surrounded as it is by all that rich volcanic soil and waters teeming with sea life—and that's before you factor in the multitude of ethnic influences. But while obsessing over homegrown ingredients may be hopelessly cliché in the rest of the country, the Slow Food trend has taken an improbably long time to catch on in Hawaii. It wasn't too long ago, after all, that sugarcane and pineapple fields occupied most of the state's farmland; everything else had to be shipped in. And when those industries waned in the 1980s and 1990s, tourism development accelerated, skyrocketing land prices well out of the reach of most small farmers. "As the state's population grew larger and more urbanized, so did its reliance on mainland goods," says food historian Arnold Hirura, author of Kau Kau: Cuisine and Culture in the Hawaiian Islands. "It was less expensive to buy food that could be grown on large-scale farms on the mainland than to grow it here." Even now, Hawaii imports eighty-five percent of its food.

So what accounts for the exhilarating wealth of local produce found at the KCC market and the two-hundred-plus--and counting--other farmers' markets throughout the state? For starters, locals are trying to eat healthier, says Hirura. For another, the islands' most notable chefs are increasingly on the lookout not just for fresh ingredients but for more unusual, indigenous varieties of fruits and vegetables.

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Despite the islands' slow embrace of locavorism, the movement has always existed here, albeit in a small-scale way. In 1991, twelve local chefs established the Hawaiian Regional Cuisine (HRC) movement. Tired of dishing up Continental fare in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, they started serving local produce and flavors to predominantly high-end diners. About a decade later, Oahu-born Ed Kenney joined the crusade with Town, his popular downtown bistro that sources more than half of its menu locally.

Now a generation of young chefs who trained under the HRC chefs and Kenney, as well as on the mainland with Alice Waters, Thomas Keller, and the like, are bringing that same sensibility—quality ingredients and expert technique—to all kinds of enterprises, from gastropubs to food trucks to pop-up restaurants. "It's really an exciting time to be in Hawaii," says Kenney. "The number of restaurants opening up in Honolulu alone is just crazy. There are so many young creative chefs at work." Among the rising stars, he says, is Mark "Gooch" Noguchi, a former hula dancer who is as passionate about Hawaii's cultural and culinary heritage as he is about cooking. "We're just doing what our ancestors did long ago," says Gooch, about this new wave of farm-minded chefs. "Nana i ke kumu—looking to the source." And you can too. Here's the best of what's cooking in Hawaii right now.

Where to Eat

Alan Wong's One of Honolulu's early farm-to-table evangelists, Alan Wong continues to expertly riff on local ingredients and Asian flavors at his elegant flagship space, ten minutes from Waikiki. Among the many loyal diners is President Obama, who's reportedly partial to Wong's Korean-style braised short ribs (1857 S. King St.; 808-949- 2526; entrées from $31).

MW Restaurant Last fall, Michelle and Wade Ueoka, until recently the pastry chef and chef de cuisine, respectively, at Alan Wong's, opened their own more casual place near the Ala Moana Center, where they're giving Hawaiian home-cooking a makeover. Here, humble oxtail soup is made with corned beef and pork belly (1538 Kapiolani blvd.; 808- 955-6505; entrées from $24).

The Pig & The Lady Andrew Le's restaurant, which serves updates of his mother's Vietnamese street food recipes, is beloved by local chefs. It's famous for the pho French Dip—a perfectly braised brisket sandwich, which you're meant to dunk into pho broth (83 N. King St.; 808-585-8255; entrées from $11).

Prima Chefs Alejandro Briceno and Lindsey Ozawa both sharpened their skills at Nobu Waikiki (while the third chef, Kevin Lee, did time at Dovetail in New York City), but the focus here is on Italy. Try the innovative twists on standbys, such as the savory fennel panna cotta sprinkled with coffee salt (108 Hekili St.; 808- 888-8933; entrées from $16).

Salt Bar & Kitchen Oahu's own hipsters (outfitted in board shorts and tattoos) come to this soaring space for happy hour and Hawaiian-tinged small plates—Kunia Country Farms greens with asian pear and scallion; a cheese board using Wai'anae's Naked Cow Dairy products (3605 Waialae Ave.; 808-744-7567; small plates from $5).

Sushi Izakaya Gaku A favorite spot for chefs on their nights off, this friendly gastropub within a nondescript office building has some of the best and most beautifully presented sushi in town (1329 S. King St.; 808-589-1329; small plates from $6).

Taste Table Mark "Gooch" Noguchi's culinary pop-up operates from a small storefront in the newly hip neighborhood of Kaka'ako, blocks from Waikiki. Gooch, a celebrated chef in his own right (re-imagined Hawaiian classics are his specialty), cooks once in a while, but the real purpose is to showcase four different chefs every three months. One night it might be Peruvian; the next, Indonesian. "You don't just get one chef," says Gooch. "You get four chefs and four interpretations of what we think is the best food in Hawaii right now" (667 Auahi St.; 808-772-3020; entrées from $7).

Town Ed Kenney's temple to locavorism is a cheerful little bistro far from the tourist zone, where the dishes are an Italian-hawaiian hybrid (think gnocchi with sunchokes or pickled pig's ear with mango mostarda) and the crowd is just as eclectic. Kenney's next project will be a restaurant and agricultural center on the island's North Shore, modeled after new York's Blue Hill at Stone Barns (3435 Waialae Ave.; 808-735-5900; entrées from $17).

Vintage Cave The priciest and most ambitious restaurant in Honolulu, it's located incongruously in the basement of a Japanese department store. Here, in a brick-walled room adorned with original Picassos, the 30-year-old chef Chris Kajioka serves molecular gastronomy to Hawaii. Kajioka, who worked at new York's Per Se and San Francisco's Aziza, may fly in the foie gras, black truffles, and the like, but his dishes tend toward the playfully Hawaiian—from the Kona Kumamoto oysters and cucumber ice to the spiced parsnip banana pudding (1450 Ala Moana Blvd.; 808-441-1744; prix fixes from $195).

Farmers' Markets Oahu has more than 60 markets, so limit yourself to those organized by the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation, where everything is either grown or made on Hawaiian soil. The two liveliest are at Kapi'olani Community College (KCC) on Saturday mornings from 7:30 to 11 (4303 Diamond Head Rd.) and on Wednesday evenings from 4 to 7 on the big lawn outside the Blaisdell Center Concert hall, where there's enough hot-off-the-griddle dishes—like guava-wood smoked kebabs and ahi-and-crispy-kale sliders—to make a fine après-beach dinner (777 Ward Ave.).

Where to Stay

Halekulani Even the venerable Halekulani—a refined beachfront oasis in Waikiki—is embracing the new food trends: It just introduced a "farm to fish auction to table" tour for $595 per person, and its Orchids restaurant serves several GMo-free dishes (808-923-2311; doubles from $500; entrées from $29).

The Modern The coolest of the big Waikiki hotels, The Modern has a hopping harborside pool and a waterfront Morimoto restaurant, where the Iron Chef tries his hand at the loco moco—his version is made with wagyu beef and eggs from Oahu's Peterson Farm (855-970-4161; doubles from $360; entrées from $22).

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