I've been waiting —waiting for years to share Honolulu's Kaimuki neighborhood with you. It's not that I've been keeping it from you but that it just recently came into its own.
I first got to know Kaimuki when my husband had his office in this little hood just a minutes from Waikiki. Tucked behind Diamond Head crater, think of Kaimuki as a little village within the city of Honolulu. Waialae Avenue is the heart of the hood and it's lined with independent shops, cafes, and boutiques, which gives it feels that's one part a midcentury Main Street and one part eclectic .
In the last few years a lot of small businesses have opened up and added to the vibe of Kaimuki and it's quickly become one of my favorite parts of Honolulu. It's a sort of quirky part of the city, and, yes, things are a bit spread out, but if you want to escape the craziness of Waikiki, this is a non-touristy part of Honolulu that's just an Uber ride away.
GRAB A BITE
Chef Ed Kenney helped reshape the modern Oahu food scene away from PacRim everything to a farm-to-table focus when he opened Town about 10 years ago. He also changed the Kaimuki food scene as Town was one of the first new generation businesses to open in the area. Their comforting Italian meets Hawaiian food means they do local fish and gnocchi equally well.
Ed's second addition to the Kaimuki food scene was Kaiuki Superette, which opened just a couple years ago. It has takeaway ingredients for cooking but mostly focuses on prepared dishes you can take to go or eat there. The seasonal salads are always interesting but I'm partial to the he'e salad (octopus salad) sandwich.
Our friend, chef Lee Anne Wong, upped the breakfast game in Kaimuki when she opened this cafe a few years ago. The place is so popular, there's a wait pretty much everyday, all day but it's worth it. She makes twists on local comfort food and we dream about the breakfast bruschetta, the daily dumplings, and the cast iron skillet dishes.
Just around the corner for Koko Head Cafe is Via Gelato, which has some of the best ice cream/gelato on the island. It's classic gelato worthy of Italy with standards like Straciatella (Chocolate Chip) and Lemon Sorbetto but also lovely local flavors like Lihing Shiso, Lilikoi (Passionfruit) and even Kulolo (Taro Root).
This is a hole-in-the-wall, walk up to a window and order takeaway joint that's so small you might pass it if you blink. It's no frills food that's affordable and one of the best teriyaki bento boxes on the island.
Talk to any local about food and they'll quickly start recommending their favorite poke (fresh fish salad) place to you. There are a lot of subjective details to poke — do you like it with or without mayo? green or Maui onions? a lot of little shoyu? — but one non-negotiable is freshness. So, I'm sharing the three places with the freshest poke in the greater Kaimuki niehgborhood (see Tamura's and Ono Seafood) and the final decision is up to you!
GET A DRINK
Yes, Chef Ed Kenney is a friend (and a talented chef) so I love supporting the work he does, but if I have to choose, my favorite place of his is his third (recently opened) restaurant Mud Hen Water. The name comes from the English translation of Kaimuki's main street, Waialae Avenue, and the restaurant pays homage to all things local food right now including excellent cocktails.
If craft beer is more your style, then you'd going to want to head across the street from Mud Hen Water to Brew'd. The locals drink a lot of beer but places like Brew'd brought the craft brew scene into mainstream Hawaii.
What started out in 2009 as a coffee truck that you could get curbside (get it??), has evolved into three cafes across Honolulu. These guys take coffee very seriously so they make everything from espresso to a pour over coffee well but look out for their flavored syrups that will change the way you think about sweetened coffee.
Possibly the most old school location on this list, the crack seed store is here just because, if you love food, you need to head here. Despite its sketchy-sounding name, a crack seed is just a small snack store that sells candy to Asian dried salty snacks in bulk. If you're feeling adventurous, go for the dried ika (squid) or the li hing (salted plum) mango.
One of my first finds in Kaimuki was Tamura's and I've been an evangelist for it ever since. This wine shop has multiple locations but this one, with a serious wine collection, tons of craft beer, artisanal liquor, and some of the best poke around, is by far my favorite. Oh, and, don't forget to get some of their boiled peanuts!
This little boutique has a mix of vintage, beach chic items from barware to paper goods. Peek in to pick up a souvenir or buy a gift for yourself!
If you're a fabric nerd like me, then you'll love this place as it carries everything from Aloha shirt prints to Japanese fabrics. And, even if you aren't into, it, it's worth popping in just to get a peek.
I really like to walk from Kaimuki to Diamond Head Grill then keep walking to picnic in Kapiolani Park or at Sans Souci Beach. But the real reason I go to Diamond Head Grill is the food. They have a slightly healthier take on plate lunch (salmon with brown rice), their Iced Tea is addictive I took to reverse engineering it, and they respectable versions of some of my favorite local desserts such as Coconut Cream Pie, Sweet Potato Pie, Butter Mochi, and Pumpkin Crunch.
Many locals prefer Fort Ruger to Diamond Head because they consider it to have more local style food. The plate lunches are nothing to scoff at and they have super old school versions of local food (our favorite is the butter mochi). And though many like their poke, we prefer Tamura's or Fresh Catch in this neighborhood.
Another street that has a lot of good food (from classic Leonard's malasadas to food coma-inducing Rainbow Drive-In plate lunches and fresh breakfast at Tucker & Bevy) is Kapahulu boulevard. We could go on and one about what we love there (and will someday soon) but we have to mention Ono Seafood for poke.
I'm kinda torn about this market because it's gotten very touristy on the weekends. Even so, it has everything from local flowers to produce and tons of great food gifts to take back home. And there are some amazing breakfast stands (we're partial to Pig & The Lady). Oh, and FYI, if you head to this farmers market (it runs Tuesdays and Saturdays), it'd be just a 10 minute walk over to Kaimuki!
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Map illustration by Charmagne Kringstein