Go 'loco' with good Hawaiian food on Oahu
KAHUKU, Oahu, Hawaii -- At first I thought it was a mistake.
The "loco moco" I ordered at Turtle Bay Resort looked nothing like what I expected. When I saw the description on the menu, I assumed the "gravy" would be sausage gravy, not brown gravy. Brown gravy sounded like a weird choice for breakfast until I took a bite. It's my new 7 a.m. best friend.
The loco moco was my first introduction to local island cuisine on a recent eight-day tour of Oahu. This traditional Hawaiian dish comes in many variations. The white rice topped with a hamburger patty, eggs and gravy served at Turtle Bay Resort turned out to be quite a start to a great day surfing the waves of the North Shore.
Oahu gets a bad rap for being Hawaii's urban island. The bonus is all these people need to be fed, right? Great restaurants and dining experiences can be found just about anywhere, from the isolated and peaceful North Shore to the chaotic and commercialized Waikiki.
The North Shore: The dining at Turtle Bay Resort, already very good, is about to get a makeover. Plans for the resort's signature restaurant, 21 Degrees North, haven't been made public, although I'm sure a few people will miss its current menu. My seafood chowder appetizer was creamy goodness, followed by the main dish, a surf-n-turf of kona lobster and filet mignon. All the vegetables are locally grown, supporting the farm-to-table concept.
My favorite discovery at the resort, however, was at the laid-back Lei Lei's Bar and Grill inside the golf clubhouse. My host recommended the ahi tuna melt. Turns out, it's an off-menu treat only enjoyed by insiders. Just ask for it.
I did not dine at Ola's on the beach, but the sandy setting and food looked fabulous. Instead, my wife and I headed for the grimy tourist traps down the road. Eating out of a "shrimp truck" has become a "must" when visiting the North Shore. There are at least five to choose from within five miles of the resort. The juicy shrimp scampi garlic served out of Giovanni's shrimp truck off of Kamehameha Highway (83) comes loaded with butter and garlic.
On the way to our next resort, the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa in Ko Olina, my family stopped at the Matsumoto Grocery Store in historic Haleiwa for some shaved ice. These famous treats were so large that we couldn't finish two between the four of us.
Ko Olina: Eating lunch by the pool at the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa was always convenient, but we always ventured off property for dinner.
It's just a short walk to Paradise Cove for a Hawaiian luau. The buffet of salads, fish, vegetables, desserts and the traditional roasted pig were much better than a luau I attended on Maui a few years ago. This festivities were also much more interactive. We arrived early so the children could learn to throw wooden spears, get Hawaiian tattoos and paddle an outrigger ocean kayak in the setting sun. The mix of fire throwing, storytelling, dancing and singing was quite entertaining.
My favorite meal of the trip came courtesy of Roy's Ko Olina next to the Ko Olina Golf Club. Roy Yamaguchi first opened his successful chain in Honolulu in 1988. Today, there are 31 locations around the world, including six in Hawaii.
Roy's plates are colorfully decorated. My sampler platter, consisting of shrimp, blackened fish and BBQ ribs (a Roy's specialty), was outstanding. Another Roy's signature is ordering dessert before you're done with the main meal. The chocolate soufflé and the pineapple upside-down cake take a half-hour to bake. Seconds, please!
Surprisingly, I only had a few meals involving pineapple, the cash crop of Oahu for generations. Between the upside-down cake and Roy's signature pineapple martini, I felt I did my share in supporting Dole that night.
Waikiki: We dined in Waikiki like most tourists. One night out, we splurged like royalty. The next morning, we went poor like paupers to balance out the budget.
Both had their merits. The splurge came at the Prince Court, the all-you-can-eat seafood buffet of the Hawaii Prince Hotel Waikiki. The place was already packed for our early seating at 5:30 p.m. The service was excellent despite the crowds and the array of food was endless. It felt like a cruise ship on land but with fresher seafood. The crab legs, shrimp, fish … everything was prepared right.
The next morning we stumbled upon the Wailana Coffee House along Ala Moana Drive. My son begged for IHOP nearby, but we wisely tried the local joint. The all-you-can-eat pancakes for $6.95 included eggs and sausage or bacon. The kid's pancakes were less than $3 a plate. We stuffed ourselves well enough to skip lunch.
Dining in Hawaii trends toward the expensive side. Sometimes being savvy pays off. The no. 1 lesson I learned was simply this: When eating in a tropical paradise, everything tastes better.
-- Jason Scott Deegan