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Recommendations for authentic Japanese cuisine, amazing coffee, and refined afternoon tea in the Waikiki area, plus beautiful sights and places to eat along the North Shore of Oahu.
This is the place to go if you're searching for true Japanese cuisine in an authentic (and cozy) Japanese atmosphere. It is well known among Japanese tourists and locals, but not as much among non-Japanese visitors. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We had a superb breakfast there for a reasonable price ($14 "teishoku" or set meal), in comparison to places like Yoshiya at the Sheraton Waikiki, which charges $20 for a comparable set. Children's teishoku are also available for $10, and you can find 10% off coupons in the local ad magazines geared at Japanese tourists. This is how we found out about the place, and after researching it a bit online (someone said they had the best breakfasts on the island), we figured we had to try it. Apparently the Japanese media have discovered it and celebrities from Japan are known to stop in for a meal. The restaurant also has Japanese-style tatami mat rooms ("zashiki") for larger groups/parties tucked away in the rear of the restaurant.
The woman who served us (possibly the owner or his wife) was lovely, gentle, kind, and clearly proud of her establishment. My husband ordered grilled mackerel (which the menu indicated was from Norway); it was expertly cooked and presented and melted in the mouth. We're used to more pedestrian mackerel found at most Japanese restaurants that is flown in from Boston, but this was amazing! I had the "gindara miso-yaki", which is a slice of miso-marinated black cod grilled to perfection. This too melted in the mouth. My daughter had grilled salted salmon with her children's set meal and my son chose the "onigiri" (rice ball) set. The adult sets came with an appetizer salad of bamboo shoots and carrots, and the fish was accompanied by a delicious konbu (kelp) side dish, some pickled "hakusai" (Napa cabbage), miso soup, and of course rice. Rather than serving the rice in individual bowls, Yoshitsune follows the tradition of Japanese families as well as higher-end, more authentic restaurants in Japan (known as "Nihon ryoori-ya), and presents the rice in a large, lacquered, straight-sided serving container (known as an "ohitsu"), from which you can serve your own portions (and refills). Our set meals also included dessert; for adults there was a luscious wedge of fresh pineapple, cut into bite-size pieces, and a choice of vanilla or green-tea ice cream for the children.
We liked the food so much we ordered some more onigiri to take with us for lunch, since we were heading to the airport to go home around noon. They were delicious, and our waitress even added some "tamago-yaki" (rolled omelette) and "takuan" (type of pickle made from "daikon" radish) for no additional charge.
We highly recommend this place! Reservations are probably a good idea for dinner and possibly lunch. The restaurant is located off the main lobby of the Park Shore Hotel, which is on Kapahulu Avenue near the intersection with Kalakaua Avenue. If you're coming from Kalakaua, the hotel is just past the Starbucks located at that intersection.
NB: My husband (who is Japanese-American) and I have lived in and visited Japan multiple times and prefer authentic Japanese cuisine (e.g., items known as ippin-ryoori, such as various appetizers, grilled fish, seaweed salads etc) rather than the more typically found all-you-can-eat sushi bars and teppan-yaki places found not only on the mainland but also in Honolulu. Going to Yoshitsune is like taking a step into a neighborhood Japanese restaurant in Japan, except the quality is exceptional and the service more gracious than you might likely find in an average restaurant in Japan. Given the prices, the quality of the food and gracious service, this place is truly a gem.
Matsugen is a real find in Honolulu; we discovered it the same way we did Yoshitsune (reviewed above), namely through write-ups in two different advertising magazines aimed at Japanese tourists. (These magazines can be found on most streets and at the airport in display boxes; often the coupons are bilingual so you can find the listing in English if you don't read Japanese.)
Matsugen is known for its "te-uchi soba," or handmade buckwheat noodles. At the end of the narrow hallway that serves as the entrance to the restaurant, you'll see an amazing mill which is used to grind the buckwheat kernels into flour. Then upon turning left into the restaurant, you'll find two seating areas. To your right are several tables (mostly two- or four-top, as I recall). To the left, there are some additional tables near the back, but the focal point is the intimate U-shaped bar area that encircles the central space where the "soba shoku-nin" (soba artisan) periodically makes an appearance in order to make fresh noodles before your eyes.
This is not a flashy experience like teppan-yaki, but rather a demonstration of true art. The shokunin proceeds from the very beginning of the process--measuring out freshly ground buckwheat flour and water--to kneading the dough and rolling it out with three different sizes of rolling pins (these are much longer than the Western style pins used for pies, and are of varying thicknesses). He then carefully folds and divides the dough before cutting it into precisely measured ribbons of soba, which he then places in a large lacquered box. From start to finish, one round of soba-making takes about 30 minutes, and produces 15 servings of soba. Clearly Matsugen is a restaurant that takes great pains to prepare its food on a small scale, in order to ensure and maintain quality.
Customers are offered a wide range of choices for either cold soba (served with a soy-based dipping sauce on the side) or hot (for which the noodles are placed ahead of time in the steaming broth). Udon (thicker, wheat flour noodles) are also an option, but these noodles aren't made on site. Some combinations include tempura soba, kamo namban (slices of duck on top of hot soba and broth, topped with sliced scallions), kitsune (simmered fried tofu, scallions), and the combination my husband tried which is called "Amanojaku," which included "nattoo" (fermented soybeans), shredded shiso leaves, and nori (dried seaweed).
Matsugen also has an nice list of relatively unusual "ippin-ryoori" (appetizer-like dishes) such as a delicate tofu salad lightly topped with sesame-seed ("goma-dare") dressing; "shiokara" (translated on the menu as "salted squid guts"!), and delicious Kyoto-style pickles (one order includes four different varieties). These put the usual pickles one finds in Japanese markets on the mainland to shame, and made us recall the luscious pickles we'd had when living in Kyoto. The menu also includes "edamame" (lightly boiled and salted soybeans); although these are a common menu item in Japanese restaurants in the US, typically the beans are previously frozen, but judging by the firmness of the ones we were served, they appeared to be fresh.
Last but not least, there is an extensive list of sake as well as "shoochu," which is a distilled cold alcoholic beverage typically made from potatoes, but at Matsugen there are also varieties made from barley or rice. My husband tried a very unusual offering called "soba shoochu-soba yuwari," which is a combination of shoochu made from buckwheat and the hot water reserved after soba has been boiled in it. Here again, this is something not typically found in American Japanese restaurants, so it was a real treat.
Matsugen is located on the Beach Walk, a small street around the corner from the Planet Hollywood located on Kalakaua Avenue. (If you're going down Kalakaua in a northwesterly direction after you pass Lewers Street and Planet Hollywood, it's a left turn.)
Menchanko-Tei in Honolulu is a branch of a Kyushu-based noodle shop in Japan. As with the other Japanese dining options I've included in this GoList, we found this one through the Japanese advertisements/coupon books found in Waikiki. The branch we visited was on the first floor of the Waikiki Trade Center building on Seaside between Kalakaua and Kuhio Avenues. We'd been hunting for a relatively inexpensive place for a Japanese lunch; after glancing through the window at the restaurant and skimming the menu, we thought it looked promising and weren't disappointed.
The menu here includes several versions of "chanko-nabe," which is a large one-pot dish of noodles and various additions. We tried a seafood version, as well as a couple of "teishoku" (meal sets) that were lunch specials for about $10. One set came with grilled fish and the other with yakitori (grilled chicken on skewers) and a small bowl of Hakata-style ramen noodles (served in a white broth topped with simmered pork and pickled ginger).
Afternoon tea at the Moana's Veranda Restaurant is an AMAZING experience! We had booked a room at the hotel from 12/19-12/25, so I made reservations well before our arrival for tea at 1pm on Christmas Eve. The service was quite gracious and the tea was superb--beyond anything I'd ever tasted. There were 7-8 varieties from which we could choose, and the waiter first passed around small cups of the tea leaves for us to enjoy the different fragrances/aromas before deciding on what we'd like. The varieties offered that day included a lovely Earl Grey (far better than any I'd had elsewhere); a luscious lemongrass/lemon peel/rooibos herbal blend that was ethereal--so light and fragrant; an English breakfast style black tea as well as a Darjeeling, and two specialties of the hotel, called the Moana Sunset (a blend including o'helo berry and mango) and the White Tea Serenade (that includes marigold and safflower petals, as well as a peach fragrance). After we decided on our teas, the waiter brought us a sampling of tea sandwiches and a multi-tiered set of plates with various tarts and other desserts. The sandwiches included a curried crab salad on a mini-croissant, which was delicious. The desserts for each person included a scone with dollops of Devonshire cream and lemon curd in small cups, an Opera torte (chocolate mousse/cake-like combination), a berry tart, a cream puff, and several other scrumptious selections. A wonderful place to celebrate a special occasion while viewing the beautiful ocean scenery from the Moana's veranda!
Since there was a branch of this company right next to our hotel (the Westin Moana Surfrider), we stopped in one morning...and were hooked! Their lattes are out of this world and are nicely topped with a decorative flourish in the crema/foamed milk. The "coffee of the day" is also a nice option; one day I lucked out and they had the Kona Peaberry, which is a very unusual bean that produces a more delicate, sweet, and smooth taste than the usual Kona bean (apparently only about 5% of a coffee crop will yield the peaberry-type bean).
There are other branches of Honolulu Coffee Company in Honolulu and one in Maui. The main shop in Oahu is in the Ala Moana Shopping Center. The coffee beans make great gifts; we bought some half-pound bags of Kona Peaberry beans for friends back home.
Tip 1: We read an online posting purportedly by the godson of the Honolulu Coffee Company's owner that said one shouldn't freeze whole coffee beans--only ground coffee. We'd always kept our beans from our local Starbucks in the freezer, but apparently that removes the oils from the beans, which normally would contribute to the taste of the coffee.
Tip 2: If you are in the area for a while and think you might be returning for more cups of coffee, get a card stamped for your first coffee purchase and bring it back each time for additional stamps. Ten stamps gets you a free cup of a drip coffee or an espresso drink. We are a family of four and our kids often ordered hot or iced chocolate; those counted for the total as well.
Tip 3: If you aren't a coffee drinker, they also have excellent smoothies with various combinations of fruit (e.g., mango, papaya, raspberry, etc). Nice pastries too--the croissants are excellent.
Conclusion: This places beats Starbucks hands down!
This is an excellent place in Waikiki for drinks and hearty appetizers. The appetizers range from $9-15 but easily feed two to three people each. We went with friends and enjoyed local beers, poke (two types--one with ahi tuna and the other with prime rib!), seared ahi salad, kalua pig quesadillas, and a special calamari katsu dish. They occasionally have live music; they appeared to be building an outdoor sheltered performance space near the bar for future "concerts". Much of the bar area is sheltered from the occasional light rain shower so it's a great place to while away the afternoon.
Tiki's is located on the 2d floor veranda of the Resort Quest Waikiki Beach Hotel, which you can access from the street by an external staircase (so you don't have to go through the lobby and just come as you are in bathing suits, shorts, flip flops etc.
This place is well known among locals and tourists alike for its excellent burgers and also its grilled mahimahi sandwiches. A meal for 4 will set you back for $40 or more, but the grilled fish sandwiches are amazingly succulent. (Perhaps the mayo slathered on the sandwich contributes to the juicy taste, but the fish is very fresh and delicious.) Our children tried the burgers but opted for the smaller Kiddie size; this was a mistake because the thinner patty was overcooked and dry. Better to order an adult burger (1/3 or 1/2 pound sizes available) and have your kids split one.
We also ordered a small side of fries but they weren't that memorable; other posts I've seen online about the place have often noted this as well. Might be better to opt for a salad instead.
This restaurant started in Haleiwa but has an additional branch in Honolulu; it has become so famous among Japanese that they've also opened multiple branches in Tokyo as well as other parts of Japan. The Haleiwa location opens at 11am; get there a bit early or right at 11 to avoid the crowds!
This place has wonderful shave(d) ice (think snow cones) in a rainbow of flavors, including tropical flavors such as guava and mango, as well as pineapple, coconut, etc in addition to more traditional cherry, strawberry etc. A great deal for about $2.25 per person for a "small" size, which is more than enough for one person (and huge for a child!).
Enroute between Haleiwa and Hauula, we stumbled on this beautiful point overlooking Laie Bay and several small islands with natural rock formations, including one with a hole in the center created by the pounding surf. The peninsula is located just south of Kahuku on Rt 83/Kamehameha Hwy; when you get to the Laie Village Shopping Center (the Foodland grocery store is a good landmark), turn left at the light and head up the hill into the little residential area on Anemoku Street. (Or if you are coming northeast from Honolulu, turn right at the light.) At the T-intersection of Anemoku St with Naupaka Street, turn right, and drive slowly to the end of the street to the parking lot on the point. There is a fascinating plaque describing a local legend as to how the islands were formed off the coast; I don't recall the details, but the gist of it is that the peninsula was actually said to have been a giant lizard named Mo'o whom a legendary heroic figure chopped up into into five pieces and flung them into the ocean off the point, creating the five island/rock formations.
The site does not appear to be well known, especially in comparison to the nearby Polynesian Cultural Center which is a much-discussed destination in every guidebook. But for natural beauty, it's hard to beat Laie Point!
We attended a friend's wedding at a tiny church here; the scenery was stunning, with the ocean stretching out before us on one side and the lush green mountains looming on the other. Not much nearby in terms of places to eat, but a beautiful place to stop that isn't mobbed with surfers or tourists.