Huli Sue's Barbecue & Grill, 64-957 Mamalahoa Highway, Kamuela; (808) 885-6268, http://www.hulisues.com
Winning our award for cheapest food on the Big Island is Tex Drive-In & Restaurant in Honokaa. Basically a fast-food stand with indoor seating, Tex (short for Texiera, the original owners of the 41-year-old restaurant) serves up local food at low, low prices. It also specializes in malasadas, a sweet, puffy, doughnut-style pastry that's so popular it flies off the baking sheets; the eatery sells 60,000 a month. The food here will fill you up (and probably out) with Hawaiian faves such as Spam Loco Moco ($4.25), Korean chicken plate ($8.99) and our fave, curry stew ($3.75).
As a sign out front says, Tex offers ono kine, Hawaiian slang for "good food."
We loved: the cheap and tasty stew.
We didn't love: the appearance; the diner needs a face-lift.
Tex Drive-In, 45-690 Pakalana St. (at Highway 19), Honokaa; (808) 775-0598, http://www.texdrivein.com
18--NORI'S SAIMIN & SNACKS
Seven awards hang inside the entrance to Nori's Saimin shop, lauding the tiny cafe for its Hawaiian-style noodle soup. The certificates are from the local newspaper, and that's exactly why we dropped in for lunch one day: Everyone we talked to in Hilo told us that Nori's Saimin rates as one of the most popular local-food cafes in town. The restaurant is difficult to find and not much to look at, but it may be the best noodle shop on the island. You won't find many tourists here. You will find locals who appreciate good value and fast and friendly service. Our favorites were the saimin ($6.69) and ginger pork ($10.75). Be sure to call for directions.
We loved: prices and quantity.
We didn't love: overly salty food.
Nori's Saimin & Snacks, 688 Kinoole St., Suite 124, Hilo; (808) 935-9133.
19--NAUNG MAI THAI KITCHEN
If you crave pad Thai or tom yum while you're in Hilo, Naung Mai Thai Kitchen is the place. This tidy little café, in an industrial area, offers an attractive lunch special, with curries and stir-fry plates for $7. Dinner prices are reasonable too, with chicken pad Thai for $11. The restaurant is a family operation run by sisters Siriporn Elkins and Sukanya Heideman. The service is fast, and the food authentic. Watch out for lines on Friday and Saturday nights, when the Kitchen gets very busy.
We loved: fast, friendly service.
We didn't love: that some dishes weren't warm enough.
Naung Mai Thai Kitchen, 86 Kilauea Ave., Hilo; (808) 934-7540, http://www.naungmaithai.com
20--HILO BAY CAFÉ
Fine dining in Hilo? And in a strip mall next to a Wal-Mart? Hard to believe but true. Hilo Bay Café has brought New York cool to this outpost of Spam and poi. The restaurant, which specializes in European-Pacific Rim cuisine, wins our award for Best of Show for several reasons, including its reasonably priced menu. It makes the most of its small space and odd location with chic décor and nice touches, including candles on the tables, linen napkins, leather club chairs and contemporary art. Dishes are creative and beautifully presented; our favorites were the wild salmon appetizer with avocado ($13), mushroom pot pie ($12) and crab cakes with organic greens and wontons ($14). If you want to splurge, try the molten chocolate lava cake with Kona coffee ice cream ($7). The bill here can add up, so take a friend and share.
We loved: the innovative menu.
We didn't love: the café's popularity; it's too crowded.
Hilo Bay Café, 315 Makaala St., Hilo; (808) 935-4939, http://www.hilobaycafe.com