Hot stuff. That’s the island of Hawaii, which is nearly twice as large as the other Hawaiian islands combined.
You can walk through pristine rain forests, swim at world-class beaches, hike trails through snow-covered mountains or check out spectacular Kilauea volcano, which hasn’t erupted in more than a year.
Hawaii Island’s attributes include fantastic food such as line-caught fish, tropical fruit and tiki cocktails ideal for toasting the sunset. Plus, Hawaii, like other islands in the chain, has embraced mainland food trends, with chefs enthusiastically joining the farm-to-table movement.
But island prices can take a huge bite out of a vacationing family’s budget. You’ll pay $40 for adults and $20 for kids for breakfast, for example, at the Big Island Buffet at the popular Hilton Waikaloa Village. A family dinner for four at famous Merriman’s in Waimea costs $79 per person.
The solution: Eat where the kamaaina (locals) eat.
More than a decade ago, the Travel section developed lists focusing on inexpensive places to eat in Hawaii. We canvassed the islands to bring you articles we called “20 for $20,” tasting our way across the four main tourist islands in search of great meal deals at restaurants locals like best. But things change in a decade.
Times photographer Mel Melcon and I crisscrossed Hawaii island for this article, racking up nearly 700 miles on our foodie adventure. Our faves encompass the island, from Hilo to in the south to Waimea and Kailua-Kona, with several stops in smaller cities.
(1) Hula Hulas Kitchen and Bar
It’s all about hula — and island dishes — at Hilo’s Hula Hulas, which pays homage to Hawaii’s dancers and multicultural flavors. “We specialize in island-inspired food with a modern twist,” said Joslynne McDonough, general manager of the restaurant, which sits on Hilo Bay and is part of Grand Naniloa Resort. Expect stunning views and entertainment at night. “We keep it very local with hula dancers onstage or musicians,” McDonough.
We caught a duo playing Hawaiian tunes and then dug into a barbecue kalua pork pizza ($14), grilled local fish tacos ($18) and crab-stuffed avocado salad ($18). In the background were huge photo murals by Kim Taylor Reece, an Oahu artist who specializes in photographing the state’s hula dancers.
(2) Conscious Culture Café
Are you a conscious omnivore? Then this colorful café in downtown Hilo is for you. It caters to people who aren’t necessarily vegan or carnivores but are interested in making sure the food they eat is organic and sustainably sourced.
“We can veganize almost anything,” server Miranda Thomas said. “But we also serve grass-fed beef, locally sourced wild-caught fish and sustainably raised Black Forest ham.”
You’ll also find fermented foods (aged cheeses, sauerkraut, kimchi) on the menu that contribute to diners’ probiotic health. We tried the yummy Fresh Caught Bibimbap breakfast, eggs with grilled mahi mahi, kimchi, sweet potatoes, veggies and avocado ($17). Also, a Jamaican Jerk Chicken Sammy, a soaring sandwich with apples, bananas and ginger beef kraut ($15).
(3) Hawaiian Style
If you’re looking for local comfort food, Hawaiian Style is the place to go. This popular East Hilo cafe can be counted on for tasty loco mocos, chicken katsu, kalbi ribs and all the other wonderful dishes Hawaiian fusion has given birth to. You also can expect portions big enough to share.
The café, which opened in 2012, has a nice tropical ambiance. “We want it to be comfortable enough so that people don’t feel like they have to dress up to come, but nice enough for date night,” said Stephen Izumi, general manager and nephew of owner Guy Kaoo. We tried deluxe fried saimin ($18.95) and breakfast mento bento ($15.95), Both were giant portions. A tip: Hawaiian Style is near Hilo International Airport. Stop for to-go food before your flight.
(4) Hilo Burger Joint
Walk into this downtown Hilo restaurant and bar and you’ll swear you’re entering an Irish pub. Except you can’t order corned beef and cabbage or Irish stew. Hilo Burger Joint once was an Irish pub, and it still has that warm, friendly atmosphere. But now you’ll choose from 21 burgers, making it a burger lover’s destination, with caprese, barbecue, curry gravy and loco burgers on the menu, plus 17 other permutations. There are 21 beers on tap and a full bar, plus items for burger haters, including pork sliders, a Reuben and non-beef burgers made of turkey, salmon and other alternatives.
We toasted the Joint’s inventiveness with a beer and a Hilo Bay Burger — a tasty combo that included beets and goat cheese ($15) with a side of fries. If you dislike buns, the Joint will prepare your burger with a salad or with rice.
(5) Suisan Fish Market
A steady stream of customers enters Suisan Fish Market, and it’s been that way for more than a century. The business, which labels itself as “proud to be part of the Hawaiian fishing community for over 110 years,” buys and sells fish.
If you’re planning a barbecue, stop in for whole fish or steaks. If you’re an ahi fan looking for lunch, stop by for a bowl or plate featuring some of the freshest fish around, with an amazing variety of ahi flavors available. Or try the marlin, oyster, spicy lobster or spicy crab salads.
The ambiance here is fish market, not restaurant, so you’ll eat outside at a picnic table or take it to go. Our large bowl, with sesame ahi shoyu and spicy ahi ($13.50), included two scoops of rice. We happily shared this fine fishy treat.
(6) Hilo Farmers Market
Spend a morning grazing at the Hilo Farmers Market, where you can find unusual fruits and vegetables, including furry red rambutans, pink-and-green dragon fruit and sweet longans, plus the more common passion fruit, mangoes and pineapples. Arrive early or you’ll miss the best deals.
More than 200 local farmers, artisans, crafters and retailers have booths. You’ll see the largest number on Saturdays, but there’s a smaller market on Wednesdays. Besides food, you’ll find souvenirs, flowers, unusual plants, honey and spices. For lunch, check out bento boxes from $5 and packaged Hawaiian favorites such as lau lau and kalua pork from $8. Or visit one of the market food trucks, such as Litchon, which specializes in garlic shrimp ($16), hot wings ($12) and braised oxtail ($15).
(7) Kilauea Lodge
Prices: $11-$16 breakfast, $14-$17 lunch
The architecture is on a grand scale at Kilauea Lodge, which has soaring cedar ceilings, a huge stone fireplace and big windows with views of the great outdoors. It almost feels as though you’re walking into a national park lodge.
Kilauea Lodge is just outside the entrance to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It started as a YMCA camp, built in 1938 for the children of Hawaii, was renovated in the ’80s, becoming a lodge in 1988. It’s now an excellent breakfast or lunch stop for park visitors but is way out of our price range for dinner.
The specialty is Hawaiian favorites, including fresh fish, grass-fed beef and local produce. Our fave was a Cajun-style Niçoise salad made with ahi ($15), a colorful blend of flavors and textures. An attractive gift shop adjoins the main dining room.
(8) Coffee Shack
Thegets our cute-and-wonderful nod this year. This indoor-outdoor café is suspended 1,200 feet above the Pacific on the side of Mauna Loa Volcano. The patio overlooking this amazing view of Kealakekua Bay is surrounded by a white picket fence, lush vegetation and splashes of color from flowering hibiscus and bougainvillea. What a great place to start your day.
Owner Jim Keaver opened the café 19 years ago, serving breakfast and lunch to locals and tourists headed to and from. Our fave here was a giant smoked turkey and Black Forest ham sandwich ($13.95); you can also choose pizzas, salads and lots of good coffee.
The property was once a coffee plantation; Keaver’s restaurant is still surrounded by 2½ acres of plants. “All we want to do is help tourists have a good time on their vacations,” he said.
Info:, 83-5799 Mamalahoa Highway, Captain Cook; (808) 328-9555,
(9) Kaaloa’s Super J’s Authentic Hawaiian
This mom-and-daughter snack bar is old-school Hawaiian. It’s not much to look at, but it’s a winner. It has been included in Yelp’s annual Top 100 Places to Eat in America the last three years.
Hawaiian favorites are the specialty of the house: kalua pork, lomi lomi salmon, mac salad and lau lau pork, meat that’s wrapped and cooked in taro leaves for 10 hours. Try the combo plate ($14) to sample all the flavors.
“There were eight of us Js when we opened,” Janice Kaaloa said of the business she and her husband started 28 years ago. Now there’s just Janice and her daughter Jaye cooking up those great family recipes
(10) Shimaichi Sushi
Gerry Gabaon is a second-generation sushi chef who is now doing his own thing. That means serving traditional favorites, spiced with the addition of contemporary dishes, at his restaurant, Shimaichi Sushi.
He trained under his dad, Greg, a longtime executive sushi chef, then opened his restaurant in a strip mall in Kailua-Kona. “It’s great having the freedom to do what you want.” He’s a master in his own right now, with 17 years of experience; it’s fun to watch the artistic way he prepares rolls.
His 16-table indoor-outdoor café offers some super buys at lunch. A $20 lunch special, for instance, provides more than enough for two people, with a choice of two signature rolls. We tried the Dragon Fly ($12), with shrimp and avocado topped with ahi and macadamia nuts, and the Thai Stick ($12), with mint, which adds a refreshing taste. The rolls were beautiful and delish.
(11) Kona Inn
Location, location, location. Kona Inn has it — oceanfront on Kailua Bay — and wows visitors with one of the nicest views on the island. (Arrive before sunset for a vibrant close of day.) This island classic, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in September, has other claims to fame too, including a rep for serving the best mai tais on Hawaii Island. Try the happy hour menu (2-5 p.m.) for drink deals, or the evening entrees menu, which includes several sandwich plates, most less than $20. Other great possibilities: a jumbo shrimp cocktail ($18.95), seared rice paper ahi ($19.95) or calamari ($12.95). The restaurant is owned by Bob Mardian, a well-known surfer back in the day, who also owns Wind and Sea and Harpoon Henry’s restaurants in Dana Point.
(12) Feeding Leaf Kitchen and Okazuya
The most hectic time of day at Feeding Leaf Kitchen is 6 to 8 a.m. That’s when the island’s workers crowd the front door of the cheerful café in search of breakfast or a lunch plate to go. Owner Tracey Apoliona is “crazy busy” in the morning and sells out by noon.
Start your morning with a chicken and waffles ($11.95), a beautiful dish that will make your Instagram followers jealous. Or perhaps Hangover Saimin ($11.95), another stunner with kimchi, shrimp, a beef skewer and sunny-side-up egg. Apoliona started with a catering business, opening her popular kitchen, take-out business and okazuya (Japanese for “food with rice” and “shop”) in an industrial area. She sources everything from local growers. “We are committed to cooking our food our way, filled with comfort and love,” she said.
(13) Jackie Rey’s Ohana Grill
Paul Streiter and Angela Rey named this Hawaii Island restaurant in 2004 for their daughter when she was a child. Now she’s all grown up, and there are two restaurants: this one in Kailua-Kona and a 3-year-old version in Hilo. The popular dining rooms were too pricey for us at dinner, but happy hour offered some succulent deals.
We visited the Kailau-Kona restaurant, a large open-air room filled with plants and ceiling fans and flanked by a 10-seat bar. You can get tacos for $15 or a burger for $16. But the tastiest deal is the steak frites with coleslaw, a grilled 8-ounce sirloin for $19. Draft beer is $5 and mai tais — yay! — are $8. At dinner, just a few sandwiches made our $20 cut. Eat early and save.
(14) Under the Bodhi Tree
A career dream came true for chef Stephen Rouelle five years ago when he opened Under the Bodhi Tree, a vegan/vegetarian cafe in the high-end Waikoloa region of Hawaii island. Rouelle, formerly a chef at the nearby Fairmont Orchid, changed gears when he opened his eight-table, mall-based café named for a sacred fig tree associated with enlightenment.
He limited his kitchen to plant-based dishes, except for eggs in the morning. The menu features soups, salads, sandwiches, wraps and desserts, and everything is $16 or less. We tried the Raw Thai dish, a combination of zucchini noodles, kimchi, raw cashews and lime ($15); I think my vegan friends would be happy, but it was a bit too much raw food for me.
We also had a beautiful and yummy acai bowl ($10) with apple, guava, rambutan, macadamia nuts and shredded coconut. Check out the rambutan, a colorful red addition. Tip: There’s a bathroom in the mall, but not in the restaurant.
(15) Kona Tap Room
What’s a vacation without a little evening entertainment? If “boring” is your answer, don’t despair; Hawaii Island offers more than fresh air and big waves. The Kona Tap Room at Hilton Waikoloa Village has different entertainment from 8 to 11 p.m. daily, including Hawaiian night, country and pop, pop and reggae night, hula night and a night to do your karaoke thing.
You’ll find 12 Kona Brewing beers on tap, or you can try a flight of three for $9 or a 16-ounce glass for $9. We had dinner; beer-braised short-rib sliders ($17) and kalua pork nachos ($19). It wasn’t the most healthful meal of the trip, but it tasted great with beer. You can order food here until midnight. Another plus: You can ride the hotel’s little boats for free, a Disney-ish way to see the 62-acre grounds.
(16) Noodle Club
“Do you hear the slurping?” asks a cartoon on the wall of the Noodle Club. Of course we do. This attractive 4-year-old café is full of the sound of slurps —from saimin ($10.50), won ton min ($11.50) and pork and garden ramen ($13), among others. The menu also includes baby back ribs, Korean fried chicken, bao and other faves. But the main line is slurpy noodles.
“This is cold country,” wait staffer Tracey Taylor said. “This side of the island gets down into the 40s; people need soup.” Waimea, at 2,500 feet, is sometimes compared with the Scottish Highlands, with cool temperatures and low clouds. We loved the café’s Big Pho King Bone ($15), an over-the-top dish featuring an 8-inch beef bone. The broth was rich and flavorful, especially after we scooped out the marrow. It was easy to pretend it was cold outside. Tip: There’s no bathroom; use the one in the Foodland market next door.
(17) Big Island Brewhaus
Raise a mug or three to Big Island Brewhaus, which sells award-winning beer with a Hawaiian flair and food that’s locally sourced and delicious. We wanted to try the macadamia nut beer (Big Mac Nut Brown Ale), except it’s seasonal and we were a bit too early; it usually appears mid-fall. But Golden Sabbath, brewed with Hawaiian honey, made its way to our table, as did a flight of draft beers that included a coconut cream ale. Beautiful, fun, tasty.
The brewhaus — you can eat inside or in an outdoor beer garden — offers 20 draft beers and seven bottled beers. There’s also an eclectic menu that includes fish tacos ($7 for one), burrito ($9), burgers ($13) and several other pub-style dishes. We tried a colorful salad that featured Waimea-grown Kekela greens with squash, tomatoes and guacamole ($11 or $13 with chicken or falafel). Cheers!
(18) Naupaka Beach Grill
One of the downsides of staying in inexpensive digs is that you miss the cool amenities at glam hotels. But you can live the high life for the price of a $20-or-less meal. One of our Hawaii Island favorites is the Westin Hapuna Beach Resort, which recently underwent a $46-million renovation and also offers awesome views and grounds.
Take your time moseying around on a do-it-yourself tour as you walk to Naupaka Beach Grill, which has grand views of its own. The poolside restaurant is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., so you can visit for lunch or dinner — you might even catch a musician or other entertainer. The menu has several appetizing salads, plus sandwiches and small plates that make our $20-and-under cut.
Our favorite is the amazing Chinese chicken salad, overflowing with colorful and interesting veggies ($17). The tropical ambiance makes it even better.
(19) Kings View Café
For a moment, I thought I was at Honolulu’s Iolani Palace. In front of me was the city’s famous 18-foot-tall statue of King Kamehameha. But no, I was on Hawaii Island at aptly named Kings View Café, across the street from a look-alike statue that honors the king who united the Hawaiian Islands in 1810.
“This is actually the original. We named the restaurant after it,” said Alyssa Ackerman-Slaven, the café’s owner. She said the statue was lost in a Falkland Islands shipwreck and found years later. Meantime, another was crafted for display in Honolulu. Besides a reminder of Hawaii’s royal heritage, Ackerman-Slaven’s Polynesian café offers breakfast, sandwiches, salads, pizza and burgers, all priced at less than $15. We loved the hot pastrami with fries ($12.99), big enough to share.
(20) Sweet Potato Kitchen and Bakery
Vinnie, Henny Penny and Junior greeted us when we arrived at Sweet Potato Kitchen. They’re the resident chickens. And they don’t have to worry about ending up on the menu because this is a vegan/vegetarian restaurant. Everything is organic and gluten-free, said owner Susan Alexy, who calls herself “owner and chief chicken whisperer.”
Eat inside or outside, where you can watch the chickens scurry. Breakfast and lunch are served; everything is made from scratch using Alexy’s recipes. Her BountiBurger ($14) is a rich and flavorful mixture of brown rice, quinoa and black and pinto beans, with a lot of other veggies mixed in. Or try the huevos paniolos with polenta, spicy beans and guacamole ($16). “I moved to Hawaii to go to the beach,” Alexy said, “but then my son talked me into going into business.” She’s happy he did. Tip: The closest bathroom is down the street at a visitors center.