Many people flock to Hawaii every year for a number of reasons. Some come for the sun and others for the surf. And then there those who come for the Spam… grilled and placed on top of sushi rice before being wrapped up in some nori.
Unlike the more limited selection of restaurants in Maui, the island of Oahu in general and the Waikiki region in particular features a bounty of culinary delights. You don’t need a big budget either, as there are plenty of cheap eats in Honolulu to be enjoyed. I just hope you like white rice.
All of the images below, including the smaller thumbnails, can be clicked to view their larger, full-sized versions through my Flickr photostream.
Musubi Cafe Iyasume
No list of cheap eats in Honolulu would be complete with a discussion of musubi. An iconic food of the Hawaiian Islands, it’s like taking a piece of sushi and replacing the fish with a slice of Spam luncheon meat. Go to the right place and it could get far more creative than that.
Located in the lobby of the Aqua Pacific Monarch Hotel, Musubi Cafe Iyasume is one of the best on the island. The menu is surprisingly diverse. You can opt for a variety of bento boxes, curries and more, but it’s the musubi that will keep you coming back.
The spam musubi here is terrific, balancing the saltiness of the luncheon meat with the rice and seaweed. A variety of options are available, including additional toppings like egg (tamago), bacon, shiso leaf, and avocado. They also have onigiri-style musubi in triangular form, sans spam.
We tried the spicy cod roe with cheese, the salmon with mayo, and the small fish jako, among others. Most of the musubi sell for anywhere from $1.78 to $2.68, making for a very affordable snack (or meal) on the go. You can grab one of the premade musubi from the counter or order fresh for greater selection. Service is prompt and friendly, though seating is very limited.
Across the street from Musubi Cafe Iyasume is a shady-looking hole in the wall that you might avoid if you didn’t know any better. Don’t be fooled by the modest appearance of Me’s Bar-B-Que; this Korean take-out restaurant is serious business. The only seating is outside and there is a very particular process for ordering, not unlike the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld.
When you walk through the door (the menu is outside too), you first order and pay with the cashier. Next, you shimmy to your right to select your four banchan side dishes. Then, you wait for your meat to be grilled. When your number is called, you pick up your styrofoam box and grab your own napkins and utensils on the side wall.
There’s a lot of great Korean BBQ here to be had here for very little money. The kalbi and BBQ chicken combination shown above — with kimchi, spicy cucumbers, bean sprouts, broccoli and white rice — was only $14 and it was more than enough for the two of us. Single meat dishes are around $10 and special combination platters are around $12. The meat has a wonderful smokiness to it and the banchan selection is on point.
We passed by this place a couple of times while riding the shuttle and both times there was a massive lineup out the door. I had saved Marukame Udon on my list of places to try in Honolulu, but I hadn’t realized just how popular an otherwise nondescript udon restaurant could be. Now, I think I understand the hype.
Just as there is a particular procedure for Me’s Bar-B-Que, there’s a particular procedure for Marukame too. First, you order your bowl of udon, which is handmade fresh on site. The udon itself is largely sold plain, with the exception of the niku udon (which comes with beef) and the curry udon (which comes in a curry broth). We opted to try the regular kake udon (hot) and the garlic chicken salad udon (on special) for our first visit, returning a few days later to try the zaru udon and bukkake udon, both cold.
After picking up your bowl of noodles, you proceed buffet line-style through the assortment of onigiri, musubi and tempura. These are priced individually with most of the tempura going for about $1.75 a piece. There’s a good variety here, including shrimp, mushroom, fish stick, pumpkin, asparagus and fried chicken. You then proceed to the cashier and to seat yourself.
Given the massive lineup outside, you’d assume the wait would be very long. Thankfully, it only took us about 15-25 minutes to get in the door. You’d also assume that getting a table is difficult, but the turnaround is surprisingly fast and by the time you’ve paid for everything, there should be a table ready for you. It’s really efficient.
With a couple bowls of udon and a couple plates of assorted tempura, our total bill was only about $20 each visit. That’s not too bad at all, especially considering how well you can customize your lunch or dinner… they’re even open for breakfast if you want to skip the crowd.
If there is just one thing you can learn about discovering cheap eats in Honolulu, it’s that appearances can be awfully deceiving. Who would think that a humble cafe inside a hotel lobby would have such good musubi or that a grungy hole in the wall would have terrific Korean BBQ?
And when it comes to decidedly Hawaiian dishes like the iconic mix plate and loco moco, you can’t go wrong with Rainbow Drive-In. Located off the beaten path just north of the Honolulu Zoo, it’s a very humble food stand with exceptional value. You order and pay at the window, not unlike some of the food stalls you might find at a stadium or other public area. The food is served fast and hot, but this isn’t your typical fast food.
The traditional mix plate, for a little over eight bucks, includes one piece each of chicken, beef and fish, as well as rice and macaroni salad. You can swap out the rice for fries if you’d like and the mac salad can be replaced with coleslaw. While the food is hardly amazing, it is thoroughly satisfying and easily qualifies as one of the best cheap eats in Honolulu.
Perhaps and even better value is the loco moco bowl for about four dollars. You only get a single beef patty and a single egg with gravy and rice. It’s just the right amount of a light lunch or a hearty snack. Of course, you can get the full loco moco plate for a few dollars more too. We also added in a root beer float for good measure.
A Princely Meal on a Pauper’s Purse
As a general rule of thumb, you can expect to pay more for things in Hawaii than you would pay on the mainland. That being said, bargains can still be found and these four eateries exemplify that mentality. Stay tuned for more, as I’ll be following up with more delectable treats from Waikiki and the rest of Oahu, including where to get the best shave ice.