The Big Island is a magical place. You can drive from lush tropical rainforests to dry, arid moonscape-like lava fields within a couple of hours. Discover rolling hills blanketed in misty clouds, or watch a river of oozing lava flow dramatically into the roaring ocean below.
While the hiking, snorkeling and diving are fantastic, I adore one thing a little more — the food. One of the perks of having family on the Big Island is they know where all the awesome foodie spots are. There are some amazing upscale restaurants, especially along the Kohala Coast and in Kailua-Kona (Kona). However, I think it’s almost more fun to hit up local cafes, brew pubs and diners. Here are nine of my favorite places to enjoy ono eats on your next trip to the Big Island.
Hawaiian Style Café
This unassuming restaurant is ridiculously popular for a good reason. The mouth-watering pancakes are literally bigger than your head. My father-in-law challenges his grandkids to finish a short stack each time they visit. So far, only one out of six has accomplished this feat. Craving something more savory? Try the big, fluffy omelets or signature Kalua pork hash. To avoid the crowds, head over earlier rather than later.
Ken’s House of Pancakes
Ken’s has been serving up its famous pancakes since 1971. Complete with kitschy celebrity photos adorning the walls and vinyl booths, this iconic diner offers an amazing menu of pancakes, both sweet and savory. Head to All-You-Can-Eat Taco Tuesday (where my nephew famously shoveled down 15 tacos), or “Kapakahi” Thursday with delicious local fare such as lomi salmon, chicken katsu and plenty more.
What on earth is a loco moco? One of the oddest and tastiest Hawaiian dishes created. A bed of rice is topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg and covered in brown gravy. At least that’s how it began at Café 100 in the late 1940s. Stop by and sample one of the 30 varieties of this artery-clogging creation — my favorite is fried rice and Portuguese sausage.
Two Ladies Kitchen
If you’ve been in the Pacific for any length of time, odds are you’ve either heard of or tasted mocha — a ball of glutinous sweet rice flour usually filled with adzuki beans. Two Ladies Kitchen has perfected this treat and is hands-down the best mochi you’ll taste. With a dizzying array of choices, my favorites include strawberry, brownie and peanut butter. Best to get there early, as they sell out quickly.
Runners Up: Blaine’s Drive Inn (Hilo) Ohelo Café (Volcano), Lava Rock Café (Volcano), Kaleos (Pahoa)
If you’re driving the coast road (Mamalahoa Highway) between Kona and Hilo, Tex Drive-In is the perfect stopping point. Warm up with savory Portuguese bean soup or beef stew. Be sure to save room for some of the tastiest malasadas in Hawaii. These deep-fried doughy balls of deliciousness are rolled in sugar and can be filled with local flavors such as lilikoi, guava and mango.
Using local Big Island beef, fresh-caught fish and organic ingredients, Village Burger is worth the stop. With choices between an Ahi or Wagyu burger, they have offerings for every palate. I recommend the Big Island Burger with avocado and bacon, with a side of parmesan-coated fries and wasabi mayo. Go big or go home, right?
Runners Up: Big Island Brewhaus, Lilikoi Café
Punalu’u Bake Shop
Congratulations! You’ve made it to the southernmost point in the U.S. After a day of frolicking near the honu (green sea turtles — be sure not to touch) at the famous black sand beaches, the Punalu’u Bake Shop makes the perfect pit stop. Known for its thick and fluffy sweetbreads, diners can also enjoy decadent desserts and coffee from nearby Ka’u Coffee Mill. Be sure to pick up a couple of loaves to enjoy on your trip home.
Kona Brewing Company
I would be remiss if I did not give a shout out to Hawaii’s most famous brew house — Kona Brewing Co. Located in an industrial park above Kona, this brew pub is worth the hype. The beer is fused with local ingredients — the Wailua Wheat is unfiltered with lilikoi, and the Koko Brown Ale adds richness by using toasted coconut. Enjoy a made-from-scratch pizza or a plate of Naalehu Nachos with Kalua pork. One of our favorites is the Cubano sandwich washed down with a cold Hanalei IPA.
Pine Tree Café
If you just want a simple restaurant that serves fantastic, traditional Hawaiian grinds (and you might be in a hurry to catch your flight out of Kona), make a stop at the Pine Tree Café. This hole-in-the-wall local spot is known for sweetbread French toast, pineapple pancakes, kalbi short ribs, loco mocos and tasty specialty plate lunches.
Runners Up: Big Island Grill, Jackie Rey’s Ohana Grill, 808 Grindz Café, Umeke’s, Island Ono Loa Grill, Broke da Mouth Grindz
From cascading waterfalls along the coast to breathtaking sunsets along the Kohala coast, the Big Island is full amazing sights and tastes. Be sure to bring your camera and especially your appetite.