View from our hotel room balcony
Waikiki. I was there for a week recently for my girlfriends sisters wedding. While I got no pictures of the restaurants and food out there (sadly, but I'm not the “shutterbug” type, and I wanted very much not to look like a “tourist”) I want to impart some wisdom I gleaned from the area. If you are the tourist type... it's heaven. If you are the “traveler” type, it's a tourist hell. The true travelers in the audience need no definition of terms. The locals can and will, at any opportunity, bilk the tourists of all the money they can, and shamelessly. Bottom line, if you come from a big city and expect to “get away from it all”, don't let your guard down just because you're on vacation. I know it's paradise, the ideal of the tropical getaway, (No bugs, no humidity, little rain, and 80 degrees all-the-fucking-time? Really?!!!) but don't let the dream that seems to be realized upon touchdown fool you... they WILL try to scam you. Wear your game face. Especially if you plan on doing any shopping anywhere near dusk. Treat it like any other “downtown” area... eyes open, aware of what's going on around you, plan escape routes... Beware of chicks “giving out” lei's, treat people tryin to bum a smoke like you would any homeless person, and be wary of the ever present to-good-to-be-true offer. It is. It's bullshit. Just another scheme to dupe tourists of their money. They live on the creed, “A fool and his money are soon parted.” If you go to Hawaii, and Oahu specifically, visit Waikiki during the daylight hours, do your shopping and eating, and get the hell out!
Not that I'm trying to bash the place, but it serves itself up for such treatment, in my limited experience. Those of you who are experienced “travelers” know to ask the locals where to go to avoid the crowds and general bullshit show any destination puts on for the tourists. My experience in Waikiki might be an isolated one mind you, but the locals don't seem to like anyone they might see as “tourists”. The reasons are pretty clear to me, being the tourist hub of Hawaii, they've seen far too many rich assholes that have money to burn on their schemes that they don't seem to like an eyes-forward, alert and intelligent traveler. Ready to call them on their bullshit at the drop of a hat, as my girlfriend, who's from Chicago, did a few times, resulting in... well... “entertainment”... We found this out the hard way when we visited a bar recommended to us by a local. A little dive bar called Arnold's. A “blink-and-you'll-miss-it” type o place located next to an alley that could be easily mistaken for an extension thereof. The door guy was quite courteous, and upon entering the open air seating area Sara and I immediately noticed that every person there was a local. We found a seat at the bar and got the cold shoulder from the bartender. Right before we decided on a seat we saw a heavily tattooed, dyed red haired young woman we'd seen at the hotel hawking flowers and lei's. I tried to be polite, but she turned to the bartender after we met eyes, pounded what was left of her drink, said something to him, and left. After we were seated he asked, “you guys know the flower girl?” My response was (admittedly a poorly thought out one considering the circumstances), “yeah, we saw her at the hotel.” Mind you, never a word was exchanged between us and the “flower girl”, so any ill-will was not expected. We placed our order, and he took his sweet ass time filling it. Bullshitting with the other customers, and generally putzing around before he delivered our drinks. We got the hint. Drinks finished, paid, tipped, out the door.
We ended up at a bar in the lobby of the hotel that had nightly karaoke and a beachfront view. The Shore Bird also offered a decent (but far from spectacular) breakfast buffet. They were also the only local bar that seemed to stay open past 11, so most of our nights in town ended there. Sara was still a bit miffed about the cold shoulder treatment we received at Arnold's so she asked our bartender what the deal was. His immediate and quite comical response was, “What the hell did you guys do to get kicked out of Arnold's?!!!” After we related the full story, flower girl variable included, he was at a loss for words, and added that he doesn't see how she would have the pull to blacklist us anywhere, so he dismissed that hypothesis out of hand. I guess the locals just want their dive bars to be tourist free. Can't say I really blame 'em, to be honest, but we're working class fucks that just happened to be lucky enough to save enough to make it out there. Whatever... I'm over it, and was from the time we found our seats at the Shore Bird, but it still seems to burn a hole in Sara's panties...
Please don't let me discourage you, though. If you EVER get the chance, fucking GO! Just don't let your guard down because you're on vacation, is all I'm saying.
All that aside. All the bullshit. All the tourist traps. All the shameless and total commercialization of native culture to the point of nearly losing itself... the food is good. Not just good, it's fucking AMAZING!
Every foodie knows what poke is, or poi, or Ahi. I don't really feel the need to define these terms, but for all it's faults, Waikiki seems to be the hub of not only tourism in Hawaii, but restaurants as well! The North Shore of Oahu is much more rustic. If you want true local fare and local color, that seems to be the place to go. However, if fine dining is your thing, and you have the cash to blow (everything is more expensive in Waikiki) I strongly recommend a trip there.
In the lower right hand part of the image you'll see umbrellaed tables on a patio just above street level, that's Roy's patio and the last table is where we sat.
The dining options range widely and wildly. Our first meal in town was dinner at Roy's right across the street from our hotel (I could see the table we sat at from our balcony). A fine dining, fish centric restaurant from chef Roy Yamaguchi, on the other side of the street was a Denny's... Another block in that direction is a restaurant from yet another titan of the culinary world, Nobu. My focus while I was there was on the middle-of-the-road and up places, having admitted from the get-go that my stated purpose in Waikiki was to eat my way across the city, but there is something for everyone and every price range, and it's all within a ½ mile stretch of downtown.
If, like me, you truly appreciate authentic Japanese food, there are more places in Waikiki that have menus in Kanji, Romanized Japanese, and broken English than I've seen anywhere. There are so many Japanese tourists in Waikiki that there's an entire transit system dedicated to them. San Francisco style trolley cars covered in Knaji with Japanese speaking tour guides. I dragged my girlfriend (the aforementioned Sara), her two sisters, and the one sisters new husband (who is decidedly NOT a foodie) to a hole-in-the-wall place less than a block from our hotel called “Tonkatsu” (Japanese food fanatics need no explanation of that term) and despite the fact that I had to decipher the menu for everyone, nobody left disappointed. Pair that with the fact that there was another place next door and another across the street with similarly worded menus, and a few blocks north of that there were whole streets covered with Kanji and the little colored paper lamps that, in Japan, are the neon signs advertising an eatery, and you begin to see my dilemma... too many options to explore within a week for a foodie with a Japanese bent...
Look at the pretty fishy!
However... On my second to last night on the island, coming back from the only “touristy” thing I did while I was there (shark cage excursion three miles out to sea), the bus driver, upon hearing I was a chef that specialized in Japanese, told me that the Man himself, Masaharu Morimoto, had recently opened a restaurant on the island, AND it was within walking distance from my hotel! Suffice it to say, I dropped any dinner plans I might have had for that evening like a hot rock... I've been waiting to be in close proximity of one of his venues for a VERY long time, I was NOT gonna pass this up!
I'll spare you the hyperbole and adjectives, just go if you get the chance! Casual feel, open and airy dining room, sleek minimalistic décor, and professional waitstaff all made for an ideal experience. Cocktail suggestion: Morimo-tai. A twist on the Hawaiian mainstay, the Mai Tai, made with the usual ingredients, but with added Kaffir Lime leaf and mint. One appetizer on the menu I absolutely could not resist (I waved off the tasting menu because this item was not on it) was a lightly steamed oyster topped with seared foie gras, uni, and a slightly sweet soy glaze... the most decadent thing I've ever put in my face... Sara liked it too, and she's not big on oysters (I need to work on that, I know...). The other appetizer we got was Wagu Beef carpaccio. Paper thin slices splashed with hot oil and dressed with light soy and fresh Yuzu juice. For my entree I opted for their take on the classic French bouillabaisse. Half of a lobster (tail, claw and guts included), 2 whole head-on fresh shrimp, manilla clams, mussels, scallop, spicy red miso broth, served with toasted baguette slices to mop up the remnants of the carnage. Easily one of the best meals of my life. Expensive, to be sure, but I'm not one to shy away from that if I feel it's worth it. And it was. It was research, you see. Putting a yardstick to my peers, as it were. Just as much to see how I measure up as to taste their work. I was both inspired and encouraged by the experience. Being currently located in South-Eastern Michigan there aren't any Japanese restaurants of that caliber to judge myself against. There are few places of that caliber around here at all, to be honest.
My only complaint was that there was no beer on the menu. Wine list, sake list, cocktail list, no beer. This struck me as very odd. Morimoto has collaborated with breweries in the past, so why those brews at least weren't on the menu was puzzling. Compounded by the very seafood centricity of the menu, I found it strange. Fish loves beer, and shellfish in particular, and there was (as I've described) no shortage of aquatic arthropods on offer. There was also a sushi bar on premises that I surprisingly did not partake of. Call it mood, call it focus, call it psychotic... I was more interested in the hot menu on this particular evening it seems.
The view of Kani Ka Pilla from our balcony.
Accessible from the lobby of our hotel was another little gem. Kani Ka Pilla bar and grill. Open air bar, nothing but outdoor seating and it was poolside. While with these factors going for it they very well could skimp a little on the food, they don't. The Poke and Quesadillas would be my first recommendation. Served in a large fried won ton cup, the Poke was local Ahi cubed and tossed with just the right amount of soy sauce and a little wasabi for bite. The Quesadillas were pretty much what you would expect, and served with the usual sides of salsa and guac, but they used smoked pork as the protein in them, and they did not suck... The cocktails at this bar were some of the best we had on the island, as well. Another thing that surprised me were the number of breweries on Oahu. I found offerings from at least 4 different local breweries at bars, restaurants and convenience stores in the area. Every bar we went to had at least one of them on tap. The most prevalent was the Kona Brewing company, and the most common of their offerings found on tap everywhere were the Longboard lager and the Fire Rock IPA. Both of which are great, and both of which are on tap at Kani Ka Pilla. They also have a nightly rotating line-up of local musicians for entertainment. Most of which were pretty damn good.
There was also a tap-house right around the corner from the hotel called the Yard House that had a multipage on-tap beer menu and a pretty solid food menu. I ordered Jambalaya, and as picky and hard to please as I am about that dish, and Cajun food in general, it was pretty damn good! They're Ahi Poke was pretty spot on as well, but as long as you use absolutely fresh Tuna, it's hard to fuck it up, and every place that offered this dish used local fish, so you won't get a bad Poke in Waikiki. As well, that's the way it should be!
In summary, I could have easily spent two or three more weeks in Waikiki just checking out the restaurants if money and time were no object. If you can only make it out there once in your lifetime it's worth the experience. If you're the tourist type, there's more than enough to do, more than enough sights to see, and a lot of history in the area since it's only a few miles from Pearl Harbor and there are more than a couple military museums. If you are the foodie traveler type, I can't think of another reason I haven't already outlined that might convince you to go. I am NOT the beach-going type, I don't give a shit about tanning, I could care less about surfing, just not my thing. I avoid tourist traps, I loathe the idea of anyone thinking of me as such, but I had a lot of fun there. We met some interesting people (all the folks we met from Australia were funny as hell!) we ate some stellar food, and the weather is just as perfect as the travel guides tell you. Just bring a good sunscreen. The sun in Waikiki, like the locals, seems to hate visitors...