"Waikiki makes the best girls’ trip!” my sister Anhdao proclaimed, grinning from ear to ear as we posed for pictures on the beach just minutes before the last of the sun’s rays, which had lit up the sky in a wash of peach-purple-pink, disappeared from the horizon. It was the final evening of our short but fun-filled vacation, and we’d just spent the better part of the afternoon alternating between lounging underneath an umbrella and bobbing weightlessly in the calm salt waters of the Pacific.
I hadn’t traveled with Anhdao since our college days. Life gets in the way. We’d both gotten married; I’d moved to Houston, while she’d stayed in California. But traveling with her has always been the best of times. We tasted our first oysters together in Brussels, munched on flaky, hot-from-the-oven butter croissants in Monaco, watched Vivaldi’s Four Seasons performed on baroque instruments inside a church in Venice, and emerged with our hands intact after placing them in La Bocca della Verità (“The Mouth of Truth”) in Rome (hallelujah).
So last summer, when I told my sister that I was going to Honolulu for the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival, she caught me by surprise by asking, “Why don’t I come join you?”
“Are you serious?” I replied. And she was. Within an hour of hanging up with me, she’d priced out her ticket online, talked our friend Julie, who also lives in Los Angeles, into joining us, and worked it out so that they could both leave work on Friday and return on Sunday, sans husbands and kids. Whoopee!
Of course, I wasn’t going to fly to Hawaii from Houston for a two-day trip. So for me, it was a few days of solo travel before the other women arrived, not that I minded the chance to do some exploring—and, of course, eating—on my own.
Honolulu isn’t an obvious vacation destination for Houstonians. While flights to most Mexican beach resorts from Bayou City are abundant and plentiful, United is the only carrier that offers direct service to Honololu from IAH. The flight is also a whopping eight hours, about the same time it takes to get to Europe, but from the minute you arrive and behold the white-sand beaches and swaying palm trees, whatever it took to get there feels worth it.
In recent years Honolulu has become one of the most exciting food cities in America, and when I touched down, I couldn’t wait to dive in. I’d decided to stay in Waikiki Beach, which often gets a bad rap for being too touristy. Personally I love the hustle and bustle and being smack dab in the middle of everything. I stayed at the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort, the most centrally located of the area’s beachfront properties.
My first evening I hit Duke’s Waikiki on the ground floor of the hotel. Named after Duke Kahanamoku, the Hawaiian Olympic swimmer who introduced surfing to the world in the early 1900s, Duke’s is an institution—a casual spot with a diverse crowd and a no-shoes-required bar, Duke’s Barefoot Bar. I got a seat on the deck, where I sipped a strong mai tai and munched on my first poke of the trip—a tuna poke tostada—while taking in the hotels, the surfers, the catamarans gliding across the emerald-and-sapphire-colored water, and, beyond those, the landmark Diamond Head crater. An acoustic duo in Hawaiian shirts harmonized, singing knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door with Polynesian inflections. It was the quintessential hashtag-island-vibes moment.
The next day it was off to the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival, which I’d long dreamed of attending. Started in 2011 by chefs Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi, both founders of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement, the festival has expanded from a three-day affair in Waikiki with 30 chefs to a month-long series of events, held in October, across three islands, featuring a celebrity-chef roster that reads like a Food Network who’s who.
Have you heard of Ming Tsai? TV personality, restaurateur, and chef at Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Massachusetts, he became friends with Houston’s own Bryan Caswell (Reef) when the two appeared on The Next Iron Chef and flew in after Hurricane Harvey to cook for the city’s first responders—which made it even more exciting to meet him in Honolulu, taste his delicious dish of olive-oil-lime-leaf-poached Hawaiian opah, and thank him personally for helping out Houston when we needed him most.
There were so many amazing chefs at the event, I was downright starstruck. Stephanie Izard of Girl and the Goat, the first woman to win Top Chef, made a local Hawaiian kanpachi poke with crispy chile oil and avocado that blew my mind; Vietnamese chef Charles Phan of Slanted Door in San Francisco shared his tips for how to make the best pho; and Yamaguchi, one of Hawaii’s most famous chefs, with the team from his latest restaurant, Goen Dining + Bar in Kailua, made an incredible version of the Filipino dish known as sisig—Big Island abalone in a sour marinade, topped with a crispy sea cucumber chicharrón and finished with a sous vide egg yolk.
While I spent my nights at HFWF events, I was left to myself during the daytime. I spent one afternoon on a spectacular catamaran cruise during which I saw rainbows over Diamond Head, but mostly I walked around Waikiki trying to scope out the best local eats. My favorite discovery was Musubi Cafe Iyasume, a tiny little shop and café offering all kinds of spam musubi to go, with toppings like eel, bacon, and avocado, everything a steal at around $2.50 a pop.
I also indulged my caffeine habit—Kona coffee is legendary—at local roasters Hawaiian Aroma Caffe, a cute spot that I stumbled upon before a visit to Maui Brewing Company, a sprawling establishment on the second floor of the Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel offering local beer flights and gastropub eats. A vegetarian beef poke bowl and plate of Korean bulgogi steamed bao buns hit the spot.
I was having a great time, but by day three I was ready for some company. Good thing it was on the way.
My sister and Julie arrived late that Friday night. The next morning we met for a buffet breakfast on the lanai at Outrigger Waikiki’s brand-new Voyager 47 Club Lounge, catching up over pink and purple taro toast and fresh fruit before heading down to the beach, where we rented lounge chairs for the day. My sister, who had barely had a moment apart from her kids for the better part of seven years, was perfectly content to nap, while Julie tanned and read a book, and I ventured into the blissfully warm ocean.
Luckily, my companions are as into food as I am, and they were game to join me on my expeditions. For lunch we walked over to the International Market Place and its Street Food Hall curated by chef Michael Mina, which was on my to-do list because Houston’s very own Hugo Ortega has a stall there, Mi Almita Cantina. Eyes bigger than our stomachs, we ordered his taco sampler plate, along with a Portuguese-sausage-and-pepper pizza slice from Nanu Lu; spicy fried wings from The Street Test Kitchen; and what for me was the foodie discovery of the entire trip, the spam, egg, and cheese sandwich from Burger Hale, which came with a crispy fried cheese skirt—grated cheese, cooked into a crisp disc, that was wider than the bun and resembled a Mexican chicharrón de queso. A pineapple-shaved-ice “milkshake,” also from Burger Hale—traditional shaved ice with fresh pineapple chunks and coconut soft-serve—was a revelation.
Dinner brought another food hall experience, this one at Shirokiya Japan Village Walk at Ala Moana Center, Hawaii’s largest open-air shopping mall, a 20-minute Uber ride away. Open since 2016, the place was designed to be reminiscent of old Kyoto, with red paper lanterns, flower leis, and aisles upon aisles of stands selling everything from tonkatsu plates to high-end wagyu to ramen to fried mochi balls. My sister chose fried octopus balls topped with bonito flakes and yakisoba noodles, while Julie and I went for bowls of piping-hot udon noodles topped with fried shrimp tempura.
We loved everything, and were in high spirits as we headed out to take in an acoustic set by Citizen Cope at Blue Note Hawaii, the Hawaiian outpost of the famed jazz club of the same name in New York, which just happened to be located in our hotel. We sipped on cocktails in our booth as we took in the show, and, believe it or not, found ourselves hungry again, splitting a warm bread pudding à la mode.
And still we weren’t done eating—far from it. The next day we indulged in not one but two brunches. Having heard about the mochi pancakes at The Street Food Hall the day before, we headed back to try them. We ordered strawberry-guava and pineapple-mochi pancakes topped with whipped cream (they completely lived up to the hype), along with a plate of loco moco and a fresh pineapple acai bowl. Then it was off to our hotel’s sister property, Outrigger Reef Waikiki Resort, for HFWF’s Sunday brunch event, a laidback poolside affair with live Hawaiian music, a build-your-own bloody mary bar, and more celebrity chef sightings.
Anhdao and Julie would leave on a late-evening flight that same day. But we still had an afternoon left, and we spent it on the beach lounging, swimming, laughing as in the old days, and promising each other we wouldn’t let years pass before planning another getaway, just the three of us.
Wherever our next destination might be, we knew one thing: There had better be plenty to eat.
When to Go
The weather in Honolulu is sunny and beautiful, hovering at between 60 and 80 degrees year-round. Summer is the busiest; to avoid the crowds, go during shoulder season: April and September/October.
Occupying prime real estate right in the heart of Waikiki Beach—steps away from the beach, shopping, and restaurants—the affordable, family-friendly Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort offers spectacular sunset and Diamond Head views. Rates from $249.
- Listen to live music, watch the sunset, and dine on Hawaiian-themed fare at Duke’s Waikiki Beach, an iconic surfer and tiki-themed restaurant.
- Eat like a local at Musubi Cafe Iyasume, a popular spot for grab-and-go spam musubi with a variety of toppings.
- Get a seat at the impossibly long bar at Maui Brewing Co. Waikiki, a gorgeous indoor/outdoor restaurant offering local brews—get the Pineapple Mana wheat beer or the Bikini Blonde lager—along with loco moco, fish and chips, and fried chicken katsu sandwiches.
- Check out the Mi Almita Cantina and Burger Hale stands at The Street Food Hall by Michael Mina, a gourmet food hall with a full bar.
- Explore Shirokiya Japan Village Walk, a festive Japanese food hall in Ala Moana Center, where the atmosphere is part night market, part ancient Kyoto town. Enjoy ramen and yakisoba, tempura and crepes—and, at happy hour, $1 beer specials.
- The 2019 Hawaii Food & Wine Festival, featuring another incredible roster of events and chefs, honors culinary hero Rick Bayless. The Honolulu portion of the festival takes place this year from October 23 to 27.
- Take in live music at Blue Note Hawaii, the Honolulu outpost of the famed New York City Jazz Club, located at Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort.
- Get an up-close view of Diamond Head crater through Holokai Catamaran Cruises.