Attempting to find decent cuisine in a strange town is intimidating. Navigating on your own can be a little scary, especially on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean well-known for its low tolerance of tourists outside Waikiki.
I knew that trying to explore even a small portion of the Oahu food scene by myself would be difficult, so I decided to book a food tour. The most well reviewed food tour on the island is run by Hawaii Food Tours. I was put off by the rather amateur-looking website, but after reading the almost fanatical rave reviews on Trip Advisor and an encouraging phone call placed to owner Matthew Gray, I decided to jump on the bandwagon.
So far, it's the best idea I've had since arriving on the island.
The tour is only about 4 hours long, but by the end I was feeling so fat and sassy I've actually considered scheduling another tour before we head back to the mainland in a couple weeks.
The tour van was immaculate and felt nothing like the stuffy, tourist-trap-y, monstrosities painted in bright primary colors that make you look like a doofus as you're carted around town. That's a big plus with me. Add to that two of the most charismatic, gregarious tour guides, Rich and Sahara, and I was sold.
Our first stop on the tour was at Royal Kitchen.
Royal Kitchen is one of the most famous joints on the island, apparently - well known for its baked manapua.
Baked manapua is remarkably similar to Chinese bao, except instead of the traditional bright white, sweet, steamed dough, manapua uses a yeast-leavened sweet bread that is baked in the oven.
TA really enjoyed the coconut filled manapua, which apparently tasted just like the filling of a Mounds bar.
Although manapua was once a street food, Royal Kitchen now supplies a great deal of the highly-desired baked goods all over the island. Tour guides Rich and Sahara pointed out that just as mainlanders set out doughnuts at meetings, on the islands they set out manapua. Apparently even the stereotype of doughnut loving cops translates to the manapua loving Hawaiian law enforcement.
Our next stop was the Liliha Bakery.
The Liliha Bakery is another famous stop on the island - very well known for its Coco Puffs.
The coco puffs are similar to a cream puff or eclair - a Pâte à Choux pastry filled with a cocoa pastry cream and topped with Chantilly cream frosting. They seemed to be a big hit the rest of tour-goers, but my complete-lack-of-a-sweet-tooth wasn't impressed. That and they were too cold.
They're very popular all over the island though - the bakery claims to sell more than 5,000 per day.
We moved on to Honolulu's Chinatown district and into a noodle factory that still makes rice noodles the old-fashioned way.
The same man, Fu Ying Chee, has run this factory for the last 50 years. Originally from Hong Kong, he brought the traditional methods of making chow fun-style rice noodles to Hawaii and has, apparently, not altered the process much at all. As our tour guide Rich pointed out, the labor intensive process isn't exactly attracting the younger generation to this practice. Sadly this artisanal process may very well end, here on Oahu at least, with Fu.
We then feasted on a collection of shrimp-scallion and char siu-scallion noodles along with squid fritters and Taiwanese sausage.
The noodles were delicious, TA enjoyed them quite well. I was a big fan of the squid fritters. They had the most amazing, fresh flavor - almost like a scallop. If you're a fan of fresh calamari you'll absolutely love these if you get the chance to try them.
The Taiwanese sausage was one of the more interesting things we tried.
It's a pork sausage flavored with cinnamon and honey. Rich recommended trying it with a sliver of raw garlic, and although the flavors countered each other well, it's not something I could eat more than a few bites of.
We took a stroll through the Kekaulike Market after that.
This market really had some of the most amazing produce I've ever seen for such a small space - such a wide collection it boggled the mind.
I especially loved the butcher right in the center of the market. Most of the Asian markets I'm relegated to on the mainland have all of their meats prepackaged - the reason why I don't often purchase meats there.
Definitely not the case at this market. So fresh, so yummy. I can only imagine the amazing food I could make with ingredients this fresh.
Seriously, check out the marrow in those shanks. Oh the phở I could make with those bones...
After the market we tried out these little half-moon steamed dumplings filled with shrimp, pork, and water chestnuts.
We had some fruit after that, longan and rambutan.
Both are cousin to the lychee fruit and have a similar texture. Longans are often called 'dragon eye' because of the dark pit in the center. Longans have a taste quite similar to honeydew.
I happen to quite like them in daquiris.
Rambutans are always a super fun fruit - especially for seeing the reactions of people who've never encountered them before. Rich said that one of their tour-goers once referred to them as "the big red hairy balls,' so that's usually what they go by now.
Although I've had both longan and rambutan before, I've never had them as fresh as they were on this occasion. Usually they're all shriveled and dehydrated by the time they make it to the mainland. These were plump and juicy - the rambutan so perfectly sweet and tangy that had I the opportunity I would've bought the whole market out.
Next we tried the delicious Maui Gold pineapple.
It imparted an interesting umami flavor to the pineapple that I'm not sure if I liked or not. I still want to eat it though, so I guess I do like it.
Crack seed, or the li hing mui powder, is so popular that some people even keep a shaker of the stuff next to the salt and pepper.
We tried the powder on a smoothie after that.
The smoothie's were definitely a highlight of the tour. I'm not a big sweets fan, but these had such a complex, fruity, sweet, savory flavor that I couldn't help but love them. The shot of crack seed-infused vodka also helped.
We headed over to the Char Siu House after the smoothies.
Here we tried freshly made char siu and a roasted, crackling pork belly called 5 layers of heaven. I was also quite pleased to discover a beautiful rack of Peking ducks.
Anyone who knows me, knows that I go ga-ga for duck, no matter the preparation. But Peking duck? I could've eaten every single duck hanging in that window. Happily.
I couldn't resist buying a half duck to take back to the hotel with me.
Some women buy souvenirs, I buy Peking duck.
Our final stop was at Leonard's Malasadas.
Malasadas are yeast-leavened Portuguese doughnuts that are wildly popular in Hawaii. The original is simply rolled in granulated sugar - so much sugar that I was reminded of Cafe du Monde in New Orleans.
They were delicious, fresh out of the fryer. The insides were very delicate and cooked only to the point where the insides were slightly custard-like.
It was a sweet way to end the day, both figuratively and literally. The other tour-goers seemed quite pleased with the malasada, but my absent sweet-tooth once again wasn't too impressed. Tasty, but I don't understand the cult-following these things have.
Plus at this point I'd eaten so much that I felt I was going to burst for sure.
Ultimately, the tour was an ideal way to check out some of the best hidden treats in Oahu. It's a way to see places that a tourist would never be able to find on their own, save by pure providence. Furthermore, it gets you out of the tourist-trap that is Waikiki - something I couldn't have been happier about.
If you ever make it to Oahu, and I hope you do, be sure to check out Hawaii Food Tours. You won't regret it. I know I don't.
I'm also pretty sure I gained about 5 pounds...
Hawaii Food Tours