Eat Like a Local: The Best Cheap Food in Honolulu, Oahu

Ono Seafood ahi poke, Honolulu, Hawaii
Want to impress a Hawaii native? Tell them you went to one of these places on your own. Waikiki is full of crummy tourist grub and chain restaurants, but don't waste your time on those. Hawaii has a distinct culture that includes food, and if you know where to go, you can eat cheap food with the locals—fresh ahi tuna, decadent one-of-a-kind pastries (like at Leonard's, above), and heaping portions of the famous Hawaiian "plate lunch" are all within easy reach of the beaches.

Most of these joints have been cooking for generations of Oahuans (like Barack Obama), who grew up on their food, and they are all friendly to tourists. Just be aware that some of these family businesses might be cash-only and might be closed on odd days of the week.
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Rainbow Drive-In, Honolulu
Less than a mile down Kalakaua Avenue from Waikiki Beach, "Rainbows" has been serving honest grub for more than a half century. This is where the Food Network shows tend to stop first in their city roundups, and the walk-up counter slings hefty portions of barbecue beef and the contemporary go-to lunch of loco moco (white rice, hamburger patty, fried egg, brown gravy). None of the dishes are what you'd call slimming—the special on Tuesday and Thursday is "spaghetti with wiener"—but there's no more iconic casual food joint in town than the Rainbow Drive-In.
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Grace's Inn, Honolulu
It is as basic as duct tape and service is swift and transactional, but don't be deceived: Honolulu natives have fond feelings for this counter-service diner in a strip mall. The chicken katsu is made to order and dusted with panko (in the local style), the portions are massive yet the prices are puny, and it's a better place than nearly any to try one of Hawaii's most peculiar and carbohydrate-rich culinary customs: fried rice for breakfast. Barack Obama used to eat here with his basketball team when he attend Punahou School in the 1970s.
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Plate Lunch, Grace's Inn
If there's one meal that's essential to daily Hawaiian life, it's the "plate lunch." It comes in many variations, but the standard one has white rice, macaroni salad, and an entree. This variety, from Grace's Inn, has both a loco moco burger patty and chicken katsu plus (somewhere under there) noodles, which qualifies it as a mixed plate. Not one variety of the plate lunch will leave you hungry.
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Helena's Hawaiian Food,
Helena's Hawaiian Food, started by a first-generation Chinese-descended woman in 1946, is famous in these parts for a lot of things—kalua pig cooked in an imu (underground oven) and poi (mashed taro)—but the dish to which most customers are addicted is the pipikaula short ribs, which are hung over the oven to dry. From squid cooked with luau leaves to cold lomi salmon salad with tomato, Helena's serves the island analog to soul food. This is the real stuff, honestly prepared, and despite its unassuming exterior in a western suburb, there may be no better place than Helena's to try the sort of home cooking your hosts grew up on.
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Leonard's Bakery, Honolulu
Just up the road from Rainbow Drive-In, Leonard's opened its doors on July 1, 1952. When you stroll in—which you will not do, because there's almost always a line—the half-empty glass cases will make you think they've sold out of everything. Press on and order anyway. Leonard's is famous for its malasadas, which are Portuguese hot donuts filled to order with custard, chocolate, or haupia cocount cream and dusted with your choice of sugar, cinammon sugar, or li hing (salty dried plum powder, a jarring but authentically local preference). A few minutes after your order, your hot malasadas emerge in wax bags or a pink-and-white-box, begging to be devoured while they're fresh from the fryer. It's like the Krispy Kreme of the islands, and in the mornings, tour buses pull up with Japanese tourists who have heard tell of this decadent delicacy.
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Waiola Shave Ice, Honolulu
Tourists will encounter no shortage of also-rans in the shave ice department, as Waikiki has many stalls peddling snow-cones of corn-syrup flavors. But Waiola, which is in a converted three-bedroom house on a residential street right off Kapahulu Avenue, is not only cheaper, but it's also better: It makes its own syrups from cane sugar and keeps them refrigerated for freshness. It even colors its vanilla flavor blue, in the grand and arcane shave ice tradition. It now has two other locations in town, but this is the original spot as well as the longest-running shave ice stand on the island.
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Ono Seafood, Honolulu
Getting a parking spot can require making a deal with the devil (fortunately, it's a 15-minute walk inland from Waikiki Beach, or you can park at the Safeway across the road and sneak over), but the one-room, counter-service Ono Seafood is popular for a reason: Its owner, Judy Samuka, makes some of the best poke you've ever had. Poke, for the uninitiated, is diced fresh fish that's marinated with sesame oil, a little soy sauce, and maybe some salt, lime juice, wasabi, or cracked pepper, and then scooped in generous portions atop white rice. There are many varieties, but in Honolulu, making an addictive poke is a point of honor—and quality ingredients are easy to come by thanks to the daily fish auction that takes place by Pier 38 the harbor at 5:30am every morning. You can pay well under $10 for a half pound of food, a price unheard of at your local sushi shop.
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Alicia's Market, Honolulu
Those who are in the know make Alicia's their first stop after arriving at the airport—it's about three minutes' drive east in an unpretentious commercial area, and from the outside, it looks like an anonymous mini supermarket. But head straight toward the back, where there's a deli-style counter that dishes out a huge range of fresh delights starting in mid-morning. Alicia's poke, and there are nearly a dozen types, is about as celebrated as Ono's, but the roast pork with crispy skin and kimchee is also wildly coveted (although you'll have to eat it in your car—there's no seating).
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Alicia's Market, Honolulu
Alicia's is also a good place to try some li hing—the same salted plum savory treat that Leonard's uses to dust some of its malasadas. Li hing, which was brought to the island years ago by Chinese workers, has a distinct taste that's almost like licorice. Now it's one of the most popular flavors on the island, used in drinks, candies, salad dressings, and other places where you think it would never go. Try some "crack seed": it's preserved fruit in which the seeds within have been cracked to intensify flavor. It's been one of Oahu's favorite snacks for generations. (And you don't have to like it—but you should try it.)
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Coco puff, Liliha Bakery, Honolulu
Another popular first-after-the-airport stop, Liliha Bakery is known for these little killers: the coco puff. Think of a cream puff filled with chocolate pudding and topped with a cool macadamia nut chantilly frosting. They're so cunningly addictive that Liliha Bakery can sell more than 7,000 of these every day—they keep a cooler stocked with boxes full of them for the steady stream of customers jonesing a fix. In addition to its baked goods, the Liliha also has an old-style lunch counter serving traditional all-American fare like pancakes and burgers.
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Island Snow, Kailua, Oahu
A quick drive through the mountains northeast of Honolulu to the coastal town of Kailua, Island Snow is an iconic shave ice counter buried in a surf-and-skate shop. Island Snow attracts celebrities and world leaders alike—President Obama and his family have been frequent visitors when they come home to Hawaii on vacation and stay at the exclusive Paradise Point Estates nearby. On his 2015 visit, he had a cone with melon, cherry and lilikoi (yellow passion fruit). In 2013, his choice was "choo choo cherry," lanikai lime, and passion-guava, or so the media breathlessly reported, and now that combo is dubbed "The Snowbama." 
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Island Snow Shave Ice, Kailua
Island Snow's shop has doubled in size after the Obamas began visiting—and it started selling "Obama Kailua" tee-shirts. Some Hawaiian experiences, though, can never be packed in a suitcase.
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