If you’re a
fatty foodie who’s considering a visit to the Big Island of Hawaii and trying to decide which side of the island to stay, start by researching where to eat in Hilo. That should make your decision for you.
While the northeastern side of the Big Island has many charms — close proximity to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, waterfall chasing, friendly community vibes of Downtown Hilo — the drool-worthy food scene will seal the deal for any hungry wanderer.
It is where all the (as the locals say) ‘ono grinds can be found.
A common Hawaiian phrase to describe tasty eats, ‘ono means delicious, while grinds refers to the food.
Sometimes spelled “grindz,” it’s sometimes used by itself to describe good food.
Another bit of local slang to keep in your back pocket when eating your way through luscious chunks of poke and juicy shoyu chicken is “broke the mouth.” Let me use it in a sentence for you: That poke was so delicious that it broke the mouth! Get it? It’s like the Hawaiian version of “it blew my mind.”
<Warning> Do NOT read this drool-worthy guide on an empty stomach. It may incite hanger. If you’re on the hunt for where to eat in Hilo to find ALL the ‘ono grinds, proceed with these delicious finds:
Hawaiian Style Cafe Hilo
The portion sizes at this beloved local spot are terrifying humongous. I was legit scared when my order of gravy-drenched rice topped with an egg and 3 different kinds of meat — Spam, Portuguese sausage and link sausage — arrived at the table….but also excited.
As my intro to authentic loco moco, it made sense to start with a BANG….which is the noise my clothes made when I exploded out of them.
If you’re trying to decide where to eat in Hilo for your first meal, this friendly diner-style restaurant offers everything from classic Hawaiian dishes — like stew luau and Pulehu ribs — to an extensive breakfast selection.
DO NOT miss out on their infamous pancakes that are — no lie — the size of a dinner plate and smothered in lusciously thick haupia (coconut) cream, toasted coconut and whipped cream. I made a second trip to Hawaiian Style Cafe Hilo just for another stack of these babies.
Perhaps ordering a scoop of Mac salad on the side of these massive entrées isn’t a smart idea but it’s a delicious one.
If you’re feeling a little homesick and looking for where to eat in Hilo for a comforting meal, head to Paul’s Place. Right up the way from the farmers market in Hilo, the man himself will welcome you in to this humble restaurant with a hug. The space holds 3 tables right next to a little counter in front of a small kitchen area where you can watch Paul cook up a storm.
We gave a cursory glance at the daily offerings on the chalkboard before ordering everything, starting with a refined eggs benny. To avoid the mess of splitting, the dish arrived separated onto 2 plates — each containing a wobbly poached egg with a delicate dollop of hollandaise perched atop peameal bacon and a crusty slice of baguette.
Sweet followed savoury with crispy yet light-as-air Belgian waffles accompanied by a pile of fresh bananas and strawberries, whipped cream and sprinkled with powdered sugar.
As drool-worthy as everything was, my absolute favourite was the unique Breakfast Caprese that was comprised of a poached egg on crostini with crunchy bacon, black olives, plump, sautéed grape tomatoes and basil.
As it’s a small spot that’s only open for breakfast and lunch, advanced reservations are a must! I even made one by directly messaging him on the ‘gram.
Two Ladies Kitchen
After browsing all the different kinds of mochi at Two Ladies Kitchen in Hilo, you will fill a box so full that you’ll be well on your way to becoming one big mochi.
Made fresh to order, be prepared to lineup, but the wait will give you time to angst over a wide variety of colourful flavours like lilikoi, Okinawan sweet potato, peach and even pie crust and plum flower. There are even mochi that have fresh fruit — entire strawberries, grapes and sections of tangerine — hidden within in them like juicy surprises.
My personal favourite was the butter mochi, made with thick coconut milk. The Azuki bean mochi seemed to be a local fav.
Kula Shave Ice
When you’re travelling to a balmy destination that makes you want to wear as little clothing as possible, healthy, refreshing treats are crucial. I usually adhere to the notion that “healthy” and “treat” are mutually exclusive, but after digging into an açai bowl at Kula Shave Ice, I stand corrected.
After perusing fresh produce from the nearby farmers market, dig into a hearty dish of crunchy granola, hemp and chia seeds, shredded coconut, peanut butter, topped with juicy papaya and apple banana. So yum!
Wash it down with a lilikoi iced tea or a Vietnamese iced coffee for a caffeine kick.
If you’re looking for another place to find a killer açai bowl, Makani’s Magic Pineapple Shack looked very festive, albeit aggressively florescent…
It’s worth noting the poke place next door to Kona Shave Ice. Since touching down in the Big Island of Hawaii, I’d been craving poke all day, every day so the shoyu sesame ahi at Poke n’ Stuff was heaven to my gluttonous self.
Koji’s Lunch Stop
The most quintessential dish of the Aloha State is the plate lunch, which is not so much as a specific food as it is a type of meal that is cheap, filling and easy to grab on-the-go. Rising in popularity since the 1880s with workers on Hawaii’s sugar and pineapple plantations, they’re made up of a different kinds of proteins a scoop or 2 of rice, and macaroni salad.
After visiting Koji’s Lunch Stop, I understand why plate lunches have become a staple across islands.
On our way out for a day of waterfall chasing, I wanted to snag a meal for later on in the day. Er-mer-gerd. Guys — the shoyu chicken. The plump, juicy chicken marinated with soy sauce was a life-changing experience and all for only $4!
Pore over their extensive menu of local specialties like loco moco and kalua pork or a “Teri” burger….which I have to assume is short for “teriyaki” and NOT named after yours truly.
Ever since discovering paletas during our first trip together to Colombia, Kelly and I have had a soft spot for these Mexican popsicles. We couldn’t resist stopping to investigate when we spotted a huge sign advertising fresh fruit pops on our way back to our hotel in Hilo.
Traditionally made with fresh chopped fruit and juice, Pandemonia’s organized freezer held paletas in classic flavours like pineapple and mango as well as the more exotic ones like lychee. For local flavour, opt for haupia (coconut) cream or lilikoi (passionfruit) cream.
If you’re lactose intolerant, have no fear because they had plenty of non-dairy options, perfect for a hot day like watermelon or cucumber mint. At $2 an ice pop, grab a log out front and conduct your own taste test.
Inevitably, you’ll reach a point where you’ve eaten so much that you start to search for where to eat in Hilo that won’t have your waistband pleading “uncle.”
Not only does Vibe Cafe offer the best vegan and vegetarian meals on the Big Island, but your eyes will be as pleased as your tastebuds. The space has been decorated in typical millennial fashion, focusing on the 3 P’s — pink, plants and palm leaves.
Order a thirst-quenching lilikoi lemonade or a cuppa 100% Hawaii-grown coffee while noshing on items from their regular menu like loaded avocado toast or one of their massive açai bowls.
Don’t overlook their daily specials because the best thing we had was on there — an ooey gooey goat cheese pizza with artichoke, pesto and dripping with mozzarella. So….in the end not-so healthy? Well, we tried. Good intentions should count for something 😜
Moon and the Turtle
Root through your suitcase for your fanciest Hawaiian shirt and head to Moon and the Turtle for one of the best meals you’ll experience your entire stay in Hilo. This farm-to-ocean-to-table spot is a must-add to your where to eat in Hilo list. It was touted by Eater as one of the “essential Hawaii restaurants” and worth making a reservation in advance.
Served in either small or large portions, peruse the rotating daily specials of Asian fusion dishes featuring fresh seafood and locally sourced ingredients.
Sipping on expertly crafted cocktails, we started with pan fried ahi belly drenched in garlic butter and ponzu sauce with sweet onion and tomato before moving on to house-made pappardelle puttanesca with Kulana Portuguese sausage mixed with Hawaiian chilli, tomato, anchovy, capers and olives.
Next we dug into a massive bowl of mushroom risotto that had an Asian twist, featuring hamakua and shiitake mushroom, Koshihikari rice and fragrant with truffle oil and white wine with healthy amounts of Parmesan cheese. We devoured every single grain of rice.
Since it was my birthday (or close to), they sent luscious scoops of Tahitian Vanilla and Mexican Chocolate ice cream, complete with a candle. The flavours were much more complex than your average grocery aisle find.
Suisan Fish Market
If when you die, you want to go to poke heaven, then Suisan Fish Market is where you’ll end up.
With a dizzying selection of poke to choose from, complete your selection of Ahi Mango Habanero or Wasabi Salmon poke with scoops of rice sprinkled with furikake. If you don’t want to fill up on rice, order as many flavours as your wallet can handle at any amount you desire and pay by the pound.
Enjoy the gorgeous island weather and snag a seat at one of the tables out front.
No matter where I find myself, I will always sniff out a bowl of noodles.
Enter the open space and grab a seat at one of the long, light wood counters with bright red cloth banners hanging from above. The staff is super friendly, ready to help you choose from authentic Japanese dishes like curry tonkatsu and katsu chicken (delicious) and not-so authentic sides of fries with truffle salt.
Unfortunately for my eating companion, I ordered the regular tonkatsu ramen that arrive with a garlic press and several cloves of fresh garlic. It was seeping from my pores for days after. I regret nothing. Kelly regretted travelling with me.
The Booch Bar
With a name like that, how could I resist? Also, the slogan for this health conscious café is “Living Food For Living People” which begs the question…as opposed to what? Dead food for dead people?
I digress. I love me some kombucha (a fermented, slightly fizzy tea drink) so I was very excited that while I was researching where to eat in Hilo, I discovered that they have happy hour kombucha flights!!
Whether you’re a vegan, conscious omnivore, or an unapologetic carnivore, The Booch Bar (formerly known as Conscious Culture…less fun name) has something for you — tasty sandwiches and wraps, tacos, burgers, salads, etc…
I had no problem finding where to eat in Hilo because that side of the Big Island was ripe for choice. The problem was deciding between as the drool-worthy spots….
If you’re in the midst of planning a trip to Hawaii, check out this curated itinerary to plot your travels from the Big Island to Kauai to Oahu.
Keep your stalking game strong and follow me @teriaki if you aren’t already!