I don’t really consider myself to be a foodie, but the food in Hilo is SO good that it’s one of the things I most look forward to every time I visit. I’ve been to the major Hawaiian islands and have had great food on all of them, but Hilo is definitely in a league of it’s own.
Hilo is the rainiest city in the US, which provides a natural buffer against tourism. If you’re going to book a weeklong vacation in advance, you might not want to choose somewhere where it may rain for several of those days. But this same rain, along with the size and geography of the Big Island, means that just about everything can be grown or raised right on the island.
In general the food in Hilo is defined by extremely high quality (usually local) ingredients, and chefs who are obsessive about making great food. Here are some of my favorite places.
Poke Market is so good that my friends and I literally go here every single day for lunch, except for Sundays when they’re closed. Sometimes we get two bowls on Saturday so that we can have it on Sunday too. The owner, Ernie, was a chef at Nobu, and he brought that level of refinement to Poke. The fish is perfectly cut, and his sauces and sides are incredible. I always get the “Rainbowl” which is a little bit of everything. It’s so good that as soon as I finish my bowl I always consider going back to get another (and I’ve actually done that a few times).
I also go to Kula Shave Ice every single day. Unlike normal shave ice, which uses gross artificial syrups, Kula uses local organic fruit to make theirs. The ice is perfectly shaved and all of the toppings are amazing too. I always get two flavors with coconut haupia cream on top. The lilikoi and lime are probably my favorite flavors, but they’re all great so I get something different every day. The owner, Tiffany, also makes homemade ice cream which is sometimes available and is also amazing. I get mine with light syrup, which sometimes leaves some unflavored patches inside but makes it much less sweet when it’s all melted at the end.
Mohala’s is usually the first place I go for dinner, and most likely to be repeated if I’m there for long enough. That’s saying a lot because it’s also probably the least healthy place I go, so I’m biased against it. They deep fry fresh fish and it’s essentially the perfect fish and chips. The variety changes every day, but all of their fish are great. I didn’t get ahi for a long time because I thought it might be dry like canned tuna, but it’s actually the best one. Portions here are enormous, which is almost too bad because the fried smoked mozzarella is the best fried cheese I’ve ever had but I just can’t eat more than their normal fish portion.
Pineapples is the most touristy looking restaurant in Hilo, which still doesn’t make it all that touristy, but it was enough for me to avoid it for a long time. I finally went with my brother, and after that he wanted to eat there every single night. Not everything is excellent, but most items are. The Local Plate, Kalbi Ribs, Kabocha Curry, and Skirt Steak are all perfect tens for me. The desserts are too sweet and the coconut crusted fish wasn’t very good, but everything else is great.
You wouldn’t guess that the best sushi I’ve ever had would be from a random guy selling it out of his mom’s house where he lives… but it is. To get the sushi you have to DM him on instagram and then go pick up your plastic platter of sushi at a specific time from his driveway. My friends ordered it and I was too skeptical to join in, but I tried a few of their pieces and was so blown away that I ordered my own on the next trip. It’s expensive (~$100/person) but there’s zero filler and you get a lot of sushi. He even does weird innovative stuff like dry age toro and put it into nigiri.
This bakery is really hit or miss. The cookies, which you’d think would be pretty easy to make good, are pretty mediocre. However– their cream pies are as good as a cream pie could possibly be. They make lilikoi (passionfruit), key lime, and coconut. The lilikoi is my go-to pie, but the others are equally good.
Mom’s is a new Japanese place and I’ve only been once but I thought it was excellent. I haven’t eaten enough there to make specific recommendations, but I look forward to going back and trying more. The best thing I had so far was the Ahi carpaccio. I sat at the bar and watched the chefs prepare the food and you could tell that they really cared about making it great.
I’d give the average burger at Hilo Burger Joint an 8, but the Green Chile Burger is a 10. You can substitute salad for fries to make it healthier and they’re open late.
This restaurant looks so generic and boring from the outside that I didn’t go for years, assuming that it was an overpriced tourist trap. I finally went (after spending so much money on food in Maui that the sticker shock had disappeared) and was very pleasantly surprised. I got the seafood plate that had two of the best shrimp I’ve ever eaten, a crab cake, grilled fish, and mashed okinawan sweet potato, all over a Thai coconut cream sauce. It’s a little bit expensive for what you get compared to other places, but I still look forward to going back.
This tiny Mochi spot always has a line. I’ve eaten most of their flavors (mainly because I didn’t realize how huge they would be the first time I ordered a dozen), and I honestly find most pretty lackluster. However, there are three flavors that are SO good that I go every time I visit Hilo. The best is the strawberry shortcake mochi, butter mochi is a close second, and the seasonal pumpkin pie mochi is really good too. You can’t leave Hawaii with fresh fruit, so butter mochi is the only one you can bring back to your friends.
In Japan, where this chain is based, Tetsumen would merely be average or slightly above. Outside of Japan, though, it’s as good as it gets. Everything I’ve ever ordered there has been great, and a big bowl of ramen is the perfect escape from the inevitable rainy day in Hilo.
This new Lebanese food truck turned a parking lot into a fairly delightful place to eat. I’ve tried a bunch of their pitas and plates and all of them were excellent. I really like the kebab plate because you get to try so many different things and you get a lot of pickled vegetables.
Hilo is really an awesome place to visit. It really shocked me just how good the food was, especially considering what a small sleepy town it is. If you get the chance to visit, let me know what you think of the places I listed here.
Photo is a picture of the Rainbowl from Poke Market
Tea Time with Tynan #5 is coming Sunday at 10am PST! In case you haven’t been before, I do a live stream where I answer questions and tell stories. The readers who show up are awesome and we can all chat together.