Plenty of people are drawn to the high-rise hotels and shopping options in Waikiki, but on Oahu’s northeast shore, Kailua is a welcome alternative. The small town that spans two bays offers pristine beaches, some of the island’s best hiking trails, and plenty of enticing local food and drink. Even President Obama is a believer, since that’s where he and his family choose to spend their Christmas vacation each year. I recently stayed in Kailua for a week with my family. Learn about 10 of my favorite food and drink options in town.
Numbers on the map correspond to listings below and appear in alphabetical order instead of order of preference.
This all-natural shave ice specialist shares a downtown Kailua storefront with an apparel business that sells clothing, hats and publications like The Surfer’s Journal. Their space sports a glass front, wood floor and blackboard menu. Yes, all ingredients are local. Syrups and purees don’t look like they came from a nuclear reactor and taste great on top of fluffy shave ice. My favorite flavors involved Guava Hawaiian Chili Peppa with Big Island Guava and Oahu chile pepper; and Honolulu Tamarind sourced from old growth tamarind trees in Nuuanu. Kona coffee shave ice also pairs well with vanilla, as my father discovered. No matter what you order, each shave ice costs $5.50. Add-ons include ice cream, dulce de leche, and li hing. The Local Hawaii also sells cold brew kept cool with shave ice.
MUST ORDER DISHES: Shave Ice (Coffee, Guava Hawaiian Chili Peppa, Honolulu Tamarind, Vanilla), Cold Brew Coffee
Madre Chocolate co-founders David Elliott and Nat Bletter have been open for five years in a Kailua strip mall, preaching bean to bar. The tiny space features red walls, tile floors and shelves of chocolate bars, mainly single origin bars from the Big Island and South America. A blackboard map of Big Island cacao farms that Madre sources from includes Hawi, Crillo, Likao Kula Farm in Holualoa, and Hart Farm in Paukaa. I particularly enjoyed the sweet-tart Lilikoi bar; Coffee & Cardamom with 70% dark chocolate from Pangoa, Peru; and Triple Cacao featuring 70% Dominican dark Chocolate. Madre’s salted coconut truffle was also a hit.
MUST ORDER DISHES: Coffee & Cardamom bar, Lilikoi bar, Salted Coconut truffle, Triple Cacao bar
This Kailua strip mall spot from Kanoe Sandefur, Lindsey Ozawa, Kevin Lee, and Alejandro Briceno features a kiawe-burning Stefano Ferrara pizza oven, reclaimed wood counter and tables, and aqua Eames chairs. Local produce and meats factor into Pizza and “Not Pizza.” Recent favorites included a house salad involving local greens, kiawe roasted vinaigrette, dried cranberries, pumpkin seeds, and tangy goat cheese; and kiawe roated octopus plated with a light salad. Their Margherita pizza with tomato, mozzarella, basil, and olive oil is pretty classic, and worth ordering, but I prefer the blistered Lemon Basil pizza with mozzarella, olive oil, preserved lemon, artichokes, house ricotta, basil, and sea salt.
MUST ORDER DISHES: House Salad, Kiawe Roasted Octopus, Lemona Basil pizza, Margherita pizza
At first thought, a wine shop in Aihaki Park Shopping Center would seem like an unlikely place to find premium seafood, but Tamura’s warrants attention for their more than two dozen different poke preparations. I was particularly enamored with Fresh Ahi Island Inamona, seasoned with crushed kukui nut, Fresh Ahi Island Ninja amped up with chile flake, and Smoked Salmon Belly swimming in soy sauce. Garlic King Crab Shoulders combined punchy minced garlic with sweet crab meat that pulled pretty easily from the shell.
MUST ORDER DISHES: Fresh Ahi Island Inamona, Garlic King Crab Shoulders, Smoked Salmon Belly
Nani Nikcevich and chef-partner Nick “Bear” Yamada have been in the current location since 2010, which features bamboo and lime green walls lined with push pin and thread art that depicts iconic Hawaiian images like sea turtles and pineapples. Uahi translates from Hawaiian as “smoke.” The menu features some of the best plate lunches in town, most available with either white rice, brown rice, mac salad, Korean slaw, kimchi or vegetables. Garlic Chicken features crispy boneless thighs. Juicy Kalua pork is oven-braised and sautéed with kale. Red Curry Grilled Fish features the catch of the day, which during my visit involved flaky white fillets of shutome (broad-bill swordfish) swimming in mild Thai red coconut curry and topped with green papaya salad. For dessert, raid the fully loaded pastry case by the register. Purple sweet potato haupia pie isn’t the sweetest option, but is your best bet.
MUST ORDER DISHES: Garlic Chicken, Kalua Pork with Kale, Red Curry Grilled Fish, Sweet Potato Haupia Pie