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Here are HONOLULU Dining Editor Martha Cheng’s picks for the top eateries on O‘ahu.
I don’t take these sorts of lists lightly—especially when it’s the first time writing one for and about the city that I call home. Often, best restaurant lists highlight creative and unique places, ones that tell a story, but not ones that nourish us daily and are a part of our own stories. So this is my answer to that: my favorite restaurants that include places I’m excited about, but also places that I eat at regularly (in some cases, for more than a decade), and that slim intersection of the Venn diagram where they overlap. Here they are, in no particular order:
Fête | Tane Vegan Izakaya | Mud Hen Water | Nami Kaze | The Pig & The Lady | Bar Maze | MW Restaurant | Over Easy | Ethel’s Grill | Sushi Sho | Izakaya Naru | Bozu Japanese Restaurant | Pho to Chau | I-naba | Helena’s Hawaiian Food | Olay’s Thai-Lao Cuisine | Koko Head Café | Olive Tree Café | Sushi Izakaya Gaku | Tonkatsu Tamafuji | Shige’s Saimin Stand | SXY Szechuan | Yakiniku Korea House | Sushi ii | Pizza Mamo | Asian Mix

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Few chefs are as devoted to local ingredients as James Beard Award-winner Robynne Maii and Emily Iguchi, but you’d hardly know it. And that’s Fête: understated while delivering the rare Honolulu experience of great food and drinks in a casually stylish setting. The menu is slim, consisting of favorites like a spaghetti carbonara with a local touch of Portuguese sausage and veal schnitzel sauced with liliko‘i. But listen carefully to the long list of daily specials, which have included whole fried shrimp on a tomato compote and grilled lemon, and ‘ōpakapaka in a nishime broth and yaki onigiri. Fête’s strength in simplicity and relentless attention to detail shows in its rocky road ice cream, house-made down to the chewy marshmallows. I always end a meal here with at least one scoop.
$$$ | 2 N. Hotel St., Chinatown, (808) 369-1390, fetehawaii.com, @fetehawaii

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Tane writes poetry in vegetables, from the tomato nigiri, ruby red and translucent, to the Manila dune, with delicate lotus root chips perched atop a pumpkin tempura and spiced gobo roll. You’ll find preparations pickled, fried, grilled, simmered and raw, just as in a traditional izakaya, but with vegetables as the highlight. One notable exception: the ramen, which in addition to garnishes of bamboo shoots and a meaty tempura shiitake features a faux char siu that’s wondrously smoky and tender. The shio broth, practically naked without miso, garlic or chile to hide behind, still manages to coax a flavorful richness from “mushrooms, seaweed and flowers,” which is all chef/owner Kin Wai Lui will say about the recipe. The McKinley High dropout had opened a similar plant-based izakaya in San Francisco, but didn’t know if Tane in Honolulu would catch on. It’s clear such worries were unfounded—reservations are a must.
$$ | 2065 S. Beretania St., Mōʻiliʻili, tanevegan.com, @tanevegan

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In an increasingly globalized world, it’s harder to find unique experiences, which is why Mud Hen Water is such a delight. Where else can you get buttered ‘ulu, tossed with fermented black bean, or preserved akule alongside limu butter and soda crackers, or porchetta stuffed with lū‘au? Chefs Ed Kenney and Dave Caldiero blend native Hawaiian, local culture and global influences in a way that feels surprisingly natural, like a culinary form of Pidgin, resulting in dishes like biscuits and mapo tofu gravy for brunch and a fully loaded baked banana, using one of our starchier varieties of banana and burying it under curry butter, bacon, chives and chopped egg. Cocktails, too, draw on locally grown ingredients, like Vishnu’s Vice, vibrantly orange with fresh juiced ‘ōlena and dosed with gin, honey, lime and pepper. And with its outdoor patio, brunch or dinner at Mud Hen Water is one of Honolulu’s great pleasures.
$$$ |  3452 Wai‘alae Ave., Kaimukī, (808) 737-6000, mudhenwater.com, @mudhenwater

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After spending more than a decade opening restaurants for others as well as herding hundreds of chefs for the Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival and teaching culinary students, Jason Peel has a place of his own. Which is probably why the menu feels so freewheeling—all those influences can barely be contained in the brunch and dinner menus. The honey walnut shrimp and waffle is an inspired mashup, and other brunch staples like eggs Benedict and omelets are turned on their heads: The Benedicts forgo listless English muffins for shrimp toast, and the omelets are chawanmushi topped with mentaiko or mushroom and Mornay sauce. Peel, known for his sushi rolls when he worked for Roy Yamaguchi, brings them here, alongside crudo, nigiri and chirashi. Overwhelmed yet? For dinner, the small plates include ‘ulu tots in barbecue sauce and Kona baby abalone done oysters Rockefeller style. If there’s an emphasis, it’s on seafood and vegetables. This is one of the most original and fun menus in Honolulu right now.
$$ | 1135 N. Nimitz Highway, Iwilei, (808) 888-6264, @namikaze.hi

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While The Pig & The Lady began as a modern Vietnamese restaurant, making a name for itself with its pho French dip and Mama Le’s regional noodle soups, chef Andrew Le’s creativity could never be confined. So there are marinated beets with pickled blueberries, further sharpened with a chile crisp vinaigrette, and then tamed just slightly with a yuzu tofu cream and shaved caramelized white chocolate. No boring avocado toast here—instead, it’s fried bread topped with avocado, aged garlic in shoyu and lightly vinegared shime saba. Flavors here are bold and sharp—in that sense, Le could never escape those Vietnamese underpinnings. The clam and rau ram sausage linguine is spiked with the funk of shrimp paste and lemon. And even the ever-changing soft serve sundae recently featured a coconut sticky rice custard swirled with mango sorbet and drizzled with fish sauce caramel.
$$$ |  83 N. King St., Chinatown, (808) 585-8255, thepigandthelady.com, @pigandthelady

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With Bar Leather Apron, Justin and Tom Park proved they could imbue a tiny, unassuming space with sophistication while serving Hawai‘i’s best cocktails. With Bar Maze, equally compact, they raised the bar even higher by enlisting chef Ki Chung, formerly the chef de cuisine of Michelin-starred Aubergine in Carmel, California, to collaborate with Justin Park on a cocktail-paired menu. The ever-evolving omakase has evoked the ocean, with coins of raw, thinly sliced Hokkaido scallops, made tart with calamansi and green apple and paired with a light cocktail of shochu, mango, elderflower and a citrusy froth reminiscent of sea foam. At Bar Maze, every detail is obsessed over, down to the salt that Chung uses in his all-local banchan that accompany the meat course—the flaky grains made by evaporating seawater collected via a surfboard off the east side of O‘ahu.
$$$$ | The Collection, 600 Ala Moana Blvd., Kaka‘ako, barmaze.com, @bar.maze

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On a recent evening at MW, a woman sat solo at the bar with a cocktail and truffle fries. Not the usual kind of truffle fries doused in synthetic truffle oil or even truffle salt—no, these were fries blanketed with full slices of black truffles. This is MW: the restaurant that elevates our humblest comfort foods, whether it’s fried rice fortified with lobster, shrimp and scallops, or mochi grated for a crisp crust on tofu or kampachi. After all, chef Wade Ueoka originally came from Zippy’s. That thread carries through to dessert, where Michelle Karr-Ueoka’s taste for textures results in a seasonal fruit-infused shave ice layered with sorbet, panna cotta and tapioca. Yes, the new location is above a luxury car dealership, but the space is actually more elegant and intimate than its previous location.
$$$ | 888 Kapi‘olani Blvd., Suite 201, Kaka‘ako, (808) 955-6505, mwrestaurant.com, @mwrestaurant

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Remember when we used to drive to Kailua just for breakfast? When it seemed all the best pancakes were over the Pali? Scores of brunch places have opened in town in the past decade (some outposts of Kailua originals), and yet, one of O‘ahu’s best is still in Kailua. Nik and Jennifer Lobendahn create seemingly simple dishes with just a touch of something extra, like a potato puree poured over eggs and bread stuffed with tomato jam, or bacon cabbage broth flooding eggs, Portuguese sausage and rice, like an American style chazuke. You’ll find glitzier pancakes elsewhere, but Over Easy’s are pure, crispy-edged perfection.
$ | 418 Ku‘ulei Road, #103, Kailua, (808) 260-1732, easyquehi.com/over-easy, @overeasyhi

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In a city crowded with excellent holes-in-the-wall, tiny Ethel’s Grill shines with deft touches on local comfort food. Grated daikon and ponzu balance a hamburger steak; the famous ‘ahi tataki is finessed with shoyu-marinated paper-thin slices of garlic. The short menu expands to almost twice the size with the daily specials, which have recently included fried chicken sprinkled with ume powder and paired with shiso sauce. I miss dining in the small space, a shrine to sumo efficiently run with just Minaka Urquidi in the front and her husband, Robert, in the kitchen, but no word on when dine-in service will reopen, if ever. But takeout is a good excuse for a picnic at Moanalua Gardens.
$ | 232 Kalihi St., (808) 847-6467, Kalihi, @ethelsgrill_kalihi

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I don’t usually advocate for expensive tasting menus—my tastes generally run simple. But if you are going to spend $300 a person, reserve one of the 10 seats at Sushi Sho’s curving cypress bar. For every morsel, chef Keiji Nakazawa takes into account the season, provenance and texture of the seafood and adjusts his preparations accordingly, from aku cured in banana leaf to Moloka‘i amaebi marinated in Shaoxing wine. But these same Edomae techniques of aging, curing, marinating and cooking can also be experienced in Sushi Sho’s takeout bara chirashi, consisting of 20 different seafoods and vegetables scattered over sushi rice. You might find lean tuna aged in ice or Kona abalone steamed for three hours over clam stock. It’s one of the greatest deals in town at $40 and must be reserved in advance. 
$$$$ |  Sushi Sho, The Ritz-Carlton, Waikīkī Beach, 383 Kalaimoku St. Waikīkī, ritzcarlton.com, @sushishowaikiki

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This is one of Honolulu’s most intimate—and the later it gets, boisterous—izakayas. And it is our only one offering Okinawan food, such as slippery and gooey peanut tofu; stir-fried bittermelon, Spam, tofu and egg; and house-made Okinawan soba noodles in a light pork and fish broth. At Naru, the taco rice, a result of the American military presence in Okinawa, comes in a hot stone bowl, and the taco ingredients (ground beef, cheese, lettuce, salsa) are mixed with a raw egg yolk and rice tableside. It is an exuberant melding of influences, reflective of Hawai‘i’s own cuisine. This is also the place to decide if you like awamori, distilled from rice, and at Naru, available infused with shiso, pineapple, coffee or Okinawan brown sugar. 
$$ | 2700 S. King St., #D104, Mōʻiliʻili, (808) 951-0510, naru-honolulu.com

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Choosing a favorite izakaya feels impossible in our city where izakaya excellence is the norm. But these lists must be made, and I choose Bozu, where cooked dishes include a tomato-y beef tongue stew topped with cheese, and a cold chawanmushi with uni. Specials have highlighted tiny firefly squid in a piquant miso; grilled pork jowls, the perfect balance of meaty, tender and fatty; and fried flounder with the bones fried crisp, a no-waste fish and chip staple of izakayas. But it’s all that combined with sashimi artistry that sends me to Bozu most often. Order the chef’s sashimi assortment that might include crunchy mirugai or lightly torched and fatty nodoguro. One night, sitting at the sushi counter, I watched chef Katsuhiro Hoshi assemble an envy-inducing parade of sashimi and sushi platters for a table with one of Hawai‘i’s most famous chefs.
$$$ |  McCully Shopping Center, #209, 1960 Kapi‘olani Blvd., (808) 955-7779

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In contrast with other Vietnamese restaurants around town, with menus sprawling to a hundred items, the choices here are streamlined: the size of your beef pho, the addition of tripe, tendon, flank or brisket, and whether you prefer the slices of rare beef in your soup or on the side. Pho to Chau feels spare and old-fashioned, with its fluorescent lights and windows fringed with red curtains, but the plates accompanying pho generously heaped with fresh herbs including sawtooth coriander, plus dishes of sliced jalapeños, lemon wedges, and chile sauce evoke a verdant abundance. Add on the spring rolls, which are made with rice paper that bubbles and crisps after a dip in the fryer. Not much appears to have changed at Pho to Chau since it opened more than 30 years ago—a visit here is like stepping into a different time and country, but the clarity of its broth restores you to the here and now.
$ |  1007 River St., Chinatown, (808) 533-4549

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The sliding shoji doors at I-naba reveal a spare space, reflecting dishes with no extraneous frills and flourishes, but a simple and perfect execution of soba noodles, whether topped with uni and ikura, or served alongside chirashi. The tempura is also top-notch, crisp and light—don’t overlook the à la carte tempura menu, which includes lotus root with minced shrimp, maitake mushroom, and chicken bundled with shiso and ume. You’ll also find the less common battera sushi, pressed sushi tiled with vinegared mackerel and a translucent sheet of kombu. Really, there are no missteps at I-naba.
$$ | 1610 S. King St., McCully, (808) 953-2070, inabahonolulu.com

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We have a number of excellent Hawaiian food spots, and certainly ones that are more accessible in hours and parking, but only Helena’s has that famous pipi kaula, one of Honolulu’s most iconic dishes. You most likely know it by now—short-ribs with chewy parchmentlike bits around the bone, the predecessor to the ubiquitous beef chips you see everywhere now. The pipi kaula is the star, though the supporting cast of beef and watercress soup, imu-cooked kālua pig, and poke with ‘opihi, when available, pull their weight.
$$ | 1240 N. School St., Kalihi, (808) 845-8044, helenashawaiianfood.com

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Thank goodness Macy Khounkeo convinced her mother, Olay Somsanith, to cook the food of her native country, Laos, in addition to the safer Thai dishes she was selling at markets around town. The sai oua, or Laotian sausage, contains unabashed chunks of pig skin, spiked with lemongrass and lime leaves, while the nam khao, or crispy rice salad, tangles with fermented sausage. While the Lao dishes are the draw, don’t miss some of the Thai dishes, such as the whole fried fish with chile-lime sauce, best enjoyed in one of Honolulu’s most alluring outdoor dining spaces, fringed with ferns and palms and twinkling lights and anchored by a koi pond. Finish with the lod xong, made by an aunty of the family—pandan squiggles bathed in coconut cream and palm sugar syrup, altogether tasting like salted caramel pudding.
$$ | 66 N. Hotel St., Chinatown, (808) 536-5300, olaysthaihawaii.com, @olays_thai_lao_cuisine 

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Even with its move to a much larger space—and now with outdoor seating—lines form as soon as Koko Head Café opens. It’s easy to see why. By 8 a.m. on a recent weekday, it was sold out of its ‘ulu cinnamon rolls, soft and slathered with cream cheese icing. Chef Lee Anne Wong’s dishes veer maximalist, as with the lūʻau and eggs, topped with tempura onions and pressed in a cast-iron skillet that crisps the garlic rice. Simpler dishes such as the breakfast congee still have fun flourishes of cinnamon-bacon croutons, and the simplest and rarest of all is a fruit plate that showcases our diversity of local fruit rather than defaulting to the usual imported berries. It’s not an easy task, but like the notoriously difficult Koko Crater hike, the payoff of Koko Head Café’s efforts is a unique Hawai‘i point of view.
$$ |  1120 12th Ave., #100, Kaimukī, kokoheadcafe.com, @kokoheadcafe

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Olive Tree tells its customers that this isn’t fast food—you’ll have to wait a bit for food made from scratch—and yet, it is arguably the most consistent restaurant in Honolulu that isn’t fast food. Savas Mojarrad came up with the first menu in 1995, and it remains the same under Steven Iida’s watchful care. There’s fish souvlaki made with fish still brought by anglers directly to the restaurant, lamb shawarma, fresh greens with the best Greek salad dressing, and baklava scented with orange blossom water. Even the daily specials rotate on the same schedule: spanakopita on Sundays and Mondays, braised lamb shank on Wednesdays.
$ |  4614 Kīlauea Ave., Kāhala, (808) 737-0303

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The OG izakaya still holds its own against newer entrants. The classics remain, including the house-made tofu topped with dashi jelly and the oft-imitated dashi marinated ikura, as well as the negihamachi tartare, the fish scraped off the bones and served with a stack of toasted nori. The menu is so extensive that I still discover new-to-me items, like tatami iwashi, baby sardines dried in a crisp sheet like a tatami mat. And, of course, always check the specials menu that includes seasonal fresh fish.
$$$ | 1329 S. King St., Makiki, (808) 589-1329, @izakayagaku

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Though originating in Hokkaido, Japan, Tamafuji sources its bread from La Tour Bakehouse for the crisp, airy panko crust around its tonkatsu. It also relies on locally fresh-milled rice from Rice Factory, showing the same fanaticism to rice that Italians have for pasta. Such details contribute to the multisensory experience at Tamafuji, from the copper pots the tonkatsu are fried in, to the sesame seeds ground with a mortar and pestle to create sauce, to the refillable cabbage salad with more fairy strands than the clunky vegetable we know.
$$ | 449 Kapahulu Ave., Suite 203, Kapahulu, (808) 922-1212, tamafuji-us.com

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Sun Noodle’s dominance (and excellence) in the noodle-verse makes it hard to stray from its strands. But Shige’s still doggedly makes its own saimin noodles with a 1950s machine from Japan the size of an office printer, producing noodles that slip and slide in saimin broth more easily than Sun’s. Make sure to order a cheeseburger, too, one of the old-school bests on the island.
$ | 70 Kukui St., Wahiawā, (808) 621-3621, @shigessaiminstand

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Go ahead, call it sexy, even though SXY is an acronym for a more poetic sentiment, shǔ xiāng yuán, roughly translating to “Sichuan hometown connection.” Because the food does indeed feel sexy, warmed with cumin and hot with chiles. For the dry pot, what could have been a mundane stir-fry of beef (or other meat of your choice), turns delightful with crisp slices of lotus root, supple and crunchy wood-ear fungus, deep-fried potato chips and whole green Sichuan peppercorns, citrusy and numbing. Whole-roasted fish is dramatically presented in a silver tray, bathed in a red chile sauce that hides wide, slippery glass noodles, tofu and veggies in its depths.
$$ |  Ala Moana Center, 1450 Ala Moana Blvd., (808) 942-8885, sxyszechuan.com

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There are almost as many opinions on Korean restaurants in Honolulu as there are of kim chee recipes. Some are go-tos for Korean barbecue, others for stews, some for a certain vibe. But Korea House is my favorite, with a solid menu of meats, including my go-to kalbi, for grilling; roiling and overstuffed budachige (inexplicably only available for lunch, though); faultless naengmyeon to cool off with; and always a good assortment of banchan.
$$ | 2494 S. Beretania St., Mōʻiliʻili, (808) 944-1122

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Lately, a new sushi omakase seems to pop up every month in Honolulu, but returning to Sushi ii, one of the first places to offer nigiri beyond the usual tuna-salmon-hamachi trifecta in a nonintimidating atmosphere, feels like coming home. The low-key manner of owner Garrett Wong and the other sushi chefs belies their precise knife work—witness the cuts in the squid, ruffling the surface like lace. The sushi’s delicacy is offset by a playfulness in dishes from the kitchen, such as soft eggplant spread over roasted bone marrow, the eggplant echoing the bone marrow’s jiggly velvet, and ikura pan, the fish eggs spooned over crème fraîche spread thickly on King’s Hawaiian Bread, zinged with lime zest.
$$$ |  655 Ke‘eaumoku St., #109, Ke‘eaumoku, (808) 942-5350

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Pizza Mamo was a pandemic pivot, proof that sometimes brilliance is born out of necessity. Putting aside Neapolitan pies that wouldn’t take out well, Matthew Resich of Brick Fire Tavern and Danny Kaaialii and Jonny Vasquez of Encore Saloon and The Daley teamed up to recreate Detroit-style pizzas that I didn’t think I’d love until I tried my first bite. It’s a compact rectangle that you think would hardly feed two people, and yet it does, rich with cheese, crackling crisp at the edges in contrast to the soft and thick dough, and doused with a bright tomato sauce that keeps it all in check.
$ | 16 N. Hotel St., Chinatown, eatpizzamamo.com, @pizzamamo

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Daniel Leung, once the owner of Panda Cuisine, helms Asian Mix, which explains the quality of food from this strip mall takeout Chinese counter. First, there’s a roast meat counter, where you’ll find juicy roast duck and meaty honey barbecue ribs, as well as a made-to-order menu including Hong Kong style noodle soups, curry-tinged Singapore noodles, and lamb stir-fried with leeks. Where you’d expect just steam table fare, there’s instead skill and a touch of nostalgia at Leung’s erstwhile Chinese restaurant.
$ | 1234 S. Beretania St., Makiki, (808) 521-1688, hiasianmix.com
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