Sh*t just got real the moment we left Maui for Big Island. A putt-putt 8 person commuter plane scurried us away from our lush resort in Maui and dropped us off at the remote wasteland that is Big Island. Gone were the little pockets of tourist civilian activity, replaced with an unsettling sense of isolation. They don’t call this the Big Island for nothing. It takes about 1.5-2 hours to get to any of the major points on the island, and that involves a long drive through a whole lot of nothing.
You’ll drive through serious uncharted territory out here, with not a rest stop or cell phone signal in sight. A smart thing to do would be to stop by a market beforehand and stock up on bento boxes or rice snacks, which is very common. If you’re in Kona, Matsuyama Market on Mamalahoa Hwy is a fantastic resource for all things breakfast and bento. We certainly could have used a musubi or two on our drive to the volcano craters, in which we built up an appetite from a somewhat challenging 4-mile hike, only to settle for an unsatisfying meal at Jack in the Box due to limited options.
Even if you plan carefully, you’ll find that it really isn’t about the food on Big Island. Crater rims and volcanic sunsets are the main attractions. The cooking here is much more basic and down-to-earth, with the exception of the touristy stretch in downtown Kona. The flavors are comfortable and familiar, reminiscent of the food you’d get at your favorite neighborhood bar or diner. (The sophisticated and thoughtful cooking at Holuakoa Cafe is a noteworthy exception.) After a long day trekking through the wilderness, you can enjoy a satisfying meal at any of these featured restaurants.
1. Teshima’s Restaurant
Teshima’s was about a 45 minute drive from our rental in Kona. Many people on the western part of Big Island stock up on breakfast and bento essentials here before heading east to the sights. We had lunch at Teshima’s before spending a few leisurely hours at Puuhonua National Park learning about ancient Hawaiian civilization and artifacts. The Japanese food here is homey and delicious, comparable to the places in the East Village. There’s a bento box to suit every palate as well as udon and donburi bowls. I thought the sukiyaki and miso butterfish in particular were outstanding.
2. Holuakoa Cafe
The fresh and locally sourced farm-to-table cooking at Holuakoa Cafe was a pleasant surprise. For a moment in time I felt like I was eating at a charming greenmarket restaurant in San Francisco somewhere. The understated, basic approach to food was a welcome departure from the heavy and hearty local cooking, and the emphasis on organic ingredients was admirable. The fuji apples in our salad were so amazingly crisp and sweet, unlike anything I’ve had at Whole Foods or the farmer’s market. The pork and beef dishes were the standouts here–the farm-raised pork belly confit and lemon risotto was divine, and the grass-fed beef tenderloin was juicy and flavorful. The fish dishes had enormous potential if they weren’t overcooked. One thing to note is that seating is outdoors, so bring a jacket and wear layers. The weather on Big Island is wildly inconsistent, with the day starting out chilly, warming up to a hot heat, and then ending things cold.
3. Kona Brewing Company
Kona Brewing Company actually brews its own beers, which are quite good by the way, and operates a pub where you can enjoy these libations with some tasty grub. As you would expect, the restaurant has a casual and fun vibe, attracting a mix of tourists and locals. Expect to wait about 45 minutes to an hour for a table, or you can try your luck at the bar. The food here is not mind-blowing, but it does pair well with beer. The thick-crust pizzas here are solid, and the tacos are pretty good. This is not the place to be healthy–the kale salad was extremely dry and tasteless–and an attempt at more traditional restaurant offerings like crab cakes also fell flat. But the Captain Cook pizza was fantastic.
4. Cafe 100
Cafe 100 is an extremely popular counter restaurant in Hilo that specializes in all kinds of loco moco and plate lunches. If you like greasy, divey take-out, then this place will hit the spot. The rice in the loco moco is coated generously with gravy and topped with gleaming pieces of grilled processed meat. Cafe 100 does very well with red meats, less so with fish. Our fish was dry and tough, and I suppose the side of heavy tartar sauce was supposed to solve that problem. My dad won out with the beef teriyaki, which was the best entree at lunch.
5. Moonstruck Patisserie
Forget the shave ice, finish off a meal in Hilo with some dessert at Moonstruck Patisserie, a pastry shop with a small but thoughtful selection of sweets. The misterio verde, a delicate sponge cake with layers of cheesecake and poached pears, was very impressive.