Pros: Lots of variety
Cons: An expensive place to live, or visit
Hawaii is expensive, and dining in Honolulu is no exception.
In most major cities prices are controlled by competition. If you don't like what you see one place, you move on, going out of state if necessary. Because Honolulu is thousands of miles from anywhere, that option does not exist. Add to this high real estate prices, the cost of shipping and a pyramiding excise tax and you have one of the most expensive places to live or visit- anywhere.
But, if you are traveling on a budget there are some good choices if you know where to look. I personally try to avoid fast food whenever possible, so while that's an option, it's not part of this review (and face it, fast food is fast food where ever you go. If that's what you're after, you already know the choices).
One of the best deals for dining out in Honolulu is the omnipresent plate lunch. These come in many varieties, but usually include one or more meats (typically barbequed), starches and vegetables. Some of the more popular places on Oahu (I'm thinking of L & L barbeque in particular) give you piles of meat and piles of starch (rice, macaroni and potato). "Salad" is macaroni or potato salad with a ton of mayo (that's your vegetable)- so it is not my favorite. I don't consider macaroni or mayonaise a vegetable. There are plate lunches which do give you healthy choices. For around $4 to $6 you can get a meal which includes your choice of meat, chicken, fish or tofu. rice and several vegetables.
Most of the Korean barbeque places give you a choice of 4 vegetables with your protein and starch. Most often you have a choice of barbequed meat or chicken, katsu (breaded fried cutlets) or soup with or without noodles and mandoo, steamed or fried dumplings. Good bets include Kim chee (there are at least 3 "Kim chees" that I know of, 3569 waialae avenue in Kaimuki- 10 minutes from Waikiki, on Kamehameha highway Kaneohe and Kailua on the windward side. Yummy barbeque in Ala Moana, Windward mall and Ward Warehouse offers similar choices at a slightly lower price (but portion sizes and overall quality are not quite as high). There are also lots of smaller family-owned places which offer similar choices.
Hawaiian plate lunches frequently offer a choice of lau lau (meat, chicken or fish wrapped in ti leaves and steamed), Kalua pig (pulled pork), mahi mahi (dolphin fish),lomi salmon (marinated rubbed salmon), long rice (glass noodles in broth, frequently with chicken), curry or stew with green salad, rice, and frequently poi (pounded taro root). Try Ono Hawaiian Food at 726 Kapahulu avenue, a few minutes outside Waikiki.
Rice or fried noodles with a choice of entrees, many familiar. More common choices are broccoli beef, minute chicken, stir fried beef, chicken or pork with vegetables. Patty's Chinese Kitchen is in several of the malls, offering plate lunches with your choice of 2, 3 or 4 entrees at prices ranging from approximately $4 to $7. Panda is a newer franchise and offers similar choices, prepared to order (fresher than most) at similar prices. If you are willing to spend a little more, try Hee Hing at 449 Kapahulu, just outside Waikiki. They have a great variety of dim sum at lunch and a huge menu with fresh, well prepared food. Always crowded, another local favorite.
The bento, a light take out meal (traditionally Japanese) is roughly comaparable to the plate lunch, also offering rice, vegetables and meat or fish. This is available at many restaurants, delis and grocery stores. A good healthy option is Well Bento on King street in the University area offering vegetarian meals as well as fish, freshly prepared, high quality and a very good deal.
Somewhat lighter and healthier fare (generally speaking) than those already discussed, Vietnamese restaurants generally offer a variety of soups (pho being the most common), Bun (rice noodles with a choice of toppings and vegetables in a citrus- fish sauce dressing), meat fondues (meats cooked in broth at the table and eaten rolled in rice paper wraps with vegetables and sometimes fruits). The only franchise I can think of is Ba-le sandwich shops, which offer some of these choices as well as sandwiches with lots of vegetables. (As a side note, the owner of Ba-le was just named small business person of the year by president Bush. Folks who work with him say that if he promises A quality, he gives you AAA. An unusual sandwich shop. They do all theit own baking and never compromise on quality!) Hale Vietnam at 1140 12th avenue in Kaimuki is one of the most popular, consistantly high rated and winner of several awards. Another good choice is A little Bit of Saigon, a small family owned restaurant downtown (at 1160 Maunakea street in Chinatown near the lei shops).
Honolulu has some of the best Thai food anywhere. While they don't frequently offer plate lunches, most Thai restaurants are very reasonably priced and offer a good variety of healthy food. Among the more popular restaurants (and with good reason) are Mekong and Keos. As of this writing there are 4 restaurants on Oahu (Kuhio Ave. in Waikiki, Ward center and two in the university area) owned and operated by chef Keo Sananikone. (Note: The university restaurants are less expensive than their waikiki counterparts and as good or better). There are a lot of choices including curries, a variety of fresh salads, soups meats and seafood prepared with fresh herbs (lemon grass, ginger, mints. Chiang Mai at 2239 N. King street, in the university area is another good choice.
Pizza is always on the short list for budget dining. Unfortunatly most of the pizza in Honolulu is not very good. Some of the better choices come from National franchises. Pizzeria Uno offering Chicago style deep dish pizza has an outlet in Waikiki. Sbarros is in many of the malls. California Pizza Kitchen, which offers a variety of exotic toppings, has an outlet at Kahala mall. For those who like east coast style thin crust, Boston North End pizza, with outlets all over fills the bill. A few minutes drive from Waikiki, in the university area is Emilios at 1423 Kalakaua, offering freshly made deep dish pizza, in my opinion, the best to be found on the island. (Note, this is a restaurant, not take out. The pizza is made to order and takes a while but is worth the wait.)
Another frequent choice for budget dining (and for those less inclined to try more exotic ethnic cusine) is the burger. For good freshly prepared burgers try Aina Koa sandwich shop (the original on the North Shore and branch across from Ward Center). Be prepared for a crowded setting (with too little seating) and a long wait at lunch. Teddy's Bigger Burgers in Kailua and Waikiki is a stylized diner offering burgers and chicken at very reasonable prices. Other options include National franchises: the Hard Rock cafe (just outside waikiki), Friday's on ward avenue. I'm tempted to mention Gordon Bierch, located in Aloha Tower Maerketplace, which has good burgers, and variety of other choices as well, but is priced somewhat above other restaurants listed in this review. That said, if you find yourself at Aloha Tower, the food at Gordon Biersch is good and less expensive than other eateries in Aloha Tower.
Here are a few restaurants which offer good value and healthy choices but don't fall into a category where that is the rule.
Zaffron is a family owned and operated Indian restaurant offering buffets at lunch and dinner. Lots of choices for vegetarians, a variety of meats (lamb curries, Tandoori chicken) as well. Good food, exceptionally well priced and very nice people! They now operate two restaurants, one downtown on the edge of Chinatown at 69 N. King street and one in Waikiki (470 Ena road). Call first as they are only open a few days a week. Worth the effort!
Really in a class by itself, Kaka'ako Kitchen is owned by innovative chef Russell Siu (who also owns upscale 3660 on the Rise). Along with more standard local plate lunch entrees, you'll find innovative Pacific Rim and Eurasian cusine (fresh fish with unusual sauces, pastas, soups and salads) at plate lunch prices. The restaurant has cafeteria style service and seating, not much for atmosphere, but exceptional food at unbeatable prices. Located in Ward Center a few minutes drive from Waikiki.
Good to Go
Good to Go is a small restaurant, primarily geared towards take out. It is owned and operated by caterers and offers very good freshly prepared food at very good prices. Their choices always include a variety of pastas, fresh fish, meats and sandwiches...and can you believe French Onion soup to go? Believe it (and it is good!). Located in Kailua at 307 Uluniu street. Closed weekends.
This list is not exhaustive by any means, but should give you a sense that you have many options for good healthy meals on a budget in Honolulu. All of the places listed above serve complete meals for under $10 per person, and some for less than $10 per couple.