Remember when eating vegan meant hanging out in hot bars at health food stores? When life was made of tofu, tempeh and beans? Not anymore. Welcome to the table, vegans and vegetarians: Honolulu’s dining scene has shifted towards the joys of meatless dishes.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in January 2019. Menus may have changed since; be sure to call ahead if you plan to visit any of these restaurants.
VSconsider this: The city now has several health food stores or chains, over a dozen restaurants specializing in vegan and vegetarian cuisine, even a diner where everything can be ordered vegan (there you go, Downbeat). Reflecting trends on the continent, serious vegetable sections have appeared on haute cuisine menus. We’re even seeing vegan choices without kale or tofu, which is cause for celebration.
The 12 dishes here are vegan, vegetarian, and in some cases slightly pescatarian, meaning they’re seasoned with fish sauce or katsuobushi, an essential ingredient in dashi. Some are in vegan restaurants; others appear on the meatier menus. Either way, they’re satisfying enough to recommend, take a special trip, and order over and over again, even if you’re a carnivore.
‘Ai loves Nalo
‘Ai loves Nalo is a vegan restaurant that attracts even urban carnivores to Waimānalo. The best seller is this: a hearty mix of beet hummus, delicious fried kalo falafel, smoked eggplant baba ganoush, and parsley millet tabbouleh. These city dwellers also won’t leave without the perfect Poifect, a jelly-jar creation that layers fresh local fruit with avocado, Okinawan sweet potato and poi, like an edible rainbow.
$ 14, 41-1025 Kalaniana’ole Highway, Waimānalo, (808) 888-9102, ailovenalo.com
SEE ALSO: First Look: Ai Love Nalo
Cafe of peace
It’s amazing, the real panko crust on Cafe of peaceis vegan tofu katsu. Real pulverized bread, not the stale grains you buy from the wrappers, is simply seasoned with salt, used liberally to coat the tofu, and fried. Each bite is so satisfying and non-greasy that even meat eaters will appreciate the tofu or tempeh inside. Plus, it’s accompanied by the all-Japanese touches of an appropriate katsu sauce, karashi mustard, sliced cabbage, and rice.
$ 13.25, 2239 S. King Street, 808) 951-7555, Peacecafehawaii.com
Here’s a vegan pho without tofu. Truly. You instantly know that the emphasis here is on flavor. The broth is tangy, deep and slightly viscous, thanks to an infusion of konbu. Ho Farms grape tomatoes are roasted for an intense flavor, generous sprigs of enoki mushrooms crunch gently between your teeth and a sprinkle of fried shallots crown the bowl. The carnivore who put this on my radar commands it with a side of smoky chest.
$ 15, 1200 boul. Ala Moana, (808) 777-3588. Also available at The Pig & The Lady ($ 16 at lunch and $ 20 at dinner), 83 N. King St., (808) 585-8255, thepigandthelady.com
SEE ALSO: First Look: Piggy Smalls
Vegan tomato risotto
Cry for the fate of XO’s incredible vegan risotto: on a meat-focused menu, it’s the least ordered dish and therefore the most likely to disappear when the restaurant updates its offerings. “I go to ChefZone and see things I love and make them work together,” says chef-owner Kenneth Lee. “I had never seen these Sweety Drop red peppers so I tried them with roasted peppers and tomato sauce.” Add the coconut milk, dried parsley, capers and Sichuan rayu oil. This one is worth driving.
$ 13, 3434 Wai’alae Avenue, (808) 732-3838
Rangoon Burmese Cuisine
Mango salad is one of the reasons I’m addicted to Rangoon Burmese Cuisine. The third time I order it, in the middle of a table full of meat, seafood and rice dishes, a table mate points his fork at the salad. “I would come here for that,” she said, “and I would have it as a meal. We’ve loved the tea leaf salad at Dagon Burmese Cuisine for years; It took the opening of the sister restaurant Rangoon last summer to break away from that must-have starter with this riot of fresh mango, cashews, onions and herbs in a lively and tangy fish sauce.
$ 14, 1131 avenue Nu’uanu, (808) 367-0645
SEE ALSO: First Look: Burmese Cuisine in Rangoon
The coconut milk hits you first, then the spiciness of the cayenne pepper. Finally, the Turmeric Yellow Broth from the Vegan Hills Noodle Bowl soaks your spoon for sip after sip (available weekdays only). There’s a mountain of lightly steamed kale and broccolini and squares of fried tofu, but the star garnish is the cluster of fried organic king mushrooms. And since you’re here, don’t hesitate and order a side of Coco-Mari mushrooms in a crispy crust and slide them liberally into a vegan dill mayo.
$ 17, 3585 Wai’alae Avenue, (808) 200-4488, veganhills-hi.com
Chris Kajioka’s cabbage plunged foodies into a nostalgic reverie when he first presented it at Vintage Cave. It was humble cabbage, spiced with miso crème fraîche and a dashi-like broth. Six years later, his charred cabbage reinvented at Senia gets customers and other chefs talking. “The inspiration was a Caesar salad,” says Kajioka. “I used shio kombu and ginger to mimic the salty side of anchovy. I used the moringa to bring back the vegetal element to the salad and the green goddess to add a vegetal freshness. You will order it on each visit.
$ 17, 75 N. King St., (808) 200-5412, restaurantsenia.com
SEE ALSO: Is Senia Restaurant Worth the Hype?
MUD HEN WATER
Yaki o Pa’i’ai, Beet Poke and Buttered ‘Ulu
Dinner at Mud Hen Water is a constant passage of shared plates on the table. It’s an instant warp of time: modern versions of the simple dishes you grew up with, the kind that transports you. This is why there is no main course or individual side dish here, and why we recommend a trio. Yaki o pa’i’ai are deep-fried and melted kalo cakes, folded into crispy nori and drizzled with a mixture of sugar and shoyu. The roasted beet poke hits all of the sesame-soy-limu oil notes of the pescatarian version, except it’s vegan. And the combo of hot puffy breadfruit pillows and black bean sauce makes the ‘buttered ulu so’ ono.
$ 9, $ 10 and $ 9, 3452 Wai’alae Avenue, (808) 737-6000, mudhenwater.com
SEE ALSO: First Look: Ed Kenney’s Newest Kaimukī Restaurant, Mud Hen Water
HOMEMADE TOFU SAMPLE IN IZAKAYA GAZEN (FROM TOP): TOFU WITH BLACK SESAME, TOFU ZARU (BASKET), TOFU SUKUI WITH SOY BROTH.
PHOTOS: OLIVIER KONING
You’d swear there’s bacon in the smoked broth bathing the centerpiece of Gazen’s Three Tofu Sampler. But it’s the katsuobushi bonito flakes that give soymilk dashi its flavorful depth, and the whipped cream that adds a milky lightness to the creamy tofu. Dairy also enhances the smooth black tofu with black sesame, while Gazen’s original tofu comes with a blend of toasted hoji tea salt and Hawaiian sea salt. All three are freshly prepared on site daily.
$ 13, 2836, boulevard Kapi’olani, (808) 737-0230, ekc.co.jp
Korean cuisine O’Kims
O’Kims is what you get when a talented chef leaves his native South Korea, enrolls in the culinary program at Kapi’olani Community College, and works in French, Italian and Japanese kitchens before opening an individual boutique in Chinatown. Nothing is traditional; every detail is calibrated. Chef-owner Hyun Kim’s meatless bibimbap marries the taste bombs and textures of bibimbap with seasonal veggies, a mix of barley and rice, and a rock-hard apple gochujang sauce. Two large, meticulously fried egg rolls add protein and fat, and Kim’s fresh kim chee is the bomb.
$ 11.95, 1028 Nu’uanu Avenue, (808) 537-3787, okimshawaii.com
Local udon with basil pesto
We first got the tip about Zigu’s emerald green noodles from a friend whose reasons for living include pork belly and fried chicken skin. Fresh, bouncy sprigs of homemade kale udon are mixed with a Japanese-inspired pesto that balances the strong taste of roasted macadamia nuts with katsuobushi dashi and a lively hint of rice vinegar. Add the peppery crunch of fresh watercress and it becomes a must-order at modern izakaya locavore in Waikīkī, every time.
$ 14, 413 Seaside Avenue, (808) 212-9252, zigu.us