There’s no such thing as a free meal, and that particular turn of phrase has never been more true in the metropolis of Honolulu. Demand for quality food is high but resources are considerably limited, to say the least, which can create a deleterious financial drain on anyone fond of eating out. It’s the price for paradise; always worth the cost, but difficult to sustain. That said, prime deals can be found, even within vegan parameters, for those willing to hunt.
Strapped for cash and in need of a seriously hearty bowl of sustenance? Look no further than Zippy’s local favorite for almost 50 years. Believe it or not, this classic plate lunch joint offers one of the best values for a satisfying vegan meal on the island. Their Vegetarian Chili happens to be vegan, and you can order it with brown rice for a mere $5.70 plus tax. In Hawaiian currency, this makes the dish practically free, as I figure it. Warm and comforting,you’ll want to hit up the bottle of Tabasco sauce generously provided on each table if you’re seeking anything resembling spice, but the baseline stew is thereby agreeable to all palates. Shake things up by getting your chili over fries or spaghetti instead, and ask for chopped onions on top if that’s your thing. Boca burgers and house-made tofu burgers are also available, although bear in mind that everything is cooked on the same grill. There are nearly two dozen Zippy’s locations throughout Hawaii, so it’s an excellent fallback option in times of need.
Known for the absurdly long lines almost as much as the food itself, Marukame Udon is a bit of an overcrowded sensation out in Waikiki. Thankfully, a second branch recently opened up downtown in the Fort Street Mall, boasting far fewer crowds (especially after the lunchtime rush) and an updated menu. This revision has brought in the one and only vegan main dish, but it’s a real winner that won’t leave you wanting more. The Vegetable Udon Salad, ringing up at $4.70 plus tax, consists of cold udon noodles, cooked to chewy, toothsome perfection, accompanied by avocado and a basic battery of raw vegetables. The sesame-based sauce pulls everything together in a rich, creamy combination, but a splash of soy sauce on top sure doesn’t hurt. Don’t forget to grab some complimentary sheets of nori to seal the deal. Vegan inari sushi and onigiri are also available a la cart, but neither are particularly exciting or necessary. This simple meal is more than filling on its own.
A bit more off the beaten path in the depths of Chinatown, Royal Kitchen looks like the most unpromising little hole in the wall for finding anything remotely vegan. Suspend disbelief long enough to poke inside, and you just may be pleasantly surprised. Standard American-Chinese takeout fare share space in the steam table with more authentic dim sum, available for takeout only. Look further and scope out the trays of baked manapua, soft and fluffy buns stuffed with a wide array of vegetables, and traditionally, meats. Fear not- The Veggie Manapua happens to be free of all animal products, featuring a blend of cabbage, onions, carrots, and mushrooms instead. Incredibly, each sizable bun is only $1.40 each, no tax, so you should have plenty of spare change to indulge in dessert while you’re there, too. Choose from the Coconut, Sweet Potato, or Black Sugar Manapua for a sweet treat, easy to eat on the go. My favorite of the three was the Black Sugar variety, which turned out to be a sweetened bean paste filling not unlike adzuki paste.
These three suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to hidden culinary treasures. Honolulu is not a cheap city to live in or visit, but the prices needn’t become a barrier to enjoying great local eats, vegan and all.
Kamaka Ukelele Factory
550 South Street
Honolulu, HI 96813
Free tours every Tuesday – Friday at 10:30 am, led by Uncle Fred himself. It’s a piece of history not included in any of the guidebooks, but if you’re in town, it would be a shame to pass this opportunity by.
Like it or not, modern Honolulu is a rapidly changing world city, adapting local traditions to incoming waves of global inspiration. Although most are quick to take issue with bigger construction projects that are literally transforming and modifying the landscape as we know it, it’s a more positive and exciting proposition from a culinary standpoint. Every return visit turns up fresh eateries, new businesses, and inspiring young entrepreneurs eager to strike out on their own in paradise. It was pure luck that I caught wind of Banán, a tiny operation serving simple, sweet treats out of a stationary food truck, having opened right smack in the middle of my Oahu itinerary.
Quite simply, Banán is bananas. 100% banana soft serve treats in a variety of flavors, to be precise, and plenty of toppings to complement your fruity treats. The only things added to this refreshing base are either additional fruits or herbs for taste; no sugar nor dairy need apply. On a hot January day, there’s no better reward after a brisk hike up Diamond Head, which makes their nearby location on Monsarrat Ave. and accommodating hours ideal.
Unfalteringly generous with samples, the patient and kind scooper on duty successfully convinced me to order a flavor different from my intended pick- A considerable feat indeed. Basil sounds like a dubious pairing with banana, which is why I initially wrote it off as a trendy gimmick while perusing the options in advance. In reality though, this bright green blend sparkles with fresh, herbaceous flavor not unlike mint, regarded as a more conventional dessert addition.
Toppings are 50 cents each or 3 for $1.00, so go for broke and pile them on. The puffed quinoa in particular is a must, introducing both a satisfying crunch and nutty, toasted flavor to the mix. A study in contrasts, just a small sprinkle on top balances out any of the creamy concoctions with ease.
But perhaps I ordered too quickly. Hastily making my selection out of hunger and impatience, my companions quickly trumped my conventional order with custom requests. Combining two flavors in one bowl turned out to be no trouble at all, creating an even wider range of flavor sensations. Luckily, good friends that they are, everyone was more than happy to share the bounty. Ginger-Mint came in as a close second when I took stock of my favorites, but the berry notes of the Acai blend were quite appealing as well.
Upgrade your frozen confection further by trading in the classic cardboard waffle cone or cup for juicy, ripe papaya. Yes, another papaya boat worthy of your time, especially because these fruits are grown locally, and Banán takes the model of sustainability one step further by composting the discarded skins.
Banán sets itself apart from the pack by offering a genuinely healthy treat where few alternatives exist, but even more importantly, by fostering a sense of community by being so keenly aware of their impact. It’s the kind of small business we could truly use everywhere, but no matter how you slice it, this one is distinctly Hawaii grown, through and through.