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.