Biting into the Big Pineapple

Though its nickname evokes images of a more tropical rendition of New York City, Honolulu is truly beyond compare. A big city with the heartbeat of a small town, everyone seems to know each other, or at least treat strangers like family if they don’t. Shy and introverted by nature, it took a huge step outside of myself to embark on my first solo trip, and I can say with conviction that there was no better destination than this string of islands in the Pacific Ocean. Reaching out into the void, I was shocked by the genuine kindness that was placed in my outstretched palms. Hearing horror stories about Hawaii’s rocky past, including some lingering (and often justified) resentment against haoles, it seemed a sure thing that my sheet-white face was just asking for trouble. Never have I been so happy to be wrong.

Simple interactions, no matter how shallow, just felt warmer, friendlier than anything I had previously encountered. Smiles came easily, instantly, to every gentle face, and accidental eye contact no longer felt like a potential threat. For the rest of my life, I will never forget the mundane act of waiting for the bus in China Town. Midday sun blazing away, cooling trade winds no where to be found, it was a warmth that was impossible to comprehend for a January afternoon. Wholly unprepared for the heat, I rolled up my sleeves and sweated it out, checking and double-checking the schedule to make sure I had picked the right bus line. Out of the blue, a petite woman sitting on the bench struck up a conversation, noticing my discomfort.

“Yeah, I sure wish I had an umbrella like you,” I mentioned dreamily, nodding to her black-paneled parasol. “I’ve only thought of them for rainy days, but that’s such a good idea!”

Without missing a beat, she immediately offered to share her shade. “Come sit by me then! There’s plenty of room,” she indicated her vast abundance of space, patting the empty seat. And so there I sat, nearly 5,000 miles from home, cheek-to-cheek with a complete stranger, having rarely felt safer in the comfort of my own house.

It’s such a simple gesture, such a forgettable instance, but I’m still bowled over by that effortless generosity. It’s just not something I’ve seen anywhere else in the world.

The people are what truly makes Hawaii so special, but the food naturally ranks second on my list of reasons to visit. Shockingly, vegan options abound in Honolulu, with hardly a menu lacking one ready-to-eat option. Tofu reigns supreme here, thanks to the influence of many Asian cultures, thus making it the norm rather than the “alternative.” Not every morsel was the height of fine cuisine, but I had a handful of memorable meals that would be worth returning to the island for.

An unassuming little hole in the wall, Ruffage Natural Foods is located just a few short blocks away from Kuhio Beach in Waikiki. After a long day of sun and surf, the short menu of simple, wholesome entrees draws both travelers and locals alike. The Tofu Avocado Spring Salad was exactly what I craved, fulfilling my desperate need for fresh greens and a punch of protein. Despite the heat, I still couldn’t resist pairing that with a soul-satisfying cup of miso soup, filled with seaweed and tofu as well. For a no-frills healthy meal, I can’t think of a better place to drop by.

Out in China Town, at the very bus stop where my most cherished conversation took place, the Downbeat Diner is also serving up some awesome meatless eats. Boasting a menu of comfort foods and classic diner favorites, they readily accept the challenge of veganizing each and every option should it not be naturally free of animal ingredients already. Since I came in a little bit early for lunch, the brunch options were most appealing, and they pulled out a solid Tofu Scramble indeed.

Squeezing in those greens again, this platter typically comes with potatoes, but can be swapped for a salad upon request. Mushrooms and onions added a savory complexity to the yellow-hued, seasoned bean curds, I cleaned my plate in mere minutes and would have licked it if not in public.

You won’t want to bypass the drink menu while you’re at it. My admittedly unusual request for a virgin Bloody Mary was met without any snark, and hit the spot perfectly. Lightly spicy, nice and salty, and packed with tomato flavor, I wish I could have ordered about a gallon of the stuff to take with me.

By complete accident or a crazy stroke of luck, however you’d like to consider it, I ended up staying at the very hotel where my top restaurant destination was situated. I had to compare the addresses at least five times before I believed it, but indeed, they were the same. Yuzu, crafting exquisite Japanese food in the ground floor of the Ala Moana Hotel, is not a vegan restaurant. Amazingly, they produce some of the most realistic-looking vegetable nigiri I have ever come across, and many other vegetable options are equally delightful.

You owe it to yourself to try the Vegetable Nigiri Sampler at least once in your life time. The height of edible art, though it may be a dead-ringer for fish at first glance, there’s not a scrap of animal protein to be found on this plate. The “tuna” slices are in fact peeled tomatoes, gently poached in vinegar to impart a uniquely bright, uncharacteristically oceanic flavor. Yuba fills one gunkan while a rich carrot mousse is piped into another. Lotus root is fried and covered with eel sauce, so cleverly hidden within its crispy shell that I would have never been able to identify it unaided. Mushrooms top of the remained of the pieces for incredible umami bites. Eggplant is typically included into the melange as well, but the chef so graciously provided a second tomato piece for me instead, accommodating for my sad eggplant intolerance.

Don’t leave the table without trying their hand-cut Veggie Medley Udon Noodles while you’re at it. Sliced fresh to order and lavished with all variety of garnishes on the side, they’re almost as much fun to eat as they are delicious. Slippery, chewy strands of wheat that twist effortlessly around the chopsticks, the noodles are a world apart from anything dried or store-bought. Each bite is a little bit different too, depending on how you load them up with scallions, sesame seeds, ginger, mushrooms, or crunchy tenkasu. A final splash into the soy-based dipping sauce, and the whole assembly goes down easily. My only regret is that I didn’t have time to return and try another dish or eight at Yuzu.

There’s still much more food to come, but in the meantime, keep checking my Flickr set for more photos!

39 thoughts on “Biting into the Big Pineapple

  1. Such joy. Such utter, utter joy.

    One of the interesting things about your bus-stop conversation is that, in truth, somethin it’s the travel that opens us up to and for kindness that truly does exist in our own home countries, only we aren’t looking to see it.

    In other words, I can’t imagine a single person in the world who wouldn’t want to share their shade with you. xo

  2. It’s embarrassing that I’ve lived in California for 5 years and still never been to Hawaii. It’s been on my to-do list forever and this post just gives me another reason! That vegetable sushi looks amazing, wow! I cannot believe it’s not seafood. Almost too pretty to eat!

    1. Unfortunately, I am back, as I’m far too responsible to run away and never return from paradise… But I did consider it! Mark my words, if I ever make enough money to afford it, I’m moving out there someday!

      1. Do you have some connections here that you’re not sharing? There’s got to be a reason why you’re pushing the Dog angle so hard… ;)

        (And just in case, I would gladly take that position, for the record!)

  3. Hawaii has always been on my list of places to visit – okay, basically everywhere in the South Pacific are on my list – but now I’m sold! I love how laidback everyone in that area of the world often are. It’s such a welcome vacation from our frosty New England attitude toward strangers.

    Also, this is so excellently-written. You should do more travel writing! Your attention to detail extends beyond the food and really makes me want to hear more about your experiences.

    1. I’m so touched that you would say so, my dear! It was such a joy to visit, I can’t help but convey that through my stories and photos. We should seriously go to Hawaii together… I’m already plotting my return for the coming year…

  4. All of these dishes look amazing & so colourful & bright! I especially love the look of those 2 last pics! So appetizing & stylish looking!
    thanks so much for sharing with us all! :) xxx

  5. Hannah, your trip and food sound fabulous! You would have enjoyed the Vietnamese lunch my friend and I had Saturday and I blogged about today. The udon noodle dish looks amazing. They all do, but I seriously love noodles. :-) Can’t wait to hear more.

    I have a question about your foray into vegan cheese-making, while I’m here. I bought “Artisan Vegan Cheeses” and all the fixin’s except Rejuvelac, which I tried to make. Maybe it’s just not warm enough in our house this time of year but neither of my attempts (with two different grains) yielded grain with little tails, indicating it had sprouted. I tried to find Rejuvelac but only one of the seven health food stores in three cities that I tried had even heard of it. I’m a bit frustrated as I’m really looking forward to trying to make cheese, the one thing I miss most about eating vegan. Any ideas? (You can let me know after your vacation’s over as I don’t want you to take time away from having fun!!



    1. Preparing the rejuvelac was definitely the most tasking part of making the cheeses. It might be your quinoa that’s at fault; if you bought it from a bulk bin, there’s a good chance it still has an outer coating of saponin, which is what can make it bitter and prevent it from becoming properly fluffy when cooked. This can be removed with a thorough rinsing. If that doesn’t do the trick, you can always try a different grain. I used millet to make mine, which is supposedly trickier, but maybe it’s better suited to your unique environment. Just don’t give up! I’m always happy to help out when possible. :)

      1. I’ll try again but also try to keep it warmer. Thanks. I hope it works because I really, really want to make some cheese!! Just think it’s odd that no one even knows what it is, except for that one woman.

  6. We visited Hawaii for the first time this past year and I couldn’t agree more with everything you’ve said. Everyone seems so happy and friendly, which is something I’ve always missed dearly, since moving from my hometown to a city. I’ve been longing to go back ever since. Plus I was blown away by the food, I had no idea I would be able to find so many vegan options, and not one of them was subpar.
    That sushi looks incredible! I can’t comprehend the kind of talent it takes to create something like that.

  7. The plates at Yuzu sound incredible. The toppings for the nigiri are so inventive. It looks very fresh too. I love udon noodles but don’t eat them very often, and I’ve never seen them plated like that! I love it. So glad you enjoyed yr vacation, food and people both.

  8. I find the same kind of kindness here in Austin too, it’s really a wonderful thing. And having food options everywhere is nice too! :) That salad is so pretty, it would be perfect for a hot day! I’m really impressed by the quality of food shots you get in restaurants – normally I feel all shifty whipping out my camera, so I seldom take time to make it look nice. Also I want all of that sushi. All of it. In my face.

  9. The food looks amazing! I can’t believe that is not seafood, unreal! Your descriptions of the people and the food and the beautiful photography has me yearning to visit Hawaii someday.

  10. I love the simple gestures too. that sampler plate looks divine. We went to Maui in 2005 after our wedding and havent been back since then. I did not want to leave at all on the day of our flight back.

  11. All of that food looks amazing Hannah! I am especially jealous of the nigiri sampler. How artistic! Maybe I’ll get to go to Hawaii one day. In terms of friendly people, Newfoundland is wonderful too…and beautiful.

  12. I often meet amazing people while traveling. It makes trips so much better when you can connect to the people around you. The food looks amazing too!

  13. Nothing makes a trip better than nice, kind hearted people and wonderful food. Sounds like you’re having the perfect trip.

  14. I’m stunned at how gorgeous that vegetable nigri is! And the fact that you did the trip solo–you’re pulling out bigger guns than I’ve got.

  15. Beautiful photos lady. That simple salad has my eye right now, I’m starting to miss the light greens of summer!

  16. Thank you so much for posting all of this! I can’t tell you how serendipitous it is that I stumbled across your blog today. I’m engaged to a military man and we might be moving to Honolulu by the end of the year if he gets stationed out there (I am beyond excited, let me tell you). I’m a passionate vegan who currently lives in Los Angeles, where vegan options are everywhere, so I was a little apprehensive about how hard eating on the island would be for me. But now my worries have been dissipated, thanks to your blog post! Thank you so much!

    1. Ah, well congratulations on both the engagement and the move! Color me green with jealously, but I’m so happy I might be able to ease the transition. You’re in luck too, since I still have many more Honolulu recommendations coming up for my next post. I was floored by just how vegan-friendly it was all over; you’ll be just fine. :)

  17. That nigiri is phenomenally constructed! Sushi is one of my favorite things, so I am sure I would be in heaven if that were brought to my table.

  18. My mom and I went to Oahu quite a few years ago, and we stayed at the Ala Moana, how funny! That was before I was vegan or even vegetarian though, so I’m glad to hear there are options for us there now!

  19. Im very amazed by the edible art in Yuzu. Looks fantastic. I’m sure it was fantastic. how long were you in Hawaii for?
    It’s always the people that makes the place. Glad that you met kind souls while you were there!

    1. I was there for just 8 days- It went by so fast! I would give anything to go back now… It seems a shame that I actually got on my flight home in the first place. It really is just as incredible as it seems.

  20. Yay for stepping out of your comfort zone and travelling alone. I think it’s something everyone should try at least once. I hope to make it to Honolulu one day so I’ll be bookmarking your recommendations.

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