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!