All Articles Where Island of Hawaii’s top chefs go on their days off

Where Island of Hawaii’s top chefs go on their days off

Two chefs on their go-to Big Island spots for “grinds” and gourmet fare.

Jeanne Cooper
By Jeanne Cooper16 Apr 2024 4 minutes read
Kanpachi Sashimi at Ulu Ocean Grill
Kanpachi sashimi at Ulu Ocean Grill
Image: Tripadvisor/Management

Hawaii draws people in with its beautiful beaches, renowned surf breaks, exhilarating hiking trails, and a diverse population united by the Native Hawaiian tradition of aloha. The modern mix of Polynesian, Asian, and European cultures has also produced a veritable buffet of delicious dishes, with many ingredients grown on island farms and ranches or hooked in nearby waters.

To help plan your trip to the Big Island, we asked two of the island’s most popular chefs to share their tips for “grinds”—Hawaiian Pidgin for “food,” especially used when eating out. Here are their insider picks, from food trucks to fine dining:

Chef Helen Hong

Executive pastry chef, Kona Village, a Rosewood Resort

Born in Korea and trained in French pastry-making in Chicago, Helen Hong created confections for Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina and Mauna Lani, Auberge Resorts Collection before becoming executive pastry chef at Kona Village, a Rosewood Resort. She’s now busy making a mascarpone honey mousse with honey from the resort’s apiary, among other decadent treats.

For sushi with imagination: Ulu Ocean Grill

Sashimi at Ulu Ocean Grill
Ulu Ocean Grill
Image: Tripadvisor/Management

While she considers Kona Village’s Moana restaurant “absolutely stunning”, Hong sings the praises of Ulu Ocean Grill at the resort’s luxurious neighbor, the Four Seasons Hualalai. “I love the creativity of the sushi chef there, chef Nuri [Piccio], who creates dishes that I have never seen or tasted before,” Hong said. Be aware that during peak periods, Ulu may offer tables only to Four Seasons guests.

For noodles and conversation: Moa Kitchen

An even more casual choice for Hong’s days off is Moa Kitchen in Waimea. “I like all of their yakitori and ramen options, and the owner is really fun to talk to,” Hong said. Open for lunch and dinner, the Japanese restaurant also serves traditional Edomae-style sushi.

For rib-sticking pizza: Pueo’s Osteria

The pizza oven at Pueo's Osteria
Pueo's Osteria
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

Hong said she and her husband frequent Pueo’s Osteria in Waikoloa Village for the beef short-rib pizza, topped with braised short rib, pickled purple cabbage, caramelized onion, and a balsamic glaze. “As a fan of anything sweet, the slight sweetness from the balsamic glaze makes it one of my favorite pizzas,” Hong said.

Chef Peter Abarcar, Jr.

Executive chef, Mauna Kea Resort

Now supervising a half-dozen restaurants at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and Westin Hapuna Beach Resort, executive chef Peter Abarcar, Jr., grew up on the other side of the Island of Hawaii in rural Honokaa. He’s particularly proud of his hoio (fern shoot) salad—everyone in Honokaa has their recipe, he said—which accompanies octopus poached in red wine at the Westin’s Meridia.

For a filling Filipino lunch: Kamuela Farmers Market

Kamuela Farmers Market
Kamuela Farmers Market
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

When Abarcar goes to the Saturday Kamuela Farmers Market in Parker Ranch’s historic Pukalani Stables in Waimea, he heads straight to Fatboy Kitchen, chef Mark Agustin’s Filipino-inspired lunch truck. “His menu is awesome—crispy shrimp, pancit noodles, a Filipino bistek, which is marinated beef and onions, and everything comes with rice or pancit noodles,” Abarcar said.

For Japanese food on the go: Parker Ranch Center

Big Island Tokyo Table, inside the food court at Waimea’s Parker Ranch Center, always has something Abarcar hasn’t eaten before, “and then I try it and it’s really good,” he said. “Their rainbow roll, their salmon-skin roll, and their miso-butterfish bento are all top notch.” The karaage chicken is another of his go-tos.

For a killer beef stew: Pho Kim An

Pho at Pho Kim An
Pho at Pho Kim An
Image: Tripadvisor/meng

Across from Parker Ranch Center lies Waimea Center, home to a KTA grocery store, small shops, and a handful of restaurants, including Pho Kim An. “I love their Vietnamese beef stew with pho noodles,” Abarcar said. “It's so comforting.”

Chef Mark Pomaski

Chef and co-owner, Moon and Turtle

Hilo native Mark Pomaski honed his skills in Japanese fusion cuisine at Roy’s Waikiki Beach and Manhattan’s Nobu Fifty Seven before returning home in 2013 to open Moon and Turtle with Soni Pomaski, his wife and business partner. Calling smoke “the smell of happy childhood memories” while hunting and fishing, he smokes many menu items—including the soy sauce for his signature sashimi.

For bistro fare with a beer: The Temple Bar

Tacos at the Temple Bar in Hilo
Tacos at the Temple Bar in Hilo
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

The Pomaskis live and work in downtown Hilo “surrounded by restaurants,” he said. The Temple Bar is one of their favorites within walking distance, thanks to its craft beer and bistro menu (the steak is a Pomaski favortie). Be aware the space is “tiny,” Pomaski said: It accommodates about 30 people, tops. It's also open daily till 10 p.m., a rarity on the Big Island.

For Mexican comfort food: Reuben’s Mexican Food

According to Pomaski, Reuben’s Mexican Food, another restaurant in historic downtown Hilo, “may not be traditional Mexican, but it’s an institution here in Hilo.” He goes for the pork tamale and chile relleno at this modest family-owned spot, opened in 1979 by the late Ruben and Susan Villanueva and named after their eldest son, Reuben. If you're looking for a cocktail, know Rueben's has a reputation for tasty margs and a large tequila selection.

For pizza with a view: Café Pesto Hilo Bay

Pizza from Cafe Pesto Hilo Bay
Pizza from Cafe Pesto Hilo Bay
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

Pomaski’s favorite pizza joint is Café Pesto Hilo Bay, set in a historic building from the 1910s on Hilo’s main drag. “They’re always busy, and it’s a nice space right on the water,” Pomaski said. Open since 1992, the restaurant serves hearty sandwiches and pastas in addition to its wood-fired personal pizzas. Pomaski typically orders the Classico, piled with Berkshire pork sausage from local Kaunamano Farm, salami, pepperoni, and onion.

Jeanne Cooper
Jeanne Cooper is a freelance writer and guidebook author based on the island of Hawaii. A former for the San Francisco Chronicle’s Travel section, her articles have appeared in magazines such as Hemispheres, AAA Explorer, Sunset and Virtuoso, as well as the Toronto Star, the Guardian and other newspapers. She has also updated Hawaii and other guidebooks for Frommer’s, Fodor’s, and TimeOut. An avid pickleball player and hula lover, Jeanne also enjoys roping friends into animal rescue and community service projects.