Honolulu has the dubious honor of consistently ranking in the Top 3 of most expensive cities to live and visit in the United States, and within the Top 20 most expensive cities in the world.
This year, the daily average cost of a stay in the 50th state is $160, with an average meal costing $70.
That doesn’t sit well with Pidgin Jedi, writer Lee Tonouchi, who’s spent years trying to keep his food costs down by sticking to a budget of $10 per meal. So he seemed a little distraugt when the cost of a Zippy’s Zip Pac, the local barometer for cheap eats, had finally broken the $10 barrier, and was now $10.50.
“So what I going do now?!?! Do I gotta raise my threshold to $10.50 or do I gotta stop eating at Zippy’s?
“Generally I no like pay more than $10 for food. Anything more than that and we talking Richie Rich kine food,” he said.
Well, whether you’re kama’aina or malihini, there are options. Here are a few:
Chinese cuisine is still one of the most affordable out there, and yum cha, the morning tea and dim sum ritual, is one ancient Hong Kong family secret to saving money. Yes, prices have climbed from about $1.50 to $3.30 per a typical basket of three dumplings. But for a pre-tax cost of $9.90 at Fook Lam in the Chinatown Cultural Plaza, and most Chinatown operators, you get variety and enough to feed two.
And, I can’t believe this kind of price exists today, but at Liu’s Chop Suey in the Kamehameha Shopping Center, Kalihi, 28 plate lunch selections are available day and night for the early 1990s time-warp price of $4.75 per plate that features rice or cake noodles topped with such Cantonese entree items as ginger chicken, roast duck, salt-pepper pork or shrimp, or minute chicken, etc. It’s not the best Chinese food you’ll ever have, but it’s hard to beat this price. Salt-pepper pork seems to be particularly popular, but the heads-on shrimp plate is also good. Anywhere else, the same shrimp plate below would be about $11.99 to $13.99.
A BOWL OF RAMEN
Ramen was once a humble bowl of noodles available for $10 or less. No more. More extravagant bowls now command up to $18. At the Waikiki Shopping Plaza’s Japanese food hall, Waikiki Yokocho, the average price for a bowl of ramen is about $14. One of the most inexpensive is Bario Ramen’s $11.99 regular ramen. Applying a 15 percent discount for locals brings the cost down to $10.19. Tonouchi said his $10 pre-tax preference is fluid and not a set rule, but for the principal of this quest for cheap, Bario offers a $9.95 lunch ramen that is half the size of the regular portion. So there’s a tradeoff between price and portion, and if you’re a big eater, it makes no sense to quibble over spare change. The thick tonkotsu (pork) broth is filling and they offer plenty of raw garlic and chili pepper to add to your taste. It’s worth noting that every establishment in the yokocho offers a $9.99 lunch special aimed at Waikiki’s working crowd, but works well for any visitor who’s not day-tripping elsewhere.
GET IT TO GO
At upscale casual MW restaurant, the MW bento—that Tonouchi is pictured with at the top of the page—is a luxe version of the Zip Pac, priced at $10 for weekday lunch, available to-go only. For that price, you get the requisite bed of furikake-topped rice with two pieces of kalbi, tonkatsu, teri beef, tonkatsu, two slices of Portuguese sausage, kim chee and two other side vegetables, plus MW’s housemade version of Hawaii’s beloved Spam, chef Wade Ueoka’s Smoked Pork Arabiki Meat loaf.
Also available in the weekday $10 take-out bento format are four to five of the restaurant’s daily specials. It might be mochi-crusted monchong, miso honey-glazed butterfish or grilled Ludovico Farms chicken. To be real, these are offered in smaller portions than the sit-down entrees, and without all the appetizers and dessert that form a $25 prix fixe lunch special.
Of the bento experience, Tonouchi said, “I nevah eat this good in awhiles,” proving that affordable need not be a soul-sucking experience.
Also fitting the to-go strategy, at Gyu-Kaku, 307 Lewers St. in Waikiki, a take-out $8.50 bento box lunch is offered between 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. daily. The bentos feature white rice, an assortment of vegetables, potato salad and your choice of one of eight meat selections ranging from chicken karaage to spicy pork belly to different forms of grilled beef such as harami and tongue. For the price, you also get a soft drink.
Another to-go spot not to be missed is O’Kim’s at 1164 Smith St. in Chinatown. Here, luxe Korean fusion plates run about $11.99, but owner Hyun Kim has kept her most popular plate of confit pork belly brulee priced at $9.99. The juicy pork belly is served over Korean black rice (purple when cooked), with her housemade kim chee.
TO MARKET, TO MARKET
Don’t limit your search to restaurants. Grocery stores have gotten into the business of feeding non-cooks and places like Whole Foods and Foodland Farms Ala Moana do a great job of offering a wide variety of hot and cold dishes, including meat and vegetables, sold by weight, at $8.99 per pound. (It adds up quickly when every dish looks tempting.) You can take it out or eat on site. Natural food emporium Down to Earth also offers diverse food bar options for those who choose to go meatless.
Korean veggies are a few of the items available at the food bar toward the back of 88 Pal Pal Supermarket.
The newest market to offer a semi-buffet setup is the new Korean 88 Pal Pal Supermarket at 835 Keeaumoku St. (formerly Keeaumoku Supermarket) where, unlike the other markets, there’s no weight restrictions but you’re allowed to fill one plate at a cost of $7 for lunch and $10 for dinner. The selection includes about eight vegetables as pictured above, such as garlic sautéed zucchini, bean sprouts and kim chee, plus chap chae, fried chicken, mandoo and a single daily meat selection such as braised oxtails. You can dine in where the food is set up at the back of the store.
The street taco is one of the most affordable items you’ll find throughout Honolulu. Newport Beach-based newcomer Chronic Tacos, at the Safeway Center, 888 Kapahulu Ave., offers fast, fresh offerings that include street tacos for $3.50 each, filled with your choice of chicken, carnitas, adobo pork or carne asada. Fish or shrimp will cost $1 to $2 more.
Closer to downtown Honolulu, Ray Mascarenas of Tio’s Tamales, 1329 Nuuanu Ave., offers his hometown New Mexican specialties, with an emphasis on tamales spiced with Hatch chilies. Bits of the chile permeate New Mexico pork, Santa Fe chicken and Calabacitas (vegetarian) tamales sold at $2.50 for one, $8.95 for a four-pack, or $25 for a dozen. It’s worth a splurge to get them smothered in Mascarena’s pink chile verde, a specialty of Mascarena’s northern New Mexico family. Pork and tomatoes are incorporated into fire-roasted chile sauce, making it richer and more savory than the tomatillo versions familiar to Hawaii. You can try the sauce on tamale plates featuring rice, beans, lettuce and tomato, at $8.95 for one tamale, $10.95 for two, $12.95 for three.
FOLLOW THE WORKING MAN
Before Kakaako became ground zero for luxury development, it was home base for auto repair shops, and myriad small diners where construction workers, cops and other mobile workers could pick up a fast, affordable breakfast or lunch. There are still pockets of affordability tucked away on side streets away from Auahi Street.
Breakfast can be one of the cheapest meals of the day, and at Harry’s Cafe, 1101 Waimanu St., early birds can fill up between 5 and 8 a.m. weekdays on a $4.95 breakfast of bacon with two eggs and fried rice. For $5.35, your meat options expand to your pick of Spam, or link, Portuguese and Vienna sausages.
At working man hangout Cooke Street Diner, 605 Cooke St., in Kakaako, you can also get a $5.25 breakfast that includes two eggs, two scoops rice or toast and a meat selection. A short stack of pancakes is $4. At lunch time starting from 10 a.m., a teri burger will run you $3.95. Add kim chee to that burger and you’re looking at $4.50. If it’s a plate you want, hamburger steak or shoyu chicken are $8.75 and $8.95 respectively. Weekday specials are $7 (mini) and $8.95 (regular). This is where it gets fancy, with selections such as baked garlic chicken or pork adobo on Mondays, Thai spicy chicken or mushroom chicken on Tuesdays, and pork guisantes or roast turkey with stuffing on Thursdays.
If all else fails, try to have a lot of friends who like to eat. Splitting costs of sharable food like pizza or a round of pupu can make meal-time more affordable and your friends may even pick up your tab if they’re feeling flush.
By Nadine Kam