If Hawaii has one perceived flaw, it’s the price tag. Visitors often marvel at the high cost of living in the main tourism district of Waikiki, telling jokes about a $6 gallon of milk or a $15 margarita. But sitting in the shadows of the fancy hotels and high-end restaurants are a collection of local eateries that won’t break the bank. From cafeteria-style Japanese noodles to happy hour specials, there are many places to get a great meal for less than $20. Here's exactly where you find them.
1. Mud Hen Water
What to order: A fish sandwich and a Maui Brewing Co. beer ($10)
“Pau Hana,” or “the end of work,” is Mud Hen Water’s version of happy hour. Chef Ed Kenney is known locally for his television show Family Ingredients, in which he traces the origin of a dish back to its home country. At his restaurant, he sources traditional ingredients, like tako (octopus) and purple sweet potatoes to make modern versions of classic Hawaiian cuisine.. The $10 Pau Hana special (a fresh fish sandwich and a beer) is available Monday through Saturday from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., and is sure to hit the spot after a long day in the sun.
What to order: Poke bowls for around $8
While patrons pay upwards of $15 to $20 for small poke plates in Waikiki, locals simply hit the grocery store and walk away with an $8 poke bowl -- that is, marinated fish over hot rice. Poke is the go-to grab-and-go meal for locals, and the regular old grocery store chain of Foodland is revered as having the best.
3. Pig and the Lady
What to order: Lunch menu noodle bowls for $14 to $18
A $15 lunch is not exactly a cheap meal, but it’s the most economical way to experience one of Honolulu’s top restaurants. The Pig and the Lady is known for its Vietnamese fusion and gastropub-esque setting with communal tables and a lively bar. While dinner for two can easily approach $100 with drinks, a main, and dessert, lunch is far more economical. We recommend the noodle dishes and banh mi sandwiches, both of which are under $20. Tip: This is one of Chinatown’s busiest restaurants, and a reservation is definitely recommended.
5. Ethel’s Grill
What to order: No-frills Hawaiian fare and tataki sashimi starting at $5
Ethel’s Grill is worth the long lines. After all, it says a lot about a place when its most popular plate is a side dish that costs $5. The Tuna Tataki Sashimi is a simple dish of fresh raw fish and homemade sauce, but it has people lining up around the corner. The cash-only eatery also serves up burgers, noodle dishes, and fresh seafood.
5. Helena’s Hawaiian Food
What to order: Hawaiian fare, like the Kalua pig and Pipikaula short ribs for under $20
If you're craving Hawaiian-style pork, Helena’s is your place. The Kalua Pig and Pipikaula short ribs combo is a great place to start for first-timers (from $15.50). The ribs are made with a dry rub and have an exterior texture similar to beef jerky with a juicy interior. The dish traces back to the early days of Hawaiian cowboys (paniolos) in the 19th century when they'd snack on dried beef as they worked the ranch. Helena's is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. and is also cash-only.