Neon shave ice, glistening cubes of poke, kālua pork at a lūʻau, molten lava cake at Roy’s, anything at The Pig and The Lady, some pineapple, some poi, and, at some point, a mai tai — preferably with a view of the Pacific Ocean, the sky ablaze at sunset. Over the last decade, a culinary checklist for every visitor to Hawai‘i has coalesced, a parade of foods traditional and trendy conscripted for an Instagram-ready performance known as The Hawaiian Vacation.
But there’s a whole side of Hawaiian food culture that doesn’t make it into tourist guidebooks and rarely sees the light of a Foursquare shoutout. Hawai‘i residents call it “local” food, and what they mean is this: Most people who were born and raised in Hawai‘i would not call themselves Hawaiian, a term reserved for indigenous people; often they’re the descendants of immigrants from Japan, China, Korea, the Philippines, Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the Portuguese Azores, who, along with Native Hawaiians, worked the islands’ vast plantations of sugarcane and pineapple, lived side by side in plantation villages, and created the diverse, loosely fused patchwork of people, cultures, and foods that would come to be called “local.” Some of their homeland recipes stayed the same; others blended into new combinations that might not be intuitive, but somehow worked.
In Hawai‘i, local food is comfort food. It’s the dish your mom made best. It’s also what your friend’s mom made when you came over, which was totally different than what you had at home, because you were Japanese-Chinese and your friend was Hawaiian-Caucasian-Puerto Rican. Very few tourists come to Hawai‘i intending to eat like a local (poke and shave ice notwithstanding, because those are local too), but mention a dish you like in the local food canon — such as chicken long rice, a hot, aromatic mess of glass noodles in a ginger-spiked chicken broth — to a Hawai‘i-born resident, and watch your cred skyrocket. Eating local food shows that you’re willing to take Hawai‘i as it really is: eclectic, nostalgic, modern, singular, contradictory, and not what you thought it was going to be — but all the more ‘ono (delicious) for it.
One of the most iconic places to experience local food is Zippy’s, a family-owned, only-in-Hawai‘i chain with 24 locations founded in 1966, just after Hawai‘i became the 50th state. Zippy’s combines the best parts of the beloved American diner — rotating specials, bottomless cups of coffee, banquette seating — with a culinary tour through the multi-ethnic, blue-collar “local” heritage of Hawai‘i that doesn’t make it into the tourism board advertising.
Local, in this case, means Hawaiian laulau and kālua pork; Portuguese bean soup, crowded with linguica, ham and vegetables; Japanese chicken katsu and teriyaki beef; Chinese sweet-sour spareribs; and Puerto Rican pastele stew. True to its roots as a diner, Zippy’s also offers a big helping of old-fashioned Americana in the form of hamburgers and patty melts, spaghetti, apple pie, all-day breakfasts, turkey a la king, and ice cream floats.
Often, even the American classics come with a Hawai‘i twist. Alongside classic hamburgers, there are “teri burgers,” which are glazed with teriyaki sauce; fried rice, flecked with Spam and green onion, a popular breakfast side; and ice cream desserts, which can be made more tropical with the addition of liliko‘i or coconut syrups. Though the primary mode at Zippy’s is tried-and-true, Zippy’s also has an R&D chef, whose team spins out experiments in local flavors that sometimes hit (miso garlic chicken) and sometimes miss (Zip dog with pastrami).
It’s a lot, but taken all together, it’s Hawai‘i’s last 150 years in a menu. Locals, especially ex-pats, walk into a Zippy’s and exhale, because they’re finally in a place where Hawai‘i isn’t performing — it’s simply being itself. That means using a lot of locally grown ingredients (beef, eggs, fruit, vegetables) without advertising it, and making zero concessions to the age of Instagram; if there’s a garnish at Zippy’s, it’s a 1970s-style sprig of parsley.
It also means you’ll see a cross section of the real people who live and work in Hawai‘i: gnarly-toed grandpas in rubber slippahs and Las Vegas-themed T-shirts, downtown professionals kitted out in tasteful aloha wear and leather loafers, “aunties” playing bingo or mahjong, skater boys, knitting millennials, and construction workers on break. Hawai‘i’s politicians stop in, not to see real people, but to feel like real people. Sometimes they bring their parents.
Zippy’s has a presence on three islands (O‘ahu, Maui, and Hawai‘i Island), but it started on O‘ahu and most of its locations are there. All locations, many of them open 24 hours, have a takeout counter and tables, but many also have a full-service, sit-down restaurant with a substantially similar menu. (Both sides, takeout and sit-down, will get you an authentic local experience, though the restaurant side feels more like a diner.)
Zippy’s solves everyday Hawai‘i problems, like what to bring to the office potluck (a pūpū party platter from the takeout side), where to have that multigenerational family dinner when nobody feels like cooking but everybody needs to be happy, where to go after the concert when nothing else is open, and what to take to picnics, sports practices, and other everyday gatherings.
But Zippy’s is more than a convenience — it’s a center of local life. In Honolulu, I once saw a local play in which a character announced that her life was an endless round of the grocery store, the drugstore, and Zippy’s; the entire audience laughed in recognition. When I offered to bring dinner to a friend who spends much of her time hopping between Hawai‘i, Europe and Asia and was grieving a recent loss, what did she want? Zippy’s fried chicken and chili, white rice, onions and cheese on the chili. Hot, if possible.
Most of Hawai‘i passes through Zippy’s at some point. In the morning, there’s a rush of professionals at the takeout counter, grabbing spicy Portuguese sausage and eggs on their way to work. In the evening, the restaurant side fills up with families digging into dinner specials like crisp chicken katsu in a pool of Japanese curry, or tangy Filipino pork adobo. During the day, it’s a haven for college students who feel like a stack of haupia chocolate pancakes at 2 p.m., and old folks who order old-fashioned dishes like oxtail soup and Hawaiian tripe stew and “talk story” for hours. The day crowd likes to take its time.
If you go in a listening mood, you might meet someone like Hana Trinidad, a retired cultural dance troupe director who comes to the Koko Marina Zippy’s every Tuesday morning to gather with her “crafting ladies.” Come Christmas, Trinidad and crafting compatriots Drusilla Tanaka, Carole Sullivan, and a handful of others crochet stockings and decorations for the store tree. “We love them,” Trinidad says of the staff, who have been serving the group turkey-neck soup, miso chicken and Zippy’s mysteriously addictive crisp-fried chicken and chili, week in and week out, for nearly two decades. If there’s a heart of Hawai‘i, it may just be here.
Loco moco. Hawai‘i’s hearty, Asian-inflected version of steak and eggs: a hamburger patty with eggs cooked over easy, served on rice and drizzled with gravy. You’ll see gentrified variations at hip restaurants everywhere, but Hawai‘i chefs love to riff on the classic, adding foie gras or gochujang, because it was ‘ono to begin with. Zippy’s version is the classic recipe locals remember being sold from lunch wagons in “small kid time.”
Chilled papaya with lemon. Comfort food can be light, too. Walk into a Zippy’s sit-down restaurant at breakfast and perhaps one in four diners will have the classic Hawai‘i breakfast of a fresh papaya half with a wedge of lemon on their table. It sounds almost too simple to recommend, but papaya and citrus are one of the great Hawai‘i flavor pairings — and a ripe, sunrise-hued papaya opened and tasted in the same island chain where it was grown is worth putting on pants for. Occasionally, Zippy’s offers a tropical ice cream sundae with a papaya base, and that’s worth ordering, too.
Zip Min. Japanese ramen has taken the world by storm, but saimin, a local hybrid, is eaten only in Hawai‘i. A steaming bowl of Zip Min, Zippy’s saimin, contains slices of Chinese sweet red barbecued pork (char siu), hot-pink Japanese fishcake (kamaboko) and egg omelet; shrimp tempura; wontons (Chinese dumplings); and greens — all piled on top of saimin noodles in broth. Made with egg and a higher-ash-content flour than ramen, saimin noodles have a more resistant chew and a lot more flavor. Zippy’s was the first big customer of Sun Noodle, which now runs a national customized-noodle empire Eater has called “the secret weapon of America’s best ramen.” (Sun Noodle founder Hidehito Uki has said that bringing saimin to the mainland United States is a pre-retirement dream.)
Zip Pac. Zippy’s take on the Japanese bento is a neatly boxed flavor bomb of protein and carbs (teriyaki beef, fried fish, fried Spam and fried chicken, on a bed of rice with a single, neon-yellow radish pickle). It’s often the answer to the perennial Hawai‘i question: “What should we bring to the beach?” Zip Pacs are not for the faint (or diseased) of heart — but after a long session of sun and surf, there’s nothing better.
Kālua pork and cabbage. Kālua pig, traditionally cooked with banana leaves in an underground pit until it almost falls off the bone, is the star of Hawaiian lūʻaus. But much like the post-Thanksgiving turkey sandwich, kālua pig with cabbage the next day is even better: The smoky, herbal flavors of kālua pork pair with the bitter-sweet crunch of cabbage for a dish that’s more than the sum of its parts. Kālua pork and cabbage is an occasional daily special, so call ahead or check the website first.
Oxtail soup. This old-school cut of beef is having a moment again, and the Hawaiian take on oxtail soup, served at Zippy’s for decades, is by far my favorite: simmered for hours until the collagen and marrow give up their secrets to a rich, anise-y broth, then garnished with peanuts, shiitake mushroom, and cilantro. Zippy’s oxtail soup stands up in sheer deliciousness to any dish, from any chef, in the state.
Lavonne Leong writes about food, science and business in Honolulu when she’s not trying to kick her Ka’u coffee addiction.
Kent Nishimura is a photojournalist based in Honolulu.
Copy edited by Sarah Montgomery