Home to the Bishop Museum and a few gorgeous hikes, along with a blustering collection of traffic-heavy commercial centers, the mixed-use Kalihi neighborhood is a study in contrasts. Kalihi-Palama lies at the southwest edge of O‛ahu, tucked between Waikiki and downtown Honolulu.
Once an ahupua‛a in the traditional Hawaiian land use system, today the neighborhood is split down its middle by the Likelike Highway and is made up of six microneighborhoods: Kalihi Kai, Kalihi Area, Kalihi Kua, Kalihi Valley, Kalihi Upper, and Kalihi Lower.
These schism are echoed in other contrasts: the neighborhood is at once old-school O‛ahu, resistant to the development that has changed the faces of neighborhoods like Kaka‛ako, and a thriving locus for innovative artists and businesses, who come for affordable rents and easy access to Downtown and stay for the community they find.
Plate Lunch Every Day
If you like to eat and you enjoy food adventures, a working familiarity with the side streets and storefronts of Kalihi will serve you well. Often missing from glossy-mag restaurant reviews are some of the most flavorful and compelling meals to be had on O‛ahu (many of which come in Styrofoam). Here, a shortlist of plate lunch favorites, plus a little something for dessert:
Everything about Ethel’s is a bit of a task: it’s cash-only, the seating is limited, it’s difficult to find, the parking is limited, the kitchen closes at 2pm, they are closed on Sundays and Mondays, and the ambiance is more lunch counter than destination meal. None of that matters. The food—local style plate lunch, but elevated—is the only thing that matters. The best way to eat here is to bring friends and share: do the mochiko chicken and ahi tataki, plus the daily special (recent specials: super tender ahi kama (jaw), salmon with watercress and miso pesto).
Helena’s Hawaiian Food
As the foodie and fine dining scenes expand all over Honolulu, some things stay constant. Helena’s has been serving staples of local food to grateful diners since 1946 (approximately a millennium in restaurant years) and proudly bears a James Beard award. What may well be the best pipikaula on O‛ahu can be found inside the storefront, along with kalua pig, laulau, exceptionally delicious squid luau, and plenty more. Again, bring a group if you can—everything is served family style in small bowls, and the strong game is to taste a bit of as many dishes as possible.
Another beloved local institution, Alicia’s is nestled into a nondescript storefront on Mokauea Street. Family-run since the 1940s, the food here brings together the heart of home cooking and the expertise of a professional kitchen. They are best known for their huge array of poke varieties, but smoked meat is my pick—char siu ribs any day of the week, or, just on Fridays and Saturdays, lechon (suckling pig).
The iconic bakery has called Kalihi home since 1950, and whether you are a “sweets person” or not, you haven’t really given yourself the Kalihi food tour until you’ve had a Liliha coco puff: choux pastry filled with chocolate pudding and topped with chantilly mac-nut frosting. Small enough to eat even if you aren’t exactly starving, these treats hit the pastry trifecta of sweet, creamy, and doughy. The other move (less classic and more filling but never disappointing) is the poi donut, brilliant purple underneath its deep-fried outside, redolent of sugar and taro.
With median listing prices well below the island-wide average and occasional gems coming on the market—particularly back in Kalihi Valley, which feels tucked away from the bustle of the Dillingham-adjacent areas—Kalihi is proving attractive to new residents. The strong sense of local community is palpable. If you become a repeat visitor at any of the beloved plate lunch spots, you’ll see many of the same faces, day in, day out, some on their way to work at the State Capitol, others on their way to work at the docks, eating side by side.
Header image of the Kalihi Valley, courtesy of maaachuuun.