Starting in Waimanalo, here’s a counter-clockwise tour of meatless options around Oahu.
1. Ai Love Nalo
Good for: Vegans and vegetarians
Where: 41-1025 Kalanianaole Highway, Waimanalo, HI 96795, ailovenalo.com
You’re driving through bucolic Waimanalo, home of beachside living, polo stables and produce farms, when you see the Golden Arches: Pull over. Tucked inside a converted gas station next door is one of Oahu’s most delicious spots for healthy eats.
Ai Love Nalo is behind the doors advertising “Lomilomi Massage.” The vibe is instantly laid back. Ceiling fans stir the air and windows open onto dual views of the Koolau mountains out front and a tropical garden in the back. One look at the chalkboard menu tells you the food is not only vegan and gluten-free, it’s locally inspired and locally sourced. Like the Oh WOW Laulau of kalo (taro) and other root veggies steamed under a soft, savory blanket of luau leaves.
Another thing about the food here: It’s eye candy. The Medi Bowl features kalo falafel that’s arguably better than the chickpea original, along with roasted-eggplant baba ganoush, hummus made with beets and a tabouleh that swaps couscous for millet.
Plates are filling, so here’s a tip: Ask for a takeout container for leftovers (50 cents extra) and order dessert. Poi-fect Parfaits (this is the small size) look like bejeweled art projects — jelly jars layered with purple Okinawan sweet potato, pineapple, papaya, avocado, banana, poi, crunchy granola and chocolate coconut chips. The poi plays balances the sweetness of the fruits and the toppings add a gratifying crunch.
There’s soft serve, too, dairy-free and made with whatever island fruit’s available that day. It could be apple banana, could be coconut, papaya, mango or a combination. That’s kind of beside the point. Just order it.
2. Opal Thai
Good for: Vegetarians and pescatarians
Where: 66-197 Kamehameha Highway, Haleiwa, HI 96712, 381-8091
Despite its location in a Haleiwa strip mall, Opel Sirichandhra’s hole-in-the-wall is crazy busy since his appearance on Food TV’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” So go early or late if you want to avoid a line, and be prepared for the chef-owner himself to show up at your table, pen and pad in hand. Opel (he spells his name one way, the restaurant’s another) likes to ask what flavors you like, which Thai dishes you normally order and your preferred spice level. “I’ll make you something good,” he says and disappears.
It may not look like much, but his latest special is mouth-watering. Puffy, savory pillows (tofu? taro?) rest beneath a crunchy topping of quick-sautéed bean sprouts, chives and garlic, all nestled under a fried egg. It doesn’t even need the fiery heat of the sauce on the side. “Radish with some skate mixed in,” Opel says of the pillowy cakes. “It’s not on the menu, but people can ask for it. I just call it the special.”
Other good picks: Opal’s pickled garlic crab meat noodles, which nicely balance tart, sweet and the beautiful umami of wok-fried eggs and bean sprouts; the crunchy-fresh green papaya salad topped with roasted peanuts; and drunken noodles or pad khi mao, wide rice noodles sautéed in soy with basil and chilies. Also good: anything with fried basil leaves strewn on top.
Yes, it’s a Thai restaurant, with plenty of shrimp, chicken and tofu options, but the only meat you’ll find on the menu is the minced pork in the spicy larb salad. And in Haleiwa, where meatless options range from excellent gluten-free sushi at Banzai Sushi Bar to vegetarian buckwheat crepes from a food truck, Opal’s stands out.
3. Greens & Vines
Good for: Vegans and vegetarians
Where: 909 Kapiolani Blvd, Honolulu, HI 96814, 536-9680, greensandvines.com
Come to this urban health hub if you’re into raw, vegan and gluten-free, if you want full, balanced flavors created by a chef and not by an ascetic with a nutrition science degree, and if you want all this with a glass or two of wine. Greens & Vines is where health food meets fun.
The restaurant is at the intersection of Ward Avenue and Kapiolani Boulevard, major arteries that get heavy traffic during afternoon rush hour, so you might want to opt for indoor seating over the umbrella-shaded patio. The good news: There’s a happy hour! The two-page wine list has an eclectic selection, including some harder-to-find Italian wines; there are even wine flights and a small sake list.
The four-course prix fixe dinner is $30 and a recommend if you’re hungry. On a balmy day—which Honolulu has many of—you’ll appreciate cool, unctuous spoonfuls of Lemony Zucchini Bisque perfumed with olive oil, and hearty bites of Not Tuna on Onion Bread, a vegan offering that tastes convincingly of the sea. A glass of white wine doesn’t hurt either.
Even if you don’t get the full sampling menu, get the Living Lasagna. Layers of thyme-seasoned zucchini, basil pesto, sundried tomato marinara, macadamia nut “ricotta,” spinach and tomatoes make for rich, satisfying bites. Noodle lovers will like the Kaffir Miso Pad Thai with sea kelp noodles.
And whatever you do, finish with some dessert. Always — especially in a health food restaurant that understands the pleasures of the palate — always get dessert.
4. Dagon Burmese Cuisine
Good for: Vegetarians, pescatarians and meat eaters
Where: 2671 S. King St., Honolulu, HI 96826, 947-0088
Burmese cuisine is a glorious melding of Chinese, Indian, Thai and native dishes, which means you’ll find curries and stir-fries on the menu here. But don’t be tempted astray. Dagon’s biggest successes are in its Burmese flavors.
Let’s start with the light and move gradually toward soulful. Crispy Tofu with Salad Filling is an apt descriptor that conveys none of the surprising pleasure of the first bite. The fried triangle of tofu is exceptionally ungreasy and light, its center split open and stuffed with a riot of fresh textures including cilantro, sprouts, lemon leaf, chilies and something called shrimp floss, dressed simply with lemon juice and fish sauce. This you pick up and eat with your hands, like a healthy anti-taco.
You’ll need the menu to navigate the panoply of pulses arrayed on Dagon’s Tea Leaf Salad. Thankfully, it arrives deconstructed so you can appreciate the peanuts, fried split peas and sunflower seeds that make up the crunch, along with the garlic and Burmese tea leaves that drive the signature flavors (yes, you’re eating tea leaves). A server mixes the array at tableside and spoons some onto your plate. It’s exotic, aromatic, full of freshness and crunch. You know you’re eating a salad with character.
Here we have a dish of savory rice studded with sweet raisins and cashews. It’s good, though not a recommend; it’s just much better-looking than the humble star of the menu, Moh Hinga.
A fish chowder with rice noodle vermicelli, moh hinga is the national dish of Burma. Nothing makes it pretty—not the thick orange-red surface, not the swirl of noodles peeking through, not even the garnishes of cilantro and a hard-boiled egg. But it’s homey, and soulful, and rich in a simple way, the kind of dish that reads instantly as comfort food even though you’ve never had it before. And while there’s something familiar about the faint edge of sweetness, it’s so un-fishy you might not even recognize it as the delicate, earthy taste of a freshwater fish. Moh hinga is gentle, like Burma itself.