Double up on the sunscreen because we are heading straight for the west side of the big island, where Kailua-Kona is located. Our host is Chef Vincent McCarthy, the Executive Chef at Merriman’s Waimea, part of the Merriman’s family. You might remember the Kapalua, Maui being on Travel Advisor’s top ten list of fine dining establishments. He has been there for six years and his farm-to-table philosophy fits right in with that of the owner Peter Merriman, a culinary pioneer in Hawaii for over 25 years.
Merriman’s is an institution; the Waimea location is turning 30 in 2018. And, it has been named the Best Big Island Restaurant by Honolulu Magazine for 15 consecutive years. Yes, 15. Wine Specator has given Merriman’s its Award of Excellence for more than a decade. For both locals and tourists, it is a can’t miss destination.
One look at some of Chef McCarthy’s work makes it clear why the restaurant is held in such high esteem.
Ready for the next best thing to a Hawaiian vacation? It’s time for Chef McCarthy’s favorite food experiences in Kailua-Kona.
One thing you should know about me, I love Pizza. There are so many variants that go into making a good pie, and Longboard Legends in Kailua-Kona hits all of them for me. They locally source their toppings, which is important, and use house smoked meats. What really sets them apart that they incorporate Taro flour, milled in Hawaii, into their dough. Its crispy on the bottom, while retaining a solid amount of chewiness. The atmosphere is pretty relaxing as well, with an outdoor seating area in back, and a super friendly and helpful staff.
Hawaii is a notoriously barren landscape when it comes to good Mexican food, and I have had some big misses. I had almost resigned myself to taco mediocrity when I heard that there was a little hidden gem at Kona International Market. I found El Mercadito Rincon Mexicano. It’s a small window loaded with snacks and treats from Mexico, fronted by a few tables and chairs. They definitely have my go-to authentic style tacos on Big Island. The carne asada and chorizo are the standouts.
This one is kind of hard because there are a lot of Asian restaurants out here, mostly Thai and Japanese. Krua Thai has got to be my favorite. It’s a relatively unassuming spot, with genuinely good food. I like their spice level, and I always notice a lot of depth of flavor. The vegetables in the dishes are super fresh, and nothing is ever soaking in too much sauce and sugar, which some other spots tend to do.
There isn’t as much street food out here as one would think. I will say that the best can be found at the Waimea Midweek Farmers Market. There isn’t one truck that stands out as my clear favorite, and the options can vary, but I always end up with something delicious. I’ve had unreal BBQ, a decent gourmet grilled cheese, and some very memorable Lau Lau. It’s a real Big Island experience.
Everyone raves about shave ice in Hawaii, and for good reason. When I want something sweet, I head down to Gypsea Gelato. They have great locally inspired flavors, and a few that are constantly rotating. The Tom Kha gelato is confusingly amazing. If you make it past the handmade gelato, there is a great pastry selection. My girlfriend basically has an existential crisis every time we stop in, trying to decide between the Tropical Carrot Cake or two scoops.
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Kona Pub & Brewery is the place to go for a fun, casual meal. Home of Longboard Lager & Castaway IPA, as well as a bevy of seasonal in-house specialties, “The Brewpub” (as it’s called here) is a great spot for a local beer experience with pretty good food. They specialize in pizza, but their menu has a little bit of everything. I can’t go there and not get an order of the Pawai Pizza Rolls, and their daily Slice & Salad lunch special makes for a nice and easy meal.
I’m not much of a brunch guy, but when I feel like a big omelet and a spicy bloody Mary, I go to Bongo Ben’s. It’s most definitely a tourist trap, right on Ali’i Drive with a great view of Kailua Bay. They’ve got a large menu, full of brunch and Hawaiian classics. Their execution is always on point, no color on the omelet, everything is seasoned well, which isn’t what I expected from a spot whose menu is displayed on giant, novelty bongo drums.
Iconic Food of the City
You can’t talk about iconic Hawaiian food without mentioning the Loco Moco. It’s a hamburger patty topped with an easy egg, smothered in brown gravy, resting atop a bed of rice, and while it is beloved state-wide, it’s home is in Hilo at Café 100. Their Moco collection has grown over the years, and now includes a Spam Moco, Ahi Moco & plenty others to satiate anyones Moco cravings. Eating a Loco Moco from its original kitchen almost feels sacred, and definitely tastes amazing.
Odd Culinary Experience
When I first moved over to Big Island, from Kauai, there was a restaurant resting comfortably atop Yelp’s list of best restaurants in Kona called Frenchman’s Café. It’s a crepe shop in an unassuming and very casual location. I went in, ordered at a counter and was served for the rest of the meal by a man in nearly formal wear. The savory crepes are made with buckwheat, which made them thicker and heartier than I expected, and there were dots and drags of colorful, albeit unidentifiable, sauces all over the plate. It wasn’t a bad experience, but when I left I was thinking to myself, what WAS all of that? It was, for a lack of a better word, Odd.
*Note, we don’t have a lot of “odd” out here, I’ve heard there’s a guy serving camel and kangaroo, but also heard that it’s not good so I haven’t been in.
I can’t imagine that many people consider sushi a guilty pleasure, but when I go to Sushi Shiono on Ali’i Drive it’s a gluttonous affair. Their fish is so fresh, their menu is extensive, and I usually end up ordering way too much. I always get the Yuzu Soy Yellowtail roll, and whatever Nigiri or Sashimi the sushi chef chooses. The Furikake Chicken is sweet, salty, crispy, fried heaven and I have to order it every time. I always leave too full and ready to crawl into bed, but not upset about it in the least.
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Wanna eat great food, enjoy a killer view, and not break the bank? Just tell us you want your food to go! Then plop yourself down on the nearby seawall and dig in! That's what I did, and the peanut butter and bacon burger pictured here didn't last long. #burger #pbnbacon #kona #onoloa
When I’m hurting in the morning, I head to Island Ono Loa Grill in Kailua. It’s a Father-Son run burger and hot dog shop. The burgers are always seasoned perfectly, with a crispy, grilled crust. The buns are soft and not too but. Their fries are house-cut, and dusted with a house seasoning that suspect also seasons the burgers. The hand-dipped onion rings are wonderfully greasy. The burgers aren’t huge, so I end up leaving full and happy, without feeling like I want to crawl back into bed.
Easily one of the best restaurants on Big Island, Kamana Kitchen is a little Indian joint with a location on the water in Kona, and another in Hilo. The menu isn’t exclusively vegetarian, they serve Lamb, Chicken & Seafood, but there are plenty of amazing meatless dishes. The Kadai Paneer, Chana Masala, and Mushroom Matar are outstanding, and the Onion Kulcha accompanies every meal I eat there.
Thank you, Chef Vincent McCarthy, for taking us on a culinary tour of Kailua-Kona!
Stay tuned for more EAT THIS CITY — where each week we’ll feature a premier chef in a different city sharing their insider eating tips! Missed a week? Check out Monterey, San Antonio, Louisville, Nashville, Raleigh, San Diego, Cambridge, Hoboken, Hollywood, Return to Miami, Return to Las Vegas, Manhattan, Oakland, Paris, Portland, Tampa, Durham, Toronto, Baltimore, Monterey, Vail, Lexington, Bentonville, San Antonio, Warsaw, Kansas City, NYC, Washington DC, New Orleans, Cleveland, Miami, Seattle, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Sydney, Portland, Chicago, Austin, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, New Orleans, Providence, Memphis, Orange County, Boston, and Detroit.
See you next week!