Ask ten Americans to name their their ultimate dream vacation and at least one person is bound to mention Hawaii. But where do the people who live in the Aloha State go when they want to escape? For many Hawaiians, the answer is Las Vegas.
Though the two destinations are more than 3,000 miles apart, an estimated one in ten Hawaiians visit the desert city each year (many multiple times). It’s such a popular destination, in fact, that among those who live in Hawaii, Las Vegas has earned the nickname ‘the Ninth Island.’ And many who fly from Honolulu to Vegas stay, finding work in the hospitality industry while taking advantage of the lower cost of living.
With a strong Hawaiian community and a steady stream of tourists from the island state, Las Vegas has an impressive Hawaiian culinary scene. Sure you can find staples like poke and poi, but what makes the city’s island dining scene unique is in the numbers and quality of restaurants, and the variety and authenticity of the food served.
You can visit a different Hawaiian restaurant every night for a month and still have a list of menu items you’ve yet to try. Hawaiian BBQ can be found throughout the city, as can classic dishes like laulau (pork wrapped in taro leaf), loco moco (rice topped with a ground beef patty, egg and gravy) and oxtail soup – all difficult to find in most U.S. cities.
Whether you already love Hawaiian food or are just curious, here are our the essential Hawaiian foods to try when you visit the Ninth Island:
For a lot of Americans, the thought of eating a canned meat product isn’t exactly their idea of a great meal. But Hawaiians started eating the processed pork blend during WWII, when it was served to GIs, and it didn’t take long for the product to earn cult status in Hawaii. The company sells more than 7 million cans each year in the Aloha State. Considering that the state only has 1.5 million residents, that’s a lot of Spam.
In Vegas, you can go bold and try Spam musubi – spam and rice wrapped in nori and seaweed – at Island Style Restaurant or play it safe by ordering Hawaii’s most traditional quasi-meat preparation: Spam fried rice at Island Sushi & Grill. Either way, you will develop a deeper appreciation for Spam’s unique, reconstituted flavors. You may even love it!
When you think of states that are synonymous with beef jerky (we’re looking at you, Texas and Wyoming), Hawaii probably doesn’t come to mind. But the state’s love affair with dehydrated meat stretches back to the 1800s when cowboys, known as paniolo, tended to cattle. Since then, pip kaula, a Hawaiian style of beef jerky seasoned with ginger and soy sauce, has become an integral part of Hawaiian cuisine.
Jerky enthusiasts can satisfy their passion at The Beef Jerky Store in downtown Las Vegas near the California Hotel & Casino, the epicenter for Hawaiian tourists. Hawaiian transplants Judy and Steve Nitura opened The Beef Jerky Store (originally named No Ka Oi) more than 20 years ago. They sell a range of jerky as well as Hawaiian snack favorites. Travelers can also buy edible omiyage – souvenirs for friends and family that play a big role in Hawaiian culture.
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Many Hawaiian foods are relatively healthy, which means that you can easily justify eating malsadas for dessert. Originally from Portugal, these hole-free donuts are a sweet, rich way to end a fish-forward meal. You can eat these soft, doughy fried treats plain or ramp them up with cream and fruit fillings.
Order a dozen at Hawaiian spots like Aloha A Go Go and share them with your friends. Since they’re small, you won’t feel guilty if you eat them all yourself, and you can even save a few for breakfast.
Shave Ice came to Hawaii in the early 1900s along with the Japanese sugar plantation workers who immigrated from Okinawa. These days, you can find shave ice shops all over Hawaii dishing out a kaleidoscopic array of shave ice with a variety of flavored syrups, and now they’ve made their way to Las Vegas to satiate Hawaiians looking for their fix.
While traditional shave ice is served with nothing but ice and artificial syrups, modern shops in Hawaii have started trending towards using syrups made from natural, largely local ingredients along with a variety of toppings. And Vegas shops have started to follow suit. While shave ice can certainly still be found in its traditional form, dessert shops like Milkywave take the simple dessert to higher levels with flavors including black sesame and mango. Add toppings like lychee jelly and coconuts for the ultimate experience.
If there’s one Hawaiian food that has traveled across the Pacific Ocean with force, it’s poke. This native Hawaiian dish of cubed raw fish (often tuna or salmon) served over rice with a large variety of mix-ins is now ubiquitous in U.S. cities big and small. But few mainland cities have more – or better quality – poke joints than Las Vegas.
In Hawaii, you can eat poke anywhere from gas stations to grocery stores; in Las Vegas, you can scratch your poke itch at a number of casual off-the-strip restaurants including Paina Cafe. A local favorite in Honolulu, Paina Cafe opened its first mainland location in Las Vegas in 2016. Since co-owner Derek Uyehara is a poke pioneer who claims to be the first to use the phrase ‘poke bowl,’ eating at Paina Cafe may be the closest you can get to eating authentic poke without flying across the ocean.