Born and raised outside Hilo town, Desiree Sumaoang currently lives in Honolulu. She loves burgers and fries, being outdoors and just about anything that makes her feel good. She interns at Frolic and works as a baker at 9Bar HNL.
As someone who grew up eating at many of the same restaurants in Hilo, you could say that my tastes were rather limited. Think: Chinese food, local grinds and the occasional Asian fusion restaurant. I’d never tried Korean barbecue, hotpot or milk tea until I moved to Honolulu for college in 2013.
Can you imagine my excitement when I had the chance try something new almost every week? Flash forward four years and I am still constantly on the hunt for new foods to devour.
But I’m the complete opposite when I return to Hilo. There I go to the same restaurants and enjoy the same dishes I grew up with. Why? It’s comforting. To me, the flavors and welcoming atmosphere of these establishments are part of what make the Big Island home.
Here are the timeless, go-to comfort food dishes that spell out the flavors of my Hilo.
Ken’s House of Pancakes
Pure nostalgia. One of the few diners that maintains its vintage interior and warmly lit ambiance. A little secret: Ken’s is the only 24/7 restaurant in Hilo. This place stirs up a lot of memories, from staring at the autographed photo of The Rock in “The Scorpion King” on the wall of signed celebrity photos behind the cashier to the entire restaurant yelling “Sumo!” when a gong signals that someone has just ordered a Sumo Moco (six scoops rice, three eggs, double meat, $17.95) or a Sumo Da Bradah double omelet ($24.95). Ken’s was the place my friends and I went to for late-night meals after watching a movie at the dollar theater. Yes, you read right. Movies for only $1.
Ken’s House of Pancakes • 1730 Kamehameha Ave. • 935-8711 • www.kenshouseofpancakes.com/
Hawaiian Style Cafe
The concept is simple: yummy local food served Hawaiian style. What’s Hawaiian style? Picture this: I’m having breakfast with my sister at Hawaiian Style Cafe and I order my usual breakfast comfort dish — two over-easy eggs, Portuguese sausage, two scoops of fried rice (because I’m feeling a little extra today) and a side of pancakes. If it were any other restaurant, my plate would have 3 or 4 slices of Portuguese sausage, 2 standard scoops of rice and a single pancake no bigger than a DVD. Here my plate has 2 large eggs, 7 chunky slices of juicy homemade Portuguese sausage, 2 heaping scoops of fried rice, and a 12-inch pancake that’s more than 1 inch thick. A food coma sets in halfway through. It’s 7 a.m.
Hawaiian Style Cafe • Manono St. Ste. 101 • 969-9265 • hawaiianstylecafe.com/
Original Big Island Shave Ice Company
In the middle of summer, 83-degree temperatures and 89 percent humidity mean that I need something cold and sweet to cool me down. I opt for OBISIC. OBISIC has been on the Kona side since 2014, but its truck is one of the newest shave ice vendors in Hilo.
I love the flexibility and control of customizable desserts, hence my liking of fro-yo and milk teas. At OBISIC I start with a small cup of shaved ice (actually it’s anything but small) flavored with strawberry cream, melona and vanilla cream. Then I add a scoop of ube ice cream and top it all off with mochi, gummy bears and condensed milk. The result has a good balance of flavors and toppings, and while the $8.25 price is high compared to Wilson’s By The Bay, it’s worth every penny. If you’re unsure of what to order, OBISIC has an impressive selection of pre-made combinations ($5.75 to $6.75).
Original Big Island Shave Ice Company • 2010 Kilauea Ave. (Kai Store) • 895-6069 • www.obisic.com/
Makuu Farmer’s Market
All my favorite things about the Big Island in one location — fresh, cheap fruits and vegetables, locally made products like my favorite Filthy Farmgirl soaps, freshly prepared food and live music. What makes the Makuu Farmer’s Market even better? While it’s a 40-minute drive south from Hilo Airport, it’s only 10 minutes away from my parents’ home. I always try to take a trip out whenever I’m home. The market is open on Sundays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and is well-organized with food vendors and entertainment at the front and produce and homemade products scattered throughout the back.
The wide selection of vendors selling freshly made food overwhelms me. Do I want Puerto Rican food or the Russian blini pancakes next door? Thai sounds good right now, but the freshly made crepes look delicious. Maybe I’ll get some homemade banana bread or a chocolate brownie. Selecting food is always a challenge, but drink-wise, I will always opt for the Super Ginger Turmeric Tonic kombucha from Big Island Booch. Decisions, decisions.
Maku’u Farmer’s Market • 15-2131 Keaau-Pahoa Rd • 896-5537
Pho Viet Restaurant
A hole-in-the-wall in Downtown Hilo with a total of eight tables, Pho Viet is one my top go-to restaurants in Hawaii. Seriously, for under $10 you’ll get a filling bowl of flavor-packed soup and noodle-y goodness. It may be hot and humid in Hilo at 12 noon, but that never stops me from ordering Pho Viet’s spicy bò kho, the soupy, aromatic Vietnamese beef stew. I don’t have to be Vietnamese to grasp the essence of bo kho: It’s comfort in a bowl, and for me, a delicious welcome home.
Pho Viet Restaurant • 80 Kilauea Ave. • 935-1080