After growing up in a family of great home cooks and teachers, it was no surprise that Jason Chin became a food-obsessed educator. He loves traveling and finding new and exciting places to eat. Follow him and his foodie friends on Instagram at @dalocomocos.
Perhaps one of the most iconic comfort foods of Hawaii, the humble loco moco satisfies like no other. Without getting into the debate over its origins, let's just agree that the genius combination of rice, hamburger patty, gravy and a fried egg is delicious. We took a statewide tour of some of Hawaii’s classic spots and picked out our favorites.
Nerding out over food is one of my passions, so naturally, I have some criteria for the best loco moco. Not too sweet, not too rancid, but juuust right. The patty is the heart of the dish and needs to have great flavor and texture. Only over-easy eggs, to keep things classic and consistent. The rice must be cooked well (not too mushy or sticky), providing a stable base for everything that’s piled on it. And it must be classic diner brown gravy – apologies to the $20 loco moco places, but no fancy demi glace for me. No add-ons, no fried rice. Just rice, hamburger patty, gravy and over-easy egg.
The patty was the one aspect that had the greatest variations, which you should expect from any item made from scratch. Some were all beef, others had more fillers. Some were well-seasoned and -flavored while others were simpler. Char-broiled versus cooked on the flat top is an area of debate too.
No. 5: Pine Tree Cafe - Kona
Located in a nondescript strip mall five minutes south of the Kailua-Kona International Airport, this version ($8.95) offers the beefiest gravy of the bunch. It's dark, rich and generous over a firm, mildly seasoned 8-ounce patty with a significant amount of rice to match. The impact of the other components overwhelms the properly cooked egg. For those up to the task, there's a larger version with an additional patty and egg for $4 more.
74-4038 Hulikoa Dr. • Kailua-Kona • 808-327-1234
No. 4: Cafe 100 - Hilo
From the city that created the loco moco ($3.50), Cafe 100 keeps it humble, honest and true – the cornerstone of any Hilo eatery. With the best cooked rice of all the contenders here, this dish presents hamburger patty, egg and gravy in a solid, no-frills fashion, offering diners a warm embrace of culinary history. Cafe 100 is an icon and the beauty of their loco moco is how it doesn’t deviate from its origins, delivering a straightforward, hearty snack and a perfect balance of flavors.
969 Kilauea Ave. • Hilo • 808-935-8683 • cafe100.com
No. 3: Original Pancake House - Kalihi
There's no loco moco on the menu per se, but adding gravy and eggs to the hamburger steak ($9.75) makes the loco moco available by request. Original Pancake House is known for (surprise!) their pancakes, but one bite of the loco moco elicits a quick "Whoa!" The patty is tender and well-flavored, thought it might need some salt. The gravy and eggs are good. Rice is a bit dry but forgivable because there's lots of gravy all over. And because of that patty, the noticeably better quality of which is what launches this loco moco into third place.
1414 Dillingham Blvd • Kalihi • 847-1496 • originalpancakehouse.com
No. 2 (tie): Tasty Crust - Wailuku
This place is jammin’ all hours of the day. It seems like nothing has changed in the last 40 years, and we like it that way. Don’t change! And can we get a shout-out for breakfast served all day? The loco moco comes in two sizes here, so don’t get confused when you see two different prices. The breakfast loco moco ($6.30) is smaller, and the one on the lunch and dinner ($9.95) menu is a bigger portion. If I’m in the mood for pancakes but want a little loco moco on the side, the breakfast one is perfect.
Think classic diner burger: The patty is beefy and well-cooked without trying to be anything more. Eggs and rice are perfect. The gravy is as good as it gets and brings back childhood memories of eating gravy and rice at the Nuuanu YMCA. Its flavor is familiar and comforting. Straightforward and delivering every component at a level rising above most, Tasty Crust definitely earns the No. 2 ranking.
1770 Mill St. • Wailuku • 808-244-0845
No. 2 (tie): Like Like Drive Inn - Honolulu
I was honestly set on Tasty Crust being my solid No. 2, but upon checking out Like Like Drive Inn’s loco moco ($12.20) for the first time in decades, it was difficult to decide which was better. The most solid aspect is the patty, which scores high for crust, flavor, texture and doneness. The rice and egg are well done. The only qualm is the gravy seems to be lighter in flavor – maybe cut with chicken stock. It's the impressiveness of the patty that makes this loco moco worthy of a tie with Tasty Crust. One of Honolulu’s classic institutions delivers on a really great classic dish.
745 Keeaumoku St. • Ala Moana • 941-2515 • likelikedriveinn.com
No. 1: Liliha Bakery - Honolulu, original location
Go for the coco puffs, stay for the loco moco. As a kid, I always saw people lining up to eat at the counter. Years later I gave it a shot, and found out why. I will say that if you go with more than two people, you’re unlikely to get seated, but I love the original Liliha Bakery. Maybe it’s nostalgia or maybe it actually tastes different.
First, they char broil the patty, unlike many others. You also have a choice between different sized patties ($7.79 and $9.79) at the original location. It's utter perfection: well seasoned, tender, charred -– everything I want. The gravy is as good as it comes and comforting. Eggs and the rice are just right, too. Hands down, this is my champion of loco mocos. The wait is worth it. Oh, and don’t pass on those grilled butter rolls and the radioactive guava jelly.
515 N. Kuakini St. • Liliha • 531-1651 • lilihabakery.com