Savor Polynesian-kissed flavors—huli huli chicken, mai tais, pork lau lau—at these mainland spots.
Do you dream of slipping away to a tropical paradise? An escape is easy at these spots that evoke sun, sand, and surf without ever having to leave the mainland.
Liholiho Yacht Club
Chef Ravi Kapur named his Liholiho Yacht Club in San Francisco for the street in Maui where his uncle lived and hosted barbecues to raise money for his catamaran racing habit. But Liholiho is anything but typical Hawaiian food. Instead, it’s creative, contemporary fare inspired by the flavors Kapur grew up with. Go to town on pillowy poppy seed steamed buns cradling beef tongue and fiery kimchi, Kung Pao sweetbreads glazed with black vinegar honey, and the off-menu house-made Spam. The baked Alaska, with its glorious beehive of torched meringue, may be one of the most Instagram-able desserts around, but it also tastes every bit as good as it looks.
Leave it to uber chef Michael Mina to team with husband-and-wife chefs Wade Ueoka and Michelle Karr-Ueoka of Honolulu’s buzzy MW Restaurant to open the brand-new, mega-sized Trailblazer Tavern in San Francisco's Salesforce East tower. Take a seat in the expansive dining room, sea-blue bar, or patio strung with lights to enjoy some MW classics such as mochi-crusted mongchong, as well as new creations like ahi poke nachos and porchetta lau lau. The cocktails are extra fun, served in Spam cans and tiki mugs.
Sam Choy's Poke to the Max
Poke places are a dime a dozen these days. But if one chef has poke down pat, it’s Hawaiian legend Sam Choy. His Poke to the Max can be found in only three cities in the country so far: Seattle and Tacoma in Washington, and San Bruno in California. The fast-casual concept offers tuna or salmon poke in rice plates, tacos, salads, and even musubis. Because not everyone can live on poke alone, crisp firecracker shrimp with habañero tobiko aioli, garlic fried chicken, teriyaki short ribs, and five-spice braised pork belly round out the menu.
Kauai Family Restaurant
Hawaiian transplants have a soft spot for Kauai Family Restaurant in Seattle, which they tout for its homey, friendly feel just like that of a mom-and-pop plate-lunch eatery on the islands. Its authenticity comes courtesy of Kauai-born Peter Buza, who came to Seattle to attend the University of Washington, before deciding to open his restaurant in 1993. Comfort food rules here in dishes such as Portuguese sausage musubi and oxtail stew.
Bamboo Grove Hawaiian Grille
With surfboards on the wall and live island music on Friday and Saturday nights, Bamboo Grove Hawaiian Grille in southwest Portland always has a sunny vibe. In between bites of Filipino lumpia, Portuguese sausage, or Kalua pig sandwich, guests are encouraged to join the hula dancing—to work off the restaurant’s huge portions so there’s plenty of room left for dessert.
Banana Hut Hawaiian BBQ
Bamboo-covered walls and tiki sconces at the Banana Hut Hawaiian BBQ create a breezy island vibe in downtown Eureka, California. Grilled huli huli chicken, loco moco, and other authentic Hawaiian specialties star here, along with tropical cocktails like the Lava Flow (a creamy blend of rum, coconut syrup, pineapple, banana, and cream, finished with a strawberry puree “lava flow”) and decadent desserts such as pineapple upside-down cake drizzled with rum sauce.
Forbidden Island Tiki Lounge
A retro-tropical fantasy comes to life at Forbidden Island Tiki Lounge in Alameda, California, where a thatched roof covers the bar, and the drinks are gussied up with little umbrellas and fresh orchids. Some even arrive at the table flaming or sporting six straws, appropriate for their size. With more than 150 rums on the list, this is the place to discover rarities that include Costa Rican Centenario rum aged for 30 years. Nibble bar bites like coconut shrimp and spicy chicken wings.
In San Francisco, ‘Aina elevates everyday Hawaiian cuisine with malasadas fresh from the fryer oozing guava custard, loco moco featuring slow-braised kalbi short ribs, and “spam’’ musubi house-made from locally raised hogs. Pair them with a Bloody Mary crafted of soju, a low-alcohol Korean spirit. Or go all-in and reserve one of six seats at the chef’s counter for a multi-course, $90 tasting menu that pushes the Hawaiian-California envelope even farther (available on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays). Note: ‘Aina will be closed through January 2019 while the owners are in Singapore to care for family members.
Can a tiki bar be too kitschy? Not Las Vegas’s Golden Tiki, a 4,000-square-foot shrine to cheesy delights boasting a pirate’s lair with a skeleton, a talking tiki, and a giant-clam love seat. Also fun: a boatload of props (some from Indiana Jones flicks), music or burlesque most nights, and a potent scorpion bowl made with several juices and liquors, not to mention everyone’s favorite Dole Whip pineapple soft-serve that can even be enjoyed with a rum float.
With its puffer fish lamps, hourly thunder-and-lightning storms, and tikis by the dozen, Portland’s Hale Pele sets the mood for well-crafted cocktails such as classic zombie punch. Flavoring syrups are handmade, and juices are pressed fresh. Pacific Rim–inspired small plates range from crisp lumpia and vegetarian drunken noodles to poke made with sushi-grade fish flown in from Hawaii regularly.
Hukilau feels like a down-home Honolulu plate-lunch diner in San Jose. Fare runs from clam ramen and chicken adobo to seven styles of poke and a platter of luau favorites such as lomilomi salmon and pork lau lau. On most Friday and Saturday nights, it’s party time with live Hawaiian music.
Bamboo-festooned Kapu Hut at the riverside McMenamins’ North Bank restaurant in Eugene, Oregon, might be the world’s only tiki bar with a fireplace and 11 beers on tap. But you’ll find spirits, too, including seasonal cocktails such as Billy’s Marionberry Old Fashioned—a blend of whiskey, rhubarb bitters, and sugar poured over a marionberry ice cube. Enjoy alongside Thai sweet potato fries and pork belly lollipops glazed with spicy-sweet gochujang caramel.
Palapa umbrellas cast daytime shade and tiki torches flicker by night on the rooftop deck of Reef, a tropical-theme restaurant and live music venue in Boise. Craft brews and rummy cocktails share space on the drink menu, and dishes span the globe from Jamaican jerk chicken and pad Thai to Angus steaks to the Big Kahuna Burger slathered with passion fruit barbecue sauce.
Sip 'n Dip Lounge
Mermaids in Montana? You bet. Glimpse a real-life one undulating at the Sip ’n Dip Lounge in Great Falls, a bamboo-ceilinged homage to island life hung with glass floats and fishing nets. Patrons imbibe rum and blue curaçao cocktails while watching through an underwater window as a fish-tailed human frolics in the adjacent swimming pool.
Unlock exclusive Member benefits when you book through AAA Travel.
This article was originally published in Fall 2016 and updated in Winter 2019. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.