Helena’s Hawaiian Food is known for local authentic eats. If you do a google search, it stands out as one of the top-rated restaurants in many review websites, youtube videos, travel guides and shows. Of course, following the lead of the foodies in our group, we just had to try it out for ourselves.
It is located at 1240 N. School St. They have a small parking lot in front, so we had to drive around a few times until a spot opened up. We arrived around 7:30PM and the line was humongous.
Don’t let that scare you. Go inside and put your name down first. Their service seems to be fairly fast, we only waited about 25-30 minutes or so. If it’s your first time in Hawaii, do grab one of their menus and study it while you wait so you don’t feel too pressured or rushed to order when you sit down. We had to repeatedly google a lot of the Hawaiian terms on the menu?.
Once you enter, it’s a small, down-to-earth, cozy restaurant without any elaborate decorations, just a few folk paintings on the wall.
We ordered large short ribs, small kalua pig, lomi salmon, and poke.
Short ribs were very flavourful, kind of tasted like dim sum short ribs. These were grilled nicely, slightly crispy on outside, sweet, tender on the inside and not dried out. You can actually see their seasoned ribs hung up in rows above the stove top in the kitchen. Lomi salmon was 90% tomato salad, which I didn’t mind because I loved tomatoes. It was refreshing. But from the name, it sounded like salmon was supposed to be the star. Lomi means “massage, knead, rub” in Hawaiian, so lomi salmon is where you ‘massage’ the cured salmon with other ingredients. The tomatoes didn’t get any credit in the name?. The poke had limu which is seaweed that added an oceanic taste to it, but the poke was unremarkable. The kalua pig resembled pulled pork with slightly different seasoning, quite juicy.
I also took a picture of the menu D that one of the couples in our group ordered, but it’s missing the luau squid. It got mistakenly eaten by someone who didn’t order it because we were all confused. The server was very rushed. she spewed out the names of the dishes as she passed them to us in no particular order and just left. I understand the store was very busy, although in hindsight I still think it would have been really helpful if she was able to separate and place each order together as we didn’t remember exactly what menu D comprised of or what certain Hawaiian dish would look like. Or maybe, they could post the pictures of each set menus on the walls to help save time on explaining to new customers who aren’t familiar with Hawaiian food.
Poi was interesting. It was bland and slightly sour. We weren’t sure how to eat it. Apparently, I learnt later on at a Luau that it was meant to be eaten with fish. During a later chat I had with a local, she said she hated poi as a kid, but later grew to love it. So poi is probably an acquired taste. The haupia, aka coconut jelly, was light and not overly sweet. I liked it. And we weren’t sure what to do with the onions and salt provided?.
The whole place kind of reminded me of dim sum because all the plates were small portioned, even the large serving of ribs we ordered seemed small. Contrary to the one $ sign most reviews have, I felt it was slightly pricey for the amount of food they gave. I spent about $37 for the four dishes we ordered and we weren’t stuffed. Mind you, we weren’t super hungry to begin with, so it was ok for us. But if you’re looking for a place to fill you up economically, this might not be it (well, maybe the set menus might as the rice can help). There was 18% gratuity charge for our party of 7 people, which is fair. Although, we were pleasantly surprised by the low tax rate of 4.7% in Hawaii?! (Yay America??! as my boyfriend would say)
Overall, Helena’s is a historical gem in the local community that will give you traditional authentic Hawaiian eats and a peak into their culture. It’s a homey experience that other fancy restaurants can’t provide. Their short ribs is a must! And definitely worth a visit if you haven’t.
PS: Make sure you bring cash, because they’re CASH ONLY!